The Beginner's Guide to Vegetarian Meal Planning

By Kristen Mccaffrey on

Everything you need to know about building the perfect vegetarian meal plan! Meal planning in six simple steps with tons of recipe ideas.

When you choose to not eat meat as part of a vegetarian lifestyle, you know it may take some extra work to find delicious plant based, meat-free options. While your friends order whatever they like off the menu at a restaurant, you have to scan for meat-free items or any marked "vegetarian." Your cookbooks and Pinterest pages are full of words like "veggie," "protein-packed," "meat-free," "plant-based," "tofu," "seitan," and other alternative jargon.

Cooking for others might even be difficult. Do you cook your guests meat because they eat it or do you cook a vegetarian dish you hope everyone will love? Despite the growing number of vegetarians (7.3 million Americans, according to the Vegetarian Times) and vegetarian items, nonetheless, the cards might seem stacked against you.

The same can be said for planning your meals ahead of time. Whether you are single, in a relationship, or with a family to feed, navigating meal planning can be complex if not downright frustrating. However, meal planning is a healthy and budget-friendly option that everyone can benefit from.

Not only can it help you ensure you're eating within your nutrition goals, it's also a great time-saver for those busy days when you just cannot come up with something to eat at a moment's notice. Instead of calling the pizza delivery person for the second time this week or eating sugary cereal for dinner, consider giving vegetarian meal planning a try.

What follows are simple steps you can take to help you plan meals ahead of time that are meat-free (or that can easily accompany a meat option if cooking for others). Go ahead and give it a try — discover the benefits of meal planning that carnivores everywhere are enjoying already. Why should they have all the fun?

What Is Vegetarian Meal Planning?

Meal planning is actually the same concept for everyone — no matter what you choose to eat. The concept is to simply choose recipes and foods ahead of time (for the week, typically) that you would like to make or that sound worthwhile to try. Slot those meals into the coming week's days and mealtimes. (For example, if dinner is your sticking point, why not try to plan the week's dinners ahead of time? The same goes for the other meals and snacks, if you choose.)

From there, you create a list of ingredients, take that list shopping, bring home your goods, and then plan to create the previously planned out meals at that day and time.

Overnight oatmeal with blueberries, oats, and milk in two jars.

Simple Steps for Vegetarian Meal Planning

1. Set Your Goals

Although I mentioned several good reasons why meal planning is good for vegetarians, you should make a list of your own reasons. Whether it's for health reasons, a diet you are on, as a time-saver, or even to help you learn to incorporate more of a certain type of nutrient (say, protein) into your meals, writing down your goals for meal planning will prove to be super helpful.

Even if you don't have to reference an actual list when looking for recipes, it will help you to stay focused and aid you in mentally checking off whether or not a certain recipe helps you meet those goals.

Once you've focused your goals, and you've experienced your first week of meal planning, you can skip this step for the following week's planning. That is, unless of course you change your goals!

2. Figure Out How Often You'll Meal Plan

So you know why you want to meal plan, and that's great. But what about how often? Do you want to plan every dinner? Every lunch? Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the week? (I confess, that's a little much, especially as a beginner, but do what you need to do!)

If your goal is, for example, to eat more protein, choosing one meal to focus on is going to work just fine. Especially if you're not used to cooking with protein alternatives to meat. However, if your goal includes saving time, you might want to consider planning more than one meal ahead of time.

This doesn't mean you have to cook every meal. Take, for example, this overnight oats recipe. You could easily make this into a larger batch and add different fruit options every morning. Or, you could grill up a bunch of veggies or make a big batch of beans on the weekend to eat on for the rest of the week. Once you start thinking about it, the options are nearly limitless!

I've found a google doc can be a great resource for writing down your frequency, that way you can easily go in and make any changes or copy the meal plan from week to week if you find a particular recipe that works well for you or that you want to have again.

Keep in mind that meal planning is supposed to take the stress out of what to eat and when. If it doesn't work out completely like you expect in the first go around, don't worry, and try again the following week.

Women looking at a shopping list in a grocery store with cart.

3. Search for Recipes

This is the fun part. How creative do you want to be when searching for recipes? Are you looking for new recipes or tried-and-true favorites? Remember your goals that you wrote down, and your frequency when searching for recipes.

If you're only planning on dinners in the coming week, then you'll only need a couple recipes. But if you see meals that would be good in the future, go ahead and earmark, bookmark, clip, rip out, or otherwise save those too. That way, your work might be partially or all done for a couple weeks in the first week. What can I say? I'm ALL about the time-saving, whenever, however, whyever.

For my own recipe inspiration, I like to look at online food blogs, Pinterest, and sometimes even real, paper magazines. (Even if you're only reading a magazine in a doctor's office waiting room, you can always snap a photo of a recipe that piques your interest.)

