Meal preparation and planning isn’t always fun. I get it. There are definitely other things I would rather be doing than organizing my future meals. That being said, pre-planning meals is a huge timesaver and stress reducer (at least for me, it is). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, meal planning is my number one tip for healthy eating. Really. No matter your dietary needs or goals, engaging in meal planning will help you you achieve them.
I know it’s easy for me to tell you to start meal planning but to actually start (and continue) the habit of meal planning can feel a bit overwhelming. It doesn’t always come naturally, especially if it is something completely new to you. And that’s okay. Meal planning, like any skill, is something that may require a little practice. Heck, my meal plans aren’t always perfect, nor do they always run smoothly but that’s life. I’ll tell you one thing, though, they definitely are a lifesaver in my house (as imperfect as they sometimes are).
To help you get started (and inspired!), I thought I’d ask some of my Registered Dietitian colleagues about their best meal planning tips. So here goes:
Knowing your (or your family's) schedule is key when meal planning. There’s no point planning meals that just don’t fit into your schedule. Rachael Costello, RDN, LDN recommends “keeping your calendar handy while meal planning. This way you can plan simple meals or leftovers for busy days and more involved meals when you have more time.”
The key message here is to be realistic. Don't over plan on days when your plate is already very full (pun intended).
Have you ever started cooking only to find that you don’t have an ingredient you need? Or have you ever been putting away freshly purchased groceries to discover that you have a shelf full of something you’ve just bought? These two situations can be avoided by taking a quick inventory of your fridge, pantry and freezer before you shop. It’s also a good way to prevent food from getting forgotten in some deep, dark corner only to gather dust for the next 12 months (or more!).
Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian at SharonPalmer.com recommends to “start your meal planning with a quick inventory of what you have on hand. This will avoid food waste, save you money, and save time. For example, if you have some greens and mushrooms that need to be used up, saute these with some lean protein, and serve with a cooked whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, or farro) for a healthful, easy meal."
GET TECH SAVVY
While some prefer the old school way of writing out meal plans and grocery lists by hand, others have found some more tech savvy ways to get the job done. Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD uses the AnyList app for all grocery shopping. “I create a separate list per store - Costco, Sprouts, Kroger, etc. - and as I run out of staples, I add them to my list. When I plan the family weekly menus, I simply add to the appropriate list and I’m good to go. You can also input ingredients for family favorite meals that are recurring, and simply add them into the grocery list."
PREPARE FOODS AHEAD
Not only does planning meals ahead of time make a huge difference, so does doing some of the food prep. Many people, including Registered Dietitians, swear by picking a day and doing a bunch of meal prep at one time.
Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD says she “preps for about an hour on Sundays to set up for the week - chop veggies, boil eggs, make individuals baggies of grapes/carrots, tomatoes, etc. This makes lunch packing a breeze.”
Judith Scharman Draughon, MS, RDN, LD recommends “mason jar salads to go!” Making these salads is a snap. Judith says to “layer your salad into a wide-mouth mason jar or another similar container to keep the ingredients separate until you eat them. Pre-make your salads so that you’re prepared to grab them and go when it’s crunch time. Put your salad dressing and firmer vegetables at the bottom of the jar, giving the veggies time to marinate while your lighter, more fragile ingredients sit on top. Then just keep the jar upright until it’s time to eat. Shake or stir it up, and enjoy!” Sounds deliciously easy, doesn’t it?
BRUSH UP ON BATCH COOKING
Batch cooking, or cooking a larger portion of food than you need then storing it for later, is something than many meal planning experts do often. “I like to batch cook and freeze some of our family favourites to save time with meal prep when that item appears on the menu again. It’s also a nice Plan B for those days when my plans go sideways” says Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, RDN of www.gowellnessco.com. This is great advice because we all need a Plan B sometimes, don’t we?
Batch cooking doesn’t necessarily need to be doubling up on one dish and freezing it, you could also cook larger amounts of a certain ingredient one day, to be use in two separate but different meals. Rebecca Clyde, RD at Nourish Nutrition Co recommends to do “double duty meals” and to “make one protein or a part of a meal that can be used in 2+ different dishes. It’s like getting exciting & new leftovers”.
