How Can a Teenager Make a Healthy Meal Plan?

Last minute meal decisions often lead to food with less nutrition in favor of convenience and ease. At a time when dietary choices play such an important role in proper growth and function, busy teenagers should prioritize eating healthy meals. Creating a meal plan and participating in meal preparation is one way teenagers can eat more balanced meals, even amidst all their other daily duties. So, how can  a teenager make a healthy meal plan?

Planning well balanced meals will keep teenagers energized and satisfied. Balance comes from including a mix of nutrient dense carbohydrates, protein, fats and fiber at eating occasions.

When making a healthy meal plan, teenagers should always start by incorporating at least one protein food with a fruit or vegetable at every meal and then adding to that. Some great ideas are chicken burrito bowls, tuna sandwiches with carrots, hummus veggie wraps, a green smoothie and toast, scrambled eggs and fruit, etc.

To start meal planning, teenagers should take a look at their schedule to determine appropriate meals in relation to daily activities. Teenagers may want to coordinate their meal plans with those of their family and friends. Next, take into account what foods are already available in the home. Teenagers can then choose recipes that coincide with already purchased ingredients. Choosing a different meal for every eating occasion can be overwhelming. Teenagers should feel free to use repetition and leftovers. Finally, activities and situations change.  Teenagers will want to allow for flexibility with meals and realize it is okay to deviate from the plan. 

Continue reading to learn more about meal planning and preparation techniques as well as other related tips and benefits.

What Does Meal Planning Look Like?

Some teenagers may find they prefer to use meal planning apps while others choose the old fashion paper and pencil way. Either practice works great! Teenagers can choose whatever works best for them. 

Here are 3 of the best ways for teenagers to meal plan:

1. Meal Planning Based on a Visualizing Your Plate.

If you are a visual learner, here’s a great place to start.

When planning your meals, consider including about 1/4 or less of your plate to be protein foods (meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, eggs, etc.) and about 1/4 or slightly more of your plate to be grains (pasta, bread, rice, tortillas, oats, etc.) and the other 1/2 of your plate to be fruits and/or vegetables.

2. Cook Once For Multiple Meals

Commonly, meal planners will include more repetition with breakfast and lunch while choosing to increase variation with dinner and snacks. For example, planning to eat oatmeal and fruit for a couple days of breakfast and an egg burrito for the others. Creating a rotation of sandwiches, leftovers and salads for lunch and then a different dinner for most days. 

Others may like to plan basic batch ingredients that can then be combined in different ways to make unique meals. For example cooking up some chicken (grilled, roasted, slow cooked) and vegetables at the beginning of a week to use in chicken fajitas, chicken stir fry, chicken wraps, and chicken taco salad. 

3. Plan Daily Themes

Another way of meal planning might be choosing meals that correspond to specific themes each day of the week. One day might be Mexican, another Italian, eating out or Indian. 

Here’s an example:

BBQMeatless MondayTaco TuesdayItalian Pasta NightChinese FoodEat OutSoup and Salad

It’s also a good idea to look in your fridge and pantry and choose meals based off of food and ingredients you already have and need to use up in order to avoid food waste. Then find recipes, make a grocery list, and get started!

Once teenagers choose the exact meals and recipes, detailing a shopping list is the next step of action. Teenagers should check pantries, refrigerators and freezers before shopping to ensure they avoid buying something they already have. 

What Foods Should a Teenager Include in a Week? 

Exact foods chosen for meals will vary per preference and dietary needs. Teenagers should try to include more nutrient dense foods over those higher in sugar or saturated fats. A good rule of thumb comes from the Myplate model that suggests making half a plate fruits and vegetables, a quarter grain and a quarter protein. This suggestion can help teenagers achieve a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat and meet their vitamin and mineral needs.

The following table displays general food group recommendations and examples for teenagers as they plan their weekly meals. While not included in the subsequent table, adding favorite treats and snacks in moderation promotes health as well. Complete restriction or significant limitations of any food, food group or nutrient can increase cravings, risk of binging, malnutrition and decrease quality of living. 

Food groupGeneral Daily RecommendationsExamples
Fruit1 1/2-2 1/2 cupsIndividual fruit (apples, oranges, etc.), dried fruit, frozen fruit, fruit salads, 100% fruit juice, fruit smoothies 
Vegetable2-4 cupsCooked veggies, stir-fried veggies, 100% vegetable juice, raw veggies with dip, cut veggies in soups, green smoothies, potatoes 
Grain5-10 oz (ounces)Quinoa, oatmeal, pasta, rice varieties, tortillas, whole grain bread or bagels, ancient grains, couscous, popcorn
Protein5-7 ozLean poultry, lean meat, seafood, tofu, tempeh, legumes (beans, soy, lentils), some nuts, seeds, nut butter, eggs, cottage cheese, cheese, milk, yogurt
Fats20-35% of daily calories Unsaturated fats: Avocado, plant oils, nuts, seeds, olives    Saturated fats in moderation: Butter, coconut oil, lard, desserts, dressings, cream based sauces

A variety of foods will best help adolescents reach their dietary needs. No one food can provide all the required nutrients. Trying to focus on only a few “healthy or superfoods” will result in dietary deficits. 

