5 steps to meal planning for busy lives

Now that school is back in session, life has shifted into high gear—rushing to work after dropping off the kids, hurrying to soccer practice, piano lessons, karate, etc.

Do you find yourself at the drive-thru in the evening because you’re too exhausted to think about what to cook for dinner? Or do you start the week with good intentions, loading up on fruits and vegetables, only to have them go bad because you don’t know what to do with them? You need a plan!

Meal planning saves time and money and improves the quality of your family’s meals. Even with a busy schedule, knowing exactly what’s on the menu when you get home each evening—plus having all of the ingredients on hand—helps you stick to a healthy diet and to a budget.

So how do you do it?

  1. Schedule it: Set aside 20 to 30 minutes each week to write down the meals you plan to prepare during the upcoming week. Do you know you have an especially busy day coming up? Consider preparing a dish in your slow cooker before you head out that morning, or prepare an entrée in advance and store it in the freezer. Don’t forget to plan for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks!
  2. Consider your options: Save time and money by looking through your pantry and refrigerator to see what ingredients you already have on hand. Also, keep a recipe file of healthy meals that your family enjoys or new recipes you’d like to try. Are you a cooking novice? Master a few basic recipes, but keep them fresh by varying the ingredients—try shrimp instead of chicken or brown rice instead of pasta. If you’re tech-savvy, meal planning apps exist for your smart phone or tablet that allow you to use stored recipes to create meal plans and grocery lists (I love Paprika), but old-fashioned pen and paper work just as well.
  3. Master the balancing act: Make sure your family is enjoying healthy, balanced meals made up of lean protein, vegetables and/or fruit, and fiber-rich whole grains. Good sources of protein include fish, skinless poultry, beans and legumes, eggs, low-fat dairy, and lean meats such as pork tenderloin, pork loin, flank steak, or sirloin. All vegetables and fruits are great, but aim to eat a variety of colors to get maximum health benefits. Fiber-rich whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, or whole wheat pasta round out the meal.
  4. Make a list: Now that you know what you’ll be making, create a grocery list so you’ll have all of the ingredients stocked and ready to go. Shopping with a grocery list saves money and decreases food waste by preventing unnecessary purchases.
  5. Start cooking!

By spending a small amount of time planning your meals, you can reduce food waste, decrease your grocery bill, and be ready to face each week with a plan for nutritious and delicious meals that fit within your schedule, budget, and comfort level in the kitchen. You can enjoy delicious foods at home that are also nutritious and affordable—all it takes is a plan.


Tracy Severson is an outpatient clinical dietitian at OHSU. She moved to Portland from Tucson in 2010, and has worked at OHSU since 2011.

Tracy works with the OHSU Surgical Weight Reduction clinic and Cardiac Rehab program, and also provides medical nutrition therapy for General Adult Outpatient Clinics at OHSU.

One response to “5 steps to meal planning for busy lives

  1. Great article, really agree with setting a schedule – once I got into a real routine I found it so much easier to make time for my meals.

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