Meal Planning Basics

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We started our new series by focusing on the long-term commitment of healthy living. A big part of healthy living is learning to make healthy choices. Since we eat every day, learning to make healthy choices with food is an important beginning step. For some people, meal planning is an easy and enjoyable process. Many have also mastered the process of creating a healthy grocery list. For others, meal planning is a big obstacle that keeps them consuming fast and processed foods.

Meal planning can make any dietitian's head spin when they are trying to balance many nutrients at one time. Some of the most difficult meal plans I ever developed at the hospital were those that required controlled levels of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, sodium, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. It was even worse for the family of the patient once released from the hospital. Lucky for most of us, our meal planning doesn't have to be that involved. Even if you need to limit sodium or simple carbohydrates, meal planning can be a simple puzzle. Here are some basic steps to help you learn to build a healthy meal, one piece at a time.

Make grains the first piece of the meal planning puzzle. There are a variety of ways to enjoy whole grain goodness. Most meal plans have room for at least one serving of grain even if you are trying to follow a restricted carbohydrate plan. Starting with grain selection and selecting whole grains when possible, allows you to use the base of the pyramid as the base of your meal. This ensures adequate carbohydrates will be available to fuel your brain as well as the rest of the body. Maybe you will select 100% whole wheat bread for a sandwich. Perhaps it will be brown rice to top with a stir-fry. Regardless of the grain you choose, aim for a whole grain when possible and select it first with the rest of your meal in mind.

Protein is the second puzzle piece in meal planning. Regardless of what level of protein or personal preference of source, protein is an important part of every meal. It is important to recognize that all proteins are not equal. The protein in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and soybeans are complete because they provide all nine essential amino acids required by the body. Other protein sources from grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain some but not all of these essential amino acids and are incomplete proteins. A diet with a balance of protein sources ensures your body will have all the amino acids necessary for proper building, repair, and maintenance of body cells and tissues. For those that choose to focus on plant-based protein sources, the body can create complete proteins when the proper incomplete amino acids are all present. Making sure you include a variety of plant-based proteins each day is the best way to be certain your body has all the building blocks it needs for good health. When selecting protein for your meal, consider the white meat from a fresh turkey or chicken or lean ground beef, pork tenderloin or fish. Include a couple eggs a week and egg substitute as well if your health permits. There are a variety of vegetarian protein sources too. Be creative with nuts, seeds, and legumes. If you do not have a medical condition that causes you to limit soy, this is the only plant-based complete protein choice and important to include often. Low fat dairy also provides a complete protein option for your meal. So when deciding what to add to your grain, consider selecting something like cooked chicken breast cut into thin slices for your sandwich or tofu and sunflower seeds as part of your stir-fry.

Select your fruits as the third piece of the meal with dessert in mind. Many of us like to end our meal with something sweet. Fructose makes fruits sweet and a wonderful healthy end to a meal. Selecting fruit as your dessert helps you avoid other sweet temptations like pies, cakes, or cookies that can sabotage your weight control efforts. For those of us that deal with carbohydrate resistance issues, limiting fruits to one serving per meal is advisable. Using fruit as a dessert at the end of meal provides a variety of benefits. It helps keep the smaller serving size satisfying. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the assistance with slowing the rate the fruit is digested. This is because of the protein and fats that are already in the stomach. This also helps manage blood glucose responses. Whether you have a serving of grapes, sliced pears with a sprinkle of nutmeg or a Microwave Baked Apple, select your fruit with dessert in mind.

Vegetables complete the main portion of your meal puzzle. Vegetables can provide a meal with color while also being rich in important vitamins and minerals. There are many varieties making it easy to compliment most grain and protein choices. If carbohydrate control is important, select non-starchy vegetables as much as possible. If your meal plan idea requires a starchy vegetable, make an adjustment and use it as your grain selection instead. So load up that sandwich with fresh sliced tomato, include plenty of pea pods in your stir-fry and be creative with fresh and frozen vegetables to find those you like and enjoy to round out your meal.

