“When it’s summer, fruits and vegetables are the cheapest they’ll be all year. How can I keep up this way of eating during the winter?” No matter what nutrition thing I’m helping someone with, the question of meal planning on a budget comes up.
Whether you’re looking to lose weight or lower cholesterol or have more energy, using a meal planning template can help more than you think.
I’m willing to bet it’s easier to do than you think too!
And this is the best time of year to get started. Now, when summer is coming to an end and you’re thinking about how to get life back into a routine. You’ve experienced the way eating more fruits and vegetables has made you feel through the summer. And you have motivation to keep this habit up.
In the rest of this article, I’ll share:
- what makes meal planning a foundational tool for an overall healthy eating plan
- 10 reasons to consider using a meal plan for a healthy diet
- who can benefit the most from using a meal planning template
- 10 tips for meal planning on a budget
- a free downloadable meal planning on a budget PDF template
- common excuses to meal planning and why they don’t always hold up
- 5 steps for meal planning that you can start immediately
Meal planning for the foundation of a healthy eating plan
It’s a topic that usually comes up for most people I talk to … no matter what their nutrition concern. When someone describes a typical day of eating, it’s clear that planning would make all the difference. Just by telling me out loud how they usually eat is often enough for them to make this connection too, even before I share my thoughts! .
When you want to take a road trip, you sit down with a map to decide on a destination and route. You then estimate how long the drive will take you and how long you plan to travel each day. Maybe you call ahead to book hotels and you figure out where gas stations are located (or not). You might even create a budget so you know what you can expect to spend for the trip and find some ways to cut costs.
Making a plan for your eating is really quite similar and easy to do when you have the tools you need.
Think of your meal plan like a roadmap. It can show you the route to follow so you stay on track and get where you want to go. It’s the plan you create when you’re clear of spur-of-the-moment temptations. It’s your guide if hunger kicks in and takes away all ability to make food decisions. And it gives you a sense of calm as you go through your week’s journey without having to constantly think, ‘what are we going to eat tonight’.
Let’s begin by reviewing some of the main reasons I want you to consider meal planning if you aren’t already.
10 benefits of making a meal plan for a healthy diet
- Saves time and energy in the end. If you’re not already meal-planning, try estimating how much time and mental energy you use each week as you go through your routine. Thinking about what to make, searching for recipes online, getting home to realize you don’t have all the ingredients (or that they’re frozen solid still). And the mental back-and-forth of trying to decide what to eat after a long day.
- Better use of your food dollars. You’ll throw away fewer fresh fruits and veggies as well as unused leftovers. You’ll also get to take advantage of grocery sales for the week.
- More ‘conscious’ eating and less grabbing whatever happens to be in the fridge. This means better control over what you put in your body which can also mean better management of a health condition.
- No more planning supper on the way home … and then stopping for takeout.
- Making fewer trips to the grocery store and still having the ingredients you need in order to make the dishes you love.
- Better variety in your eating. Trying to decide what to eat 20 mins before you plan on actually eating is a sure way to ruin your cooking creativity. Planning ahead lets you pull out all those recipes you’ve been meaning to try so you can put some variety into your repertoire.
- Staying on top of your hunger and being able to eat at appropriate times. This means better management of blood sugars and weight … as well as improved energy and feeling great overall.
- A way to organize all those great healthy eating ideas you have into one place. Make an actual plan to do it instead of thinking about it. An example of this could be making your own low-salt taco seasoning. It’s something that’s completely do-able and takes little time but that won’t happen if you don’t actually make a plan to do it.
- Gets everyone in on the planning with their say about how the week will look. Who’s going to be where on what days? When are there pockets of time for meal prep? What days are best suited for leftovers.
- Eating will be enjoyable instead of just another task in your day – because all that’s left to do is cook and enjoy. It’ll all come together so seamlessly that you’ll wonder why you didn’t start doing this a long time ago!
Who can benefit the most from using a meal planning template?
While I find that most people can use at least a little help with meal planning, there are certain health or lifestyle factors where meal planning can be a really important tool.
Meal planning for lowering cholesterol
Did you know that only 20% of the cholesterol you eat actually goes into your blood? That means if you have high cholesterol in your bloodwork, 80% of it is being made by your body. So how does your body make cholesterol? One main source is the saturated fat that you eat.
