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 SparkPeople.com. "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 epicurious.com.
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 SparkRecipes.com). 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

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  • READYTOLOOSE5
    I recently ordered a diabetic menu book to help make it easier. waiting for it to come in. however, in the mean time I will work independently. and enjoy and learn:) - 5/14/2014 4:45:36 PM
  • SHARECARE
    My wife and I just recently built mealdays.com to search recipes and create organized grocery lists. Hopefully others find it useful as well:) - 5/1/2014 12:59:04 AM
  • CHERYLYNMAC
    I like the idea for using ziplist.com to organize and find new recipes - 1/25/2014 4:16:18 PM
  • One new idea for me was keeping a couple of baskets in the pantry, in which to place items for recipes. That's great! I never thought of that. I keep baskets under my sinks with cleaning supplies so it is easy for me to just grab a basket and not keep running back for forgotten items. Having MS, I am always looking for ways to save energy. THANKS for this wonderful article! - 1/20/2014 8:37:06 AM
  • DDB0416
    I thought I was pretty efficient with meal planning, but I learned about some great time saving tools offered by Sparkpeople. Thanks! - 1/5/2014 8:45:51 AM
  • LJDISSMAN
    A great way to plan meals and save recipes is plantoeat.com. You can create a staples list so as you run out of regular items, you can add them to your list. I love using this website to help with meal planning and grocery shopping. - 1/4/2014 9:23:51 PM
  • Grear article and ideas. Now just to do them. - 10/16/2013 9:03:29 AM
  • I am all about fast and easy meals - I use my slow cooker often and sometimes I freeze food for later meals. I plan my meals two weeks out and shop - I also have at least one back up meal planned for emergencies (such as when I don't have time to fix what we had planned or when I forget to take the chicken out of the freezer). - 4/30/2013 9:30:16 AM
  • I was already doing some of this as I keep a running list on the fridge and collect recipes that look promising and plan my weeks meals accordingly. I need to work also on planning snacks - as a diabetic on insulin I can't just eat three times a day and need to concentrate on healthy snacks that also safisfy. - 3/16/2013 6:23:51 PM
  • I was already doing some of this as I keep a running list on the fridge and collect recipes that look promising and plan my weeks meals accordingly. I need to work also on planning snacks - as a diabetic on insulin I can't just eat three times a day and need to concentrate on healthy snacks that also safisfy. - 3/16/2013 6:21:31 PM
  • This grocery list is fantastic !!!! I printed it out last week and posted it to the fridge.

    This week, I wrote down the items needed from the newspaper sales. I then used a blue hiliter for the items I has a coupon for.

    Shopping was so easy !!!! - 2/14/2013 10:16:22 AM
  • Ooo, I really love that idea of grouping the ingredients together in the pantry/fridge--if the box is labeled for a recipe, then those ingredients are less likely to be eaten before that meal can be made! How simple and brilliant! - 11/30/2012 2:58:17 AM
  • CAI1959
    Great article. I am doing some of the things listed, but there is more work to do. - 10/27/2012 12:31:42 AM

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