How to meal prep
Meal Planning

Meal Planning Guide Part 1: How to Meal Plan in 3 Easy Steps

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Everyone is all about #mealprep these days.  And it’s no wonder – we’re busy and we also want to be the epitome of good health.  Somehow a week’s worth of containers filled baked chicken breast, steamed brown rice, and green beans became the solution to both our time and health woes.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the standard plate formula of protein + starch + vegetable.  And if it works for you, go for it.  A carbon copy of the same meal, day in and day out, just doesn’t do it for me (although I do eat that way sometimes).  A girl needs some variety in her life! The good news is, there’s more than one way to meal plan.

It’s no secret that taking some time out of your week to do some meal planning is a great way to save yourself some time and money. Unfortunately, we don’t all have the same amount of time, money for food, or skill level in the kitchen.  Some of us have the luxury of free time to search the internet for new recipes to try. Others are juggling multiple jobs and trying to go to school on top of it all.  Our lives and circumstances are all different – it makes sense that the way we meal plan and prep would be different too.

How to Use this Meal Plan Guide

If you want to try to get into a regular meal planning routine, this post is for you. Don’t worry if you don’t know how – we’ll cover that. Maybe you used to meal plan and prep regularly, but are looking to get back into it. Perhaps you are just looking for some inspiration. This guide can be tailored to your individual needs and situation.

The guide consists of two parts. Part 1 will primarily cover different meal prepping styles so you can figure out what method works best for you in your overall plan. There’s also tips and tricks to save you time and money found throughout the guide. Part 2 will cover five common problems people have with meal planning and how to deal with them.  Trust me, you don’t have to be a gourmet chef or have every detail planned out to make meal planning work for you.

(Side note: Since you’ll see both terms being used, meal planning is the overall way in which you figure out what food to prepare for the week. Meal prepping is the actual prep work you do to make it happen.)

How to meal plan: individual portioned containers with rice, chicken, vegetables, and eggs, sausage, and toast.
© vaaseenaa / Adobe Stock

Step One: Choose Your Meal Prep Style

No, you don’t have to take a quiz to find out if your style is more Martha Stewart than Jamie Oliver, and adding this to the mix isn’t meant to over complicate your meal planning either.  Rather, it’s meant to give you options and an opportunity to consider different ways of doing your meal prep.  You might find that one style works best for you for a while, then life changes and it doesn’t quite fit. Bookmark this page so you can come back and review from time to time. You might find another style suits you better as your life changes.  Unsure of your meal planning style? Pick one and stick with it for a couple weeks to see if it works – if not, try something different.  You might find that a combination of styles works best for you.

Individual Portioned-Out Meals and Snacks

Some people like having individual meals portioned out and ready to go for the whole week. If you think this is you, I would suggest prepping your lunches and dinners using sheet-pan meals. Everything for the entire meal goes on a single pan. Then, you just pop it in the oven and enjoy some down-time while it’s cooking. Pick two or three different meals so you can have some variety throughout the week. This style of meal prep is not limited to lunch or dinner either. Individual jars of overnight oats, chia puddings or yogurt parfaits are great for breakfast or snacks too.

Batch Cooking and Freezing Meals

Cooking in large batches will give you enough food for several meals. It can also help you keep your freezer stocked with full or partial last-minute dinners. For example, a large batch of chili can be tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s lunch, and the rest frozen for back-up meals. Soups and stews are also great dishes to cook in batches. You can also batch prepare sauces, like marinara or pesto, to have on hand for quick pasta dishes.

In a time crunch for breakfasts most mornings? Breakfast burritos can be made ahead and kept in the freezer until you need them.

Prepared Ingredients or “Buffet-Style” Meal Prep

This way of meal prep is great for people who enjoy more variety in their meals, or are looking for a bit more flexibility. You end up batch prepping components of meals to use throughout the week. Choose a couple proteins, one or two grains, and as many vegetables as you can for each week. For example, you might cook a batch of salmon, prepare a half-dozen hard boiled eggs, or just rinse and drain a couple cans of beans, so they’re ready to go when you need them. Add a batch of wild rice, and chop and or roast a bunch of different vegetables. Use these ingredients to make fresh protein bowls, salads, wraps or other quick meals during the week.