By mapping out your meals over the week, you’ll be able to find ways to lower your saturated fat, increase your fruits and veggies and add in more fibre too. All ways that you can work on lowering your cholesterol levels and help your heart health.
Meal planning with diabetes
Oh well that’s an easy one, right?
I hear all the time about how people with diabetes need to avoid carbohydrates and sugars.
Planning meals for people with diabetes is so much more than managing the amount of sugar you eat. We’re looking at
- getting in foods to protect your heart health
- increasing anti-inflammatory choices
- balancing carbs throughout the day to keep blood sugars even
- and perhaps tweaking portions so you have an easier time managing your weight
Meal planning for weight loss
When it comes to weight, simply eating less may not be the answer for you. There are many different factors that led to your weight. And at the end of the day, weight is simply a number on the scale that may or may not have any impact on your overall health.
However if weight loss is something that you want to work toward, meal planning is a must. From my experience, portions and actual food choices are usually not the biggest issues. You’ve already tried many (many) ways. You’ve done a lot of research. You understand that fast foods are not going to help with your weight loss journey.
For the people I see, the bigger issues are about 1) timing, 2) cravings and 3) emotional eating.
Of course everyone is different and your challenges are unique. But without a solid plan for your eating, it’s harder to work on the root causes of your struggles or the triggers you experience.
Meal planning for a plant based meal plan
Plant-based eating is such a hot topic right now. But it’s certainly not a new thing. With the shift in focus toward more plant-based options comes more people who are trying it out. And that’s certainly a good move in general.
There are some risks though with eating more plant-based options without a plan. While it does mean less animal-based protein, it doesn’t mean grabbing more processed meatless choices from the freezer section that are loaded with unhealthy fats and salt. Depending on how much you cut out of your eating pattern, you may also be at risk of not getting enough calcium, vitamin B12 or iron.
Meal planning again comes to the rescue! When you lay it all out on paper, you can see the patterns that are setting you up for success as well as areas for improvement.
Meal planning to gain weight
For people wanting to gain weight, meal planning is an effective tool. Much like the strategy for people who want to lose weight, laying out your eating plan allows you to see patterns and ensure each action will take you closer to your goal.
Simply eating more isn’t the key for everyone. But building extra calories and protein into schedule meals and snacks is often an effective strategy. For more tips and tricks about eating to maintain or gain weight, whether for yourself or for a loved one in your life, you might be interested in my article Caring for Aging Parents: Why won’t they just eat.
Meal planning on a budget for 2
When you have a full house, you probably have ab equally full fridge and cupboards. Food turnover is faster meaning it has less time to spoil. And because you’re cooking more often, it’s easier to eat a variety of foods.
But once the kids move out, you might find it’s harder to plan meals, prepare food and cook the right amount for 1 or 2 people. It becomes easier to shop the frozen and canned sections at the grocery store or to just eat out. Neither of these options are necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. But eating out can really add up and work against you – both for your health and for your budget.
Meal planning becomes a way to organize all the tips you’ve learned about healthy eating on a budget into one plan. So you can know you’re doing the best for your health and can feel more confident that you’re buying just what you need without wasting it.
10 tips for making a meal plan on a budget
When you’re trying to manage a health condition, eating becomes such a huge focus in life. Everywhere you turn, the message is to ‘eat healthy’. And this can feel like a lot of pressure if you think that ‘healthy’ foods are unaffordable.
With news stories everywhere talking about the raising cost of healthy foods, many people are feeling the crunch to make healthy eating work within their food budget.
If you’re concerned about keeping your budget or have a fixed income, here are some ways you can cut back on food costs without cutting back on health.
- Choose lower cost plant-based proteins to replace meat and poultry. This can include soy products, legumes or lentils as well as nuts. Plan at least 1 ‘meatless’ meal each week.
- Buy in bulk, cook in big batches and freeze for later. Getting together with others to share in purchasing ingredients as well as cooking means you can all go home with a variety of delicious and economical meals.
- Choose fruits and vegetables that are in season for the best price. If you have extra freezer space, some will freeze well so you can use them later in the year.
- Canned and frozen fruits and veggies can add nutrition to your plate at a lower cost than fresh produce, especially during winter.
