Successful meal planning strategies

Submitted by AnneCherise Jensen

Cooking healthy, affordable meals can often feel overwhelming, especially for working parents and caregivers. Many people feel overworked with little time or motivation to cook, some feel they don’t have the cooking skills or knowledge on what a healthy meal should look like and simply don’t know where to start. Though it may seem overwhelming, there are plenty of tools and strategies you can apply to help make healthy meal planning fit into  your household routine. Here are six tips to help you create successful meal planning strategies at home. 

Create a Family Friendly Menu with the 5 Basic Food Groups: 

Start slowly – aim to eat meals that contain fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low fat dairy or calcium fortified foods. There are a lot of great free, online resources that provide a plethora of healthy recipes – from bloggers, to foodies to Dieticians, the list is endless. Cookbooks are also a great resource of healthy recipes – you can buy these online, at the used bookstore and even at your local Goodwill or Value Village. Trying new recipes can be a bit out of our comfort zone – but is a great way to introduce new flavors, fruits, vegetables and a variety of health benefits into the home. Take an evening to sit down with your family and look through cookbooks together. Have children place sticky notes on the recipes they would be willing to try. Make a menu for the meals you plan on cooking at home Monday – Sunday. Incorporate both some of your favorite recipes as well as some new recipes to keep the menu interesting.  If you can’t plan out recipes for an entire week, that’s ok. Attempt to plan at least 2-3  days’ meals in advance.  Some great online recipe resources for affordable and healthy meals are found below! 

  • EatRight.Org

Make a Running Grocery List: 

Keep a running grocery list throughout the week. Write down the things you run out of, ingredients for a new recipe, and staple items you may be running low on. Refer back to your weekly menu that you planned for you and your household. Look for coupons at the grocery store in the weekly ads to help save money. Make sure all of the ingredients are on the list – this will help prevent unwanted trips to the grocery store throughout the week. Be sure you aren’t hungry before going grocery shopping. This can help prevent buying excess food, while also helping us stay away from processed foods that have little nutrients and health benefits.  

Stock up on Staple Items: 

To help get started with meal planning, try stocking up on the basics, like produce, shelf stable and freezer foods. Having healthy ingredients in your home is the key to successful meal planning!  Invest in ingredients you know will get eaten in your household, and will get used in your favorite recipes. This will ensure you have the ingredients you need to get through the week without having to make unnecessary trips to the grocery store, saving both time, money and energy.  The lists below provide healthy ingredient ideas for both pantry and freezer items from the main food groups. Personalize the list – adding or omitting ingredients that work for you and your household. 

Food Groups Pantry List (

  • Fruits: Raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots and other dried fruits are loaded with dietary fiber. They add flavor and texture to your morning breakfast, midday salad and dinner grains. Canned fruits like pineapple, peaches, and pears are a great addition to meals and snacks -these are a great addition to yogurt and salads. Apples, oranges, bananas are great to have on hand for quick, easy and healthy snacks around the house!
  • Vegetables: Keep a variety of canned tomatoes in stock (diced, crushed, whole, stewed). Use them in soups, stews, sauces, casseroles and more! Also, pick up a bottle of your favorite spaghetti sauce. Look for low-sodium canned vegetables such as mushrooms, artichokes, corn, green beans, chilies, and beets – these are great pantry items because they can add depth of flavor to your meals. Fresh onions, potatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower and celery are great vegetable basics to have on hand that tend to have a longer shelf life if stored properly. These are great for soups and side dishes any day of the week. 
  • Protein Foods: Stock up on canned or dried lentils, black, pinto, cannellini, garbanzo and kidney beans. These legumes are a great source of protein and fiber. Toss cooked beans in salads, soups, stews and other dishes. Nut varieties are also a great protein source to have on hand, packed with vitamins and minerals. Canned tuna, oysters, anchovies and sardines are a pantry must — they are a quick way to add protein, healthy fats and flavor to meals. Canned chicken is a great addition to the pantry – great when you’re in a pinch for time and don’t have time to thaw out and cook frozen chicken. Last but not least are hard boiled eggs – these make easy, healthy protein packed snacks that help keep you fueled throughout the day. 
  • Grains: Keep a stash of oatmeal, and other whole-grain cereals in the pantry. Barley, faro, quinoa and other grains provide staples for healthy meals. Also, keep a variety of brown rice on hand — long grain, short grain, and basmati are flavorful options. Spaghetti, penne and other pastas are great for an easy, quick and filling family meal. Give yourself an extra nutrition boost by buying whole-grain pasta or trying pasta made from legumes ( 
  • Condiments to Consider
  • Oil and vinegar: Extra-virgin olive oil and avocado oil are versatile, heart-healthy options. Other oils, such as peanut, walnut and sesame add a burst of flavor to meals. Pick up different types of vinegar, such as cider, white and balsamic. Each imparts a unique flavor to your recipes. They also make great homemade salad dressings and add great flavor to stir frys. 
  • Stock: Vegetable, chicken and beef stock are the basics of many recipes. Opt for those that are low-sodium or contain no added salt. These are great for soups, stews, roasts, and even cooking rice. 
  • Herbs and spices: Pick up small containers of ground herbs and spices. That way they are as fresh as possible when you use them. These often add extra health benefits and flavor to any dish. Popular herbs and spices include rosemary, cumin, basil, turmeric, pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cloves, thyme, dill and paprika. 

