Welcome to our comprehensive guide on meal planning!

You found your way to this page because you’re motivated to feed you and your family healthy food but in amongst the craziness of life, you’re finding it difficult to actually put it into practice. We so understand! That’s why we collated all of our best meal planning advice into this handy summary!

Learn heaps of simple, fresh and balanced tips to help you eat well, feel great and feed the family, all while keeping on top of everything else you have to do in our busy lives!

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is a food organisation strategy that involves thinking about what you’re going to eat in advance and mapping out all the meals and snacks you plan to prepare in the days and week ahead.

A meal plan can be for one day, a weekend or a whole week. Your meal plan can also just include your dinners, work lunches or any meal you like to have organised in advanced. However you prefer to meal plan, there is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing that you’ve thought ahead of time what you’re going to eat.

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The benefits of meal planning

A healthy eater is an organised one. No doubt about it. You simply cannot eat well without some kind of forethought. Now before you switch off and think: “Meal planning is not for me”, stay with me. You don’t have to plan everything to the letter. However, having at least a basic idea of what you plan to eat each day means you can have the right foods available, avoiding those last minute dashes for takeaway or convenience food.

The benefits of meal planning far outweighs the initial time investment in taking the time to plan. Here’s why meal planning is so great:

Reduces decision fatigue

In the hustle and bustle of our modern lives, decision fatigue is a huge problem! We’re making decisions (big and small) all the time! This means that when it comes to meal and snack times, our brain is so worn out it lacks the computing power to make even the simplest of food choices. In order to compensate for this, it relies on auto pilot or habits to make food choices and as a result we choose foods without much conscious thought. Unfortunately, these are not always the healthiest choices, but because we’re so busy, we don’t have the mental capacity to change them.

Meal planning reduces your mental load.

By thinking ahead, at a time when you do have the mental capacity, you can pre-decide your meals and snacks. Then when meal times roll around, you already know what you’re eating because the decision has already been made. This is particularly helpful when trying to overcome unhealthy auto-pilot food choices that might de-rail any healthy eating or weight loss efforts.

Saves Time

Australians are time poor!

Australian research has shown that one of the main barriers to healthy eating for people is a lack of time. With after school sport, jobs with long hours, shift work, caring responsibilities and lots happening in many households, further research is showing we’re spending less and less time cooking and preparing food at home.

When you don’t have time for some meals, but you still want to put a healthy meal on your plate, you need to spend time at less busy periods in your week to think ahead and make provisions. This time investment will pay dividends into the future. One of our dietitians put together this great article on easy weeknight meals for time poor people. We’ve also got a STACK more meal planning resources for our members in the Nutrition Education Portal.

Go slow. Starting by picking one of your meals to plan, like dinner. Knowing what’s for dinner and having the ingredients ready to go will do wonders for making the week go smoothly, especially when you’ve got lots on in the evenings. Here are 6 easy steps for planning dinner.

Helps you manage stress

The dreaded question; “What are we having for dinner?” can tip even the most sane person off the edge of overwhelm! If life is busy and you haven’t got anything planned to eat, it often adds to the mental burden you’re already carrying. This extra stress is removed when a meal plan sits on your fridge (or in your phone) that clearly outlines what’s on offer for meals and snacks.

A meal plan let’s you breath a sigh of relief knowing that the food part of your day is taken care of and you have one less thing to worry about.

Maximise your intake of healthy foods

When it comes to eating well, staying organised is a key part of your long term success. Healthy food generally has a short shelf life, needs regular purchasing (at least weekly) and requires preparation and cooking. Thinking ahead about what’s coming up in your week and how your meals and snacks fit around this will help you always put a healthy meal on your plate no matter how busy you are!

If you’re looking to consistently improve your eating habits, then meal planning gives you the ability to be intentional about including healthy foods like vegetables fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds into your meals and snacks. If you’re planning for the whole day you can ensure you hit the basics like planning in 2 pieces of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables and make sure that your meals include whole foods from a wide variety of sources.

When you plan to eat vegetables everyday you have a greater chance of actually achieving that goal compared to just winging it!

Save money

If you’re on a tight budget, you can’t afford not to meal plan. Meal planning will help you know exactly what foods you need to purchase, which means you’ll only buy what you need. You can also be intentional about planning meals that include cheap pantry staples and ensure you’re using similar ingredients across the week which will reduce the number of items that you’ll need to buy.

Puts you back in control

Being in control of your food choices is a key part of eating well long term. Healthy foods like vegetables and other whole foods often have a short shelf life and require some kind of preparation. This means you need to be intentional about it. Taking the time to plan a week of meals that suits you, your life, your health goals and your food preference will pay dividends into the future.

