Meal Planning 101: A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Meal Prep


      Building a menu in advance can save you time and money, and make it easier to eat healthy foods       and manage special dietary needs.

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Figuring out what to eat every day can be stressful, especially when you’re already juggling a busy schedule that includes work, family, and social obligations. Often, people end up scraping together last-minute meals or throwing in the hat and ordering food delivery. 

Rest assured there’s a better way to feed yourself and your family: meal planning. This approach ensures that you’re never left wondering what’s for dinner.

What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is the process of building a weekly menu to best suit your nutritional needs. “It can take the guesswork out of dinnertime, help you to stick to a budget, and help keep your nutrition goals on track,” says Stacey Simon, MS, RDN, who offers counseling through her New York City practice.

Some people follow a meal plan with a specific outcome in mind, such as weight loss or cholesterol improvements. Or an athlete may plan their meals to ensure that they get enough of the nutrients they need to perform. Others meal plan to stick to a food budget or map out meals for an entire family, says Alix Turoff, RD, the New York City–based host of the “Alix Turoff Nutrition Podcast.”

There are different types of meal plans. Some may be geared toward managing a specific health condition, such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. These meal plans are often created with input from a registered dietitian or healthcare provider. For example, people with type 2 diabetes typically follow a diabetes-friendly meal plan to control their blood sugar levels, while people concerned about a family history of heart disease may follow a meal plan focused on heart health.

People who aren’t trying to manage a health condition will typically make their own meal plans by selecting healthy recipes that their families enjoy.

Why Meal Plan?

There are many reasons to plan your meals in advance. “No matter the goal, everyone can benefit from meal planning because it’s a really good way to get organized and have some sort of road map for the week,” Turoff says.

Meal planning takes a little effort at the outset to think through what you’re going to eat the following week, but having a plan in place takes away the stress of planning and cooking meals every day. So meal planning may be especially helpful for people who work long hours, manage a health condition like diabetes, or have a family to feed. You don’t even have to stick to your meal plan down to every last detail — simply having a rough guide can be enough to take some of the stress out of grocery shopping and preparing meals every week.

Meal planning can also help you follow a healthy eating pattern. “If you don’t have a plan in place, you may be more inclined to order a pizza on a busy evening, even if it’s not something you’re going to truly enjoy,” Simon says. But if you know you have a healthy and delicious meal waiting for you at home, that pizza or trip to the drive-thru may sound less appealing.

Eating healthier is beneficial for everyone, but it’s especially helpful for people who need to pay close attention to the foods they eat, like those with type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Having a meal plan can make healthy eating less overwhelming for these people. “You’re not stressing about what foods go with what, and you know ahead of time that these foods have been cleared by your doctor or dietitian to help manage your condition,” Turoff says.

You may even save money by meal planning, not only by eating fewer meals out but by cutting down on food waste. The average family of four spends $1,500 a year on food that goes uneaten, and food accounts for the largest proportion of refuse in landfills, with more than 20 tons of food waste in a given year.

“When you go to the grocery store without a plan, you just kind of buy whatever sounds good at the moment, but you have no idea what to do with it,” Turoff says. Inevitably, that food will sit in your fridge or cupboard until you finally throw it out. But when you plan out your meals, you know what and how much food to buy, which leads to less food (and money) wasted.

Learn More About the Benefits of Meal Planning

Meal-Planning Considerations

Repetition is key for meal planning, Turoff says. You don’t have to eat the same thing every day, but cutting down on the number of different meals you have during the week will make things easier. She recommends picking two or three breakfast options and two or three lunch options for the week (at most), and adding variety through dinner and snacks. You can even repeat those meals for a few weeks before switching things up.

Having a few staple meals every week can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed while ensuring there’s enough variety, according to Turoff. For example, have fish for one dinner every week, tacos for another dinner, and burgers for another. You can change the recipe by trying different fish dishes, taco fillings, and burger meats, including vegetarian options.

Set aside a few hours on a day that isn’t very busy to batch cook any meals that repeat, so you’re all set for the week. “Let’s say you’re planning to have oatmeal three days a week. You can make three servings of overnight oats at once,” Turoff says. Or make a large egg frittata so that all you have to do is heat up a single portion in the morning, and you’re good to go.

It’s also important to know how long different foods will last, whether raw or already cooked, to ensure food safety. provides a detailed chart that covers a wide range of foods.

Be sure to factor any wild cards into your meal plan. “If you like to order food one day a week, include that in your plan so you know not to plan a meal for dinner that day,” Turoff says. Or if your office provides snacks, you may not need to plan for those. 

If you or any family members have food allergies, dietary considerations, or intense dislikes, try to make the meal work for everyone so you’re not making multiple dishes. For instance, if you’re making lasagna and someone has a gluten intolerance, you can make the meal with gluten-free noodles so everyone can enjoy it and you only cook once.

You can also keep the main dish the same but allow family members to customize their meals according to their needs and preferences. For example, if it’s taco night, offer different tortilla options and keep add-ons like avocado and onions separate. 