Food Groups Freezer List ( 

To help make sure you don’t store food beyond freshness, put dates on the packages before storing in the freezer. Use the oldest first to keep a rotation on freshness. 

  • Fruits: Stash frozen berries and other fruits in the freezer. They are a great way to add nutrition to a morning smoothie. If you have any fruit that is starting to go bad, store it in a safe seal bag and throw it in the freezer. This will help prevent food waste and a great way to save money. 
  • Vegetables:Pick up some of your favorite frozen veggies. These are a great source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients because the flash-freezing process locks in the nutrition. Look for packages low in sodium. Frozen peas, corn, cauliflower, broccoli, and mixed vegetable bags are perfect or adding into soups, stews and stir fries! 
  • Protein Foods: Stock up on salmon and other fatty fishes to ensure you have ready access to healthy fats. Frozen lean meats, poultry, shellfish, and wild game also store well in the freezer. One tip: make sure you move it to the refrigerator one day before cooking to give adequate time for defrosting. 
  • Grains: Whole-grain corn tortillas freeze well and can be used for quick breakfasts, lunches or dinners. Can’t eat that loaf of bread fast enough while it is fresh? Make it a habit to freeze part of the loaf and defrost slices as you need them. Breads will keep their freshness for up to six months in the freezer.
  • Milk and Dairy Products:Freeze Parmesan and other pre-shredded cheeses — toss them into soups, stews and pasta dishes. Low fat Greek yogurt with fruit or in smoothies is a great addition to your weekly menu.  Low fat, frozen yogurt can be a quick dessert for a special occasion (

Choose 1 or 2 days throughout the week to meal prep: 

Choose a day that works best in your schedule to meal prep throughout the week. Take a few hours to wash, prep and cut your fruits and vegetables in ready to go containers. Cook desired grains like rice and quinoa in advance and store them in the fridge. Know what protein sources you are going to cook the night before, and have it defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Having lots of the ingredients prepped in advance will  help save time in the kitchen throughout the week. 

Cook Enough for Leftovers: 

If you can master the beauty of leftovers, take advantage of it! In the long run, it will end up saving you a lot of time and money. Some meals are easier to re-cook than others, but try experimenting in the kitchen with what works for you and your family.  

Invite Kids into the Kitchen to Help Cook and Clean: 

Preparing and maintaining 3 meals a day, especially for a large family, can be a huge chore. Try inviting kids and other family members to help lighten the load of kitchen / food responsibilities. This is a  great way to have some bonding time, as well as teaching opportunities to those who may not feel as confident in the kitchen as others. Parents – have children help with setting the table, washing the dishes, meal prepping and kitchen clean up. This is a great way to get them comfortable and familiar with cooking and kitchen responsibilities. 

**This material was funded by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP.  This institution is an equal opportunity provider.


Main Image: CDC website