It is advantageous to keep a focus on dairy even if you don't drink milk. Dairy supplies many important nutrients necessary by the body. There are seven nutrients of concern for adequate intake in the American diet. Dairy supplies four of them (calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin A) in one serving. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest three equivalent servings of low-fat dairy are necessary each day. Including a serving of milk at one or two meals is an easy way to work toward this goal. Selecting yogurt, cottage cheese, or natural cheeses as the protein choice for your meal is another. Since three servings are recommended, a helpful rule for meal planning is to include a dairy in the plan at each meal. If dairy was selected as the protein source for the meal, you are covered and no additional dairy is necessary but you may select another if you like.For those that can not tolerate dairy or choose not to select it for other reasons, this same rule is important for you as well. If you did not already choose a dairy-free calcium source in your meal plan, it would be advised to include one in the dairy portion of the meal plan. This provides an easy way to make sure you are meeting your daily calcium needs. I enjoy a glass of skim milk with many of my meals. Others select fortified soymilk instead. If neither of those work for you, perhaps you would rather include an ounce of cheese on a baked potato or maybe boiled collage greens as a calcium rich vegetable choice. It doesn't matter whether you choose dairy or another calcium rich option, it is just important to be sure you are getting three calcium rich sources each day. You can use the dairy slot in your meal planning to be sure you do.

Finish off your meal plan with a healthy serving of fat. Fats (also known as lipids) supply essential fatty acids necessary to maintain health. They transport fat-soluble vitamins and provide a concentrated source of energy for times of need. Healthy guidelines suggest limiting total fat intake to no more than 30 percent of our total caloric intake. For most of us, there is room in our meal plan for at least one fat serving at each meal. It is important to select fats that fight cholesterol instead of those that promote increases as much as possible. For some meal plans you may have already included a food that provides a healthy fat and may decide your meal doesn't need another fat source. For other meal plans, you may find you still need a fat. Portion control is key for this part of the meal plan because it is the easiest area to add unwanted and unneeded calories. However, it can also be a place to boost calories if you are under your recommended calorie range.

The Bottom Line

You can learn to create healthy nutrient rich meals you love by putting one piece together at a time. When you do, you increase your intake of healthy nutrients while decreasing processed foods. This process will work whether you are planning for yourself or for family and friends. Each person simply individualizes the portion sizes of each meal component to meet their personalized calorie and nutrient needs. As you begin, you will likely plan simple meals. As you get better, you will begin finding it easier and easier to fit complex meals into the plan. It just takes practice and starting with small steps.

There is a variety of advantages to using a basic meal planning method like this. The most important is that it helps you focus on whole foods. Bookmark the resources linked in this blog to help you begin building healthy, nutrient rich meals. Here is a one-day plan to get you started.


Grain – Oatmeal

Protein – Walnuts

Fruit – Raspberries

Vegetables – (skip at this meal)

Dairy – Milk used in the oatmeal

Fat – (from the walnuts)


Grain – 100% whole grain bread

Protein – Turkey breast

Fruit – Apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon

Vegetables – Cucumber slices

Dairy – Sliced cheese on the sandwich

Fat – Mayonnaise


Grain – Brown rice

Protein – Chicken breast for Chef Meg's Veggie Chicken Stir Fry

Fruit - Rainbow Fruit Salad

Vegetables – Mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, and red pepper

Dairy – Milk with dinner

Fat – Peanut or olive oil in recipe

Do you think this system will help people learn to plan meals? Using this basic meal planning system, share your favorite meals.

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GMACAMI 10/26/2020
interesting article and very interesting comments Report
FRAN0426 8/5/2020
Thanks for the info. Report
MILPAM3 8/1/2020
There is no more food pyramid, but the suggestions are pertinent still. Report
CECELW 7/23/2020
food for thought Report
CALVERTM 5/22/2020
Sometimes soup or stew can be the main entree loaded with veggies and carbs. I usually start thinking about protein when planning a meal and build around that, article very informative. Report
GRANNYOF05 1/14/2020
Thanks Report
I try very hard to plan my meals. I usually include a salad, a baked meat,some rice or potatoes, a smoothie or some other kind of juice. Report
Interesting. Report
thanks great tips Report
You lost me at GRAINS. A lot of us do not eat grains and very little fruit... too many carbs! Protein, non starchy veggies and healthy fat! See Dr Eric Westman on YouTube. Stay Strong and Keep SPARK’n! :-) Report
Thank you. Report
Thank uou Report
Thanks. This will help me in meal planning. Report
Yeah I am one of those lucky patients that left the hospital having to watch all of her minerals. LOL
I need to do better at meal planning. Report
Great info thanks Report
Great article. Lot of ideas for getting in the nutrients! :) Thanks :) Report
Excellent article and it does simplify the process greatly.

