Trying to figure out what to make for dinner, and then getting it on the table can be a struggle. There are so many factors to consider, like time, finding inspiration for recipes, or even worse, when you pick a recipe to make, just to realize you are missing a few of the ingredients. No matter what your nutrition goals may be, being prepared for mealtime is key. So today, we are going to talk about my tried and true method for being prepared, and that is how to meal plan. Thinking about how to meal plan might seem scary, but don’t worry! We are going to go through 9 easy steps that will make you a meal planning expert in no time, and will help you get dinner on the table, in a flash!

Is learning how to meal plan the same for everyone?

As we go through the steps, keep in mind, meal planning is going to look different for each person. You might find that planning what meals you want to have on what day is very helpful for you, and for others, that might feel restrictive. Instead, it might be helpful to list out your meal ideas for the week, so you can make sure to buy enough groceries, and then decide what you want to make right before dinner. For some, meal planning may mean picking out recipes for batch cooking and eating leftovers throughout the week, and for others, it may mean planning different meals to cook for each day.

The thing to remember is that everyone is different and you have to find what works for you (sometimes through some trial and error)! This blog is going to take you through how to plan your meals, but be sure to check out our meal prep guide as well for more tips on getting dinner on the table.

How to Meal Plan?

Here are my tried and true steps for how to meal plan that will make getting dinner on the table easier than ever:

1. What activities and obligations do you have coming up this week?

First, take a look at your schedule for the week.  Think about work, personal, and family commitments. Plan the days where you will be in a time crunch. This will help you figure out what makes the most sense for dinner on those nights! For example, if you are working late, or the kids have an activity to get to after school, you probably won’t want to plan something that will take a long time to prepare. I usually work later on Tuesday nights, so in my personal meal planning, we usually plan for something that comes together quickly or I throw something in the slow cooker in the morning so that it is ready when I am done at work.

2. Will you be eating out for dinner any nights this week?

If you’re planning to get take-out or another restaurant meal, plan those in, too! Eating out can absolutely be part of any lifestyle, and my biggest suggestion is to plan it in! If you know that there are nights during the week where it may be a challenge to get dinner on the table, ordering from a restaurant is an excellent option. By putting it into your meal plan, you make sure that you aren’t buying groceries you may not use (if you decided to go out to eat instead of cooking at home), which will reduce food waste.

3. How many times do you plan on cooking this week?

Next, let’s think about how many times you plan on cooking this week. Does it make sense for your schedule to cook every night? Or is making larger batches and eating leftovers going to help on busy nights? This will not only help you decide what type of recipes you might want to cook, but also how much of that meal you need to make! For example, if you plan on cooking chicken as part of a meal one night, and want to have leftovers for another dinner later in the week, you need to make sure you cook enough chicken to account for 2 meals per person.

4. Do you have any leftovers or ingredients that need to be used up?

If you have leftovers in the fridge and want to use them up, make sure to plan those into your meal plan as well, so that they don’t go to waste.

5. Which recipes would you like to cook?

Now, for the fun part, picking some recipes! There are plenty of places to find easy recipes, but my favorite is the recipe section of the RBA website. You can search for recipes by ingredient, cooking method, or even condition! When picking recipes, remember to be realistic! Think about how much time you want to spend preparing your meals, so you don’t plan a complicated recipe when you want to try to have a meal on the table in 30 minutes or less. I also don’t recommend trying to make seven new recipes a week. Try instead to include 1-2 new recipes for variety, but also plan for some tried and true recipes that you know you and your family will love.

If you need some inspiration, you can also think about theme nights depending on the day of the week. Don’t feel like you have to plan to cook everything from scratch. Part of meal planning can also mean planning to buy certain food products or ingredients to have on hand during meal times.

Skillet Chicken Pot Pie

6. Am I hitting all of the components in each meal?

Once you have picked some recipes, now it’s time to think about the balance on your plate. This will depend on your specific nutrition goals, and I recommend that you talk to your dietitian about your specific needs. Looking at your meal plan, do you have a balance of protein, starches, fats, and vegetables at your meals? For example, if you were planning to make this almond-crusted chicken, you want to make sure that you also plan some side dishes to go with it, including starch and a veggie. But, if you’re planning to make something like this skillet chicken pot pie, which has some starches, protein, fats, and veggies already included, you may not need to plan anything to go with it.

7. What is my backup plan if something changes?

Listen, things happen! And sometimes, that means we need to change the meal plan. Have a list of back-up meals with foods you generally have on hand for unplanned changes in your schedule or days when you don’t feel like cooking. This could be frozen meals or recipes made with pantry staples. One of my favorites is this spinach pesto naan pizza (I keep the naan in the freezer, sauce in the pantry, and get a block of mozzarella cheese for the fridge. The unopened block of mozzarella can last in the fridge up to 6-8 weeks).

naan pizza
healthy breakfast meal prep

8. What is my plan for the other meals?

Phew, we made it through dinner! We are almost there! Now let’s look at breakfast and lunch. When I mean plan, I prefer to do leftovers for lunch, so I plan that in when I think about what recipes I’m making and how much to prepare. If you don’t like to have leftovers for lunch, think about things you would like to have on hand for lunchtime. And don’t forget breakfast! You don’t need to plan what breakfast you are going to have on each specific day (unless that is helpful for you!) but do think about 2-3 breakfast options you want to have around to put together in the morning.

9. What do I need to get from the store?

Make a shopping list based on the meals you have planned. Don’t forget to add in extras you may need throughout the week like fruit, any kitchen staples you need to restock, snacks, milk, coffee, etc. Take a virtual tour of the grocery store with our dietitian Kaitlin to make sure you don’t forget anything!

easy meals on a budget

Meal prep can seem like a big task, and maybe it’s too overwhelming. That’s ok. Just coming up with a plan can make a huge difference in what happens through the week. It can be stressful to wrack your brain every day to try and figure out what to cook for dinner each day. You may get frustrated and just forget the home cooked meal and hit the take out. Having that plan (which as we said, can also include restaurant meals when days are particularly busy or stressful) makes it more likely that you’ll have a balanced meal on the table. If you want to take the next step and meal prep, check out our blog all about meal prep methods

Klara Knezevic is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Maryland. She has over a decade of experience in the nutrition field and currently serves as the CEO and co-owner of Rebecca Bitzer and Associates, one of the largest nutrition private practices in the country. Klara is passionate about sharing practical nutrition tips to help you feel confident in the choices that you make. Coauthor of Cooking with Food Sensitivities Survival Guide and Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating.