Meal planning can save you a lot of money, time and stress.
If weight loss is your goal, it’s crucial. There are so many tempting high-calorie foods around, and most of us underestimate what we eat. If you’re winging it, chances are you will struggle to make consistent progress.
While extremely helpful, planning and prepping for the week can also seem pretty overwhelming. So how do you get started and make it work for you?
Here are some tips to get you meal planning like a boss.
Done is better than perfect
A lot of people get put off planning because they think they need to write down a week of perfect healthy eating.
But perfect is boring. And it doesn’t work. A super healthy ‘diet’ plan takes time and effort to create, and you know you won’t enjoy it. So you either don’t get round to creating a plan, or you write one and get frustrated when you don’t to stick to it.
The plan you write needs to be realistic and sustainable for you.
Balance is key. If you eat like you’re on a diet, you’ll lose weight. But then what?
If it’s not enjoyable enough to stick to, most people revert back to old patterns and end up back at square one.
To lose weight and keep it off, you need to lose it in a way you can live it.
For optimal health and enjoyment, that will involve a balance of healthy natural foods, portioned out meals that you like, and moderate sprinkles of whatever else you fancy.
Your weekly meal planner
So now we’ve got that sorted, you need to decide what you’ll use to plan.
Are you someone who likes spreadsheets?
Or do you prefer good old-fashioned writing by hand?
My clients use a variety of tools depending on what suits them.
Some have simple spreadsheets, some type it out in Microsoft Word, some write it in a notepad, some use nutrition tracking apps and log their food in advance on there, and some have a cool magnetic planner stuck on their fridge.
Whatever you use, remember to look ahead at your calendar and check for days where you might need a quick and easy option. If you’re likely to get home late and could be feeling tired and stressed, for example.
A meal prepared earlier in the week, or a back-up ready meal in your fridge or freezer, could help you stay on track.
Make meal planning flexible and enjoyable
It can also be fun to dig out a cookbook you haven’t used in a while. Or treat yourself to a new one.
Are you limited on time, but keen to have more variety in what you eat?
Plan mostly easy meals you already know you like. Then find one new recipe each week that you’re excited to try.
Remember it’s ok to make a few swaps and shunt meals around as you go. A flexible plan beats both a rigid plan and no plan at all.
How to plan a healthy meal
The top two elements to look for in a meal are a source of protein, and some colour – usually from vegetables, but fruit is fine too.
20-30g of protein in a meal is ideal, and for women this usually looks like a portion the size of your palm (go for your palm and a half if you’re a man). Top protein source include chicken, turkey, lean meat, fish, seafood, tofu, tempeh, puy lentils, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt.
Half your plate filled with vegetables is an excellent rule to follow. This will give you a boat load of vitamins, minerals and fibre, which will boost your digestive health and help keep you full.
Dark leafy greens like spinach and broccoli have nutritional super-powers, so they are always great to include. But look for a variety of colours – they come with different levels of nutrients and antioxidants. Equally as important, they make your meal look pretty and nicer to eat.
The final part of the meal (about a quarter of the plate) can come from carbs, fats, or a combination of both. For weight loss, calories matter most, so check the portion size and adjust accordingly.
Don’t forget if using oils for cooking, that adds calories to the meal. Healthy fats and oils are good for you, and olive oil in particular is linked with benefits to heart and brain health. So fats are great to include, but small amounts are helpful if weight loss is your goal.
How delicious does this day look? A beautiful demonstration of adding lots of fruit and veg to meals, from my online client Irene.
Meal planning to save money
Stocking up with larger packets of meat, fruit and veg often saves money, but that saving is less of a win if you end up throwing half of it away.
Plan well though, and you can buy in bulk, get more for less, and spend less overall time cooking too.
You could choose two or three meats (or fish) a week and plan how to use them across two or three different meals. A whole chicken or large pack of chicken breasts, for example, could be used for a roast dinner. Then what’s left can become part of the next day’s lunchtime salad or evening stir fry.
You could choose one or two favourite meals that are easy to cook up extra portions of, and save those for lunches or an easy dinner later in the week. Examples of this that my partner and I enjoy are chicken fajitas, chicken and sweet potato curry, and chilli.
Or you could select two or three meals you love and plan how to use leftover ingredients – perhaps in a stir fry or a bit of a mezze platter for an interesting dinner later in the week.
Meal planning kitchen staples
Here are some ideas of versatile foods to keep in various parts of your kitchen. With these in stock you’re prepared to knock up a healthy meal anytime you need to.
Writing down a few ideas of back-up meals can be very helpful when plans change and you need something quick. Chicken fajitas is one of our favourites. An omelet or eggs on toast, with some stir fried frozen veg, is another good option. Or tuna and pasta with chopped tomatoes, and some frozen veg stir-fried while the pasta cooks, then mixed in. If it’s an easy option with protein and vegetables, you’re winning.
So, kitchen staple ideas…
In the cupboard
- pasta, lentils, rice
- ready to use sachets of rice, quinoa or lentils
- ready to use sachets of cauli rice or vegi rice (made out of steamed sweet potato) for low calorie options
- Chopped tomatoes or passata
- Chick peas, kidney beans, other beans, and pulses
- Tuna – great for a low fat, high protein option
- Canned salmon – with bones in this is a brilliant source of calcium as well as protein and healthy fats
- Pesto – reduced fat version is helpful and still tastes great
- Curry paste
- Tinned fruit
- Herbs and spices
- Fajita seasoning
- Condiments such as apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, balsamic glaze, red wine vinegar
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Spray oil such as frylight
In the freezer
- Bag of frozen peppers
- Ready-to-cook bag of Mediterranean veg
- Stir fry veg
- Other veg such as mixed bags of broccoli / carrots / cauliflower
- Bag of frozen mixed summer fruits
- McCain 5% fat oven chips
- Lightly dusted fillets of fish (that can be cooked from frozen)
- Wholemeal / reduced calorie wraps
- Wholemeal / granary bread
- A back-up ready meal
In the fridge
- Greek / high protein yogurt – Liberte plain, Total 0%, Arla and SkyR are all great options
- Fresh berries
- Apples / peaches / plums / nectarines / other fruit of choice to snack on or use for puddings
- Fresh vegetables of choice (carrots, peppers, cucumber and celery are all great to snack on too)
- Reduced fat hummus
- Tofu / feta cheese / parmesan
- Fresh meat or fish for a stir fry, chilli, or baked with vegetables (Keep an eye on the use by date and freeze if needed)
A great day of easy and tasty-looking meals from my online client Stella (dark chocolate could be a staple in your cupboard too – it is in mine!)
Before you shop
Check your fridge, freezer and cupboards. It’s easy to forget what you already have – almost half of us do.
Always make a list and go in with a plan to stick to it. This will save so much money.
And don’t let the supermarket win with their evil plan to flog you junk food. You don’t need it, and life will be so much easier if it’s not in the house. Stay strong and stick to the list!
On that list, make a note next to any items that you plan to use later in the week. Then you can make sure you select items with a long enough use by date.
These are ingredients that, while not totally necessary, can really make a difference to the flavour and enjoyment of your meal.
Chorizo and bacon fall into this category for us and are fairly cost effective for the amounts needed.
Other ideas to jazz things up (not always as good for budget but definitely good for enjoyment) are sundried tomatoes, olives, or a sprinkle of your favourite nuts or cheese.
A sachet of fajita seasoning is brilliant for adding flavour to many meals, not just fajitas. We sprinkle it over roasted vegetables and mix it with lean mince to make burgers.
Nandos peri peri salt also makes everything taste good. You can find it in the supermarket next to regular salt. An excellent addition to McCain 5% fat oven chips.
A few more top tips for meal planning
It often makes sense to use prime ingredients such as large cuts of meat earlier in the week. This way you can use the leftovers for lunchtime salads and easier dinners such as stir-fries towards end of the week.
Make good use of your freezer. Fruit can be pureed and kept for a crumble. Ripe bananas can be peeled and stored, perhaps to make a healthy chocolate banana bread. Extra portions of dinner can be labelled up and kept for a time-saving future meal.
If you have some tired looking vegetables, stir fry them for dinner or tomorrow’s salad. Or blitz them into a soup, stew, or base for a sauce and pop it in the freezer.
And finally, weekends are the best time to get ahead with meal planning, prepping and batch cooking and feeling like you’re winning at life. Here’s some ideas to set yourself up for success for the week ahead:
- Roast a whole chicken for dinner and lunches
- Batch cook a chilli, casserole, curry or soup
- Cook up extra portions of any other favourite meal for lunches in the week
- Chop up vegetables for snacking
- Roast up vegetables to add to a salad
What to do now
The key point with any positive habit is simply to get started. Take meal planning action.
Jot down a few ideas, write a plan for tomorrow if you don’t have one yet. Maybe order a nice new planner.
Schedule 30-60 minutes at the weekend to sit down, browse a few recipes and create a plan for the coming week. That commitment will save you oodles of time and brain power when life gets busy.
Make it as enjoyable as possible and keep refining as you go.
If you’d like a few healthy meal ideas for weight loss, I have 15 free recipes for you here:
Any questions or help you need? Feel free to get in touch here.