Meal Planning Made Easy

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Some very dear friends of mine recently shared with me their desire to eat healthier and asked me if I had any tips to share that might help them with meal planning. I remember when I was where they were, wanting to eat healthier but not knowing where to begin. Then it dawned on me that other people might be wondering the same thing. So, here’s my current approach to meal planning. If you’re just starting out or you’re looking for a new approach, my hope is that you might find something here to inspire you on own journey toward more healthful eating.

Making the Plan

I start by thinking about how many meals I need for the week using basic arithmetic: 2 servings per meal, 2 meals per day, 6 days a week means I need 24 servings. So, if I make 3 meals a week, at 8 servings per meal, that’s enough for my wife and I for six days. And I keep a few staples on hand (ingredients for grilled cheese, a couple frozen pizzas, some skillet meals) to fill in any gaps.

For breakfast, I keep healthier options like whole grain cereal (Kashi, Special K, etc.), granola bars, fresh fruits, fat free milk, low-calorie yogurt, etc. on hand. I also make scrambled eggs (2 eggs, 2 whites), turkey bacon, and toast or tortillas sometimes. My goal is keep it simple, keep it healthy, keep it interesting.

For snacks, I keep healthier options on hand like low-calorie popcorn, low-calorie granola bars, and sometimes low-calorie yogurt. I have a version of grilled cheese I make with reduced-fat cheese, low-calorie bread, and low-calorie butter spray that I snack on fairly often as well. We don’t keep much in the way of chips and cookies, etc. around the house.

Executing the Plan

I usually cook twice early in the week (Sunday or Monday, and Tuesday) and once later in the week (Thursday or Friday). This will get our family of three through a whole week on home cooked meals with leftovers. That’s just what works best for my schedule. Then eating out becomes a choice, not a necessity. Also, I cook whichever meal I feel like cooking on whichever day I feel like cooking it. I know some people plan specific meals for specific days, which is great! But that doesn’t work for me. Try out some different strategies and find what works best for you.

The key to meal planning is being intentional—thinking through what you want to cook and eat, if you’ll be able to make the meal (time, skill, tools, etc.), making your grocery list, and following through with actually making the meals. It’s easiest for me to cook bigger meals with more leftovers and keep the recipes pretty simple. I do experiment occasionally as well, but those results can be hit or miss!

A Sample Plan

This is an actual meal plan I made for our family a couple weeks ago.

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

  • Servings: 8
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Ingredients

  • 2lb ground beef (or ground turkey for leaner, healthier protein)
  • 1 box (16oz) spaghetti (any pasta will do, i buy whatever’s cheapest)
  • 2 (24oz) jars or cans of pasta sauce (Prego, hunts, etc.)

Directions

  1. Brown the meat, drain.
  2. Add sauce to meat, cook on low 20-30 mins, stirring occasionally.
  3. Cook pasta per directions on the box.
  4. Drain pasta, pour in meat sauce, stir.
  5. Portion into 8 even servings between plates (for that meal) and Tupperware (for leftovers), then serve.
Roughly 450-500 calories. Remember that extra sides and toppings (like cheese) are extra calories. Suggested side: small side salad with light dressing.

Ground Beef Tacos

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 2lb ground beef (or ground turkey for leaner, healthier protein)
  • 2 small packets taco seasoning (I prefer the low sodium off brand)
  • 16 taco shells or taco-size tortillas (2 per serving)
  • Desired toppings (shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, tomatoes, salsa, etc)

Directions

  1. Cook meat per directions on the taco seasoning packets.
  2. Prep toppings, prepping extras for leftovers (shredding lettuce, dicing tomatoes, etc).
  3. Heat shells/tortillas if desired.
  4. Serve (one large serving spoon full of taco meat is about a serving).
Roughly 450-500 calories. Remember that extra sides and toppings (like cheese) are extra calories. Suggested side: carrots and celery or fresh fruit.

Chicken Enchilada Casserole

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 2lb chicken breasts or thighs
  • 1 packet taco seasoning
  • 1 (10oz) can mild enchilada sauce
  • 1 (10oz) can 98% fat free cream of chicken soup
  • 1 (15oz) can corn
  • 5-6 soft taco tortillas
  • 8oz shredded cheese
  • Seasonings to taste (esp. granulated garlic, ground cumin, chili powder)

Directions

  1. Cook the chicken, then dice into small pieces or shred it.
  2. Preheat oven to 375F.
  3. In a mixing bowl stir together chicken, enchilada sauce, cream of chicken soup, canned corn (drained), taco seasoning, and extra seasonings.
  4. Cut tortillas into strips about 2-2 1/2 inches wide (about 4 strips per tortilla).
  5. Spray casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray. Then layer tortillas, chicken mix, and shredded cheese just like making lasagna.
  6. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375F for 25-30 minutes. Remove foil, bake another 5-10 minutes.
  7. Remove from oven, let cool 3-5 minutes, then portion into 8 even servings between plates (for that meal) and Tupperware (for leftovers), then serve.
Roughly 400-450 calories. Remember that extra sides and toppings (like cheese) are extra calories. Suggested side: small portion of tortilla chips with salsa.

Closing Thoughts

You might notice I don’t splurge for the “healthy” options—I tend to go for the budget varieties unless there’s a significant health benefit (there’s usually not) or there’s a specific dietary need. Meal planning is a balance of budgeting time (to plan and cook), talent (to plan things you can actually make), tastes (to make things you like to eat), and treasure (finding relatively healthy ingredients at affordable prices). But if you’re willing to be intentional and invest the time and energy to plan, and you have some basic cookware and cooking options at home, you’ve got all you need to provide healthier, more affordable meals for you and your household!