I don't think it matters so much which item you start with or build your meal around - portion control should not change whether the grain is first or the protein - you still have to stick with a "serving". The exception to this, IMO, would be the healthy fats/dairies because often times you will already have taken care of them with the other choices. So whether your meal "staple" is the protein, the grain or the veggies is a matter of preference - you just have to make sure all the items come together in a well-rounded healthy manner. Most of my meals begin with the protein source - mainly because that can take up a large portion of my grocery bill if I don't plan it carefully or it can be left out completely due to running out of money. So I plan out what protein I will eat for each meal and than add in my veggies, than my grains. If anything gets eliminated, it is generally the grain portion(although breakfast is usually heavy on the grains). I don't eat desert as a general rule as the meal satisfies me, so most fruits are eaten as snacks as well as nuts and seed.
My biggest challenge is not locking certain foods into certain catagories ie don't always think of peanut butter as a "protein source". Report
Great! Thanks for sharing! Report
This article is great! Report
Wow, this article really helped me to understand HOW to plan my meals! Thanks for simplifying this task! Report
Great Advice Report
I really like this post and wish there was a SAVE button here. Report
I live by myself. Cooking in bulk and freeze into 2 serving bags. Chicken cooked, cut-up into 3 oz snack bags and frozen. I use ground beef. Cooked-crumbled, drained, add vegetable broth (from cooked veggies) refridgerate over night, skim off the fat, single serve of 3 ounces and place into snack bags and freeze.
Beans are cooked then smashed into single servings, freeze. As I use ingredients I can just add the beans for more nutrition. Report
Very useful information. Thank you. Report
This is a great at a glance resource Report
I use the divided plate method, in combo with the No S Diet, and 1 whole fruit before each meal.

Fruit eaten before the meal is easily digested, does not ferment in the gut as it does eaten after or with.

Many diabetics have no problem eating one serving of whole fruit on an empty stomach.

And it takes the edge off your hunger - the healthy version of a before dinner drink.

For breakfast I eat a low glycemic carb, with nuts when appropriate, and a serving of lean meat or other protein. First I prepare the fruit, like washing the peach or apple or plum, or opening the banana, and munching on it while fixing breakfast and heating the tea kettle.

For lunch and dinner the same story, using the divided plate method, except I eat 3 servings veggies with each meal to get in 6 a day; and with 3 fruit = 9 a day, very easy. I plan the lunch and dinner around the selection of the 3 veggies, FIRST, then plan the rest of the meal to complement. With a 9-inch plate, that equals 1/2 plate veggies, 1/4 plate low glycemic whole-food not man-made carb, and 1/4 plate of lean protein. Again munching on my whole fruit as I make lunch or dinner, or as I sit down at the table waiting for it to finish.

It is effortless, easy, and delicious way to get 9 servings produce a day.

I combine the divided plate method with the No S Diet method, see the SparkTeam icon on my page, the No S says you can eat whatever you want as long as you follow the rules of No Sweets, No Snacks, and No Seconds (except on S days). In the beginning you pretty much load up the plate; but after staying on No S awhile you you quickly learn and start naturally making better choices that will keep you full and provide maximum nutrition and fiber til the next meal. Blood sugar levels naturally drop and level off level between meals on the No S Diet, which is how the body is designed to work, which gives the pancreas a break and lets it have a rest for the 5-6 hours between meals, instead of being burnt out by constant snacking and mini meals.

There is no calorie counting or tracking with No S - you are FREE from that.

But even more important, the No S diet combined with the divided plate method has freed me from food obsession - an unexpected gift I treasure and am extremely grateful for, and something as a foodie I never thought to obtain. I thought I'd be food obsessed the rest of my life and am so grateful to The No S diet. Report
Interesting. I tend to do something similar, but backwards - and when I do, I find the results are really great: I start with veggies, filling at least half my plate with them. Then comes the protein - as much or as little as I want, and the rest goes to complex carbs (the same whole-grain goodness recommended here). I rarely eat dessert, and I know I am low on dairy products, but this keeps me satisfied and not craving something salty/crunchy immediately after I finish a meal! :) Report
Wow. That is simple and makes nutritional sense, yet it is so different from how I go about my meal planning. Maybe it's because I live in a relatively northern climate with a short growing season, so we try to maximize the good stuff when it's fresh and local.

I always start with the veggies! I get inspired by a trip to the farmer's market and by what is fresh and in season (and also therefore on sale). And for me the veggies usually set the theme for the meal.

For example, this week, we had fresh local green beans: that meant one meal would be my mom's standard green bean soup with sausage (thickened with milk and browned flour and served with rolls) and another would be a salade Nicoise with potatoes, tomatoes, tuna and hardboiled eggs.

