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Meal planning: Where to start and what to make

Last Modified: 9/11/2020

meal planning

This post was written by Sarah Mohrman, RDN, Sara Bennett, RDN, and Anne Dietz, RDN, Parkview Heart Institute.

Meal planning is not only a great way to save time and money, but also one of the best ways to arrange healthy meals for you and your family. Meal planning allows you to travel the world by way of your kitchen, experiencing a variety of tastes, textures and flavor profiles that are sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.

By creating a meal planning template, you can incorporate daily themes, food genres and cuisines like Italian, Mexican, Asian, American and more, into your weekly or monthly calendar.

Additionally, if you’re wondering whether your family, especially the finicky eaters, will partake in the new and improved meal plan, try utilizing a few of the following tactics:

  • Chat with your children: Talk to your kids about what they want on the menu. Let them choose a dish they enjoy. You can round out the meal with healthy side dishes.
  • Prep for success: Cut your veggies on days when you have more time, so meal preparation on busy nights is minimal. Also, consider cooking your meat for the week, so it’s ready to go. For example, cook your chicken breasts in a slow cooker or instant pot on Sunday and shred it. Then, you could use it in soups, tacos, salads and more throughout the week.
  • Convenience is key: Keep easy-to-cook foods on hand like canned, low sodium beans, 90-second low-sodium brown rice packages, frozen pasta and more. You can also use precut fruits and vegetables as easy side dishes.
  • Think outside the box: Don’t be afraid to try something new. Meatless Mondays, slow cooker meals, sheet pan dinners or one-pot dishes can be a great way to mix things up for the week.
  • Jot it down: Use a notebook to plan your meals and create a grocery list. On the last page, keep a master list of recipes that your family enjoys. Then, when you’re struggling to plan a meal, look to this list for your family’s favorites!
  • Branch out: Try one new recipe each week that you have never tried before.
  • Post it: Display the menu for the week on the refrigerator for everyone to see. Posting your menu will help eliminate the age-old question, “What’s for dinner?”
  • Getting organized: Try sorting and storing the recipes your family loves in hanging file folders.
Family-friendly recipes

To help jump-start your meal planning journey, try one or all of these healthy, family-friendly recipes:

Italian Baked Ziti

8 ounces whole-wheat ziti or penne

½ pound extra lean ground turkey (93% lean or higher)

3 cups low sodium spaghetti sauce

2 cups 1% milkfat cottage cheese

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup egg substitute or 2 egg whites

1 teaspoon dried parsley

¼ teaspoon garlic powder


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and oil. Drain and set aside.
  3. Crumble meat in a large skillet and sauté until meat is cooked. Add in spaghetti sauce.
  4. Meanwhile, combine cottage cheese, parmesan cheese, egg substitute (or egg white), parsley and garlic powder, then mix thoroughly. Add in cooked ziti and mix well. Spread 1 cup of spaghetti/meat mixture to the bottom of a 9x13-inch pan that has been lightly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Spoon ziti and cheese mixture into the pan. Pour remaining sauce over ziti and cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

Zucchini bread

¼ cup brown sugar

1 ¼ cup applesauce

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 heaping cup shredded zucchini (about 1 medium zucchini)

1 ½ cups whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cardamom


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8x4-inch loaf pan and set aside.
  2. Using a handheld shredder or the shredding attachment on your food processor, shred one medium zucchini and set aside.
  3. In a mixing bowl, whisk together brown sugar with apple sauce, and vanilla extract.
  4. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking soda, salt and spices.
  5. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir to combine. Fold in zucchini.
  6. Transfer batter into prepared loaf pan and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes in the loaf pan before transferring to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
  7. To store, cover the bread in saran wrap or tin foil at room temperature for three days. Makes 10 servings.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

½ cup natural crunchy peanut butter

1/3 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground flaxseed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup rolled oats

1 tablespoon oat flour (1 Tbsp. oats processed into a flour consistency)

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup vegan chocolate chips


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a small bowl, mix one tablespoon of flaxseed in three tablespoons of water. Allow the mixture to sit for five minutes.
  3. Once five minutes have passed, in a large bowl stir together peanut butter, brown sugar and flaxseed mixture. Add vanilla, oats, oat flour and baking soda. Stir to combine and then gently stir in chocolate chips. Refrigerate dough for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Using a tablespoon, make heaping 1-inch dough balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Press each cookie down lightly and bake for 10 minutes, until edges are lightly browned. Remove and let cool on baking sheet for 4-5 minutes, then continue cooling on a wire rack. Makes 20 cookies.

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