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Meal planning 101: Tips and tricks

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. April 13, 2011


Recipes for Healthy Living


Naturally, when I have friends over for dinner the conversation turns to food and nutrition.  Common questions are: "What should I eat to be healthy?" "What should I avoid?" and "Is this food a source of the latest cure-all nutrient?" Most of these I'm prepared to answer. One recent question, though, got me thinking, "How does Jennifer do her meal planning?"

My meal planning starts with a sheet of paper. Pretty high-tech, right? In the left-hand column, I write the days of the week. Under each day I write:

  • Entree

  • Vegetable (hot)

  • Vegetable (cold)

  • Whole grain

  • Fruit

  • Beverage


Then I just have to fill in the grid. For those of you playing along at home, here are some of my tried-and-true meal planning tips:


  • Entree. Here's where you can put the dietary guidelines to work for you. Plan on fish twice a week and at least one meatless meal. Meatless entrees can be beans or even tofu. You're almost half-way done. For the remaining meals, plan one that's fast and easy to cook, one big family-type meal and one meal based on leftovers. Remember that a serving of meat is only about the size of a deck of cards. The rest of the plate will be filled with other good things.

  • Vegetables. Begin to fill in vegetables according to the entree. Look for colorful ones and plan some variety throughout the week. Get out of the rut of the too familiar rotation of cooked peas, corn and green beans. How about sugar snap peas, broccoli or beets? Instead of the same old iceberg lettuce, how about spinach, tomato slices or shredded carrots?

  • Whole grains. Think of all the options: brown rice, barley, whole-wheat pasta, whole-grain bread or rolls, couscous, barley, and kasha You can cook whole grains ahead and use leftovers the next day — especially in soups and salads.

  • Fruit. It's not just for dessert anymore. Fruit can be a topping, a salad, a sauce, stuffed into chicken, and grilled or broiled on skewers. Think frozen bananas, grapes or berries for those hot nights.

  • Beverage. Water is perfect. Other good choices include low-fat milk, unsweetened tea, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice — or even the occasional glass of wine or beer.


Once you have your grid filled in it's time to look for healthy recipes and check your pantry to identify any ingredients you might need.


Keep a sharp eye out for ingredients that add fat, salt and sugar. Try to cut back on these. For example, limit syrups and even dried fruit — they can add a lot of sugar. Check food labels for sodium. And substitute olive oil for butter and margarine.


Now you're ready to make your shopping list and hit the grocery store. Try this method — at least two or three times.


You'll be surprised at how meal planning can lower your grocery bill and the stress you feel at the end of the day. And of course, it improves the taste and healthfulness of your meals. It can even help you avoid unwanted calories.


- Jennifer




Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D.

Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.