Freezer Meals

In this style of prep, ingredients for your meals are prepared and measured out, but not cooked, so you can stock your freezer with meals for weeks to come. This works especially well if you have a slow-cooker or InstaPot. You can take your pre-measured ingredients out of the freezer and pop them in your slow-cooker before work. Alternatively you can build a lasagna or other casserole-type dish on the weekend and cook it later in the week – freeze it to keep it even longer.

The Combination Method

As it sounds, this style uses a little bit of each type of meal prepping style to get things ready for the week. This is what I prefer to do. The type of prep I do varies from week to week, depending on what I have time for on the weekend and how busy my week ahead looks. The busier I am during the week, the more I try to get done on the weekend, provided I’m not too busy then either. Typically, I’ll make a batch of chia puddings (individual portions) for me and my daughter to have for snacks, bake a batch of granola, soup and/or muffins or a quick loaf (batch/freezer) and freeze half the soup and baked item. I’ll cook some rice or quinoa, roast some vegetables and a protein too if I know it’s a really busy week (the buffet-style method), so that I can pull lunches and dinners together quickly.

If I don’t get through all my meal prep on the weekend, I’ll double up on the amount I make one or two nights during the week to have leftovers available for lunch or dinner the next day. Sometimes I plan on doing take-out one night a week and I’ll order a bit extra to make another meal out of it later in the week. Rice can be made into fried-rice the next night and adding a can of chickpeas and some fresh vegetables to the leftover curry is another favourite of mine.

How to meal plan: schedule time to grocery shop.  A woman looks at items on the grocery store shelf with a full cart of groceries in front of her.
© WavebreakmediaMicro /Adobe Stock

Step Two – Schedule Time to Shop and Cook

Once you figure out the style that works best for you, you can set some time aside during the week to plan out what you’d like to make and write out your grocery list.  Don’t forget to schedule time for grocery shopping as well as your meal prep. This is an essential component to your overall meal planning routine. If you’re tight on time you might want to try online shopping.  In Vancouver there’s SPUD or Save-On Foods, the later offering delivery or in-store pick up. I’ve been known to order online and pick-up on the way home from work on busy weeks. (P.S. Let me know if there are other options in the city).

Bonus Tips to Save you Time and Money on Your Meal Plan

  • Use what you have. Before you think about what to make for the week, check your cupboards, pantry, and freezer to see what you already have available to turn into a meal or two.
  • Check your schedule. Do you have a particularly busy week coming up where you’ll barely have time to reheat a meal? Use this information to help you decide what to make or when your efforts will be worth it.
  • Buy what’s on sale. You can check store flyers and coupons online before you decide what to make to take advantage of sales. Or try to be flexible – say you planned on making chicken breasts one night, but there are chicken thighs on sale. Can you use those instead?
  • Keep it simple. Stick to meals you know you enjoy and keep those ingredients on hand and buy extra when they are on sale if you can. There’s no need to try a different meal or new recipe every night of the week. There’s probably 4-5 dishes your family loves – make that most of the time and try new things on days when you have time to experiment.
  • Have a back-up plan. I have a list of go-to meals for when I forgot to meal prep or plans changed. You can always pick up a rotisserie chicken, a salad kit and loaf of bread on the way home if needed.
  • Be realistic and kind to yourself. If you don’t have time to prepare on the weekend do what you can. Remember that meals don’t need to be Instagram worthy or 100% organic, non-GMO, free-from-everything, or made from scratch to be nourishing. Sometimes you just have to order take-out – that’s okay.

Step 3 – Have Fun Meal Prepping

Whether you’ve set aside a few hours on the weekend to fill your freeze or 30 minutes on Wednesday night, make your meal prep time enjoyable. Turn on your favourite music, catch up on a podcast, or listen to an audio book.

Perhaps even a glass of wine?

I Don’t Think Meal Planning is Right for Me

Does all this seem overwhelming to you? Take a breath and ask yourself what’s the very least you can do this week to help yourself meal plan and just do that. Maybe it’s spending five minutes chopping vegetables, or taking something out of the freezer to eat later in the week. Maybe it’s just writing out the basic component of a meal plan: what’s for dinner. Even if you don’t do any prep you’ve made your decisions ahead of time and freed up some mental energy for other things.

In the coming weeks I’ll have some ideas to help you come up with some quick and easy meals to prepare, even if you don’t really want to do the whole meal planning thing.

Do you Meal Plan? What’s your meal prep style? What do you do to save yourself time in the kitchen? Let me know in the comments or share your tips on Instagram with the hashtag #vancitynutrition.

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