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Many of us are so busy that we don’t think about what to make for meals until it’s crunch time. We zip through the store on our lunch break or after work, before our son’s piano lesson and our daughter’s soccer game. Grabbing food that’s easy (but also usually lower in nutritional value and more expensive) and then race home to cook. But what if you could skip the worry and rush with just an hour of planning?
As a dietitian, I always recommend that patients try meal planning. Cooking is an important way to pay attention to our diet and focus on our health. When you plan your meals ahead for a week at a time, you can save money and time, lower your stress levels and eat healthier.
Tips for Easy Meal Planning
It can sound like a daunting task to plan out a week's worth of meals at a time, but it's a lot easier than it looks! Streamline the process with these tips:
- Double healthy recipes or make meals in bulk so they’ll stretch for more than one night or can be frozen for a future meal
- Plan out two or three meals per week
- Stick to a budget
- Make a list
- Wander (or worse, race!) through the store aisles
- Grab less healthy, more expensive choices
- Overspend or overshop
The same tips work for locally sourced shopping and farmers markets. It’s fun to wander around and learn what’s in season as you shop. Just make sure you buy what you like and what your family can eat or freeze before it spoils.
Pick Your Day
Schedule time to plan and cook. Do it all in one day, such as Saturday, or split it into two—whatever works for you. Set aside 20 minutes or so to think about a menu of two to three dinners for the week. I encourage planning two to three meals and planning to eat leftovers the rest of the week.
I also recommend planning the week’s lunches, so you’re not tempted to “grab and go” with fast food. For lunches, I love to use my slow cooker to make healthy recipes, such as bean and vegetable chili or lemon chicken, and then portion them out into separate containers for the week’s lunches. Very little work or thinking for five days of healthy meals!
Pick Your Recipes
Meals don’t have to be gourmet or perfect every time. Pick recipes you like and are good at making while aiming to include all food groups. Repeat meals are fine—most of us have favorites we rotate over and over. At the same time, try to be open to new variations and recipe ideas. Creativity can make food planning and cooking much more fun and easy.
Sometimes patients say, “I’m a lousy cook,” but I believe everyone can cook if they want to learn! I recommend starting with simple recipes using foods you love. When people start to get a little more confident at the cooking process and find meals they enjoy, they can start working on variations. For example, if you have Fajita Friday, you can use leftover salsa, avocado and shredded cheese for Salad Saturday. Other popular themes to try are Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesday.
People tend to be black and white about what they will and will not eat. The idea of something like Meatless Monday helps us find an interesting balance and can encourage us try meals beyond our usual comfort foods. For example, Meatless Monday gives people who generally eat meat with every meal an opportunity to try foods they may not eat otherwise, such as legumes or tofu. And even better, it’s heart-healthy to go meatless once in a while to reduce the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat the family eats.
Gaining in popularity the flexitarian lifestyle, which follows a primarily vegetarian diet with the occasional addition of meat or fish. It’s about flexibility, but also keeping your health in mind. You could try going meatless on Mondays, eat fish one day, and eat a different lean meat the other three days of the workweek.
Try to plan for healthy recipes that overlap in ingredients to stay within your budget. For example, if I’m going to make a recipe with bell peppers, I’ll find another recipe or meal that also includes bell peppers but isn’t in the same genre. The key is to put together meals with the same ingredients without creating boredom. This is especially useful for herbs and spices that we generally don’t buy and that tend to be expensive, for example, fresh rosemary or basil.
Break down the planning into four easy steps:
- Look at what’s in your fridge and pantry
- Find tasty and healthy recipes
- Make your grocery list
- Check your store’s flyers or clip coupons
There are two schools of thought regarding store sales flyers and coupons. The first method is to check for specials after steps 1 and 2, so you’re not tempted to buy more than what you need. The second method, which works better for some budgets, is to find what’s on sale first and then plan your meals around those groceries.
Take a Night Off
It’s OK to eat out or order in every now and then. Remember that restaurant meals tend to be higher in calories, fat, and sodium and more expensive, with much larger portions than necessary. Planning meals in advance also allows you to look forward to a fun meal out with family or friends. Just make sure you dining out or ordering in doesn’t become a frequent, last-minute decision.
Meal Planning Tools
Take advantage of digital tools, such as meal planning apps for Apple or Android devices and phones. Check out Choose MyPlate for an interactive weekly planning calendar you can type your menus on and sample two-week menus, both of which you can download and print.
Meal planning is all about awareness, variety and efficiency. I encourage my patients to consider meal planning. When we plan and think about what we eat, we make healthier, more budget-friendly food choices. And let’s be honest—all of us could use a little more time efficiency in our lives!
Meal Planning Tools
Try these tasty recipes for a healthy, delicious dinner your family will enjoy: