8 Healthy, Easy Meal Planning Tips

Designing a doable feast!
Healthy meal prep containers with quinoa, chicken and cole slaw overhead shot
© Can Stock Photo / fahrwasser

If you grapple to get meals on the table, suffer over what to cook on weeknights, or wrestle to balance adequate nutrition on a budget, you’re not alone. As a working parent myself—one who is trained in nutrition!—I’ve had firsthand experience with the juggle, and the struggle is very real! A top concern for families these days is deciding what to cook, where to find the time, and how to encourage children to eat well. Equipping yourself to make meals more enjoyable to plan, prepare, and eat for you and the whole family means less stress, less fuss, and much less muss. Welcome to the world of meal prep!

A grocery list of meal planning ideas

Being organized and prepared is the key to making mealtime (and most of life’s tasks!) less frantic. Meal prep is a broad term covering a wide variety of strategies and it looks and works differently for everyone. It can be as simple as making a good old-fashioned shopping list on a scrap of paper, or as involved as cooking a week’s worth of meals in advance. Whether you just need a little prompt from a list you keep regularly, or go all-out with make-ahead meals, you’ll decrease stress at mealtime, cut down on food waste, and save on costs.

There are many options that will help you pacify the food frenzy. Depending on their age, kids can get in on this action too, helping them feel more engaged with their meals.

Make a list

You’re probably already doing meal prep without even noticing. A shopping list is the most basic form of planning and you can feel like you’ve already made the first move if you’re doing it. Checking what you have and what you need is the first step, but it doesn’t have to happen in a fever while you’re running out the door to the supermarket. Keep a running list through the week so when it’s time to do the big shop, you don’t feel panicked!

One of the biggest ways we sabotage ourselves when meal planning is not knowing what we have on hand. When we don’t know what’s hiding in our pantries or buried deep in our freezers it makes it difficult to organize which recipes to use and what items to shop for. A great way to keep on top of what you’ve got so you don’t buy doubles (or triples!) of something you already have is to keep a list of pantry staples and freezer items. Use your phone to keep track of everything (there are apps for that!) and update the list every time you use up an item. For example, if you have three packages of rice noodles in the pantry and make pad Thai one night, simply change the quantity amount on your list to two. It takes just a second to update but translates into time and money saved later on!

Bonus tip: Recipes in cookbooks and blogs often include an attached grocery list to streamline the process, so if you’re planning a menu ahead, the list is already half done!

Plan on routine

There is nothing wrong with having the same thing for dinner often. Especially if that thing is something your family already likes, you won’t hear much complaining! Make a list of family favourites and you’ll always have a go-to to choose from. Also, the benefit of regularly preparing a recipe is that you’ll learn it by heart, know exactly what ingredients you need, and how much time it’ll take. Doesn’t get more stress-free than that!

Bonus tip: When organizing your weekly menu, try to make sure that any perishable you buy will get used in its entirety before it goes bad. That bunch of asparagus can be a side dish one night and part of a zippy stir fry the next. Zero waste!

Process produce immediately

Even if you have no idea how you will use them later, washing and cutting produce before you even put it away makes it easy to use in a pinch for meals or a nutritious snack. Having onions, celery, and carrots at the ready will make a stew or soup come together quickly!

Bonus tip: Not all produce likes the in-advance treatment! Apples, eggplant, and avocado will turn brown, Brussels sprouts will get dry, and herbs prefer to be chopped as you go (but herbs can be frozen if it looks like they’re not going to make it in fresh form).  

Cook staples in advance

A super-simple idea is to cook up a pot of grains (like rice or quinoa), beans, or lentils at the start of each week. Keep them in the fridge for multiple uses along the way. Rice can be used in a grain salad one day, under eggs or kimchi another, as a simple side dish one night, and ultimately turned into fried rice. Beans are essential for chili, delicious stuffed into a burrito, or smashed up into burgers.

Bonus tip: Rotate your grains and beans on different weeks for variety and balanced nutrition.

Ritualize nights of the week

This has been super helpful in my house and we swear by it. Some examples are Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesday.” This allows some wiggle room in the exact main ingredients of the meals (will it be fish or veggie tacos?) but it gives a framework for “What’s for dinner tonight?” and can quickly become a favourite the family looks forward to. You can also thread in a “Surprise night” and a regular night out for those especially hectic evenings!

Bonus tip: This can be really helpful for sensitive kids or picky eaters, as they often do much better with routine.

Cook and freeze in batches

I highly recommend this for soups, stews, and curries, which all freeze well. This is especially great in fall and winter when the days are short and we crave warm foods. Other items that lend themselves well to freezing include homemade nut milks, plant-based burgers, pizza dough, hummus, portioned smoothie ingredients, cut up fresh herbs, and shredded cheese. The more options you have at your fingertips, the less stressful getting dinner on the table will feel!

Bonus tip: See Dr. Heidi’s chili and nut milk recipes for inspiration!

Team up with others

Whether it’s a meal train where you cook a large batch and share with your neighbours or a cooking party, sharing the load makes it so much more enjoyable and social. When my son was a baby, I did weekly meal trains with other families. It was hard work on your “on day” but so helpful to have meals ready on your “off days.” Many hands make light work!

Bonus tip: Being a part of a meal prep club creates an opportunity to introduce your family to a greater diversity of flavours (even better if foods are inspired by different cultures!), while nurturing community!

Nothin’ fancy

Some of the reluctance and resistance I hear about meal prep is the belief that many elaborate or sophisticated tools are needed to get started. This is completely unnecessary and it’s likely you have all you need in your kitchen already. (However, once you discover the joys of food prep, you may feel the siren call of more advanced and efficient tools!)

Basic tools for meal prep

  • good set of knives

  • various-sized storage containers (glass, stainless steel, or silicone)

  • cutting boards

  • various-sized pots (a stock pot for batch cooking is essential)

  • baking sheet

  • freezer

Bonus tip: If you feel ready to take your prep next level, consider purchasing a pressure cooker. They cook foods extremely quickly and many now do rice as well! A slow cooker is another great option as they’re amazing for making those super slow broths, stews, and sauces. A high-powered blender or immersion blender to make ultra-smooth soups, smoothies, and nut milks, and a food processor to make quick work of shredding, slicing, and chopping just about everything are also both well-worth the investment!

No matter how you slice it, dice it, or spice it, meal prep has many incarnations. It’s not only for the chefs among us, it does not have to be elaborate, and it does not have to be perfect. If you are routinely stressed-out about feeding your family, set aside a little bit of time to figure out how you can make at least one part of it less dreadful, make it a habit, and keep adding new layers. Once you’re able to think the week out in advance, it’s guaranteed to pay off! Happy prepping!