Making food from scratch is essential if you want to eat a healthy diet. Homemade food takes time, though. Without planning, it’s hard to stay consistent at serving home-cooked meals. Learning how to meal plan is a necessity if you want to stay sane and keep food affordable. Having a schedule of what you’re planning to eat for each meal and snack will help you save time while sticking to a clean eating diet.
Set a System
Some people like to plan a month’s worth of meals at a time. Others are lucky if they schedule meals 48 hours ahead of time. I like to plan one week at a time because I consider what’s on sale each week before setting my menu. Also, I get a weekly farm share for half the year, and I don’t know what I’ll get until I pick it up. Since I get my farm share on Wednesday and I get the grocery sale flyers on Thursday, I’m ready to make a plan by Friday.
Those of us who are creatures of habit do well with general guidelines that repeat from one week to the next. For example, you could have Mexican food every Tuesday, pasta every Wednesday, and soup every Friday. There are so many different variations under each of these themes, but it can help guide you as you plug in different ideas.
Plan Meals and Snacks
To make a clean eating meal plan, pick out a variety of foods for each meal of the day. Come up with at least three or four different breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks that you’ll eat throughout the week. Look at what’s on sale and what you have on hand, and try to use up the food that’s already sitting in your fridge. This is more practical and affordable than setting a meal plan based solely on what pops into your mind when you sit down to write the plan. I recently had a celery root sitting in my produce drawer for a couple weeks. I knew it would go bad soon, so I used that as a starting point for our dinner one night. We roasted it along with some squash and pureed it. The fish and potatoes that were also served that night were really an afterthought.
One of the best things you can do for your health is to rotate your diet. This means that you shouldn’t eat the same things day after day, even “healthy” foods. For example, if you eat oatmeal for breakfast 6 days a week, your body will probably develop a sensitivity to oats. By repeating the same small group of foods, people deprive their bodies of nutrients that exist in other foods that they’re not eating. Choose different types of grains, produce, and protein sources to cover your meals from one day to the next.
If the prospect of planning a week’s worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner seems daunting, start by planning just dinner. It’s easier to “wing it” with breakfast and lunch, but dinner never falls into place by itself. Once you get used to planning your dinner schedule, add in breakfast and lunch. When you plan your dinners, consult your family calendar first. Evenings that are busy with sports or other activities will require a quick-prep meal. If you want to try out a new recipe, save it for a night when you’ll be home without interruptions.
Record Your Clean Eating Meal Plan
A chalkboard in the kitchen is a fun way to record your meal plan. It has the added benefit of avoiding the annoying “What’s for dinner?” question from the kids. A weekly meal planning calendar can also be printed out and you can jot down all your meals for the week. You can download my custom weekly meal plan template to get started.
In addition, there are many resources online to help plan meals and record them. When I started meal planning, I used a program called Living Cookbook to record my plans on a calendar on my computer. One of my favorite things about this method is that if I’m out of ideas for dinner, I can look back to see what we ate in previous months. If my schedule is especially crazy one week, I can simply copy an old meal plan and paste it into the week ahead.
Keep It Interesting
It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to creating a clean eating meal plan. I recommend trying at least one new recipe each week. You can find inspiration on Pinterest or your favorite blogs. Cookbooks and magazines can give you new ideas too. I have a board on Pinterest called “Recipes to Try.” When I see something online that I’d like to make at some point, I pin it on that board so I can come back to it later.
I also have a folder that’s full of recipes ripped out of magazines and photocopied from cookbooks at the library. I flip through these pages when I need some fresh ideas.
It’s also a good idea to get off the computer and talk to friends and family to find out what meals their families like. When I pick my kids up from school, we often end up on the playground for a while. I chat with other parents there, and the conversation frequently veers toward food (I know – surprise, surprise. . .). I love hearing what my friends are making and what their kids are willing to try. It’s helpful to talk about the struggles we all have in common with putting dinner on the table.
If you have kids, it’s a great idea to have them pick something for the meal plan each week and help prepare it. They’ll be more likely to try new foods if they’re involved in the planning and preparation process. ChopChop Magazine is a great resource for recipes that kids and adults all seem to like, and they have a great cookbook with loads of ideas. But your kids could even flip through Joy of Cooking or Barefoot Contessa to come up with their ideas for the week.
Make a Little Extra
I always try to make extra servings of whatever we’re having for dinner. I then freeze the leftovers so I can put them in a future week’s meal plan. After some busy days, the only thing I have time to do is put a defrosted freezer meal in the oven when we get home. Having a well-stocked freezer is essential if you want to avoid the convenience of take-out. Cooking from scratch every night is overwhelming. If you don’t give yourself regular breaks from cooking, you’re bound to throw up your arms and give up on the whole idea. Leftovers can be your best friend.
To see a sample one-week clean eating meal plan, read my post about rotating your diet. The meal plan at the bottom of the post includes links to the recipes. You can also see dozens of my weekly dinner meal plans here. And read my book, Conquering Your Kitchen, for more details about effective meal planning.
If you’re not quite ready to come up with your own list of meals to make week after week, our sponsor, Prep Dish, has you covered. This meal planning service provides affordable weekly meal plans sent straight to your inbox. All the recipes use whole food ingredients, and they’re gluten-free and/or paleo (you can access both versions). The weekly emails from Prep Dish provide shopping lists and detailed instructions about how to prep a week’s worth of meals ahead of time so weeknights are easy. When I tested this service, my family enjoyed all the meals. That says a lot with a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old in the mix!
I know this process may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s so worth it. Having a meal plan in place makes life less stressful, groceries less expensive, and mealtime healthier. If you’re not sure where to start, download my custom weekly meal plan template and fill in your favorite meals.