Have you decided to follow the keto diet or some other low-carb eating plan? Good for you!
Now comes the challenging part: Sticking your your diet once life—unexpected overtime, an extra soccer practice—intervenes, and you’re tempted to go for easier, but not necessarily healthier, options.
The way to avoid such pitfalls is through meal planning.
What’s meal planning? It’s “asking the what’s-for-dinner question once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking,” says food writer Hali Bey Ramdene.
“Meal planning makes a big difference when it comes to sticking to a dietary change,” adds health coach Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, who blogs as the Wellness Mama. “It’s easy to cook a quick convenience food or head to a restaurant when everyone is hungry and nothing is defrosted, but a little planning can prevent this!”
Why You Want to Plan Meals
Meal planning has four main advantages.
You Save Money
Eating more meals at home is cheaper than eating out every night.
“There are many times that money has been tight for us and I’ve had to stretch our food budget,” says Wells, who adds that even during such periods, “our family ate a real-food diet that we managed to afford by very careful budgeting and meal planning.”
You Save Time
Meal planning is generally paired with meal prep, which simply means taking a few hours on a weekend to prepare ingredients or even cook food in bulk and freeze for future meals. That’s ultimately a better use of your time than running to the store every other night.
You Control Quality
Home cooking allows you to shop for better ingredients and take care in how you prepare them. And planning those meals ahead of time usually means that you’ll eat a wider variety of foods, according to Wells, who notes, “Statistically, families are more likely to eat the same meals over and over if they don’t meal plan.”
You Stress Less
Life can be crazy enough as it is, especially if you have multiple schedules to coordinate. Knowing what you’re going to eat, and having all the ingredients on hand, is one less thing to stress out about.
Meal Planning in 7 Easy Steps
Ready to start mapping out your weekly meals? Let’s get started!
Think of What You Like to Eat
First of all, it helps to know why you want to use meal plans and what types of meals you like to cook.
Ramdene says you should ask yourself the following questions: “Are you looking for variety? To save money? Eat better? Prevent food waste? Preserve your sanity? Or to have a ready answer to the daily question from your partner or kids of what’s for dinner?” Knowing why you’re planning will help you hone your overall approach.
In addition, you should know the kinds of meals you plan to prepare. For example, Wells says that she cooks one or two stir-frys every week, one soup or meal made in a slow cooker or similar appliance, one seafood meal, one or two meals from different global cuisines and one or two oven-ready meals. Depending on your preferences, you may also want to schedule one or more meals as takeout or dining out each week.
One big advantage of meal planning for the low-carb cook is that you can learn how to creatively stretch your proteins, which tend to be the most expensive components of any dish. This allows you to buy better-quality meat, such as organic and grass-fed. If you want to go the bargain route instead, “the slow cooker and Instant Pot are great ways to make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat more tender,” says Wells.
Eat With the Seasons
Meal planning allows you to take full advantage of whatever’s in season at your local farmers market, which is good for both your budget and your health.
“Local seasonal vegetables contain more nutrients because they are allowed to grow until ripe and aren’t shipped halfway around the world before we eat them,” Wells explains. “Seasonal meal planning is as simple as focusing on cabbage when it is in season and under a dollar a pound or choosing more zucchini and cucumbers in the summer when they are widely available.”
Make Every Dinner Do Double-Duty
One of the big advantages of meal planning is that it allows you to deliberately cook extra food that can then be used for breakfasts and lunches. As Ramdene puts it, “Choose meals that bless you with leftovers—they’re the gift that keeps on giving.”
Create a Library of Go-To Recipes
This is where meal planning gets more specific, as you think about the actual recipes you’d like to try and create shopping lists based on them.
In general, a low-carb diet limits carbohydrate counts to between 50 and 100 grams a day. That means your recipes should feature not only high-quality proteins but also healthy fats (such as avocados and oils like coconut and olive), nuts and seeds, and low-starch vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, leafy greens, tomatoes and zucchini. (You can find a list of low-carb foods here.)
If you’re new to cooking, you’ll likely be getting recipes from cookbooks, friends and family, and the internet at first. Eventually you’ll find recipes you really like, which should become “core recipes that get reused every few weeks,” says Wells. “Try to build up about 20 of these and you won’t ever be bored with your meals.”
Remember that different spices can make the same basic recipe, such as baked chicken, taste completely different: Cumin and chili powder make it Mexican style, while basil, garlic, oregano and thyme give it an Italian flair.
To keep expanding your repertoire, Ramdene suggests adding one or two new recipes to each week’s schedule. She also suggests selecting recipes that use common ingredients: “This starts with looking at what you already have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry.”
Keep a Well-Stocked Pantry
Ah, the pantry. It (including the contents of your freezer) is the real secret to meal planning.
Why? Keeping a ready supply of items that get used over and over again—spices, oils and vinegars, basic frozen vegetables, etc—allows you to buy these items in bulk, which saves money. That frees up financial resources that you can then use each week to buy the fresh produce and proteins that you’ll need for that week’s meals. (You can find a low-carb pantry list here.)
Organize Your Shopping List
To keep track of the ingredients you have versus those you need to shop for, Ramdene says you should create a master ingredient list for each week by combining all of the ingredient lists from that week’s recipes, then “go through your kitchen and cross off anything you already have.” This keeps you from buying another jar of mustard, for example, when you already have one.
What’s left is your shopping list. To save time in the store, keep all ingredients that come from the same department together on the list: all the meats, all the produce, all the dairy, etc.
Take Time to Meal Prep
If planning your meals is the key money and stress saver, spending a few hours on a weekend prepping your ingredients is the key time saver.
“What you should do depends on the recipes for the week,” says Ramdene, “but dicing up garlic, chopping veggies, washing lettuce and herbs, and even cooking up some chicken thighs ahead of time is always a massive help.”
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.