Meal Planning 101
Without a doubt, meal planning is one of the most important habits acquired by individuals with good nutrition. Meal planning eliminates room for excuses and poor food choices by ensuring that nutritious meals and snacks are always within reach. Additional benefits of planning meals ahead may include:
- Reduced food costs
- Reduced food preparation time
- Elimination of unnecessary stress
- Increased free time to spend with friends and family
- Increased nutritional value of meals
- Improved food habits which may aid weight loss and maintenance
Conversely, not planning ahead can lead to poor food choices, increased food costs, and time wasted scrambling to make meals last minute.
Find a Plan That Works for YOU
First off, consider your lifestyle and find a plan that makes the most sense for you and your family. You’ll be most successful with a plan that meets you right where you are!
If a plan sounds great in theory but isn’t realistic, you are setting yourself up for failure! For example, if you work full time and have kids, it’s not likely you’ll have time to grocery shop multiple times a week and prepare new meals from scratch every night.
The 3 Methods of Meal Planning
There are three main ways to plan. As we walk through each plan, think of your weekly routine and how you currently prepare meals. It is likely that your best plan is just within reach!
Option 1. Batch cooking
This method involves cooking a large quantity of a single meal to be divided up into many servings to be eaten throughout the week or frozen. For example: soups, stews, casseroles and pasta salads like this Upgraded Greek Pasta Salad.
- Saves time
- Saves money
- Food for the future
- Decreases food waste
Option 2. Cook Once, Eat Thrice
Here, you prepare a large quantity of a single meal component, to make multiple different meals throughout the week. Proteins, sauces, and grains work best. This option is preferable for those who dislike leftovers or eating the same meal each day of the week.
- Offers great variety
- Saves money
- Saves time
Ex: The “lowly” chicken can be transformed into:
Monday – Santa Fe Chicken Salad
Tuesday – Chicken “Fried” Rice
Wednesday – Chicken Tacos
Thursday – Chicken Chili
Friday – BBQ Chicken Sandwiches
Option 3. From scratch
Create new meals every day of the week. Requires the most time, energy, creativity, and money.
- Offers most variety
- May help improve your mood and emotional health
More meal planning tips
- Recycle menus. Once you’ve established your go-to meals, keep them on a regular rotation. You can modify the seasonings used to create variety, but you will keep the foundations for balanced, family-approved meals.
- Make themed meals. Designate meals to certain days of the week, for example: Meatless Mondays, and Taco Tuesdays. Family can look forward to (and help with preparation of) these themed meals. You can also more easily predict future food costs.
- Shop your fridge/pantry. Some evenings it’s just not possible to prepare a “traditional” dinner, however, hidden gems may very well be found in your fridge or pantry! Don’t let a lack of time or energy keep you and your family from eating well. Even simple meals can be healthy and satisfying. Canned beans, broth, and frozen vegetables could quickly turn into a vegetarian chili or stew! Leftover veggies, eggs, and some whole wheat toast can become hearty omelets.
- Create a meal calendar. Meal calendars not only help keep you organized, but they can also help you keep track of your family’s favorite meals to recycle AND you can more easily enlist the help of others when it comes to food prep since everyone knows what to expect! Just as with “batch cooking” or “cook once, eat thrice”, you can plan for a single meal to plan for the week, or you can plan all meals and snacks. Don’t get overwhelmed. Let the calendar work FOR you, not against you.
- Most importantly, always keep healthy go-to items on hand.
- Fridge Items:
- Milk, reduced fat cheese
- Fresh and frozen fruits and veggies
- Whole wheat bread and tortillas
- Pantry Items:
- Herbs, spices, vinegars, and healthy oils
- Canned tuna, chicken
- Low sodium soups and pasta sauces
- Oats and whole grain/low added sugar cereal
- Whole wheat pasta, rice, quinoa, or other grains (dry and pre-cooked recommended)
- Fridge Items:
This week, consider the 3 types of meal planning and which method would be the best fit for you and your family. Decide which meal of the day you struggle with implementing the most and make a plan to be more successful with that meal for at least 3 days of the following week. Make a shopping list, go shopping, complete the necessary food prep, and follow through with your plan. You will be so glad you did.