Nutrition Articles

Meal Planning Made Simple

4 Steps to Plan Meals and a Healthy Grocery List

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Without a shopping list, a casual trip to the grocery store can be a recipe for disaster. Sometimes, even with a list in hand, we still find ourselves in a state of confusion as we meander through the store.

Organizing your shopping list can smooth out your grocery shopping experience and make shopping and cooking more efficient.

Whether you’re shopping for one meal or seven, yourself or a house full of people, the process is the same. The following steps will help you plan healthful meals, create an organized list, and save time and money.

4 Steps to a Healthy and Organized Shopping List

Step 1: Keep a running list on the fridge. Keep a list and pen posted in your kitchen at all times. A small chalkboard or wipe board will also work. When you run out of something in the kitchen, jot it down. This will prevent you from starting a recipe only to discover that you're out of garlic or nutmeg, and it will save you the hassle of searching through the cupboards to try to find out what's missing. At this stage, don’t worry about making a neat, organized list—just get the missing items recorded. Make this a habit for everyone in your house; even kids can help. This list should help eliminate instances when you’ve just been to the store, reach for a plastic baggie the next day to find an empty box. If only you had known!

TIP: If a package runs empty, don't throw it into the recycling bin or garbage until you've written the item on your running list. When you're frazzled or busy in the kitchen, it can be too easy to forget about the item you meant to add to the list once it's out of sight and out of mind. This can work for other household staples besides groceries, too, such as toilet paper or pet food.

Step 2: Plan your meals. We all plan our meals differently, depending on how many people we're feeding and how often we go to the store or farmers market. However, this step should always precede shopping. Set aside some time at least once a week to plan your meals for the days ahead. Here are some basic things to keep in mind when planning your meals:
  • Your schedule. Look at your calendar for the week or days ahead. Do you have a busy week coming up? How much time do you have to cook on each night of the week (it may vary day to day, especially if you manage a larger household of have children). Sit down with your calendar and plan meals based on how much time you have available. One night, you may only have 30 minutes to cook and eat, so you need something fast. The next day, you may have more time to try out that new recipe you've been eyeing. It is nice to stagger meals during the week. Choose a variety of quick recipes, dishes that yield leftovers and meals that require more time so that cooking always fits into your schedule. Don't forget about slow cooker meals for nights when cooking isn't an option.

    TIP: "Our family always plans an additional quick meal for the week," explains Tanya Jolliffe, a healthy eating expert for "Something is always bound to come up and put a wrench in your meal plan for the week, so think about one extra quick-fix meal you can prepare and add that to your shopping every week." That way, you don't have to resort to fast food or pay a premium for a restaurant meal just because you're short on time.
  • Company. Do you have people coming to visit soon? You may need to buy special items at the store or plan for a larger dinner. Also, be sure to consider any special food preferences or allergies.
  • Coupons, sales and deals. If you bring home an item bought on sale and don’t know what to do with it, you have not saved money! Plan your meals around your coupons. Some people prefer to look at coupons and sale flyers during the meal planning stage so they can create meals around lower-cost ingredients. Others prefer to plan their meals and then look for coupons or deals on the items they need to make said meals. Decide which method works best for you. Just make sure what you buy can be worked into your meal plan and that you're not just buying something because it's on sale. Keep in mind that many coupon deals are for highly processed, often unhealthy foods that you probably shouldn't be buying anyway, so keep both health and cost in mind.
  • The season. What you cook and eat should change according to what's in season and what you like, but keep in mind that fruits and vegetables that are in season are going to be cheaper and more readily available. Save money by planning your meals around produce at its peak taste and bottom price! To check what fruits and vegetables are in season in your area, check out this seasonal produce map at
Step 3: Gather your recipes. Now that you've planned your meals based on time, taste, season and coupons, it's time to gather your recipes. This will be much easier if you keep your recipes organized. Sifting through magazine clip-outs and various papers with Aunt Marge’s sloppy writing can be frustrating. Try using a basic template for all recipes (or enter them on When you come across a great recipe, grab a blank template from your stash, jot it down in your own writing and place it in a binder organized by time, season, cuisine or another parameter. To streamline your planning process, include a mini grocery list on the recipe template so you can quickly see what ingredients you need to make the dish. You can also highlight specialty ingredients (such as certain herbs or special cheeses) that you don't typically keep on hand.
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About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

