From Our Experts

4 Tips to Help You Add Meal Planning Into Your Cooking Routine

Originally published May 4, 2021

Last updated December 27, 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A woman fills containers as she prepares her meals for the week

Michelle Smith, RD, CSOWM, and Rachel Keller, MS, RD, registered dietitians for the bariatric surgery program at Keck Medicine of USC, offer tips on creating healthy meal plans that help you save time, improve your well-being and add more healthy food into your diet.

Meal planning allows you to eat healthier and to know exactly what’s in the food that you’re eating. By having a menu of the foods you’re going to prepare for the next several days, you’re less likely to resort to skipping meals, eating out or ordering takeout.

Other benefits of adopting meal planning include saving time, money and energy, as well as consuming fresh, nutrient-rich ingredients and avoiding processed, high-fat and high-sodium foods. Here’s how to make meal planning part of your everyday healthy cooking habits.

1. Organization is key to creating healthy meal plans.

The grocery store can be an intimidating place. Preparing a grocery list beforehand can take much of the stress out of shopping and help eliminate spontaneous purchasing.

Creating a recipe list can also be helpful when planning your meals. If you’re wondering where to begin, these tips may help:

  • Start a master recipe list: Aim for 2-3 breakfast options and 3-4 lunch/dinner options to choose from. You can use digital versions of the recipes or create a recipe binder.
  • Fill in your calendar: Pick some favorites from your master list and add 1 or 2 new recipes to try.
  • Write your grocery list: While doing this, jot down ingredients for each recipe. Then take stock of what you already have on hand before heading to the store.
  • Pick a time to shop: Once your shopping is done, you’re ready to tackle food prep.

2. How to select recipes and healthy foods to eat.

Planning ahead is essential for selecting healthy meal options. With busy work schedules and other daily obligations and errands, it’s easy to only start thinking about the next meal when it’s time to eat. When selecting your recipes, consider the questions and tips listed below in order to successfully plan meals ahead of time.

  • What does your schedule look like in the week ahead?
  • How many meals will you be preparing ahead of time?
  • How much time do you have available to prepare your meals?
  • What is your budget for groceries and ingredients?
  • Look for recipes that include grilled, baked, steamed, broiled, poached, stir-fried or roasted items.
  • Be on the lookout for quick-prepare, slow-cooker meals that can be ready or heated up in a hurry.
  • Avoid recipes that involve frying, breading or using large amounts of butter, cream or whole milk.

3. Set achievable goals and celebrate each success — big and small.

Change can be stressful, even positive change. As you start your meal planning journey, consider setting a small, short-term goal that can give you a single focal point to place your attention on. Try to avoid setting unattainable goals, since these can lead to feelings of frustration and cause you to give up.

After you reach one of your goals, allow yourself to feel accomplished, and use your achievement as motivation to set more small goals. Over time, these small, gradual changes can lead to long-term success.

4. Avoid deprivation and restrictions.

Meal planning and cooking ahead is the key to any healthy lifestyle. If meals are planned, cooked and ready to eat at home, it will be much easier to stick to your plan. While following a healthy diet may seem strict, you can prevent feeling deprived or restricted by allowing yourself to include foods not on your plan in moderation.

If you restrict too much or tell yourself you “can’t have bad foods,” it will be difficult to stick with your meal planning and well-being goals. Instead, balance your meals, and think of the benefits of your new lifestyle — a surefire way to stick with it for life!

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Michelle Smith, RD, CSOWM, and Rachel Keller, MS, RD
Michelle Smith, RD, CSOWM, and Rachel Keller, MS, RD, are registered dietitians for the bariatric surgery program at Keck Medicine of USC.