Essential Guide to Meal Planning

by MyFitnessPal
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Essential Guide to Meal Planning

Meal planning is one of the easiest things you can do to set yourself up for healthy eating success. Whether you plan a few days at a time, a week or longer is up to you. A huge benefit: You make all of your eating decisions at once, in a calm, focused manner. It’s easier to avoid stopping for pizza when you know the ingredients for turkey tacos are waiting for you at home.



Take a few moments to think about what you have going on in the week ahead. Take a quick inventory of everyone’s plans to get a rough idea of how many meals you’ll need. A sample list might be: six breakfasts for everyone, five family dinners, one kids-and-sitter dinner, four solo lunches and one brunch.


This is an important but often skipped element of effective meal planning. You can plan all you want, but if you don’t have time to execute it, you won’t benefit from it. With this in mind, expand that list with qualifiers such as three make-ahead family dinners, two family dinners in 45 minutes, etc. In short, you want to give yourself more information about what you’ll need to make — the more specific you get here, the easier it is to find dishes that fit the bill.

If you have a busy week coming up, make a mental note to be on the lookout for quick, slow-cooker or make-ahead meals that can be served in a hurry. We’re big fans of the cook once, eat twice approach (i.e. a big batch of chili over the weekend that can get served as-is, piled onto baked potatoes or other veggies or used as lunch later in the week; or roast a couple of chickens on Sunday to have for dinner along with plenty of lean protein for salads and sandwiches as the week progresses).


Using the list you have, choose meals that fit the bill. Look to family favorites or peruse recipe sites for ideas. Consider the time of year, what’s in season and what everyone will feel like eating. When scheduling, take shelf-life into account (i.e. make any fish dish within a day or two of shopping, plan meals with shelf-stable and frozen ingredients for later in the week).

Pay attention to how many servings a recipe makes and the nutritional profiles of the dishes you schedule to make sure you meet your healthy eating goals.

Consider overlapping ingredients to minimize waste and cooking with a plan for leftovers to make the most of your food budget and time. If you want to eat better for less, shop seasonal produce and sales.

Consider creating a master recipe list. Having a list of go-to meals you know work for you and your family is one of the easiest ways to expedite the meal planning process. Every time you find a new meal you love, add it to the master list. You can store recipes in your MyFitnessPal recipe box to quickly calendar meals directly into your food diary. Not only will this help you meet your goals, but it will also take the work out of logging at mealtime.


Whether you use a notecard, a printable template or go digital, it’s a good idea to keep a paper copy of your calendar in plain view. Hanging a copy on the fridge is a popular choice. Making your meal plan visible may hold you more accountable for executing the cooking. Plus, your family isn’t constantly asking, “What’s for dinner?” They can just refer to the board.

If you prefer going digital, create a sub-calendar for your meal plan in your calendar app and share it with family members or roommates so everyone knows the plan.


You might as well do this along with filling out the calendar. Don’t forget to jot down quantities for each ingredient and take a quick inventory of what you already have to avoid overbuying. Save time at the store by grouping your list as they appear in the store. For most grocery stores, that would mean:

  • Produce
  • Breads & Grains
  • Spices & Baking Goods
  • Oils & Condiments
  • Crackers, etc.
  • Beverages
  • Dairy
  • Meat & Eggs


Chop vegetables, grate cheese, make sauces or otherwise prep what you can in advance if that’s your plan. You can even measure out spices in plastic bags, parboil potatoes and pre-roast vegetables.

Meal planning doesn’t just put you in a great position to stay true to your healthy eating goals, it can save tons of time, since you can prepare similar ingredients in batches and pre-make elements when you have time.


Healthy Eating

About the Author


MyFitnessPal provides powerful tools that make it easier for anyone to live a healthier life by tracking their meals and physical activity. Make healthy choices and visit the MyFitnessPal blog and download MyFitnessPal (if you haven’t already).


16 responses to “Essential Guide to Meal Planning”

  1. Avatar melaniasmith says:

    I thought haven’t read such distinctive material anywhere else on-line.

  2. Avatar jayne190 says:

    So what if you have planned something and you don’t want to have it?

    • Avatar Cassandra Campos says:

      I tend to make at a few meals that go in the freezer that way on days where I’m just not feeling what I planned I can grab a pre-portioned other meal out of the freezer. Having homemade meals in the freezer at home also stop me from trying to get “quick” or “fast” food because all I have to do is pop the container in the microwave or just boil the bag (if it is a vacuum seal bag that is safe for this)

      • Avatar Lorena Dae says:

        I’ve been wanting to do meal planning for some time so I’m going to give it a shot. Does anyone have a meal plan template they use? I’m really focused on trying to stick to a plan.