When you’re organised with your food, you know what you’re eating, you’ve got the ingredients ready to go in your kitchen and then you can focus on the rest of your life knowing that your food is sorted!

Rear View Of Young Woman Looking In Fridge At Kitchen

Increases food awareness

Food awareness is a key part of successfully changing your eating habits long term. Mindless eating and being on ‘auto-pilot’ is a key driver of poor food choices and can often leave people confused why their ‘healthy eating efforts are not working. Their intentions don’t align with their reality, but they’re not aware of it to make the necessary changes. Planning your meals and snacks and then logging your actual meals and snacks against your meal plan is a key way of being honest about your actual food intake and becoming more mindful of your food choices.

Reduces your reliance on convenience foods

When we become busy, stressed, tired or decision fatigued it’s easy to rely on convenience foods to get us through the day. These foods often come in a box or packet and require very little time to prepare. Most convenience foods are high in energy, fat, salt and sugar and low in vitamins and minerals. Learning to become organised with effective meal planning skills will help reduce your reliance on these foods week to week and increase your diet quality.

However, not all convenience foods are unhealthy and to prove it, our team has compiled a comprehensive guide of breakfasts, lunches and dinners that are super quick and easy and but still tick all the nutritional boxes. Check it out below:

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Creating easy healthy meals

Fresh Inspiration

Sometimes it’s difficult to create easy, healthy meals when your expectations of what a healthy meal should look like is a little skewed! Social media can put a lot of pressure on us to create these perfect looking meals and many recipe books we purchase can be full of weird, hard to find ingredients or contain recipes that takes hours to pull together!

Not at The Healthy Eating Hub! We pride ourselves on helping you pull together healthy meals that are easy and delicious, not too mention.

Once you learn how to build a healthy, filling salad or easy ways to add flavour without adding kilojoules, the skies the limit with the kind of meals you can throw together on a busy evening.

Here are some of our easy meals perfect for a busy lifestyle:

Steamed Vegetables with Ginger Soy Dressing

Vegetables with Ginger Soy

Sesame Crusted Salmon

Cashew Crusted Chicken Salad

Green Chicken Curry

Green Chicken Curry

Burgers

fish, couscous salad

Fish, CousCous and Salad

Omelette

One Pot Italian Chicken

One Pot Italian Chicken

couscous and chick pea salad

CousCous and Chickpea Salad

vegetable fritters

Vegetable Fritters

Chicken and slaw sandwich thins

Chicken and Slaw Sandwich Thins

Baked Beans with Eggs and Haloumi

How to meal plan effectively

The six steps of effective meal planning

Close up of pencil on meal planner

1. Check what’s on for the week.

Plan your meals around social occasions, events, work meeting or busy periods. Then you can ensure that your food option suits the situation when the time rolls around. For example, don’t plan a microwavable lunch if you’re going to be in your car travelling to see a client. Plan a sandwich or salad, something that’s easy to eat on the go. This article has lots of handy lunch ideas.

2. Check what food you have that needs using up.

Unfortunately a large amount of perfectly good food goes to landfill in Australia. Its not great for the environment or your bank balance. So food doesn’t go to waste plan to include leftovers, that need using up, early on in your meal plan. Slightly wilted vegetables can go into a soup or stew. Leftover chicken breast can go into a pasta bake.

3. Decide what food you want to eat.

Now it’s time to pull together all your ideas about what you want to eat for the week. Chicken? Fish? Steak? Meat-free? What vegetables do you want to include? What are some familiar meal options you can use for your busy days? Do you want to cook in advance? Do you want to try a new recipe? You can plan all your meals and snack, or you can just plan the ones that you feel like need a little more organisation to pull together, it’s totally up to you. Make sure your meal plan suits your needs.

4. Write a shopping list and go shopping.

Once you’ve popped all the meals and snacks on paper (or on your phone) write your shopping list. This is a vital next step. Now it’s time to head to the shops and buy everything that you need. Sticking to your list will also help you save money! Whats the point of meal planning if you don’t put that plan into action? You need to ensure you’ve got the food available in your house to prep the meals you’ve planned to eat.

5. Prepare for the week ahead.

If you’ve got a busy week ahead, you can make life easy for yourself if you’ve got some time. Pre-chop vegetables. Cook up the pasta source. Bulk cook rice. Divide the chicken into portions. Our founder, Registered Nutritionist Kate Freeman, put together a post on her top tips to stay organised with food.

