How to make meal planning work when you’re busy

February 15, 2023 | by Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

It’s funny how quickly the hours fly by when you’re busy at work.

Before you know it, it’s 5 or 6 p.m. and your stomach is growling, but you haven’t given any thought to what to do for dinner.

How often do you throw up your hands at the end of the day and order take out?

It’s understandable, especially if you aren’t used to cooking at home or if you work long hours.

But cooking at home can work, if you plan ahead during your downtime. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a meal waiting at home in your slow cooker, or an already-prepped, easy-to-assemble dinner ready to put on the table?

It is possible! Follow these six steps for meal planning success:

Step 1: Schedule a time to plan

This is the KEY to meal planning success. Have a weekly time to plan meals. Make it enjoyable!

Mornings on a day off of work are often best so that you or someone else in the household has time to grocery shop later.

Step 2: Plan your meals

Be realistic. If you’ve never planned meals before, start slowly. Plan two or three meals for the week. As you become used to planning, increase the amount of meals. If you’ve never meal planned before, dinner is typically the best place to start.

Make sure you get your family calendar out when you plan meals. On a night when you work late or your kids need to be driven to activities, plan a quick, 10-20-minutes-to-the-table meal. It may be a good day to break out the crock pot or eat leftovers!

Your meal plan will determine your grocery list. Here’s how to develop your plan:

Tips and tricks for developing a meal plan

  • Keep it simple. Try one new recipe a week. This will keep your meal options interesting but not overwhelm you. New recipes always take longer the first time you make them.
  • Make new recipes easy to find. Put interesting recipes that you find in an accordion file. Make sure you print out those online recipes. Divide the file into sections, such as vegetarian meals, fish and seafood, and vegetable side dishes. When you’re looking for new recipes you can just go to your file rather than spending three hours on Pinterest!
  • Have a system to organize favorites. Print copies of new recipes that worked well and everyone enjoyed and keep them in a three-ring binder. This prevents you having to search high and low through cookbooks or online to find the recipe again.
  • Batch cook. Making taco meat, chicken breasts or chili? Why not make twice or even three times what you can eat and freeze the rest for other meals. Cook and clean once, eat three times!
  • Sheet pan dinners. Cook the whole meal on one pan. You can’t beat the clean-up. 
  • Overlap ingredients. Use ingredients several times during the week to cut down on clean-up and prep time. Use shredded chicken for tacos on Tuesday and later in the week for chicken barley soup. 
  • Invest in time saving gadgets. People are loving InstaPots and Air Fryers! An InstaPot is an electric pressure cooker and it can shorten cooking time up to 70 percent. An air fryer uses convection air to cook foods faster and give them a crunchy outer coating without the added calories from fat. Consider putting these on your Christmas list.

Step 3: Review your meal plan

When you planned your meals did you:

  • Include fish or seafood on the menu this week?
  • Limit beef to once a week or less?
  • Plan a vegetarian meal?
  • Include a healthy serving of vegetables and/or fruit at each meal?
  • Plan to use food you have at home that needs to be eaten?
  • Check your calendar to see if the time involved in meal preparation fits with the family calendar?

Step 4: Go shopping

If you plan your meals in the morning you can shop in the afternoon. Always take a list! Your meal plan will determine what foods are on your grocery list.

Before leaving home, check if you have any of the ingredients on your list already. Golden rule of healthy eating — never shop without a grocery list!

Advantages of a grocery list:

  • Reduce impulse purchases (healthier and less expensive)
  • Cuts down on food waste
  • Saves time. You get what you need and get out
  • Allows you to take advantages of sales and coupons
  • Reduces stress. No more feeling anxious while you’re trying to figure out what to buy at the store

Organizing your list like your grocery store layout makes your trip more streamlined. Organize items by category — produce, dairy, meat, etc.

Step 5: Advanced prep

Take advantage of less crazy days to get some prepping done. Get ahead of the game. Look at your meal plan for the week.

On a less hectic day, can someone else:

  • Peel and chop vegetables or fruit?
  • Wash and dry salad greens?
  • Cook rice, barley or quinoa in advance?
  • Brown ground meat or turkey?
  • Rinse canned beans?
  • Bake chicken breasts?

This is a great way for others to help out in the kitchen!

Step 6: Organize for tomorrow

The night before, organize the food you are going to eat the following day.

  • Plan your breakfast and assemble ingredients.
  • Pack your lunch and put it in the front of the refrigerator.
  • Take frozen foods out of the freezer and thaw in the refrigerator.

The final step: Celebrate how awesome it feels to be organized!

Meal planning will quiet the questions about what to do for dinner (or breakfast or lunch, for that matter), save you money and help you eat healthier. Try it, and let us know your tips in the comments!

Get Healthy Driven recipes.

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What’s so bad about the white stuff?

How clean are you eating?

Bringing mindfulness to the dinner table

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