Meal Planning Tips

There have been so many times when I found myself in the position of wanting to cook a healthy meal but feeling unmotivated to make that dinner.  Staring at a random group of ingredients, knowing I wanted to make something healthy, being someone who actually enjoys cooking, and just not finding the time or energy to make that meal – the one my body wants and needs.  My organization was a huge part of the problem.  I may enjoy cooking but no one wants to do it when they are already hungry.  I used to do my weekly grocery shopping by strolling through the aisles and picking out things I knew I liked with the intention of throwing together healthy meals each night.  Chicken?  Sure!  Hey, I like peppers, let’s grab a few and see what I can make with them!

Ultimately this “strategy” led to wasted food and takeout.  Though I would make several meals a week, without a plan I didn’t have any consistency.  I began writing a weekly meal plan roughly six and a half years ago. I found that simply having the plan done for me, made it a lot easier for me to follow through.  By eliminated that moment when I would stand in front of the fridge and wonder what I should make, I actually started making food with much more regularity.  It may not work out perfectly every night but having a plan in place truly helps me spend less money at the store, waste less food, and cook those meals during the week.

Over the past six years I have created the habit of writing a weekly meal plan.  I have tried several different styles – typing the plan out with recipes attached, flagging cookbooks, pinning ideas, handwriting lists – to name a few.  There have been pros and cons to each method but there are a couple of essentials that I always include.

Meal Planning Tips:

Take Inventory:

  • Note what foods you have on hand.
    • Is there meat in the freezer?  Sauce in the pantry?  Let those foods on hand guide your week.
  • Check your staples.
    • Are you low on paprika?  Add it to your grocery list when you notice.  Do you take a bag of almonds to work every day?  Make sure you take the time to notice when you are running down your staples – especially if you buy them in bulk.

Grocery Shopping:

  • Write a grocery shopping list while writing the meal plan.
  • Separate your grocery list into sections.
    • Fruit, vegetables, meat, frozen – for example
  • Write your grocery list in the order in which you shop.
    • The first thing I encounter at my grocery store is the fruit section so it is at the top of my list.  Next is an aisle of leafy greens and herbs.  You might not know the exact order but a rough guide is very helpful and saves time in the store.
  • Make a notation on your list if you have a coupon for a certain product.

Planning for Meals:

  • Plan nights for leftovers first.
    • Consider your schedule for the week – do you have something coming up with work?  Does your child have a ball game at 6 pm?  Those are the nights when cooking feels the most like a burden.  When you can remove cooking on the nights it is a struggle, you are more likely to follow through on the nights you have more time.
  • Plan larger meals one to two days before the night you’re having leftovers.
  • Make notes for yourself if you need to do prep the night before – such as marinating meat or taking something out of the freezer to defrost.
  • Consider your heat source.
    • If you are planning to roast chicken, what else would work well in the oven?  Are you grilling? Throw your vegetables on the grill as well!
  • Include one to two nights of “family favorites” – meals that you know you love and you can prepare without having to check a recipe.
  • Include one to two nights of something new!  Try a recipe you have been meaning to try, try something a friend recommends, or experiment and have fun!
  • Vary your vegetables.  Try to include different vegetables in your week – get out of your comfort zone!  Eating many different colors is an easy way to ensure you’re getting different nutrients into your diet.

With these essential tips in place, find a style which works best for you.

For years I kept my plan on my computer and typed out all of my recipes.  The biggest advantages to this strategy were having all of my recipes stored in one place and being able to “save as” from week to week.  I was also able to look back on past weeks and get ideas for upcoming weeks.  I noticed that I’d often go in phases related to the seasons or to favorite recipes.  Sometimes I’d go three or four weeks in a row making one dish but then grow tired and remove it, and then totally forget it.  Looking back a few months later could bring back old favorites.  The biggest disadvantages to this strategy were needing to be near a computer (I suppose a tablet would solve this problem but I like to type on an actual keypad) and the time I would take getting lost in old lists and looking up new ideas.

Now that I have two small children, I find it difficult to be in one place for an extended time.  For the time being, I use a handwritten notepad which I keep on the fridge.  The biggest advantages to this strategy are the ability to move around and write my plan wherever I might be and having a grocery list right on the fridge where I can add any staples when I notice they are low.  The biggest disadvantages to this strategy are losing past week’s plans and having the plan separate from any recipes I might use.

Here is a sample meal plan of mine from last week:

Breakfast: Italian Egg Cups and spinach salads

Lunch: Leftovers

Sunday: Meatballs with Garden Salad

Monday: Chicken & Spaghetti Squash Pad Thai

Tuesday: Chili with Cauliflower Rice

Wednesday: Leftovers! (Marinate steak)

Thursday: Balsamic London Broil with roasted potatoes, asparagus, and tomatoes

Friday: Roasted Paprika Chicken with Roasted Okra and Applesauce

Saturday: Bell Pepper Curry

When it comes to lunches I generally stick to two strategies.  The first is to cook an extra meal on Sunday.  I make this early in the morning and then once it cools, I divide it into five even portions and I have lunch for the week!  This is my go-to strategy for work.  Each morning I would throw one portion, an apple, and a snack into my lunch bag and head out the door.  The second strategy (and the one I have been using lately) is to cook larger meals throughout the week and eat the leftovers for lunch.  This strategy means that I have less leftovers for dinner throughout the week but that I don’t have to cook extra on Sunday or keep extra portions in the fridge.  In my opinion, the first strategy is best if you have early or rushed mornings and the second is best if you have more flexibility.

I do not usually plan snacks into our meal plan – though I have at times in the past.  I try to keep fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, nut butters, and extra vegetables on hand all the time for healthy snacking.  I will generally pick out one or two snacks while at the store as well such as hummus, guacamole, dark chocolate, cheese, or some type of chips with clean ingredients.  Personally I feel as though the more healthy snacks I have on hand, the less likely I am to search out something unhealthy.  It also means that I sometimes overindulge in those snacks because they are here.  I am still finding my balance!

Whether you are just entertaining the idea of trying to organize your weekly meals or you are a seasoned pro, I hope that some of these tips will enable you to be more efficient in your weekly meal planning.

Here’s to creating healthy habits to nurture healthy lives!

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