Tips for Meal Prep for Teenagers 

  1. Keep things simple – Social media depictions of meal preparation often consists of complex and colorful new recipes. While trying new recipes makes for a fun experience, teenagers will find that choosing simple and tried recipes will help them more successfully follow through with meal plans.
  2. Use leftovers – Making a new meal for every eating occasion will exhaust even the most devoted cook. Planning to eat leftovers for a subsequent meal can relieve some of that burden. Teenagers can even create a different meal from leftovers by simply adding a few new ingredients or cooking technique. For example, using rotisserie chicken and potatoes from the night before to make a chicken and potato hash or soup the next day. On the note of not creating too much work, some teenagers may find it overwhelming to plan an entire week worth of meals. These teens may find it helpful to plan for 3-4 days instead.
  3. Use canned and frozen goods – Food does not need to be created from scratch or from raw ingredients to provide a balanced meal. Frozen and canned foods, particularly fruits and vegetables can cut down on prep time and reduce food waste from spoilage. They offer similar nutrient content to raw varieties, sometimes with even more nutrients due to being processed at peak ripeness. Just take caution with added sugars, fats and sodium by reviewing nutrition labels. 
  4. Use shortcuts – There are so many food options to chose from. Some of these foods offer shortcuts for individuals with little time for meal preparation. Pre-seasoned meat, pre-cut vegetables, shredded cheese, pre-minced garlic and others can all make cooking a little easier. 
  5. Prepare ingredients beforehand when possible– Adolescents will find it helpful to choose a less busy day on which they can pre-prepare ingredients for meals later in the week. This may consist of washing, chopping, seasoning, measuring and mixing food ingredients. Then, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work required to make a planned meal, teens will have ingredients ready to go for a simple preparation. 
  6. Overlap ingredients – When meal planning, chose meals that overlap with ingredients. This practice allows for more ahead preparation. Chopped spinach could be used in a breakfast egg scramble, a turkey sandwich and a yummy soup. Hamburger meat could make a burrito, chili and hamburgers. Overlapping ingredients also means less grocery shopping, space being used up in storage and less chance of spoilage.
  7. Use correct storage practices – Meal prepping involves storing raw and cooked foods. Teenagers should know correct holding and cooking temperatures, time allotments for refrigeration/freezing and other safe food handling practices. 
  8. Keep it flexible – Meal planning should not be a rigid, inflexible component of life. Teenagers should feel free to change up plans according to their situations. A meal idea can always occur another day or week than planned. Meal planning and preparation can help improve nutrition by increasing confidence and motivation for balanced meals, but should also increase, not take away from pleasurable experiences.

Should Teenagers Meal Plan For When They Eat Out?

Making plans to eat out depends on current lifestyle and goals. If teenagers currently enjoy eating out on certain days with friends or family, they should make space for those experiences. Eating out on occasion will not detract from an overall healthy diet. In fact, many restaurants and cafes offer lighter fares, more vegetable options and well balanced dishes. 

Furthermore, while these newer options allow for teenagers to consume more nutrient dense foods when eating out, eating a pizza, soda or other less nutrient dense food in moderation will also not harm health. In fact, eating for pleasure helps teenagers foster a healthy relationship with food. 

On the other hand, frequent eating out may contribute to an eating pattern high in calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar. This choice will also cost more than eating meals prepared at home. Teenagers who find themselves buying meals outside the home more often than not, can use meal planning and preparation to decrease the amount of time spent eating out. 

What Are Correct Food Storage Practices to Use With Meal Preparation?

Using proper food handling and storage techniques prevents spoilage and unwanted bacteria. Teenagers should wash their hands before handling any food. Hands, utensils and cleaning surfaces should always be washed between raw and cooked foods to prevent contamination. After safe preparation of food, teenagers should store foods at correct temperatures and for the appropriate amount of time. 

Food should be thrown away when left out for longer than two hours in temperatures from 40-140 F. To help cool food faster, shallow pans should be placed in the refrigerator. Most meats should be cooked within a couple of days and then stored for only a few days after that. Fruits and vegetables often last for several days but quality quickly decreases. Foods in the freezer also do not maintain their quality indefinitely and should be used in a first in, first out manner.

Reheating foods or cooking foods helps kill bacteria. Not reaching minimum required temperatures can result in unwanted bacteria in high enough quantities to make individuals sick. The following is a list of some of those minimum cooking thresholds. 

ProductMinimum Internal Temperature & Rest Time
Beef, Pork, Veal & Lamb Steaks, chops, roasts145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
Ground Meats160 °F (71.1 °C)
Ground Poultry165 °F
Ham, fresh or smoked (uncooked)145 °F (62.8 °C) and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes
Fully Cooked Ham (to reheat)Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F (60 °C) and all others to 165 °F (73.9 °C).
All Poultry (breasts, whole bird, legs, thighs, wings, ground poultry, giblets, and stuffing)165 °F (73.9 °C)
Eggs160 °F (71.1 °C)
Fish & Shellfish145 °F (62.8 °C)
Leftovers165 °F (73.9 °C)
Casseroles165 °F (73.9 °C

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Need help with your meal planning? Check out my meal plan ebooks for teenage athletes and teenagers looking to get to a healthy weight.

Check out my teen athlete meal plans here.

Check out my healthy weight meal plan here.

Mockup Teen Weight Loss eBook

Katherine Harmer, RDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a love for coaching others to success in their health goals, especially teenage athletes. Tennis was my sport of choice in high school. Now I'm a little bit older, a little bit smarter, and a little bit worse at tennis.

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