I also found local corn on the cob, so one meal will be corn with marinated eye-of-round steaks and a green salad.

Cauliflower, zucchini, and eggplant were on special, as were mushrooms and green peppers, so we had a curry (with chicken and chickpeas, served on rice) and an Italian vegetable saute, with polenta and pork chops.

My daughter is craving chard, so next week will see a stirfry of chard with mushrooms and cashews, served on rice, or maybe a kale and cannellini bean soup, with rolls.

In spring we eat fiddlehead greens and asparagus, which cry out for lamb roast or chops; in fall it's squash and cranberries and apples. In winter we eat frozen and imported veg, sure, but we also lean more on the storage veggies (cabbage carrots potatoes squash) which go in stews and chowders.

I incorporate all the same elements you do, but I think starting at this end gives me more variety and makes it more fun. Report
Thank you.. this makes it so simple to think about and plan! Appreciate it! Report
This simplifies things greatly. Easy to keep in mind as I shop and cook. Thanks for posting. Report
Simple, practical advice that I know I will review again and again. Thank you for posting this! I've added it to my SparkFavorites.

Incidentally, I had the oatmeal you mentioned for breakfast, before I read this! Right down to the walnuts and berries. It's a new favorite of mine. Report
I've been looking over my meal plans for the past month. Most days I'm under everything and then I eat enough calories etc. for the day and then I'm under for the next three days. Hmmm. Maybe this will help me balance my week out more. Thanks. Report
Thank you very very much Tanya. What a lot of useful, usable information.
Does anyone have any ideas as to how this blog can be printed?

I've been reading more and more recently that suggests we need to rethink the emphasis on what we start with in our meal planning. Specifically, there are plenty of studies that are now suggesting we plan the veggies (and fruits, where apporpriate) first, then the grains (if we can eat them) and then leave the protein last - like an accent. It would certainly help us to get the fruits and veggies in! Report
Another great informative article,thanks. Report
~Select your fruits as the third piece of the meal with dessert in mind.~

This is how I think of every meal! Growing up, fruit was our dessert and I still love it and eat it every day.

Practical and easy to understand, follow. Great tool.

I think it's good to start with grains because it is very difficult for many to switch to all whole grains. e.g. Hubby still resists and he doesn't consider sourdough to be "white" bread. It's a good step in the right direction. Isn't that what Sparkpeople is about, making little changes over the long run?

I also like the idea of fruit as the "dessert." As a die-hard sweet tooth, this is something I can try. I eat lots of fruit but never think of the "dessert" that way!

Kellybeumer, I understand where you are coming from. I love veggies too and try to fill my plate. I believe that a serving of rice is 1/2 cup cooked. That is not too much rice to overwhelm your veggies. For some people, 1 cup rice (brown of course) is ok. For diabetics, I believe the serving size is even smaller, 1/3 cup. Learning to eat in correct portions is another goal, but sometimes, just eating healthy foods is a big change for people. Report
This is a great article. I find these articles to be very helpful. Is there a way to print them so I can reread them without searching for it? Also so I can share the info with others who don't belong to SparkPeople or have a computer.
Thanks for all the great support!! Report
This is simple to read and VERY helpful. Thank you! Report
Great article! I was really frustrated…this is new to me (having to watch what I eat) and I needed some guidance. Report
I'm reading the "BECK DIET SOLUTION" and Judith Beck, PhD says in order to learn to THINK like a THIN person, you have to plan what you are going to have for the next day and stay with your plan. Any ideas to help with that is fantastic. Report
thank you so much! Report
Great info! Report
I plan my meals weekly on Sunday I batch cook my lunches by making 2 soups and freezing them and then plan my dinners sometimes cooking some of them ahead pasta sauces, ground beef/turkey cassorole dishes, etc. It becomes really easy once you commit to making one day the day you are giving to yourself. Remember if you fail to plan you plan to fail. When on this journey you really have to be selfish in the sense of committing time to do things for yourself like meal planning and exercising. Reminding ourselves that we are worth it!! Report
Thanks for the review!! Great to get back to basics ~ sometimes the options make my head swim! Report
Thanks for the information! Report
I think this is a good start for someone just starting out on healthty eating. I however tend to mix up my meals and make sure I get in all the basic food groups. Report
The one problem with this is there is no calorie count or fat or protein or carb counts as well. To post this it also needs the gram count and calorie count on each item. Report