STOCK PANTRY WITH EASY MEAL MAKINGS
There are definitely times when meal plans don’t work out. Life can change quickly and sometimes what we’ve planned isn’t going to work out (gasp!). Having some flexibility in our meal plans is essential. It’s okay if our plans don’t work out.
The best thing to do in this situation is to have a few quick and easy meals at the ready. Bridget Swinney, MS, RD of www.eatrightmama.com agrees “I also stock the pantry with items that can be put together for quick meals in a pinch.”
A few quick meals I usually have on hand are:
- Spaghetti with tomato sauce (with ground meat or canned lentils)
- Scrambled eggs (with whatever veggies or leftovers are in my fridge)
- Canned beans (like kidney beans or black beans), rice and fresh or frozen vegetables
- Curry made with coconut milk, curry paste and frozen veggies (over rice)
FALL IN LOVE WITH LEFTOVERS
I know, I know...leftovers don’t exactly scream excitement. For those in charge of the cooking and meal planning, however, leftovers are amazing. Personally, I love leftovers because it usually means less time in the kitchen and less clean up after dinner (hooray!).
Pamela Fergusson, RD, PhD at www.pamelafergusson.com states “I prepare meals that keep well in the fridge like soup, stews and curries. They often taste better the next day! I also try to re-imagine the food when I serve it the second time. I make a big batch of chili, and then use it the second time as a filling for tacos, or the topper on stuffed baked potatoes.”
Bridget Swinney, MS, RD of www.eatrightmama.com agrees “I always plan meals with leftovers in mind and often make double and freeze the extra. Right now the freezer is packed with blended zucchini soup!”
NO TIME TO MEAL PLAN EACH WEEK, NO PROBLEM!
If you’re thinking that meal planning won’t work for you because your schedule is just too busy to do it each week, you’re wrong. While many people do plan their meals week by week and cook each day, others have found a way to be a little more efficient with their time.
Registered Dietitian Lacy Ngo, MS, RD of www.mindfulnessinfaithandfood.com understands what it’s like to be busy and not have much time “with soccer, dance, acrobatics, cub scouts, and homework, we have an activity every night of the week. I like to cook but couldn't on most nights. I pick two days out of the month. The first day I make a grocery list by finding healthy recipes on Pinterest. I find about 15 recipes that are freezable. Then the next day I spend the day cooking and freezing. One recipe usually last us two meals. I now have enough dinners for the month! When we are ready to eat them, I just cook the meal in a Crock-Pot or oven.” Who would have thought you could plan and cook a month’s worth of dinners in 2 days? That’s some great planning!
There are other options too if you are short on time or energy each week for meal planning. Dietitian Jen Haugen, RDN, LD, Kitchen Coach and Author of The Mom’s Guide to a Nourishing Garden has a great solution, as well. She coaches “moms to less stress and guilt in the kitchen with menu planning in cycles (I use a 6 week one myself)”.
CONSIDER YOUR NUTRITIONAL NEEDS
Making a meal plan is a great way to ensure that you meet your nutrient needs. If you have a particularly challenging time with one nutrient, you can plan some meals that emphasize this nutrient. For some, iron may be a concern, while others may need to focus on nutrients like calcium or folate.
Registered Dietitian Judy Barbe, RD, author of Your 6-Week Guide to LiveBest recognizes that fiber is often a concern for people. She recommends to “plan a fiber-rich meal (or two) each week. A nutrient of concern, getting enough fiber takes some planning. Vegetable soup, quinoa and vegetable salad, baked oatmeal or overnight oats, cook whole grains to add to salads, bean dip and veggies for snack”.
GET ACQUAINTED (OR RE-ACQUAINTED) WITH YOUR SLOW COOKER
There just are some kitchen gadgets that make our lives a whole lot easier and the slow cooker (or crock pot) is one of them. Seriously, I don’t know how I lived without one for so many years. Barbara R Baron, RDN - The Family Meals Dietitian shares my love for slow cooker meals “Most recipes have you place all ingredients in and 4-6 hours later you have a great meal with wonderful aroma in your house – as if you were fussing all day in the kitchen!”
Have these tips inspired you? Are you ready to get started meal planning? Remember, only you will be able to find out what works for you and your schedule. The best way to get started is just to get started! Like any habit, meal planning takes some practice and I’m confident that it is a habit that will make your life easier.