5 Steps to Become the Most Efficient Meal Planner

Written by Margo Whitney, RDN

Whether you're cooking for one or a family of five, meal planning can feel daunting. Many of my patients say this is the number one thing they struggle with. Not only is there the issue of time, but energy as well. In the fast paced world we live in, it can often feel like we are lacking both.

The thing is, we know that meal planning makes a substantial impact on our health. There is an abundance of research that shows meal planning not only saves money, but it’s also linked to better diet quality and lower mortality rates. That’s right, meal planning can actually help you live a longer and healthier life. 

One study, that included over 35,000 adults, found that those who prepared and ate meals at home (less than one takeout meal each week) had a significantly lower risk of mortality compared to those who frequently consumed meals away from home. 

Another study of 40,554 participants found that meal planners ate a wider variety of foods, and linked meal planning with lower odds of obesity in both women and men.

For women with PCOS, we know how important eating throughout the day is to help with energy levels and insulin regulation. Meal planning is one of the key things to ensure this happens. Here are 5 tips to make meal planning feel less overwhelming and more feasible to set yourself up for a successful week ahead. 

#1: Make a Flexible Plan for the Week

Before starting your grocery list, it can be helpful to figure out some meal and snack ideas first. Deciding what you want to make and for what meals is usually the first step so you can then form a shopping list. 


For instance, for breakfast you might plan to have overnight oats three days/week, Greek yogurt with berries and nut butter another two days, and two days are left undecided. For lunch, maybe you plan to prepare some grain bowls with vegetables and protein, but also have some celery, whole wheat bread, and canned tuna on-hand for other days. 

Dinners might feel more complicated. Picking a theme for each night can help with this. Before making decisions, make sure you consider the time you have to cook. For instance, if you work until 7PM on Monday nights, having leftovers from Sunday to warm up might be the best strategy, rather than experimenting with a new recipe. Here’s an example:

Sunday night: Try a new recipe from Allara Meal Plan

Monday night: Leftovers

Tuesday night: Shrimp tacos + side salad

Wednesday night: Grilled salmon over quinoa and broccoli

Thursday night: Lentil pasta, red sauce, chicken sausage, mushrooms, spinach

Friday night: Takeout! Plus a bag of roasted broccoli from the freezer to have on the side 

Saturday night: Summer salad (corn, black beans, tomato, onion, avocado) with homemade turkey burgers

#2: Make an Organized Grocery List on Your Phone (Starting with Your Master List) 

Once you’ve got some ideas for meals and snacks it’s time to make a list. Most of us are creatures of habit so to make this task easier have a “Master List” already created and handy. This list will include staples that you buy every week like milk, yogurt, ground turkey, eggs, carrot sticks, avocados and frozen berries. I like to keep this in a note on my phone and then copy and paste it into a new note. Then you can make edits based on what you have, what’s in season, and what you need for new recipes.

To make this even easier, organize your list based on where things are in your grocery store. For instance, if you hit the produce aisle first, list out all the fruits and vegetables you need at the top, then canned foods, snack aisle, frozen aisle, dairy, etc. You might even want different lists depending on what store you’re shopping in. Lastly, use the check box feature in your note so you can check off items as you shop ensuring you don’t forget anything. Check out the example below of an actual master grocery list from my phone. 

#3: Organize Your Pantry, Refrigerator, & Freezer 

Having a well stocked pantry and organized refrigerator and freezer will make weekly meal planning significantly easier. Investing time to declutter and organize your pantry can be game changing. This could involve purchasing nice clear bins to store pantry staples like flour, sugar, and spices, labeling your spice rack, or simply designating shelves for specific ingredients. Some pantry staples you’ll want to keep on hand include nutrient dense oils (like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil), acids (vinegars, wine, pickled vegetables), whole grains (quinoa, barley, oats, farro, whole wheat couscous), canned beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, canned fish (tuna, sardines, anchovies) and a variety of your favorite dried spices (like cumin, garlic powder, chili powder, cayenne, etc.). 

Recently I had a patient say, “But Margot, what do I do if I don’t have a Sunday?” This question hit home because we’ve all been there. During the busy summer months when you’re traveling with your family or attending a friend's wedding, you might not have your typical meal prep Sunday available. This can often lead to a week of unplanned and expensive takeout. This is where having those quick and easy pantry staple recipes on hand can be game changing.

What do I mean by this? Have a couple recipes you can make using solely freezer and shelf-stable ingredients. Think chili, using Mexican spices, canned beans, tomatoes, frozen vegetables and frozen ground turkey. Another meal option could be lentil pasta, pesto, frozen shrimp, and frozen spinach or broccoli. If you’re struggling for meal ideas, work with a dietitian to help. 

#4: Schedule Time to Complete Meal Planning Tasks

Time is often the biggest barrier we all face when it comes to meal planning. Sometimes we spend more time worrying about not having the time to meal plan and prep instead of actually doing it. To prevent this, try scheduling time into your calendar like a doctor's appointment. You wouldn’t not show up for your doctor, so why would you skip your weekly trip to the grocery store? Add an invitation to your calendar like you would for the doctor, and send reminders to yourself. These reminders could be for making your grocery list, completing your trip to the grocery store, or preparing meals for the week. 

#5: Build & Revise Your Recipe Library

Whether you’re just like Martha Stewart or more of a Sandra Lee in the kitchen, having a book of go-to recipes can make meal planning so much easier. Take a trip to Staples (or hop on Amazon) and purchase a three ring binder, some dividers, and some sheet protectors and make your own homemade recipe book. You can use the dividers to distinguish between different categories (for instance appetizers, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts).

As you try new recipes, save the ones that are a hit and add them to your book. This also doesn’t need to be a binder of recipes, but could even be a set of folders in your Google Drive. Whatever system works best to keep you organized and build your library to keep yourself from getting recipe fatigue.

My favorite way to add to mine is by aiming to try one new recipe per week. This doesn’t always happen when life gets in the way, but when I make something my family loves, it goes right into the book for future use. I also love going back to old recipes when I need an idea that I know will be good.

Life is stressful enough as it is, but meal planning doesn’t have to be. Hopefully these tips will help you get organized and feel inspired to create a routine that works for you and your family.