Can’t Keep Up? 7 Ways to Simplify Your Meal Planning

Staying on top of your diet is a lot like going to the gym. Once you’ve developed the habit, it’s easy — fun, even — to keep it up. You’re in control, you feel great, and you wonder why it ever took so long to start.

But when you’re on the outside looking in, knowing you’ve got to make a change but not sure where the extra time and energy are going to come from, just getting started can seem like the most overwhelming task in the world.

All it takes is planning

I’ve been in ruts before where I was going to the grocery store every single day. An hour before dinner time, I’d choose a recipe and go buy the ingredients, then come home and make dinner, only to do it all again the next day. I got to know the checkout people pretty well, but they must have wondered who this idiot was buying groceries every day.

Other times — and I’m sure you’ve done it too — I’ve refused to go to the store at all, eating out for almost every meal, and wasting tons of money and eating junk in the process.

But it doesn’t take much to get started, and it’s not worth going through life that way. Make a little effort to plan your meals for just one week, and you’ll save time and feel better right away. It’ll probably still take some discipline to do it a second and third time, but before long it’ll be a habit, and you’ll wish you could go back in time and slap some sense into your old self.

Below are my favorite tricks for making meal planning (and cooking) as simple and as a fast as possible. If you’re in a rut, any one of them could be the one that gets you back on track.

1. Aim for making just four or five recipes each week, and plan them all at once.

Why four or five? Your number may be different, but I find that’s my limit before the task of looking up recipes and making a list of ingredients to buy becomes a pain in the ass. Also, any more than that and food starts to go bad before you can use it up. This amount won’t cover you for the weekend, but by the time Friday rolls around you’ll probably enjoy a break from cooking, or be able to throw something together from the pantry.

Plan to cook enough of each meal so that you can eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. Do something simple like a smoothie for breakfast, have a few snacks on hand as well, and you’re set.

2. Use a slow cooker.

No tool has saved my wife and me so much time in the kitchen as this one. With a slow cooker (or Crock-Pot), you need only to prep the ingredients in the morning or the night before, throw them in the pot before you leave for the day, and come home to a hot meal and a house that smells so good your grandmother would be proud. Not to mention that the cleanup required is next to none.

You can find plenty of slow cooker recipes online, but two books we’ve been cooking a lot from are The Vegan Slow Cooker and The Indian Slow Cooker. (Note: the Indian one isn’t all vegetarian, but has only a handful of meat recipes in it.)

3. Forget numbers entirely and focus on eating whole foods.

There’s no shortage of fad diet books or nutritional philosophies claiming to be the next food revolution, especially around this time of year. And most of them make the simple act of eating food a whole lot more complicated than it should be.

If you look at any diet that has stood the test of time because it works — and when I say diet here, I mean “way of eating for life,” not a quick fix — it’s based on whole foods. You can argue all you want about the proper nutrient mix, and Paleo versus vegan and vegan versus raw fruitarian, but when it comes down to it, the most important aspect of any of these is that they’re based on whole foods.

So eat whole foods and little else, and you almost can’t help but to be healthy.

4. When you’re having trouble choosing a recipe, pick just one ingredient to narrow the options.

Okay, let’s say you’ve set aside half an hour to choose recipes for the week. You pull out your cookbooks, you sit down at the Google-machine, whatever. Ready, go!

If you’ve done this before, then you know the problem here is that you have too many choices. You don’t know where to start, or it seems like you already made anything that looked remotely good when you scanned through the book after you got it.

The way to get past this is to limit your options. How?

By starting with a particular ingredient in mind. Is there a vegetable in the refrigerator that you didn’t manage to use last week? Then turn the index of your cookbook and look just for recipes that use that vegetable. You’ll likely notice a bunch of recipes you skipped right past before, just because they didn’t jump out at you for whatever reason. Even better than cookbooks, recipe search engines like Foodily make this ridiculously easy by allowing you to search for recipes that include (or do not include) certain ingredients.

So even if you don’t have an ingredient you need to use up, think of one that sounds good right now, and use that as your starting point for choosing meals.

5. Make a big batch of rice (or another food you eat often) to last you the entire week.

This is one of the big advantages to planning several meals at once. If you know you can serve several of them with the same side dish, you can make a lot at once and save yourself some serious time.

