Eat Smart: A Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning

By on April 24, 2017

Meal planning is a fantastic way to save both time and money week to week.  With life being so busy nowadays, cooking every night seems far from ideal, but constantly ordering take out and fast food is both unhealthy and can add up quickly.  Setting aside some of a day to meal prep is a perfect solution, but it can be a bit overwhelming for a newbie.  Don’t worry though, as here’s a step by step guide to help you get meal planning in no time:

#1: Figure Out Your Dietary Needs, or Wants

The first step is the probably the hardest step, but it’s the most important.  If you’re trying to plan out meals, you need to understand what your body needs, and maybe what your body doesn’t like, too.  Also, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing this–is this only a money and time saving measure, or are you trying to lose weight?  Gain muscle?  Maybe an attempt to stick to dietary restrictions?  Once you can clearly answer why you want to begin meal planning, you can actually begin to plan.

Is there an app for that?

In a way, yes, but not quite in the way of it directly answering your questions, but helping you towards your answer.

Yummly is an in-depth recipe app, that sports a whole load of recipes in an easy to search format.  Most importantly, though, are the extensive search options available for filtering through menus, that you can customize to what you can and can’t eat, amongst other things.  So, if you’re lactose intolerant for example, you can choose to only see dairy free recipes, so you don’t have to worry about finding a recipe only to realize it uses a copious amount of milk later.

#2: Find Some Recipes You Want to Make (and are within your skill level)

Another difficult step for some, if you’re new at cooking.  It’s very important to know what you need to cook when you’re meal prepping, and unless you’re really good at making up meals in your head, the best way to do that is by amassing a bunch of recipes.  Try to find things that sound fun or tasty to make, but also try to make sure you’re not overstepping your skill level.  Of course, cooking is the type of skill you’ll only get better at by doing it, but it’s not the best idea to try to make a soufflé if you’ve only boiled pasta before.  An example for me, I have trouble with recipes that require too many odd ingredients, as I’ll probably only use them with the recipe I’m looking at or a few others, so not only am I unfamiliar with the stuff, but it feel almost like a waste of money.  I tend to stick to recipes with less overall ingredients, as I am less likely to forget or mess up something along the way.

Is there an app for that?

Of course!  There are so many recipe apps out there, you can find anything you want, really.  While I recommend finding a few apps that pump out recipes you like and mainly stick to those for a while, there’s also a few fun and neat apps that’ll help you along:

SideChef is the perfect app for the brand new cook.  There are a lot of recipes out there that can seem like gibberish to an aspiring chef, with techniques that aren’t going to immediately make sense.  With SideChef, the app will walk you through their recipes step by painstaking step, ensuring that you know exactly how to make the dish and learn some new cooking techniques along the way.

Tender on the other hand, is just a silly and fun way to look up new recipes.  Just like the dating app of a similar name, Tender involves looking at a picture of some tasty food, and swiping either right or left to indicate whether you want to try making it or not.  It’s pretty cute!

#3: Actually Plan the Meals

An easy step to forget in the hustle and bustle of everything, and easily the one I mess up most often.  When meal planning, looking up recipes, and making grocery lists, make sure you’ve actually planned enough meals to last your prepping timeframe (typically a week for most, some prep twice a week though).  If you don’t have enough to cover you for all your meals and all your days, then you’re going to left desperately looking for something to eat on those empty days… and that can do a number on your wallet and your diet plan!

That said, it’s always a good idea to prepare for the worst.  If say, you burned a meal or something went bad earlier than expected, it can be quite helpful to have a few ’emergency meals’ on hand to help bridge the gap.  Ideally, this would be something you cooked well in advance and froze some portions of, but additionally things like frozen dinners (provided they pass the dietary test!) and protein bars can help with meal failures.

Is there an app for that?

MealPlan is one of many meal planning apps available, but this one is very simple compared to most.  You simply type in what meal you’re going to eat, and what meal of the day that’ll be, and you’re good to go!  It makes it super easy to figure out if you planned out enough meals for the week, and you don’t have to import data from anywhere to do so, either.

#4: Make A Grocery List

We’ve all done it at least once, right?  “Oh, I only need a few items, I don’t need to make a list.”  Then you go to the grocery store, and come out with twenty things you didn’t need, and only half of the stuff you did need.  If you want to save money and be efficient at meal planning, you really have to make a grocery list to keep yourself on track and get only what you need.  Not only does it help with you not buying unnecessary stuff (if you buy spinach 50% off but it goes bad before you use it, that doesn’t save any money), but also makes sure you don’t buy an item you already have some off (assuming you check your pantry before making the list).  Wasting money on stuff you don’t actually is, obviously, a huge money waster after all!

Is there an app for that?

There are a lot of different types of grocery apps, so it’s mostly up to your preferences on this one.  For example, I many use a to-do/list maker app to create my grocery lists, as it makes me look through my food stocks to see what ingredients I need to buy.  However, there are other options…

Meal Board is one of these, and it’s quite snazzy to boot.  MealBoard takes your recipes (which you can either import or manually type in) and create a grocery list for you.  Additionally, you can look up your grocery stores and MealBoard will tell you what aisles your groceries are down, which we all know would save so much time grocery shopping.  Unfortunately MealBoard is iOS only, so I didn’t get to try it, but it sounds like a really nifty recipe and grocery management app!

#5: Set Aside Time to Cook

The last step, but the one you’ve been preparing for… time to actually cook and prepare the meals!  For all its time saving during the week, meal prepping can be a bit time consuming on the day of prepping itself.  Depending on how many recipes you’re making, it could take multiple hours.  Of course, that depends on how and what equipment is needed to cook the food.  A slow cooker cooks food in six to eight hours, but having something in the slow cooker frees the oven and stovetop up for other recipes, and a slow cooker is very much ‘set it and go’ in terms of cooking.  If you properly manage your kitchen space and recipe times (which will take practice, of course), you can cut down on prep time drastically.

Is there an app for that?

Not in the most literal sense, no.  Meal prep involves being able to set some time aside and just… cook!  Of course, if you have a lot of trouble doing that, you can make a calendar event in your preferred app to make sure you have enough time to get everything done, or set an alarm in case you forget to get started.  This step is all about time management, so whatever ever you do for that is your best bet!

Do you meal prep?  What are your tips and tricks?  Let us know in the comments!

About Elizabeth Henges

I'm actually an accountant, but I like being a multifaceted nerd. I enjoy writing about nearly anything, but I'm partial to video games, cats, and trying to find neat little doodads.

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