- Check your kitchen for ingredients you have on hand while you’re making your grocery list. This helps you avoid over-buying or having ingredients spoil because you haven’t used them.
- Watch flyers and online coupon sites so you can plan meals around sales.
- Avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry – you’re be less likely to purchase impulse buys if you’re stomach is satisfied!
- Do your own food prep wherever possible to avoid paying more for prepared foods (such as pre-chopped salads, shredded cheese, instant rice etc). You’ll also be able to better avoid the extra sugar, fat and salt that tends to be in packaged foods.
- Choose recipes with simple ingredients or find alternatives to those ingredients you might not use very often. Or again, consider pooling resources with a friend so neither of you have to purchase items you only use occasionally.
- Less expensive cuts of meat can be just as nutritious and delicious with a little planning. To make these cuts more tender, marinate, tenderize (pound) or slow cook them.
Top 3 reasons people have for not meal planning
We’ve talked about the benefits of meal planning. About how meal planning on a budget can work for you, even if you’re managing a health condition with a fixed income.
But if it’s so clear that meal planning can help, why aren’t more people doing it?
Here’s a look at reasons I hear most often from the people I work with.
1. Meal planning takes too much time
Interestingly, most of the people who decide to try meal planning come back to me saying, “Yes it took a bit of extra time in the beginning. But now that I have a system / routine, it’s actually saving me time and is certainly saving me the hassle of worrying about what to eat!”
I’d say if they can do it, so can you.
2. I don’t like eating leftovers
Of course this is a personal preference and there are probably a number of reasons for choosing freshly prepared food over leftovers. Texture change, preference to avoid using microwave ovens, the way different flavours blend in different types of cuisine … perhaps even concern about food safety.
There are ways around these factors though, including prepping a meal to a certain point and then cooking portions of it as you want it or using toaster ovens to help crisp up leftovers.
I certainly would never suggest that someone has to eat leftovers if it’s not something they want to do. But meal planning can actually help you either avoid leftovers or use them differently. Leftovers can also help you reduce your food waste, saving you money and lessening your environmental impact.
3. I don’t know what to eat or cook – how can I even begin to make a meal plan
These are the people I see who either eat the same things over and over again, or buy their food out often. And for both cases I say that meal planning could be the exact thing to help.
Perhaps you could use some inspiration with new places to get recipes. Or perhaps learning a some new food prep ideas can help make cooking at home be the easy choice. Maybe you feel stuck because your digestive issues or diabetes have you feeling like you can’t eat anything anymore.
Regardless of your reason for not knowing what to eat, meal planning can take away that daily hassle of racking your brain for a meal that’s nutritious and delicious.
5 steps to start meal planning on a budget right now
Like I said at the beginning, meal planning is probably easier than you think it will be.
Here are 5 steps to get you started right now.
- Get a chart or template to organize your plan. Even a scrap of paper. Writing it out pen-and-paper-style is my personal choice since it’s all right there and you can hang it on your fridge for easy reference.
- Take a look at your schedule over the next week so you can coordinate shopping and cooking with your other commitments.
- Pull out your favourite recipes and pick a couple. Try not to make all new recipes every week, especially if you want to save time cooking.
- Make your grocery list at the same time. Be sure to check your cupboards to see what you need to stock up on while you’re at it.
- Get input from any other people living in your home about what they’d like to eat and who will be in charge of cooking or meal prep on specific days.
For more tips, tricks and ideas on how to get started with weekly meal planning, download my free resource. This PDF meal-planning template includes a meal-planning chart with instructions. You’ll also find extra meal-planning ideas not included in the list above and a 1-week sample menu so you can see it in action.
Click the picture below to get started today.
Meal planning as your proactive solution
If you want to be more proactive about preserving your health, meal planning is an easy and do-able first step.
While you were reading this article, I hope you saw some ways that meal planning can help … whether you’re looking to stick to a tight budget or not.
As you go through your usual routine this week, how do you think meal-planning can help you feel more in control of your eating and your food budget? Or are you already using a meal-planning system that you find really helpful?
If you’re looking to try meal planning as part of your heart-friendly eating or to work on your weight for your health, you might be interested in learning more about my Nourish your Heart program. Lower your cholesterol, blood pressure and worries about your heart’s health in this online, interactive and fully supportive program. Find out more about the program and when registration for the next session is open.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.