12 Meal Planning Hacks From the Experts
Whether you’re new to meal planning or a seasoned pro, these top tips from the experts almost guarantee a smooth and successful experience.
“What’s for dinner tonight?”
How many times have you been asked that question by your family? For many of us, the answer may be daily. Even seasoned cooks struggle with planning meals at times. But when done right, meal planning can help you stay organized, cut back on food waste and reduce overspending on groceries. Plus, a recent study found that carving out a few minutes each week to plan not only increases your likelihood of eating a healthier diet but may also lower your chance of being overweight.
From stocking up on key ingredients to using online grocery shopping apps to building in ‘YOYO’ nights, I’m sharing meal planning hacks from the experts sure to inspire everyone from the novice meal planner to the seasoned pro. So let these practical tips steer you in the right direction. And remember, there’s no one right or wrong way to meal plan. If you only want to plan a few dinners for the week and wing the rest, that’s okay!
1. Do meal planning and grocery list building at the same time. “Each Sunday I sit down and map out our dinners for the week based in part on what we already have and need to use, then build the grocery list to include the rest of the ingredients. I created a sheet that has my weekly dinner plan and my grocery list together, so I can cross-check them both to eliminate last-minute dashes to the store throughout the week. That sheet saves me every week from 6 p.m. stress!” – Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD founder of Real Mom Nutrition
2. Cook in bulk and freeze. “Double recipes when you cook and then freeze the extra for busy times. You’ll be thankful you have a stocked freezer when you’re short on time or need a break from the kitchen. And don’t limit what you freeze to just dinner. Prep and freeze options for the mornings like breakfast cookies or make and freeze homemade Hot Pockets for lunch. I also like cooking grains in bulk at the beginning of the week and then freezing in individual portions. They’ll stay fresh in airtight containers for up to two months.” – Holley Grainger, MS, RD, founder of Cleverful Living
3. Fall back on your favorites. “Any time the family gives their 'seal of approval' for a meal, save the recipe in Pinterest, on your phone or in a binder. Whenever you're feeling stuck, you'll have a winner ready to go without the stress!” – Carlene Thomas, RDN, LD, founder of OhCarlene
4. Plan interactive meals. “Being a short order cook is a definite no-no in my book, so I recommend interactive meals for families who have different preferences. Basically, you set up a buffet of ingredients, making sure there’s at least one whole grain, a few vegetables and a protein. Each person can fill his or her plate with the foods of choice. Tacos and Buddha bowls are two good examples of these meals, but you can do the same with a pasta or baked potato bar and make-your-own pizza.” – Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, New York-based culinary nutrition expert and author of 52-Week Meal Planner
5. Invest in spices, sauces and condiments. “While meal prepping is extremely helpful, I tend to get bored if I don’t switch up my recipes and flavors. Personally, I’m big on sauces and love how they can completely change a meal. Meatballs are often part of my meal prep, and I switch them up week to week by changing the seasoning and sauce. I’ve made buffalo meatballs, sesame ginger, honey garlic and traditional marinara. Changing up your flavors with different dressings, sauces and seasoning can go a long way in avoiding a meal prep rut.” –Amanda Keefer, Produce for Kids
6. Use an online delivery app. “I’ve started to buy groceries through an online app. Yes, it is easy and time saving, but the app stores my frequently purchased items together. With a click of a button, I can gather ingredients for my family’s favorite weekday meals (ours are salmon salad and turkey tacos) and have them delivered. This ensures we can have a balanced, home-cooked meal versus quick takeout. I also find that because I’m not actually in the store, I’m tempted less with foods that aren’t on my list.” – Carissa Galloway, RDN
7. Be prepared for when you DON’T have a plan. “One thing I always keep on-hand that more so comes in clutch when I don't have a plan is frozen pizza dough. Most folks usually have at least one jar of red sauce lingering in the pantry (and if not, pesto, BBQ sauce or even canned pumpkin) and some kind of shredded cheese on-hand. If I get to the end of the week and have leftover protein or veggies, I can always repurpose them by throwing them on a pizza. I usually end up adding some canned/jarred olives and jalapeños, too. Worst case scenario, I end up with a plain cheese pizza, which is always fine by me!” – Jamie Vespa MS, RD, founder of Dishing Out Health
8. Build in one (or two) ‘Clean-Out-The-Fridge’ nights. “Some people call these ‘YOYO’ Nights (You’re on Your Own). A friend of mine calls it 'Smorg' Night. But the idea is the same: Everyone finds something in the fridge or pantry, ideally leftovers or odds and ends that need using up, to create their meal. You fight food waste and avoid spending money on take-out or pizza delivery. The meals might be very simple and random, but everyone is fed and happy—and it's a lot less work and time for the cook!” – Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, founder of Real Mom Nutrition
9. Stock up on key ingredients. “Keep your pantry, fridge and freezer stocked with quick-cooking grains, frozen protein and vegetables. Having these on-hand makes meals easy and doable. If you don’t have much time to make what you originally planned, you still can make a speedy meal. For example, prepare pasta while quickly sautéing frozen shrimp and canned or frozen vegetables. Toss these ingredients together, add some lemon juice and Parmesan and you have a simple weeknight dinner in just 15 minutes.” – Rebecca Clyde MS, RDN, CD, founder of Nourish Nutrition Co
10. Use shortcut ingredients. “Don’t be afraid to ‘buy the bag.’ There are so many fresh, healthy, already chopped options available in bags. These shortcut ingredients cut back on work and require very few (if any) ingredients. A few of my favorites include Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. They make great side dishes or can easily be adapted into a bowl with some protein and whole grains.” – Wendy Kaplan, MS, RDN, CDN, oncology and wellness dietitian
11. Plan meals as a family. “When I'm making a grocery list, everybody has to name at least one dish that I cook that they would like to have, as well as at least one fruit and vegetable they are at least willing to eat. Getting their input helps me with ideas, and getting their buy-in stops any complaints later in the week since they helped plan the menu.” – Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, founder of Real Food. Real Life.
12. Use themes to make planning easier. “Coming up with a unique menu every week can be overwhelming and time consuming. Assign a theme to a specific night such as Fish Friday, Mediterranean Monday or Taco Tuesday to make menu planning and prep easier. That way, when a certain day of the week hits, your choices for what to make are narrowed down. Plus, you can plan ahead. For example, double Easy Taco Meat and freeze half so that you can quickly reheat for the next Taco Tuesday.” – Jenna Braddock, MSH, RDN, founder of Make Healthy Easy