Meal planning is an essential part of healthy eating. When you consider many people eat roughly 21 main meals each week plus snacks, it pays to plan in advance. Putting aside some time each week to plan your meals and snacks will help you include things from all food groups for a healthy, balanced diet.
Planning may also make it easier to shop, make skipping meals less likely, and help prevent poor food choices and food boredom. Whether you’re cooking for one or two or feeding fussy kids, everyone can benefit from a good meal plan.
What’s a healthy, balanced diet?
To help you get the nutrients and fibre your body needs, eat a wide variety of nutritious food each day. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the five major food groups are:
- Vegetables (including legumes and beans)
- Grain and starchy foods (mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre bread, pasta and rice, and vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes)
- Lean meats and non-dairy sources of protein (including fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds)
- Dairy and/or their alternatives
The Guidelines also recommend limiting your intake of foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Getting started with a menu plan
1) Pick a variety of simple recipes
If you’re cooking for your family, get them involved. Maybe the kids could offer their ideas. Scour old recipe books, hunt for healthy fuss-free recipes online or ask your extended circle of family and friends for ideas.
During your search, think about what goes into a balanced meal – whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. Mentally divide your plate so that one half is made up of non-starchy vegetables, one quarter of lean proteins and one quarter of grain foods such as low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates shown in the chart below.
Consider these popular foods for each meal
||Sauteed mushrooms, spinach or kale; vegetable omelette; grilled tomatoes; green smoothies (with spinach, celery, apple, etc)
||Salads and salad sandwiches/wraps (made with wholegrain breads); vegetable soup; frittatas; homemade salsa on wholegrain crackers
||Roast vegetables; vegetable curries and stews; pizza topped with veggies; stir-fries; veggie fritters
||Fresh vegetable sticks with dip; avocado and tomato on rice or corn cakes; veggie-filled sushi; corn on the cob
||Lean bacon; eggs; lean sausages; smoked salmon; baked beans; low fat cottage cheese and ricotta; low fat yoghurt
||Lean deli meats; smoked salmon; chicken breast; tinned tuna, salmon and mackerel; eggs; low fat cheese
||Roasted and barbecued meats and poultry; bolognaise and Napoli sauce with pasta; grilled fish; curries; lean rissoles or burger patties; tofu and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas
||Raw nuts; boiled egg; lean deli meats on wholegrain crackers; low fat cheese and yoghurt
||Grainy bread; muesli, rolled oats and wholegrain cereals
||Wholegrain bread, rolls and wraps; basmati and other low-to-medium-GI grains (couscous, barley, polenta, burghul)
||Brown rice; other grains; wholegrain pasta
||Wholegrain crackers; puffed rice and corn cakes
2) Make a shopping list
Once you have all your meal ideas, include the ingredients on a detailed shopping list so you can be sure you have everything you need for the week. That way you’ll be less likely to be caught out without the necessary ingredients and veer from your plan.
3) Prepare your kitchen
You might want to clean out your kitchen to make room for your week’s ingredients. Rid your fridge and pantry of any out-of-date perishables or wilting fruit and vegetables. Also decide whether you need new kitchen appliances such as a blender, utensils or suitable pots.
4) Go shopping
Try to buy fresh wholefoods wherever possible and spend time selecting good quality fruit and vegetables, grain foods, and lean proteins. If you’re likely to be busy during the week, you could buy items that are partly prepared such as frozen or chopped and peeled vegetables for stir-fries, soups or casseroles.
Planning for different groups
While a healthy, balanced diet is important at any age, if you have a family or are older, you might want to keep the following in mind.
1) Children under 13 yrs
If you’re feeding a family, it’s recommended kids eat from a wide variety of food groups each day. Aim for around:
- 1–2 serves of fruit (each serve is about 150g, eg 1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear; 2 small apricots, kiwi fruits or plums; or 1 cup diced/canned fruit with no added sugar)
- 2 ½–5 ½ serves of vegetables (each serve around 75g, eg ½ cup cooked broccoli, spinach or carrots; 1 cup raw leafy or salad vegetables; or 1 medium tomato)
- 4–6 serves of low-GI grain foods (eg 1 slice wholegrain bread; ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or other grains; ¼ cup muesli; or 3 crispbreads)
- 1–2 ½ serves of lean protein (eg 65g cooked lean red meat; 100g cooked fish fillet; 2 large eggs; 1 cup cooked legumes/beans; or 30g unsalted nuts)
- 1½–3½ serves of dairy (eg 1 cup milk; 2 slices of hard cheese; or ¾ cup yoghurt)
Also try to limit treats that are higher in saturated fats, sugar and salt.
If you have young kids and want them to eat healthily, it can help to make mealtimes or packing lunchboxes fun by getting them involved – whether in the planning, shopping and meal preparation process.
Most parents with teens will tell you they seem constantly hungry. So, ensure the food they choose is healthy and filling. Lean proteins and low-GI foods will help keep them full for longer and stay satisfied between meals.
Breakfast is important as it helps your teenager get the essential nutrients and energy they need for the day. And it can influence how they will learn throughout the day. Studies show children who skip breakfast exhibit diminished mental performance and reduced learning.
3) As you get older
As you age, you’re more at risk of developing conditions such as osteoporosis, where your bones become brittle. One way to help reduce your risk of osteoporosis is by eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of calcium. Osteoporosis Australia recommends eating three serves a day of dairy (such as low-fat milk, yoghurt or cheese) and/or calcium-fortified foods such as bread. It’s also important to limit your alcohol to no more than two standard drinks a day, and watch your caffeine intake (eg from coffee, soft drinks or energy drinks) as these can lower the amount of calcium you absorb.
As you get older, you also have a reduced ability to absorb certain nutrients and may eat less because of reduced appetite. This can mean sometimes you don’t get enough important nutrients including iron, vitamins A, C, E, and B group vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Meal planning can help you get the essential nutrients you need from your diet. You may also wish to talk to your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian about whether you need any vitamin or mineral supplements on top of your healthy eating plan.
Australian Government: Eat for Health
Dietitians Association of Australia
Australian Government Department of Health. Australian dietary guidelines [online]. 2013. Available from: http://www.eatforhealth.gov.au
Dubois L Girard M Potvin Kent M et al. Breakfast skipping is associated with difference in meal patterns, macronutrient intakes and overweight among pre-school children. Public Health Nutrition. 2009; 12(1): 19–28.
Osteoporosis Australia. Available from: http://www.osteoporosis.org.au
Taras H. Nutrition and student performance at school. Journal of School Health. 2005; 75(6): 199–213.
Last updated: 9 January 2014
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