When you plan a meal, you may want to consider the nutritional value, the flavors, the amount of food, the time and difficulty, and the cost of ingredients. Choose foods that taste good together. Depending upon the appetites of the people who'll be eating the meal, you may want to consider the amount of food. If you're not an experienced cook, you may want to start with recipes that are easy to prepare and don't take too long. I keep track of all my favorite recipes on an app called About.com Real Recipes that I can access from my smartphone (perfect for when I'm at the grocery store and need to check the ingredients list). If you don't need to serve large family-style meals, I can help with my tips for planning meals for one or two people.
What's on Your Plate?
Think of each meal as it will be served on the plate. One quarter is for your protein source, one quarter is for grains, and half is for vegetables. Start with your main protein source, usually poultry, fish or seafood, a lean cut of beef or pork (don't worry pork doesn't spread swine flu), or a vegetarian protein like dry beans or tofu (here's more about vegan and vegetarian protein combinations). Keep your protein healthy by using the best cooking methods. Choose recipes that don't call for heavy, high-calorie sauces or use a deep-fryer. Sautee, braise, bake, roast, or stir-fry your proteins.
Half of each plate is reserved for vegetables because they're rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and they're usually fairly low in calories as long as you don't douse them with heavy sauces. How do you know which vegetables go best with your protein source? This is really personal preference, and the more meals you plan, the better you'll get at choosing foods that complement each other. Vegetables add flavor, color and texture to your meal. You don't have to cook only one vegetable, either. You can prepare two different vegetables; just be sure at least one is a green or colorful vegetable -- don't double up on the starchier foods, such as potatoes, rice or polenta.
One quarter of the plate is reserved for grains, which is usually a slice of bread or a roll. You can also serve a bit of pasta or a casserole like macaroni and cheese. Choose 100-percent whole grain products for extra fiber and nutrients.
Serve a healthy beverage with your meal. Plain water is always a good choice, and you can also serve low-fat milk, 100-percent fruit juice, sparking water, or even a small glass of regular or dealcoholized wine.
Cost Concerns and Planning Tips
If you're concerned about cost, you already know how expensive a trip to the grocery store can be. Plan your meals for a week, use ingredients more than once or incorporate your leftovers into lunch or another dinner. You can also stock up on bulk foods when they're on sale. Have an assortment of dried herbs and spices on hand and buy fresh herbs when you need them. Fresh herbs can usually be frozen too.
You may need to consider the time it takes to prepare a meal and the skill level. Recipes will usually explain how long it takes to prepare the dish, so compare the times for each dish -- start each dish so they all get done about the same time. You can save time with prepared foods from the deli section of the grocery store or you can buy frozen vegetables that are ready to steam in your microwave.
You can save time (and often some money) if you go to a meal preparation store. Make several meals at once and take them home. All you need to do is put them in the oven.
Finally, think about food volume. Do you and your family have big appetites or small ones? If you feel like your meal is going to leave you feeling hungry, add a garden salad or a vegetable soup for extra volume without a lot of extra calories. Don't add too much dressing to your salad and steer clear of creamy soups. If you've saved room for dessert, choose fruit or berries instead of high-calorie ice creams, cookies, or cake.