Commissioned Corps E-Bulletin
Submitted by LCDR Elaine Little, USPHS
Meal planning is an event that can seem unapproachable and time consuming, but did you know that planning your meals can help improve your health and also help stretch your food dollar? Buying nutritious foods typically doesn’t cost more and might even cost less than you think because you may discover more ways to spend less and buy everything you need to cook nutritious meals for you and your family. Also, planning your meals can help with holiday meals, which are just around the corner.

Why is meal planning so important?

As a result of many nutrition studies, the United States Department of Agriculture has created an updated Food Pyramid to use as a guideline for planning balanced meals. Healthy meals combined with regular physical activity can reduce risks for major chronic diseases, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Meals should be balanced with emphasis on whole grains, vegetables and fruits, with some lean sources of protein such as lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, and low-fat dairy products.

How can I plan a basic meal?

The Food Guide Pyramid ( offers these suggestions: Start with foods that you already have in your pantry and go through your favorite cookbooks, files, or software to find your favorite recipes for meals and snacks throughout the week. Review your recipes and think about these items:
  • Color, temperature, and texture
  • Preparation methods
  • Time and seasonal foods
  • Family preferences
  • Balance of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins
  • Budget
Different colored and brightly colored foods add to a vibrant and diverse healthy eating pattern. Incorporating foods that are hot, cold, and room temperature into your meals can stimulate appetite. Adding different textured foods like crunchy, crisp, and tender foods can add variety.

How do I plan meals for the week?

By planning meals for the week and eating meals at home, you can better control serving sizes and avoid hidden fats, sugars, and calories. Cooking at home is also typically inexpensive and healthier than eating out in a restaurant.

Here are some practical suggestions to consider when it comes to weekly meal planning:
  • Check your pantry and freezer first. Keep your pantry and freezer stocked with the basics. This will make it easier to have ingredients on hand. Invest in staple foods such as canned tuna, tomato sauce, rice, and beans when they are on sale to save time and money.
  • Check grocery ads and make a list. Find out where the best deals are for your food budget. Clipping coupons, checking grocery store sale flyers, making a shopping list, and stocking up on foods that you use frequently in recipes can save you time and money. Be sure to buy groceries after eating so that you are not hungry and you won’t buy more items than you need.
  • Traditional family meals and use planned-overs. Decide what foods you and your family prefer and try to recycle foods into meals whenever possible. For example, if your family likes chicken, leftover chicken can be made into a healthy soup, sandwiches, and salads. To add more vegetables into your family's diet, try adding leftover chicken to vegetables and brown rice for a stir-fry dish. If bananas quickly become ripe, try recycling them into banana bread or fruit smoothies.
  • Try seasonal fruits and vegetables. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are typically less expensive and taste fresher. There are hundreds of recipes that include fruits and vegetables that are in season. For example, fruits and vegetables that are in season in October are apples, pears, pumpkins, sweet corn, squash, and artichokes to name a few. Seasonal fruits and vegetables also offer an excellent opportunity to try new foods and to experiment with different recipes. Also, seasonal fruits and vegetables can contain more vitamins.
  • Go easy on fats, oils, and sweets. These are foods that are typically inexpensive but are also high-fat, high-sugar, and high-calorie.
  • Buy just enough and no more than you need to prevent waste. This can save you calories and money.
  • Compare food prices. Prepared foods save time, but typically cost more. Did you know that cutting your own fruits and vegetables saves money and that they will typically last longer than precut fruits and vegetables? For the best buy, check unit prices by looking below the food item on the shelf—e.g., price per ounce, unit, etc. This helps to compare brands and sizes. Store brands are typically equivalent in quality to name brands, are less expensive, and more likely to be located on the bottom shelves, so look around to find the best buys.
  • Temperature of foods. Make sure your meals are balanced to include hot, cold, and room temperature foods.
  • Beverages. The best source for hydrating your body is water, so make this a first choice. Fruit juices, milk, herbal teas, soy beverages, and rice beverages are also healthy beverages in moderation. Limit soft drinks and fancy coffee drinks, which can be high-sugar, high-caffeine, high-calorie, and high-cost. 
Overall, meal planning can save time and money, and most importantly provide essential nutrients.

For more information on meal planning visit the menu planner available at You can search and choose the foods you eat and then compare your choices to your MyPyramid food plan. It even allows you to print daily, weekly, and family menus.

Note: The series “Fit For Duty…Fit for Life!”, is a lifestyle-based column that has been provided by the USPHS Dietitian/Nutritionist PAC (D/N-PAC). If you have related topics of interest that you would like to learn more about in future articles, contact CAPT Jean Makie, USPHS, at  
Health and Human Services Public Health, Commissioned Corps Public Health, Commissioned Corps

HHS, Office of Public Health and Science
Office of Commissioned Corps Force Management
Tower Building
1101 Wootton Parkway, Plaza Level Suite 100
Rockville, MD 20852