Member Comments

  • We have a white board on the fridge and add items as we need them - then that becomes my grocery list. Occasionally i will pick up something else - but always have a plan on how to use.
    And I have a calendar that I use to plan at least a week in advance. Makes cooking so much easier to know in advance. - 5/17/2016 12:20:11 PM
  • I like to be well organized. My shopping list makes me stay away from items I shouldn't have in the house. - 2/1/2016 11:08:15 AM
  • I sometimes prefer going to the supermarket without a list, and depend on what I remember. I do this because, while I realize this is its disorganized, it affords me the opportunity to walk all over the store looking for the things I need. I target those I items I need usually in a different order, sometimes first the items for breakfast, then lunch, dinner, fluids, etc., so I may end up visiting produce 3 times, dairy 2 times, and I go down the aisles only where I need something. I usually get approaching double the amount of exercise I get by not just going through every aisle in order. In addition, I rarely get anything I don't need. - 1/18/2016 9:55:19 PM
  • I use an app called Shopping Cart on my phone. I set it up with all of the places where I shop. It teacks prices, so I can see when there's a good deal, plus it helps me to know how much I'm spending as I go along. I can also estimate what the cost is before I go into the store. Once you get your info programmed, it's so easy ! - 1/18/2016 3:00:07 PM
  • Good article. One suggestion for keeping a running list is on your phone. I use my notes app and I have a shopping tab that I set up and as I think of things I need, I type them in the list. That way any time I go to the store I have my phone with me and my list. I simply delete the items from my list as they go in my cart. - 1/18/2016 10:24:37 AM
  • I use lists, recipes and coupons but my problem is that I cannot be an extreme couponer as stores near me do not double coupons. Also, the stores usually do not run a sale on an item when a coupon is available. In other words, I cannot stack a coupon on a sale. I often look for clearance items, especially produce.

    Your article is very nice. I need to go through my recipes and toss. You'll laugh...Xerox copies of recipes that I do not use go toward being my "fancy" stationary for writing letters! - 1/17/2016 7:58:54 PM
  • Great article. As it happens I go shopping more than once a week because I use walking time to local shops as extra movement in my day. I'm very lucky to have the extra time that takes. However, it doesn't always work as well as I wish - often something I've forgotten - but the list templates are such a good and simple way to manage everything better. Thanks - 1/17/2016 5:21:40 AM
  • I have a list of my family's favorite meals. When I go shopping I buy what is seasonal and what I've run out of or is on sale for a great price. I cook for scratch so many ingredients go in most of my meals. I know I will use garlic for almost everything for example. My husband eats eggs several times a week so I know I need eggs. Do I forget things? Well sometimes but if you can substitute or tweak recipes you're not running to the store all the time. - 1/15/2016 10:53:32 AM
  • What makes eating more interesting for me is to change food intake from week to week. I plan fish and salad for one week and the next week I plan soup and sandwiches. In the third week I eat fruit salads and so on and so forth. - 12/31/2015 7:55:14 PM
  • I'm trying to eat less processed food, got some great ideas here. Now I just need to get the rest of my family to go along with it. - 12/30/2015 11:14:17 AM
  • my husband and I make it a habit to plan the week's meals ahead of time so we have our shopping lists all set and know who has to start dinner or get something out of the freezer ahead of time - it's a pleasure! - 12/4/2015 2:01:09 PM
    Ahhh, I just have to make a start - the first step is always the hardest! - 5/10/2015 3:19:44 PM
  • I'm single and I tend to make a huge pot of something, and then eat it for lunch and dinner the rest of the week. It's easy and cheap, but I tend to make the same 3 dishes over and over until I'm so burned out on it, I can't stand it. - 3/23/2015 1:08:51 PM
  • The Fresh 20 ( Five recipes, 20 ingredients, 20 minutes each - broken down with prep for the week done in advance, cooked ingredients used in more than one recipe. Shopping lists and nutrition info included. No processed ingredients (other than basics like canned beans, tomato sauce, etc.). Vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free options. Not free, but definitely reasonable.

    I've been using them for a couple of years, and they have simplified my life greatly.

    Oh, and the recipes are pretty good too! - 2/17/2015 10:02:02 AM
    Our Recipes is a great (free) grocery list app that you can sync with other people who have that app. I have arranged the "categories* so that added items are in the order of the grocery store's aisles. Additionally, my husband and I have synced our apps, so either of can add needed items or delete purchase items and the changes appear on both phones. And, because it's on our phones, no forgotten lists! - 1/24/2015 8:50:23 AM

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