Chances are, you probably kick off each week with every intention of eating healthy, home-cooked, veggie-packed meals. Then reality happens, and the next thing you know, you’re grabbing fast food on the way home from work or staring into your empty fridge until you give up and polish off a bag of pita chips for dinner.
Eating healthy food is easy. Cooking healthy food is the real challenge. But a few simple meal planning strategies can help you get your nutritional game on point — and you don’t have to be a domestic warrior to pull it off. Here are five to get you started.
1. Set Your Goals
Your nutritional needs are the foundation of your meal plan. So before you start bookmarking recipes, do a quick assessment of your personal goals. What do you need to eat more of? Less of? Do you have a target calorie count? What foods are best for you? “My main piece of advice for someone who wants to start meal planning is to find out what foods are right for his or her body,” says Sagi Kalev, creator of Body Beast. “When you meet the body’s fuel requirements, hunger disappears. Food cravings are nonexistent. Energy, mood, mental function, and well-being all improve. When that happens, it becomes very easy to follow a diet plan.”
2. Make a Master Plan
Once you know what you need to eat, compile a master list of recipes. That way, you can pull easily from that list rather than combing through cookbooks every week or falling into the rut of repeating what you made last week. Use whatever organizational system works for you — Pinterest, meal planning apps, index cards in a recipe box, or even an Excel spreadsheet. “When I find a recipe I want to make, I print it out and add it to a binder,” says Autumn Calabrese, creator of 21 Day Fix. “Each week I go through it, find a new one, and add those ingredients to my shopping list. It’s important to keep variety in your plan so you don’t get bored.” When you’re planning your meals for the week, it’s okay to leave some flexibility. Some people make a school cafeteria-style calendar and schedule every last snack in advance — but it’s also okay to stock up on healthy staples and then wing it at mealtime.
3. Shop Strategically
Make a grocery list based on your favorite healthy foods and any new recipes you’ve pulled. “Having your favorite things ready to go is key,” Autumn says. “Make a list of the foods you know are a part of your meal plan, and make sure you stock up on those. I always have tons of fresh fruits and veggies in my fridge, along with a few different types of proteins, peanut butter, raw nuts, and lots of seasonings. This way, no matter what I want to make for a meal, I have the ingredients I need.”
4. Bang Out the Prep Work
When you get home from the grocery store, don’t just stuff your purchases in the fridge. Peel your carrots, slice your cucumbers, scrub your sweet potatoes, and dice your onions. Not only does it become a one-and-done task rather than a daily chore, but it makes you more likely to grab those healthy foods when you’re hungry. “Prepping your food is a huge part of success,” Autumn says. “I cook enough protein to get me through at least three days. I also cook a few sweet potatoes and sometimes a little bit of brown rice. This way, when I’m running out the door, everything is made and I can grab it and go.”
5. Don’t Sabotage Yourself
Once you’ve planned and prepped, the hard work is done. Now all you have to do is avoid the usual stumbling blocks. One common mistake, Sagi says, is trying to eat foods you don’t really like. (If you hate the taste of kale, you’re not going to grab it when you’re hungry.) And Autumn cautions against buying junk food. (It’s easier to avoid ice cream when it’s not in your freezer.) But as long as you plan ahead, shop for healthy foods, and keep some go-to recipes in your arsenal, healthy eating will become a no-brainer. “When you eat right for your own body needs, you feel terrific,” Sagi says. “So it becomes very natural to gravitate towards eating properly.”