Although it can sometimes seem nearly impossible, do try to keep all your recipes somewhere you can easily access them — again, maybe links in a google doc or as pages pulled or printed out and tucked into a folder. Whatever works the best for you, just think about organizing them now for future time-saving later.

Oh, one more note on recipes: If you are planning on using one recipe to create multiple meals, also keep that in mind as you search for your vegetarian meals. Can the recipe be doubled/tripled easily?

4. Create Your List

This step will make your grocery shopping that much easier. Can you tell I love a good list? Sometimes items that are required in vegetarian recipes can be more expensive or harder to find so when you're making your list, take that into account.

If you do have to go to more than one store to find what you need, consider buying in bulk items that will keep easily. You will thank your future self for purchasing more than you need when you don't have to run to the store yet again when making that same recipe.

If you are searching for vegetarian meal plans and recipes online, some sites, like Slender Kitchen, will offer customizable meal plans. Some of these sites will also give you an ingredients list you can print off right at home. Also, there are apps that will offer ingredients lists and can help you organize your list according to grocery aisle. Take a look at these options if they seem worthwhile to you.

Before I head to the store, I also give my pantry and fridge a once-over. I might already have an ingredient I forgot about. Go ahead and check those off your list if you already have them — no sense in having multiple of an item (unless you're sure you're going to use it).

Finally, when making your list be sure to keep in mind your vegetarian meal planning frequency. Were you going to make a large batch of something to eat every day? This might not be a bad avenue to consider if this is your first time meal planning. It can make the task seem less daunting as well if you're only cooking a couple times a week instead of every day.

Some ways you can incorporate one large batch into several meals includes options like the aforementioned beans. If you are cooking up a big batch of Simple Crockpot Pinto Beans, one day a simple bowl of beans straight out of the crock might just do the trick. However, the following night, you might want to take those beans and put them into a taco with lettuce, salsa, and some cheese. Or you might want to roll up a couple of spoonfuls into a bean burrito with your favorite condiments. Save some beans for an evening with these Fajita Stuffed Zucchini with Pinto Beans or make up a batch of Healthy Homemade Frozen Burritos.

One of my other favorite ways to incorporate veggies into several meals is to grill up a whole bunch of different varieties, then add them to dinners and lunches and breakfasts throughout the week. Because you grilled up so many different kinds, you can pick and choose which ones you feel like adding to meals. Meals like Vegetarian Greek Nachos and Cabbage Wraps are great for grilled veggies. Or, arrange them on top of a bed of your favorite lettuces, put them in a tortilla, on top of pasta, or with beans or another meatless protein source.

If you are cooking for meat-eaters as well, remember almost anything you make can take an addition of meat. Add chicken to a veggie burrito or salad, or crumble bacon into a bowl of beans, etc.

5. Purchase

And now for the easy part — buying all that yummy food! If you are using a list or app that is organized by grocery aisle or section, then the trip should be a little easier and take considerably less time. If not, don't worry, with a list in hand (and a budget in mind), you should be able to get in and out of that store with only what you need. Although you sometimes might have to put the proverbial blinders on, I assure you, if I can do it, then you can, too!

Grilled tofu with cilantro and lime on a white plate with a fork and napkin.

6. Prepare & Cook Your Meal

Now that your groceries are purchased, all that's left to do is unlad them and separate anything you bought in bulk for use this week and use later. You can also chop veggies or tofu ahead of time to get it ready for cooking on its designated day or night. Plus, snacking healthy is easier when you have things prepared — it's so much easier to reach in your fridge and grab carrot sticks to munch on if they are already right in front of you, versus grabbing the potato chips because you don't want to take the time to cut up veggies again.

When cooking your meals remember to cut yourself some slack, especially if this is your first time cooking or trying vegetarian meal planning. Remember, like you take one day at a time, you can also take one meal at a time, too. Soon, you'll learn how to be a whiz in the kitchen and you'll wonder how you ever went through a week without a plan.

What Foods Are Good for Vegetarian Meal Planning?

If you are choosing to try vegetarian meal planning as a way to eat healthier, save money and time, it's best to keep those three reasons in mind when choosing foods to prepare and eat.

The best foods for vegetarian meal planning include:

  • Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • A protein source, such as beans, tofu, seitan, or other meat alternatives
  • Grains that cook quickly, like oats, rice, quinoa, or thin pastas
  • Those that meet any special diet needs
  • Foods that can be prepped and cooked in less than 30 minutes
  • Eggs or fish (if you eat these as a vegetarian)
  • Those that contain little to no added sugars, fats, or processed ingredients

If you try vegetarian meal planning, let me know in the comments. It will really change your world and you might learn something along the way as well. To try my own vegetarian meal plans, click here.

Mushroom pasta with Parmesan cheese in a gray bowl.

Some of Our Vegetarian Recipes for Meal Planning

Ready to get started? Here are some of our favorite vegetarian recipes that are awesome for meal planning.

Vegetarian meal planning guide with meal prep and recipe ideas.
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