6. Stay flexible.

The meal plan is there to serve you, not the other way around. Don’t be a slave to the meal plan. Be flexible. Make adjustments if you need to!

Find your meal planning personality

Which meal planning personality are you?

The three personalities of food organisation describes different levels of detail when it comes to meal planning. From the super-duper organised to the more flexible soul, there is a personality to suit your style. If you’ve got a busy life, you need to pick the personality that BEST represents your style, so that you can organise your meals consistently.

Personality 1: For the super-duper organised! If you like to plan all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks), make shopping lists and schedule food into your week, than this is the personality for you!

Personality 2: Like some flexibility? Then this personality is for you. It’s all about having a basic plan of action in motion, but not to the degree of personality 1.

Personality 3: Arh! Help! I have no food planned, what do I do? This personality is for the times we are not as organised as we would like to be (and lets face it, it happens to us all!)

Key: There are different levels of meal planning. Chose the level that suits your lifestyle and expectations.

Personality One: The Absolute Meal Plan

Organisation and meal planning

Everything is planned. Breakfasts are planned. Lunches are planned. Dinners are planned. Snacks are planned. The absolute meal plan, plans for absolutely every meal. How to do this?

Step 1: Make the time

Find (or make) time during your weekend or during the week to think about meal planning and prep for the upcoming week. This time can be found in-between commercial breaks, while watching Netflix or while sitting outside enjoying the sunshine – remember, you don’t have to do this at the dining table!

Step 2: Schedule the week

Now that you have some time, the next thing is to make a schedule. Schedule into your meal plan family and social events, this will help you determine exactly what meals need catering for. Knowing what you are doing in the next week during meal times is handy, especially when it comes to shopping, plus it will minimise food waste. Wins all around.

Step 3: Gain perspective

Highlight the meals you will be eating out of the house in one colour. These are the meals you do not need to worry about in your weekly meal plan. It is also worthwhile to think about after work scheduled activities, to consider whether you have time to cook a meal or not. If you think you will not have time to cook a meal from scratch, put an asterisk on that day. These are the days where left overs, ‘throw’ together or failsafe meals are a good option.

Step 4: Add in favourite meals and a new meal you would like to try

Adding your family’s favourite meals is a great way to start planning meals. Want to try a new recipe that you have been meaning to cook? Great, schedule it in. It is best to schedule these meals on a day where you are not pressed for time.

Step 5: Preparation

Repurposing ingredients from the night before is a simple way to cut down on cooking time and preparation.

For example:

  • Cooking extra chicken and storing it in a container for Tuesday night will cut cooking time, preparation and effort.
  • Use left-over meats in wraps for lunches and even quick dinners
  • Chop vegetables in bulk and store in an air tight container in the fridge. Alternatively, use frozen vegetables. They are just as nutritious as raw vegetables, and can be quickly thrown into meals.

Step 6: Shopping list

Now that all meals have been planned, the final step is preparing a shopping list (see below to download).

If the thought of planning for absolutely everything is stressful or overwhelming, it’s okay! You don’t need to. We often have the expectation that this is the only way to be a ‘successful’ meal planner. And the moment we don’t plan absolutely everything and execute that plan, then it all seems to go haywire. But there is no need for an ‘all or nothing’ approach. If you find yourself not as organised as you would have liked to be or feel restricted with planning absolutely everything, the solution is simple: read onto Tier Two and Three, for a more flexible and ‘on the go’ approach.

Personality Two: The Flexible Meal Plan

Woman placing container with frozen mixed vegetables in refrigerator.

If you read personality one, and thought to yourself, ‘no, that’s not viable for me’, then thats completely fine. Everyone has different expectations, lifestyles and personalities. Tier two is about not having absolutely everything planned, but still having some plan of action.

The flexible meal plan is about thinking about the future you. Being busy and rushing from one thing to the next makes healthy eating difficult and if you want to make the healthy choice the easy choice you are going to have to think ahead and have some idea of how you’re going to manage. This kind of planning takes practice! It is a skill, so don’t give up if you have a week that goes all wrong! Keep having a crack at it and you will find a groove that works!

You could choose to plan for:

  • Week night dinners
  • The ‘tricky’ days when you have to pick the kids up from school, rush to ballet and swimming class and then come back home completely tired!
  • Work lunches
  • Or, just plan for 4 meals to have at some point during the week.