      • Avatar laura carey-stafki says:

        That works for a while but cookbooks can be inspiring too. Research ways you can use leftovers into new meals. It might surprise you. just an idea for you.

      • Avatar Francis says:

        Very good input Cassandra! Thank you. write us to the office (HUB)… everybody misses you. LoL this is a small world 🙂 my best regards! 🙂 Francis R.

    • Avatar laura carey-stafki says:

      that is me and I just get sick of the merry-go-round of it all. But it is not just that I think it is the whole idea of having to force myself into a rigid schedule of something.

      • Avatar fretallack says:

        lol I know right I hated that at first too. But it does make it way easier. Especially if you’re trying to stick to something.

  3. Avatar Adam Dudley says:

    Great introduction to meal planning. I appreciate the step-by-step approach and detailed process.

  4. Avatar laura carey-stafki says:

    I am a noob here. I have read this discussion on ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO MEAL PLANNING but maybe I thought there would be more details. This information is not specific enough for me. I understand what it is saying about how to see our schedules and anticipate our lifestyles. Get it on the calendar and or create a master list. My mother does this but it drives her bonkers and takes her a few hours a week to do. I however have tons of dr appointments or meetings to go to weekly, do workouts and take care of hungry teens and a senior citizen who by the way ALL do not want to eat like they are on a diet. So, no this doesn’t get specific enough for me. I have been at this whole planning gig for several years and failed time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, there were times it was helpful but with kids in your life, they don’t exactly follow your agenda. So, they want other things. I have gotten to the point I did not want to cook any longer because no one wanted a healthy diet. I am being completely serious. My family would rather live on high calories, high fat and high everything then eat with a PALEO diet that my dr has demanded I go on. I have been completely miserable for years and now I am trying to save my own life. I have to plan meals for me and despite the fact my family will be eating fast foods or whatever in front of me, I have to figure out how to make food for them and food for me or go out and get it for them and figure out what I am going to microwave for myself. Yes I am serious. So, if anyone out there is really serious about how they actually do it and can tell me….please post to this forum. I would be very grateful and probably amazed too. Thanks for listening to me rant a bit but the frustration of planning is real for many.

  5. Avatar laura carey-stafki says:

    why not look at it like this: Selecting recipes, shopping for ingredients or reusing the ones you have with proper planing ( could be part of your planning for the week) and prep your meals but it is your strategy that makes it your way. But you could also leave one day to call your pizza night! (or whatever it is that is a taboo food ) Everyone needs structure but allowing a little fun makes it all worthwhile. Realizing that not everyone has the same dietary needs or can plan how to portion carefully. I am sure you will find a system that will work but research it. There is no one size to fit all. Many will come and share lots of things. You can keep a tabbed binder or a box of note cards or like I do, I use a whiteboard. Research out there should be done considering the amount of people you have in your family or you can find guides according to the diets you choose. Have fun with the process of this and nothing is in stone. Believe me! I know because I have been at this for a while. I am at the point where I have involved professionals. A good place to start is asking yourself a few questions like, What are the reasons for why I need to do meal planning? Is it to save money? TIme? To improve my health? Keep from throwing food away? Or if you are like me, you need to get rid of the ” What is for dinner?” question. I obviously have been through burnout on this subject but for you, just pick a few things that matter most. Keep it simple if you are a beginner. Secondly, ask yourself what the meals purpose are for? Meet schedule difficulties? Healthier eating for busy families? One partner working a different schedule? As you have learned from this Essential Guide to meal planning, we are now equipped with knowledge of how to recycle our foods to reduce waste. If you live at my house, nobody likes leftovers but me. Ha! I however don’t wish to eat the same meal 3 times again in a row. So I am learning the art of dealing with leftovers. I have learned what makes the leftovers good and what makes them bad. Hope you are all having a great time at finding recipes and getting the gist of it all. Please come share your wisdom.

  6. I have tried a few of the meal plans. And it works well. But the real problem arises when I deal with some odd situations like some special requirement or person suffering from diabetes. Hopefully to see a meal plan that can be flexible according to the situation that arises.

    • Avatar fretallack says:

      Hey check out Mealime. It’s pretty flexible with letting you customize your plan. Not sure if it has specific settings for diabetes but there are lots of different ways to customize it.

  7. Avatar balram jaiswal says:

    Great introduction to meal planning. I appreciate the step-by-step approach and detailed process.

  8. Avatar xn says:

    So, why don’t you add a weekly meal planner to your app?

  9. Avatar Garry says:

    With my wife we’re following the Simple Weight Loss System which she found at some parenting site. Of course it’s all about limiting calories and changing products to more healthy. We are doing it slowly because the program is for 3 month period and I think it’s good, you don’t change everything in one day like it is with other diet plans. Thanks for knowledge writen here. For sure it will be helpful 🙂

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