Meal Planning Tips from a Registered Dietitian

When I talk with other parents or anyone for that matter, one of the biggest struggles that I hear is “What am I going to make for dinner tonight?” As a mom and Registered Dietitian I have a solution to solve this age old problem… Meal Planning! While there is a small time commitment up front to meal plan, it will truly save you time in the long run. Meal planning can also save your family money, as you’re less likely to eat out and you know what you need to buy at the grocery store when you have a plan. Planning meals in advance also helps ensure that your family eats a balanced diet. There are numerous ways to go about meal planning. Here are some of the most popular methods, including the method I use, along with some helpful tips!

Weekly Meal Plan

With this method you plan a week’s worth of menus at one time. This is my preferred method of menu planning because I can take into account our schedule for the coming week and plan meals accordingly. If we have activities most nights of the week, I put several “30-minute or less meals” on the menu. Some people who use weekly meal planning will plan a specific meal for each day of the week. Others make a list of five or six meals without assigning them to a specific day. I do the latter because I don’t know what I’m going to feel like eating each night. 😉 Any meals that are left on my list at the end of the week are rolled onto my list for the coming week.

Monthly Meal Plan

With this method you plan an entire month’s worth of menus at one time. Families that menu plan for a month typically do one large shopping trip each month to pick up all of the non-perishable and frozen items they will need. Throughout the month, families will run to the store to get fresh produce and other perishable items as needed. If you plan menus one month at a time, you only have to meal plan 12 times per year, compared to 52 weeks a year for those that use weekly meal planning.

Cycle Menu

A cycle menu consists of several weeks worth of menus that you repeat over time. The “length” of a cycle menu depends on the planner; however, the most typical lengths are 4, 6 or 8-week cycles. Many people plan seasonal cycle menus that incorporate fresh in-season produce as well as take into consideration the season. A winter/fall cycle menu might feature more soups and casseroles; whereas, a summer/spring cycle menu may include more grilled items. While it can take a bit of time up-front to create a cycle menu, once it’s developed you are set and don’t have to worry about menu planning each week or month!

Looking for meal inspiration ideas?

  • Look in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer for items you want/need to use and plan meals that include those items. This will help cut down on food waste and save you money!
  • Solicit input from others in your household. Don’t carry the “burden” of meal planning by yourself. Each week I ask my husband and kids what they’d like to see on the menu which helps ensure I include some of their favorite meals in addition to my own!
  • Visit websites and food blogs for ideas. I like to include at least one new recipe on our menu each week so I have two to three food blogs that I visit for meal inspiration each week. These blogs have tried-and-true recipes that rarely fail me and keep our menus fresh and current. Have you checked out the recipes section on the Eat Wheat website?
  • Use past meal plans for ideas. Since I use blogs and websites for meal inspiration, I make my weekly menu and grocery list in a word document. I save each week’s menu plan in a folder on my computer so that I can look back for inspiration when I’m in a hurry or stuck in a menu planning rut.
  • Grocery store ads contain meal ideas and you can save money by menuing items that are on sale!
  • Keep a list or file of tried-and-true recipes. When you try a new recipe that is a hit with your family add it to a running list so when you’re looking for meal ideas you’ll have a go-to list of ideas.
  • Use MyPlate as a guide! In order to ensure our family eats enough fruits and vegetables I menu specific vegetables and fruits that complement the planned entrée. If I don’t plan for it, I won’t shop for it and then I can’t serve it!
  • Remember to include variety! Menu different protein options as well as different ethnic flavors each week. I often aim for one Italian, one Mexican, one Mediterranean, one Vegetarian and one American inspired entrée each week.

Menu planning saves time

Menu planning can me a life safer for busy families but you have to make time for it. I do my meal planning on Wednesday night and make my grocery list at the same time. Having a consistent day that you meal plan will help you stick to your new goal of meal planning and create a habit that you won’t want to break! Ready to get started menu planning? Check out these weeknight meal ideas.

Jill Ladd MPH, RD, LD

— Contributed by Jill Ladd, MPH, RD, LD







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