I cook a lot of Indian food, so rice is a big one for me, but this works just as well with other grains and pseudograins like millet, quinoa, and bulgur. And you can do it with vegetables too, though they generally don’t keep quite as well in the fridge. But the freezer is always an option!

6. Skip certain herbs and spices or make substitutions when it’ll save you a grocery trip or time in the store.

I used to be quite the perfectionist in the kitchen. Probably it was because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I did not want to mess with a recipe, for fear of screwing it up. If it called for fresh marjoram and all I had was dry oregano, then I went on a mission to get fresh marjoram, dammit.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. Chefs who create recipes are artists, and if your goal is to experience the highest expression of the chef’s creativity, then yes, you should follow the recipe exactly. But for you, the guy or girl who just wants to start eating well and to do it as simply as possible, then it’s not going to matter much whether you use fancy sherry vinegar or substitute the apple cider vinegar you’ve had in the cupboard for the past two years.

Don’t be afraid to take a lot of substitutions and omissions. Plain old Tabasco can stand in for sriracha or chili oil. If you don’t have cilantro, try basil or parsley if you’ve got either one. Or just Google “substitution for ____” and go with it.

Sure, maybe something will taste weird now and then. But in the long run you can save a lot of money and effort this way, and almost nobody’s going to notice.

7. Find a few healthy staple meals that you know you can cook quickly and without many ingredients.

It’s extremely helpful to have one or two quick standbys, especially if they’re based on dry ingredients, so that you can have them on hand for those days when you don’t have time to get to the store or simply don’t want to think about meal-planning.

My favorite, bar none, is this Indian red lentil curry dish. I make sure to always have dry lentils and rice handy, and other than that you just need a few spices and one minute (really) to get it into the pot.

Another easy one along the same lines is a grain, a green, and a bean. You almost always have some combination of these three foods (you can even skip the green if you don’t have it), and they’re always good for make a healthy and filling meal.

It’s not rocket science

You’ve got something you’re really disciplined about, right? Walking the dogs, running, reading for your job, making sales calls, whatever. To other people it seems hard, but for you it’s a habit, and you hardly have to think about it.

Cooking your own food and planning your meals is exactly the same way. All it takes is the discipline to start and stick with it a few times. Soon it’ll be second nature, and food will be one less thing that you need to get under control.

All you’ve got to do is start. Why not today?




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  1. I really liked this post, it really broke everything down, took all the intimidation a person might feel, and made doing something like this human. Great post. πŸ™‚

  2. That was awesome Matt! Every time I read your posts, I say to myself, “dang! That’s a good article, I should have written that.” So, I put your blog on my blog roll, and hope others will come check you out.

  3. Thanks for the tips, Matt! In the last year, my husband and I went from eating almost every meal out to almost every meal in. One of the cookbooks that helped us immensely was How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. It focuses on minimalist cooking and improvisation, and has fantastic and simple instructions on how to do everything from de-hearting an artichoke to preparing perfect couscous. And if you’re like me and fighting the battle of the bulge, his recipes can easily be adapted to use less oil.

    I’m also a big fan of silicone microwave steamers, which is how I get a side of steamed veggies on every dinner plate. There’s no excuse for not eating your broccoli when it only takes 3 minutes to cook!

  4. Great post!! I’m just getting back into my “normal” eating and exercising habits after the holidays. One thing I do a lot is make a huge pot of soup/stew/chili and freeze it in individual serving containers (I think Ziplock makes ones that have screw on lids for no spilling). That way I know I’ve got healthy homemade meals for those nights when I absolutely do not want to cook

  5. One thing we do a lot too is plan multiple meals that use the same random/exotic ingredient. Fresh cilantro, for example, is so much better than dried, but hardly any recipe uses the whole bunch. So on back to back to back nights we’ll have thai, indian, and mexican that all use that cilantro. That way you don’t waste any of that exotic ingredient. It also can help to narrow meals. “Okay, we’ve got half a bunch of cilantro leftover after Tuesday – what can we do with it?”

  6. Thanks for this post. Since becoming a vegetarian last spring I feel like my life revolves around food. I’m either meal planning, shopping, prepping/cooking, or cleaning up the kitchen. I’m still glad I’m eating this way though πŸ™‚

  7. Great post! I’m pretty religious about meal planning and grocery shopping because I’m so busy that if I don’t I’ll end up eating crap all the time. One key part for me is that I get a CSA delivery every other week and have to use up the veggies before they go bad. The service posts the box contents online a few days beforehand which really helps with planning. Also, it keeps my eating seasonal and guarantees that a big chunk of my produce is organic.