If you’re still feeling lost and overwhelmed, or you’d like guidance on how to plan meals for a specific goal (such as weight loss or blood sugar control), you can always seek help from a registered dietitian.

Tools for Meal Planning

You don’t need to overhaul your entire kitchen to begin meal planning. All you need are a few tools to help you stay organized: 

  • Food Storage Containers Get a variety of sizes so you can store both individual portions and large batches of food. Find containers that are freezer- and microwave-friendly (Turoff likes Pyrex glass containers) to make storing and heating your meals even easier.
  • Lunch Box If you plan on transporting your meals, a lunch box is a must-have. “It sounds obvious, but a lunch box makes it easier to stick with those meals you worked so hard to prepare,” Simon says.
  • Meal-Planning App There are tons of free and paid mobile apps that you can use to keep track of your meal plan. Paprika Recipe Manager, for example, allows you to make meal plans, organize your recipes, and create grocery lists. The app will even sort the items in your grocery list according to which section in the store you can find them. When it’s time to cook, you can track your progress in the app by crossing off ingredients when you’re done with them and scale ingredients to your desired serving size.
  • Meal-Planning Journal If you prefer pen and paper, use a meal-planning journal. Bloom offers different options, including a pad to keep on your fridge. Fill in which meals you have planned for each day of the week and then write out what items you need in the shopping list section. The shopping list is perforated so you can tear it off and bring it with you to the grocery store.
  • Labels To make it easier to keep track of your meals in the fridge and freezer, Turoff recommends labeling them with the recipe name and date. Labeling your food containers is especially helpful if you plan on freezing a lot of items. This way, if things pile up in your freezer, you won’t have to waste time guessing what’s in each container. Basic labels will work just fine, but you can also find meal-prep labels online.

Grocery Shopping Tips for Meal Preppers

Once you have your meal plan in place, your next meal planning task is to hit the grocery store. Use these tips to make shopping easier.

  • Make a list. You’ll inevitably forget one or two items if you try to remember everything off the top of your head, Simon says. So be sure to make a list. Review your meal plan for the coming week and write down which food items you need. Cross out the items you already have so you don’t buy more than necessary. You can make your list using the Notes app on your phone, another app, or pen and paper.
  • Hit the frozen food section. Turoff has found many hidden meal planning gems in the frozen food section. “The freezer aisle has come a long way over the years,” she says. For instance, you can often find grain and vegetable blends you can simply pop in the microwave or cook on the stove (Green Giant offers tons of options). The frozen food section is also a good place to stock up on prepared burgers and meatballs (you can often find beef, turkey, and plant-based options), shrimp and seafood, and any fruits or veggies you didn’t buy fresh. Stick with foods that don’t have added sauces or sugar.
  • Go for canned foods. “I’m a big fan of canned tuna, chicken, and salmon packed in water for easy protein, and I love to cook with canned beans,” Simon says. Just be sure to give the beans a good rinse under the faucet to get rid of excess sodium before cooking with them, she adds.
  • Splurge on convenience items. Preparing food takes time, so if saving time is at the top of your list, consider spending a little extra to get convenience items, such as salad kits, containers of chopped fruit and veggies, instant oatmeal, cooked rotisserie chicken, and precooked noodles and rice (Minute Rice offers ready-to-serve rice cups that cook in the microwave in one minute). “Those items are more expensive, but if it means you’re going to save money long term because you’re not throwing out food, then it might be worth it,” Turoff says.

Prep Ahead

You may be able to put together meals faster during the week by doing some of the work in advance. How long you spend doing prep work is up to you and your schedule, but here are a few food items you can start with.

  • Fruits and Vegetables Turoff recommends prepping produce as soon as you get home from the grocery store. “Wash it, cut it, and put it in containers so it’s ready to go. That way, when the week gets crazy, it’s one less thing you have to do,” she says. Chopped fruits and vegetables are great for adding to salads, stir-fries, and fajitas, or on their own as a quick snack, with or without condiments and dips.
  • Whole Grains “I love preparing whole grains ahead of time that can be used in a variety of dishes,” Simon says. Throw together a batch of brown rice or farro, then use it in a handful of your recipes for the week. For example, have a farro salad for lunch or on the side with salmon.
  • Meat and Meat Alternatives. Cooking meat and meat alternatives (like tofu or bean burgers) can be time-consuming. So save this task for a day when you don’t have a crammed schedule. Cook large batches so you have enough for multiple meals; freeze anything you won’t eat that week.

RELATED: 10 Meal Prep Tips Every Beginner Should Follow

Meal Planning Recipes

If you’re at a loss of where to start looking for recipes, we’ve got you covered with several options that are well-suited to meal planning:


Meal planning involves creating a weekly menu. It can reduce stress and save time during the week by getting rid of the decision-making around food. Planning your meals in advance can also help you stick to a healthy diet, since you may be less tempted to hit the drive-thru or order pizza at the end of a busy day. Set aside a few hours during the week to select your meals, buy the ingredients you need, and prep a few food items. Stay organized by logging your meals and recipes in an app or writing them down with pen and paper. Keep your meals organized by storing them in clear containers labeled with the food item’s name and the date it was made or purchased.