Healthy Meal Planning | A How-To Guide

by Natalie on April 7, 2011

“Meal Planning” sounds like a term relegated to dietitians only, but it really is not all that complicated. In fact, every time you make a grocery list and go to the store you are meal planning.

Essentially, all meal planning really does is answer the question “what am I going to make for dinner?”

I firmly believe the only way you will eat healthy is if you plan out your meals. If you don’t plan ahead, you will be forced to make a game time decision. And when you are really hungry, your natural instincts for sweet, salt and fat will kick in. This may lead you to the nearest McDonald’s, causing you to make poor food decisions.

Meal planning is easy and requires an hour or less of your time. Note- it may require a bit more time in the beginning when you are just starting out. After a while you will have an arsenal of your favorite healthy recipes that you will always be able to turn to.

A healthy meal plan is like having a GPS system in the store.  You know exactly what aisles you need to turn to and exactly which foods you need to purchase.  Without a plan you will likely take many “wrong turns” at the grocery store and not end at your ultimate destination of health.

Healthy cookbooks make meal planning a cinch. No worries if you don’t have a collection of healthy cookbooks! The web is a great tool if you know the right places to look. I will make some recommendations at the end of the post.

Pick out a time that works best for you. I usually meal plan at the end of the week (Fri or Sat). Make sure you have enough time so you will not be rushed.

Start by looking at your calendar to see what evenings you will be home. Plan a meal when you know you will be home. Also, take in consideration how much time you will have to prepare the meal. For example, I take Yoga on Tuesday evenings so I know that I have to make something quick that night.

Next, take a look in your cabinets/pantry. Do you have anything in there that could be used next week? Or do you have a lot of something that needs to be used? If the answer those questions are “yes”, then look for recipes that use those foods.

If you are starting from ground zero, think of meals that sound good to you, ex: soups, salads, stir-fry, stews, fish, pasta, etc… Use my healthy pantry guide to help you make decisions on healthy foods to buy. Look for recipes that fit your taste. I must admit that I have even Googled something as plain as, “healthy soup recipes” with success.

When you find a recipe you like, write it down along with the source and page number or web address (this will make it much easier to pull it up when you will need it). At this point you also need to start your shopping list by writing down all the ingredients you need to make each recipe.

When you have found recipes for all the meals you need and have recorded all the ingredients needed, figure out which day you will make it on. Write this information down. At the end, it should look something like this:


  • Mon – red lentil soup, pg 82 of Cookbook X
  • Tues – black bean burgers with green salad, pg 103 Cookbook Y
  • Wed – chard tacos, from

Shopping List:

  • Red Lentils
  • 2 cans black beans
  • corn tortillas
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Swiss Chard
  • Avocado

Now all that’s left is to go to the store, and believe me, the store is a breeze when you have the meals planned out!

For best results, involve your family in the process.  If you have kids, pick out some recipes and have them choose a few that sound good.  This way, they will be more likely to eat the meals!

Meal Planning in a Nutshell:

  1. Look at your calendar to see what days you will be home to figure out how many recipes you need
  2. Check your food storage areas to see what needs to be used up next week
  3. Look for healthy recipes
  4. Create shopping list with everything you need
  5. Go to the store!

Healthy Everyday Cookbooks I use:

  • How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
  • How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
  • The Cancer Fighting Kitchen by Rebecca Katz
  • The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen by Donna Klein
  • Whole Food Recipes for Better Living, came with my Vita-mix blender

Healthy Recipes on the Internet:

Question: Do you meal plan? What process do you use? Where else do you look for healthy recipes?

Happy cooking!



photo by: whitneyinchicago

Marilyn April 8, 2011 at 9:40 am

‘Great post. I agree it takes planning. I have fallen into that,”what am going to make for dinner” trap. Healthy eating is definitely worth the time.

Heather April 12, 2011 at 7:25 am

I meal plan every Monday morning, I am so trained to go to the grocery store with a list that if I run to the store in a pinch (with no list) I feel so overwhlemed! Two cookbooks that are great for weekday cooking (and have mostly healthy recipes): Real Simple/Easy, Delicious Meals and Everday Food/Great Food Fast. One tip that I try to do is plan one meal that could be frozen or kept in the cabinet until the next week, since weeknight plans can change this ensures food doesn’t go bad.

Great post Nat, I love the new cookbook suggestions!

Natalie April 12, 2011 at 8:42 am

Heather, great suggestions! Such a great idea to plan a meal that can be kept frozen. I have wasted a meal before because family invited us out to dinner. I also love Everyday Food and Real Simple. Thanks for the great comment 🙂

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