  8. Jessica Lozano says:

    I loved this post Matt! Lots of ideas, I can’t believe I have a slow cooker and never used it! I do make large batches of side dishes like rice, potatos or soups and use them during the whole week :o)
    But I am one of the idiots who goes to the supermarket at least 5 times a week to get ingredients for my next recipe πŸ™ I am going to give this “planning meals” plan a shot and see how it goes πŸ™‚

  9. Good post, BUT… nothing is a substitute for cilantro!! (cilantro and cumin and salt…that’s really all anyone needs!)
    Tomorrow I am planning my family menu for at least two weeks; I hate having to wing it at the last moment.
    I’ll be checking out the vegan slowcooker book as well.

  10. Great ideas Matt, I’ve been checking out a lot of cookbooks but still have yet to use them. I’m not a cook that’s one reason it’s easier to be a vegetarian is I’ve never liked to cook meat, always unsure if it’s done enough:). I will check out the cookbook you recommend as anything that has too many ingredients scares me off. I’m still just doing canned beans, rice and salsa or a frozen veg meal. Not the best so one of my goals for 2012 is to cook more and this blog helps. I look forward to your blogs and finding out other blogs from your other readers.

  11. Love this! Found your site through Art of Manliness and am about to devour all the articles on here..

  12. Great advice! I love to cook my own food, but I don’t have time during the week to plan out elaborate meals. What works for me personally is that I barely ever use recipes, so I just think of ways to utilize what I have on hand. Also, I’m a poor college student so I can’t afford to buy ingredients at the last minute at the risk of wasting extras. (By the way, I’m not technically a vegetarian but I eat vegetarian most of the time because I love veggies, and it is cheaper and takes less planning, I find.) My #1 tip is to make a huge pot of soup and put in tupperware and eat it all week whenever you need a quick meal (yup…today I had soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). My latest is cabbage, quinoa, farro, carrots, and celery. So maybe it gets a little boring, but at least I never have to resort to eating out!

  13. I’d like to try cooking with a slow cooker. Does anyone have specific recommendations for a crock pot? I had one that seemed to cook too high – even on the lowest setting beans would be turned to gross much in 5 hours, so it didn’t work to have them cooking while I was at work.

  14. Hey chap great post, but you need to be wary of re-heating rice. From a food hygene perspective it is not recommended at all.

    “Reheating chilled food is often done using a microwave. While this is efficient and quick, it is important to stir and mix food at least twice during the reheating process to make sure that the food is piping hot throughout. Special care is needed when reheating home-cooked food that has been cooled and is eaten as reheated leftovers. Cooked rice is surprisingly dangerous. Raw rice grains are often contaminated with a bacterium called Bacillus cereus, which can survive boiling. If cooked rice is cooled slowly, or stored at over 5 degrees Celsius, the bacteria will multiply and then still survive thorough reheating. As rice is relatively inexpensive, it is best to always cook it fresh.”

  15. Thanks for the tips! My husband and I are so busy during the week, that we end up eating out a lot, which is not good on our budget. Sometimes it even creates more stress because it’s hard to find good vegetarian food.

  16. How do you keep your rice all week? Do you have a special container you use?

  17. Very useful post! I’ve been feeling overwhelmed a little lately with meal planning on my days off from work. This helps. Thanks.

  18. Great article!

    I love my crock-pot, and depend on it regularly. To save time, however, I remove the ceramic interior, fill it with all of my ingredients, lid it, and then put it in the fridge. The next morning, rather than adding ingredients to the pot, I simply pull out the ceramic bit, pop it into the metal heater, and voila, dinner is started. It’s even faster than adding ingredients the morning of.

    Since I cook for one, another time saver for dishes I make on a regular basis is to make 2-3 batches of ingredients, keeping one to cook and putting the other two in the freezer. When I want to use one of them, the night before I plan to cook a batch I put the frozen portion in the ceramic crock-pot liner in the fridge, and the next morning just add the ceramic crock to the heating unit.

  19. I really needed to read this article today – I was just trying to decide what to make for dinner, and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of options out there, even though I have the staples on hand to make something simple and healthy.

    Thanks for a kick in the pants πŸ™‚

  20. Thank you for this article, your words are making a seemingly daunting task feel possible.

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