A common barrier to meal planning and organisation is time. It can seem overwhelming to cook from scratch when you have a busy schedule. It can be made simple if you know the tricks of the trade (preventing you from slaving away for hours in the kitchen). What are these tricks you may ask? Well,

If you have a spare ten minutes:

  • Heat up some couscous for an easy side dish
  • Mash an avocado for a dip
  • Make a sandwich with wholemeal bread, nut spread or cheese and lots of salad.
  • Whisk up a smoothie.
  • Organise your fridge and take note of which items you want to use in the next day or two to avoid spoilage.

If you have a spare 20 minutes:

  • Hard boil a few eggs and store with crackers or croutons.
  • Mix some leaves and grate a little strong cheese over them for a start to a basic salad.
  • Cut your preferred meat into edible pieces and store, or if you don’t eat meat, chop your replacement meat or rinse your beans to be stored out of their cans.

If you have a 30-60 minute gap:

  • Pull out all the vegetables in your fridge, wash, cut and mix them and pre-pack them in containers labelled “to roast” “to stir-fry” “to steam” etc.

If you have 2 hours:

  • Make a big vegetable roast and a juicy meat dish on the stove.
  • Cook up 2-3 meals in bulk, separate them into portions and freeze/refrigerate for quick, easy meals in the future.

If you have one hour now and one hour (or less) tonight:

  • Use the first hour to make a large fruit or vegetable salad (save the dressing for later).
  • The second hour can be filled pan frying some fish, setting the table, setting some legumes on the counter or bircher muesli in the fridge to soak overnight.
  • Make a delicious marinade and store it with some steaks in the freezer.

If you have the afternoon:

  • Portion out a couple turkey/cheese slices or tuna, nuts, beans and vegetable sticks for snacks. A small container will keep the portions controlled, just make sure you pack enough to last you your busy days.
  • Make your favourite soup or have a barbecue which focusses on lots of vegetables rather than meat.

No matter how much time you have:

  • Any time you get in the kitchen, aim to get one thing done that will contribute to a future meal. Even if it’s just placing a piece of fruit in a bag ready for transport to work, or setting a chopping board and knife on the counter (if it’s safe to do so!).
  • Also, cooking time is a great opportunity to get some more water into you. Aim for 3-4 cups and you will feel great about yourself no matter how good your meal turns out or how unbearably messy your kitchen is!

Key: Some forethought and planning goes a long way to help keep you organised

Personality Three: On the Fly Meal Plan

“Arghh… I have no food, what do i do?”

Sound familiar? Instead of thinking: “Stuff it, I will just go through Macca’s drive through”, give one of these ‘on the go’ meals a go:

  • BBQ chicken + whole meal wraps + mixed salad + aioli
  • Shredded ham + pita bread + coleslaw mix
  • Tin tuna/salmon + greek salad mix
  • 4 bean mix + tabouleh
  • Marinated salmon fillets + pre-chopped stir fry vegetables + instant brown rice cup

We’ve got more ideas like this for breakfast and for lunch.

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Key considerations for meal planning

Meal Planning for Weight Loss

nutritionLosing weight requires two things:

Both of these two aspects of your diet needs to be consistently achieved on a daily basis for you to have long term success.

Meal planning is a key tool to help you achieve this consistency. It means that you can plan to eat enough vegetables (to get your nutrients), plan to eat the right amount of food (to create your energy deficit) and have your meals and snacks prepped and ready to go, so you’ve got food ready to eat as you go about your day. This is especially necessary if you’re busy.

Good weight loss meal planning means that all the thinking has been done ahead of time. All you need to do is go about your day and the food is organised and ready to go. It also helps to plan around social occasions and other events, so that you can make smart choices in these situations.

When your meal planning for weight loss it helps to do the following:

  • note down the portions of foods you need to be eating to remind yourself
  • plan some bulk cooking into your meal plan so you can have ready-to-eat meals during the week
  • plan smart food choices for your tricky times like the afternoon sugar craving or the after dinner reward

Our Signature Program harnesses the power of effective meal planning and organisation to help people lose weight in the same way they intend of maintaining it.

Meal Planning for Allergies/Intolerances

If you or a family member have food allergies or intolerances that need managing, meal planning and thinking ahead about what you’re going to eat is really important. It’s a key aspect of ensuring that the foods that should be eliminated are and that if you’re having to eliminate multiple foods or whole food groups that your diet remains varied and meets your nutrient needs.

Meal planning for allergies or food intolerances often goes hand in hand with seeking individualised support from a qualified dietitian. The dietitian can highlight where you might find certain foods hidden (especially important for severe allergies) in meals or processed foods, show you how to maximise your nutrient intake from safe food groups and offer recipes and meal ideas to support you practically.

