Updated: Mar 20, 2022
Menu planning is a great way to help you regularly eat a healthy variety of foods. By planning your menu, you can factor in different food groups, cooking with health in mind and even plan for days when you expect to have some less than healthy foods. If you already have health goals, then lets get started!
When I do my personal menu planning I use a monthly calendar. This is positioned in a prominent place (currently on my fridge). So first step is to decide where you are going to place your menu plan. I found that putting it in a prominent place means that in theory, everyone that cares can check what's on the menu for the week and make suggestions or add their own favourites. I say in theory, because my family would still ask me what was for dinner without checking the calendar. This was fair though, because I wouldn't always follow the order of the menu each week. I would swap meals around depending on what came up that meant I needed to swap meals around. We would generally still have what was on the menu each week, but not necessarily in the order it was written up.
So back to step one -
Decide what you will write your menu plan on each week and put it in a prominent place.
Another step in the process, which can be skipped if you already know what you are having,
is to decide what breakfast meals you will be having on a healthy meal plan. I always recommend that people try to include oats somewhere in their day (unless you have coeliac disease or have an intolerance to oats). Oats seems to fall naturally into a breakfast option, which is why they came up now. If you are a person who likes a lot of variety for breakfast, then it is definitely worth making a plan. Otherwise, choose something healthy that you can enjoy every day. My go-to is porridge with fruit and yoghurt. You can find my porridge recipe and other oat recipes in the Nomadic Nutrition cookbook or have a look at my porridge recipe by clicking here.
Step two -
Choose a healthy breakfast and write it down if you need to remind yourself.
The next thing I would recommend doing is finding some healthy recipes. Have a look
through them and choose the ones that appeal to you the most. Write onto your menu planner what the recipe is for each day that week (and don't forget to note down where you found the recipe). I find a lot of the recipes I use by doing a search on the internet. There are so many recipes out there. Eventually you will find your favourite sites to use. I also use a couple of apps to store recipes on. One of my favourites is Paprika, but use whichever one you prefer. It is great to have a collection of recipes you can look through to make the planning of your menu less complicated. Eventually, you will have a whole collection of recipes on your planner which you can refer back to for inspiration. You will also find that a lot of recipes online and in recipe books aren't all that healthy. My experience shows that most recipes can be made healthier with a few tips and tricks which I will share with readers of recipes that I post. So check back for those tips when I start adding recipes. For now, you should try and make sure the recipes you choose have vegetables - add more if it doesn't have many, a wholegrain of some sort or a starchy vegetable, and a protein source, whether that be a meat, fish or non-meat based protein (e.g. egg, legumes, nuts and seeds).
Step three -
Write the healthy recipes on your menu planner.
When you are making your weekly plan, think about any events or social occasions where eating a healthy meal may not be as convenient. This is where you can strategically make your meals the day before and after the event, a bit lighter than normal so you don't blow your health goals out of the ball park. This could mean you have smaller serves, or you could
eat more vegetables and add less fat to your meals in the form of sauces and spreads like mayonnaise. You could even have a few vegetarian, low fat options on your menu plan to help compensate for the event. Mind you, it does help to have health goals in the first place! A dietitian can help you set some health goals based on your needs.
Step four -
Find lighter meals to buffer any social occasions that might blow your health goals.
Planning a healthy lunch doesn't have to be difficult. My favourite ideas for lunches are often just having leftovers from a healthy dinner. This is not always practical or available, so having a few ideas written onto your planner will simplify the decision making process. You don't have to fill in each day for lunch unless you find it helpful. I would suggest having a selection of lunch ideas that are your go to options when you don't have leftovers. They might include some easy options like baked beans on toast with slices of cheese, or a salad sandwich, or even a ploughman's lunch (cheese, sourdough, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, relish, ham). Again it depends on your preferences as well as the environment you are in (ie work, picnic, home, travelling).
Step five -
Plan some go to lunch ideas, to reduce the decision making at lunch time.
As with your lunch options, it is very helpful to have a list of healthy snacks you can have. Making snacks too complicated reduces your chance of making it healthy, so have some simple and healthy options up your sleeve (not literally!). Fruit is the obvious easy choice for snacks. Fruit and yoghurt are also a great healthy and delicious snack. A few bite sized vegetables can also be appealing if you prefer something more savoury. Think along the lines of cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers, capsicum strips, or carrot
sticks. Then for something with slightly more effort, some cheese on a couple of vita wheat crackers with sliced tomato is easy and delicious. My advice here is to have a set amount. Don't just have an open packet of biscuits and the cheese block sitting there. You will likely eat more than you intended to. This is really more about getting you through to your next main meal, not filling up.
Step six -
Plan for healthy snacks. If you don't plan, it is too easy to choose something unhealthy.
Drinks can also be problematic for a healthy diet. Coffee, alcohol, soft drink, and flavoured drinks just about always provide a lot of kilojoules and very little health benefits. This doesn't mean you need to cut them out completely, it just means it is important to be mindful of how many you are having in a day. Also try and swap some less healthy drinks for simple drinks like water or soda/mineral water without added flavours. You can add a splash of orange, lime or lemon juice if you want a bit of flavour. Even throwing in some herbs like mint or fresh fruit
can bring interest to water. The main idea with drinks is to plan to have less unhealthy drinks and more drinks that are to hydrate you. This could mean reducing what you buy to line up with your health goals. As an example, if you currently have 4 lattes a day, cut it back to 3 and hydrate with some form of water. As you get accustomed to having less, keep gradually cutting back.
Step seven -
Plan on reducing unhealthy drinks and replacing them with healthier options. Write the plan on your menu planner.
If you are a person who likes to have something to snack on after dinner, it is important to
have a few ideas of what will satisfy that desire while still sticking to your health goals. Sometimes the snacks after dinner can end up being too much of a good thing. I'm thinking about eating a lot of ice cream or chocolate as an example. My top tip here is to find a snack that you enjoy but you find easy to stop eating. For example, if I buy chocolate with some flavour like rum and raisin, I will want to keep eating it. It takes a lot of self restraint to stop which frankly, I don't always have! So instead of relying on my self restraint, I will buy a chocolate that I enjoy, but I find it a lot easier to stop eating after 1 or 2 pieces. For me, that is often a dark chocolate. You will have to find your own treat food that you feel you can stop eating. I do find that milk chocolates especially the ones with flavours, are much harder to stop eating and dark chocolates are easier to stop after a few pieces. Fruit can also be a great way to reduce sugar cravings. Having a sweet orange after dinner or a handful of grapes, may just get you past the need for something unhealthy. Try it and see how you go. But do plan healthier after dinner snacks if you are predisposed in that direction.
Step eight -
Post dinner snacks can be managed with some planning.
Finally, once you have your plan on your menu planner, create a shopping list. You will find that you will waste less food, and shop for health. Go through each of the recipes you plan to make that week and check what you have and don't have. Add in all the lunch food and snacks you plan on having and buy less of the unhealthy drinks. A big reminder here to don't shop when you are hungry! We make dumb health decisions when we are hungry. The best time to shop is after you have eaten, if possible.
Step nine -
Create your healthy shopping list!
Planning can be a lot of fun. I hope you get some pleasure from what may seem like a chore. The more you do it though, the easier it gets and the more chances you have of making healthy choices to meet your health goals.