If you're here, reading this, you've probably tried the meal planning thing before and had trouble sticking to it for more than a few days. Am I right? Everyone who has tried meal planning has been there. I've been there. It can be really tough to stick to a meal plan, especially when your friends/family want to go out to dinner, or you get home late and are too exhausted to cook anything so you end up ordering pizza and eating half of it before you realize what's happening...
Trust me, I understand how hard sticking to a meal plan can be. But over the years, I've figured out a few tricks that make it so much easier to stick to a meal plan (or at least not completely disregard it). So today I'm going to share with you my top 5 meal planning tips in the hopes that they will help you just as much as they've helped me.
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Top 5 Meal Planning Tips
1. Plan one week at a time.
What I see most often when people try to put together meal plans, especially any sort of healthy meal plan, is that they try to plan for an entire month in one day. In my opinion, this can set you up for failure from the beginning.
Think about your plans for this month. Do you know which days you're going to go to dinner with friends? What about which days you're likely to be working late? Any idea which nights will have evening events that cut into your normal dinner time? Unless you're super organized, you probably don't have your entire month mapped out, and even so, smaller events are often not planned more than a week in advance. By planning for one week at a time, you have a higher chance of knowing what it is you'll be planning around, making you able to plan more appropriate meals (i.e. easy meals for days you have less time, slow cooker meals for days you'll be around the house all day, etc)
On the flip side of this, planning only 1 day at a time can be detrimental as well. We as human beings are incredibly fickle. I know if I went to the store every day to try to buy dinner for just that evening, I'd walk out of there with whatever I'm craving at that moment, which is usually fried chicken! When you come home to a meal that you've already planned, it makes it so much harder to make an unhealthy choice in the moment.
So one of the best meal planning tips I can give you is to plan just one week of meals at a time. This has worked so so well for me, and has not only made it easier to stick to my plan, but has made it easier to grocery shop and cook, because many meals require pre-preparation of ingredients.
Related: How to Make a Clean Eating Meal Plan
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2. Prepare Your Vegetables First
Maybe I'm the only one who has this problem, but I find it so difficult to take the time to prepare my vegetables with every meal. Since they don't take as long as everything else, I'd go to prepare them last, and then talk myself out of it because I'd be already tired of cooking (not to mention it's just another cutting board to clean).
When I realized this was happening, I started making myself prepare my veggies first, or at least get them out and cut them up first. This way, I avoid the internal conflict at the end of meal preparation, turning off that little voice that tells me I can skip the veggies tonight.
In addition, something I've seen other people do is cut up raw veggies first thing and munch on those while they're cooking. I've tried it a couple times and I think it can help increase the amount of vegetables you consume at one meal. I personally get tired of eating a vegetable after a while and won't eat as much, but putting a vegetable in my hand when I'm mindlessly eating allows me to eat more without even noticing.
3. Variety is Important, But You Need a Go-To Meal
As you know, eating a variety of foods is important so that you consume all the vitamins and minerals you need. However, there is some value in having a standard meal (or a few) that are easy to make and that you would probably already have the ingredients for.
This meal would be your fallback, your go-to when unexpected plans come up or you're super exhausted or even if you're just totally not in the mood for whatever you have planned. Building this kind of flexibility into your meal plan is imperative to helping yourself stay on track. It gives you a plan B that's not pizza.
So what should you plan for this meal (or meals)? Make sure it's something you really enjoy eating and something that's easy to make with what you generally have on hand in the kitchen. My go-to meal is black bean tacos. I always have a stack of corn tortillas lying around, and I boil a bunch of black beans on the weekends that will keep for a few weeks in the fridge. Sometimes I'll add some spinach (which I keep around for smoothies), or red bell pepper (which I weirdly always seem to have around). Once the beans are cooked, it takes literally 2 mins to warm them up in the microwave and throw them on a tortilla with the veggies.
And if I know I'm not in the mood for what I planned before I get home, I'll swing by the store and grab an avocado and make some guacamole to go with it, which only takes me another 5-10 minutes to prepare. Guacamole is one of my most favorite foods, so the prospect of it makes it easy to have this meal over and over again and always be excited about it, making it perfect for my go-to fallback meal.
4. Choose Meals that Excite You
This should be common sense, but often it's not. You go to plan your meals and you get so caught up in making sure it's all clean or matches your macronutrient profile, that you end up planning a bunch of blah meals.
Sticking to a meal plan is hard enough, but when you're not excited to eat whatever it is you have planned, sticking to the plan becomes infinitely harder. On the flip side, if you've planned things that you're looking forward to cooking and eating, sticking to your plan becomes super easy.
As I mentioned above, guacamole is one of my absolute favorite foods, so planning that with any meal makes me so excited to make it. I also love trying new recipes, so I'm very likely to stick to my plan if I've planned on trying something new and exciting. For example, the first time I made hummus myself, I was so excited to eat my homemade hummus at lunch that I wasn't even tempted to go out for lunch instead.
I know finding clean and healthy foods that are also delicious can feel like a struggle, but I promise they exist! And once you've built a list of meals that you love, creating and sticking to a meal plan will become so much easier.
5. Don't Forget to Plan Breakfast and Lunch Too
When many people plan meals, they only plan for dinner, or maybe only lunch and dinner. While this works for some people, for others it leaves wide open space for impulse Starbucks runs or grabbing lunch out.
By planning each meal, you can guarantee that you will have enough food on hand to prevent impulsive decisions like this. Plus, you can save a lot of money by planning out when you will eat your leftovers (rather than letting them go bad in the back of the fridge).
If you're not fond of having so much structure to your meal plan, consider some general planning that leaves room for decisions based on what you feel like eating. For example, I don't plan out every breakfast, but I do keep things like greek yogurt and hard boiled eggs stocked in my fridge to make it easy to grab something on busy mornings while not limiting myself to a rigid schedule.
This has been part 3 of 4 in my new blog post series “Steps Toward Making a Clean Eating Meal Plan You Can Actually Stick To.” Every week I’ll put out a new post stuffed full of helpful tips to help you make your own personalized meal plan that you’ll actually be able to stick to. Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss the rest of the series! (PLUS subscribers get access to my free resource library: can I get a heck yes?!)
Related: How to Make a Clean Eating Meal Plan
So what have you tried to keep yourself on track? Do you guys have any tips to share? I'd love to hear what has worked for you! And I might even add some of your ideas to this post.
Rachel is a blogger and Bioengineering masters student who lives in Clemson, SC (go tigers!). After studying conventional pharmaceuticals and how they target specific ailments, she applied that knowledge to figuring out how essential oils can work to treat the same ailments, and ended up creating the blog The Essential Girl. When she’s not blogging or sciencing something in the lab, she likes to drink tea, nom on popcorn, and binge Netflix with her Astrophysicist boyfriend.