Meal Planning for the Whole Family

When it comes to feeding more than just yourself, meal planning is the key to ensure everyone’s needs are met. Here are some tips for meal planning for the family:

  • One dinner for the whole family: Research suggests that families who eat together and who eat the same thing at meal times have better nutritional outcomes and less fussy behaviours than families who don’t. Try to work on everyone eating the same thing at the meals that you eat together.
  • Have a family meeting: get everyone together to discuss the upcoming meal plan. You can use this to get buy in from family members about what’s on offer to eat, help spread the load of meal prep among family members and brainstorm meal and snack ideas.
  • Use a calendar when you meal plan to manage busy evening, social occasions and time poor meal times. There is no point planning to cook a roast on an evening when you only have 20 minutes for dinner before everyone heads off for sport or dance!

Meal Planning on a Budget

If you’ve got a specific budget that you need to stick to each pay cycle a meal plan is vital. It’ll help you plan your meals around cheap pantry staples, help you effectively buy food in bulk and if you’re smart help you minimise food waste by effectively using leftover ingredient and meals. Here are more tips for sticking to a budget

  • Buy fresh produce thats in season – it’s fresher, cheaper and tastes better.
  • Buy in bulk and then store the food appropriately so that it last at home in your kitchen.
  • Avoid buying convenience foods like pre-cooked rice, or individual packets of cheese ad crackers, these are much cheaper if you’re prepared to cook or prep it yourself.

Heathy eating for normal people

Everyday Eats Recipe Book

Our managing director, Kate Freeman, is so passionate about making healthy eating accessible for everyone that she wrote a book on how she feeds herself and her family everyday!

It’s contains over 70 recipes, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, plus lots of nutrition advice and food organisation suggestions.

Download it instantly or grab a hard copy!

How to layout your meal plan

There are SO many different ways you can create a meal plan:

Join an online (weight loss) program

There are no lack of online programs available that can give you a meal plan. Heck, we could give you a meal plan! Our online program includes them! However, in our opinion, outsourcing your meal planning to an online program or company is the most inferior way to meal plan. Why? Because the meal plan wasn’t written with you in mind.

It didn’t take into account your food preferences and there are foods on that meal plan that you don’t like to eat. It didn’t take into account your routine and there are meals that you wont have time to cook. It didn’t take into account your family and now you have to cook separate meals (*shock horror*).

If you are following an online program, ensure you have the nutritional knowledge and the food confidence to adapt it to your needs.

Our Signature Program is ALL about teaching you to meal plan in the way that suits you. Our members access a fantastic meal planning tool that helps them stay organised while they practice their habits.

Add a note on your phone

If you love things being on your phone, have a note especially for your meal plan so that you have quick, easy access to the food (plus the associated shopping list) that you’ve organised to the week (or day).

The great thing about this option is that you can use the same note each week and adjust according to your upcoming routine or food preferences, rather than starting from scratch each week.

Add events into your calendar

Do you live your life by your digital calendar? If you do, why not add your meals and snacks into each day for easy access to what you’re eating through the week.

This is also a great way to remind you to take breaks through the day and also stops you from organising other meetings or events over your meal times. Setting boundaries in this way is a key part of good self care.

Printable and handwritten

If you’re not keen on the digital route, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the good old paper meal plan. You can download our meal planning template below to print and write on as you need or you can simply scribble your meals and snacks onto a blank piece of paper and pop it on your fridge!

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Tips for healthy eating on the go!

There are times when you’re not as organised as you’d like to be and you feel powerless to make a good choice. Part of making healthy food choices easy is taking the time to set yourself up for success. This is about creating an environment that makes healthy food readily available and easy to choose. It’s always hard to make a healthy choice when there isn’t actually healthy food available to you! Not even the most motivated people can among those situations every time!

Keeping your pantry stocked with healthy food is one way you can do this, so is having some convenient supermarket ideas that you can run in and grab when you don’t have any food left in the house! Try this one:

  1. Purchase the 4 items displayed below.
  2. Place the tenderloins on a baking tray lined with paper, sprinkle with chicken salt or other spice and bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Flip over at the half-way.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the rice in the microwave and toss the coleslaw in aioli.
  4. Serve your plate with 2-3 tenderloins, 3/4 cup rice and half a plate of coleslaw! Yum!

*Love this idea? We’ve got more where that came from!

Another one of our amazing dietitians has put together lots of great ideas for when you don’t have time for breakfast and 6 easy meals when you’re feeling low.

*Images sourced from Woolworths online shopping. Not a sponsored post.