Healthy Habits: How to Meal Plan like a Pro…
I can’t believe that February is almost over, and the beginning of a new month is a great time to get a new habit started. This week I wanted to share one of the most basic, but essential healthy eating habit– meal planning.
You may be asking yourself, how in the world is meal planning a healthy eating habit? Well, let me tell you something I heard a lot as a teenager that I never really paid much attention to then, but means a lot to me now as a mother.
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
This is even more applicable if you are new to healthy eating. Cooking real food for your family for every single meal and snack can be exhausting and burn you out (if you let it). But the good news is that it doesn’t have to.
It becomes so much harder to make healthy choices when you haven’t already made the decision–its 4pm, you’ve been going all day, the kids are hungry & cranky (and to be honest so are you), you realize what time it is and then and there have to figure out what to make for dinner. You check your fridge, there is healthy food in the fridge but you are too tired to make a decision so you either fall back on a less healthy choice or you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what to make. And either choice is a sure-fire recipe for burn out and inability to sustain healthy eating habits.
But like I said, cooking real food for your family doesn’t have to be stressful. You just need to get in the habit of setting up systems that will simplify this process and eliminate some of the decision-making you need to do in a day. There are way too many daily decisions we have to make as a mom, why not get rid of the ones about food.
I find that a weekly meal plan works best for us. I can’t fathom making time to get to the store more than once a week; there are just so many other things that are more important to me. Plus, I really hate grocery shopping. Once a week is enough of a chore (and I go alone). Not only is life simpler with one weekly trip, but it is also much kinder to your budget. Multiple grocery trips lead to food wastage and extra items bought that you don’t really want or need.
Now if you want to only go shopping once a week, a plan is necessary to ensure you have all the ingredients you need for a meal. You don’t want to find yourself just getting everything ready to cook dinner and realise you are missing a pretty essential ingredient and then are stuck improvising.
So here are some simple tips to get you started meal planning like a pro:
Create a master list of healthy meals.
This is the very first step as it makes meal planning a breeze. Keep a running list of healthy meals that your family likes and add to it as you try new recipes. This includes breakfasts, lunches, dinner and snacks.
If you are just starting out, don’t worry make a goal to add 2 new healthy recipes to your existing repertoire of recipes (even if they aren’t the healthiest). In a few months, you will have enough healthy recipes to fill up a meal plan and you can phase out the unhealthy ones.
Having a master list of meals to hand when you meal plan cuts down the thinking power you have to expend when meal planning. And if you are anything like me, you have enough on your mind and don’t want to have to waste that brain power on planning meals.
Sit down and schedule a specific time to plan your meals.
Make meal planning a habit, and to do that well you need to have a scheduled time and place that you meal plan. If you always meal plan at the same time every week you will more quickly adapt the habit and expend less energy thinking about it.
Make sure you schedule it the night before you plan to go grocery shopping. I always shop on a Monday night because its my only free evening. So on a sunday night I set aside 10 minutes to meal plan. It will probably take longer when you are starting out, but as you get into the habit, it becomes second nature and really doesn’t take much time at all.
Look at your week ahead before you plan your meals.
Take a look at your calendar and make sure you keep in mind the time you have to cook and eat each day you are planning for.
For example, our Tuesday nights are crazy. Between my daughters karate and youth group, getting myself to work and my husband and boys to their church group we just don’t have time for a normal sit down meal like we do the rest of the week. On those days I either plan to have leftovers that can be easily reheated or some kind of salad with protein that can be eaten on the go in a pita or just by itself.
Also, don’t forget to also do this with your other meals. Our morning ritual is normally pretty slow, so we can enjoy easy cooked breakfasts, but on a Friday we meet up with friends to go out adventuring. I make sure to have something quick and easy planned for breakfast on those days and also something packable for lunch because we usually picnic wherever we are.
Make sure to plan for each breakfast, lunch, dinner & snack.
Now that you have your list of go to meals and have an idea of what your meal times look like, its time to actually start choosing meals. To simplify things, we generally eat the same things for breakfasts and lunches and I just make a list of the different options, rather than assigning them to specific days. I still need a bit of spontaneity in my life or I’d go crazy.
With dinners I do put them down on specific days because by the time dinner rolls around my energy for making decisions is depleted and having to actually decide what to have for dinner would just stress me out too much. That doesn’t mean I stick to the schedule perfectly. Sometimes I reshuffle the dinner schedule, I usually make changes to it at least once through the week.
Some people swear by a strict meal planning system where they choose themes for each day of the week (like ethnic night, pasta night, chicken night, fish night, etc) and plan their meals that way, but that is just to restricting for me. Generally, I plan to have soup one night, fish another, and roast chicken another and I leave the rest of the night open to whatever I fancy (or my family’s requests).
Don’t forget to plan out snacks. Ours are the same every single week for simplicity’s sake. I have a running list I keep inside my cupboard and when the kids ask me what they can eat for snack I just give them something off that.
Include a ‘Clear the Fridge’ meal in your plan.
The dinner before I go grocery shopping, I like to make a meal that uses up all the vegetables and meats/fish that doesn’t get used up during the week. I hate wasting food and money, so this is a great way to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s also a great way to experiment in the kitchen and have a bit of fun.
One of our favorite meals was born this way–Sausage & Cabbage Casserole. All we had was a package of sausages, a head of cabbage and a few stray roasting type veggies. I chopped them up, threw them in a roasting pan, drizzled some olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, tossed on the sausages and put it in the oven. So simple, yet such a yummy meal (and makes the most delicious leftovers). Soups and stir fries are also great ways to use up old ingredients.
Sometimes the meals don’t turn out that yummy, but that’s okay because you don’t have to bring your A game to every meal you make for your family. Challenge yourself a bit and try to incorporate a ‘clear the fridge’ meal into your meal plan.
Commit yourself to try at least one new healthy recipe (or ingredient) every week.
Keeping an open mind and palate is essential to eating healthy sustainably. If you don’t try new things you will get bored quickly, plus you will miss out of amazing meals and nutrients you never knew you liked.
I like to make the new recipe on either a Friday night when I’m home to enjoy the meal or on a Sunday when my husband can occupy the kids while I cook. It’s always harder to cook something new when you don’t have a whiny toddler hanging on your legs or 2 older boys arguing in the other room.
Make sure to balance your plate at each meal including all the essential macronutrients-protein, fat & veggies.
If you aren’t sure what this means, check out my post about building this basic healthy habit here. Yes, the third standard micronutrients is carbohydrate not veggies, but I always advise my clients to get most of their carbs from veggies as opposed to fruit and grains. We do eat some grains for meals, but it’s not that common and if we do it’s a small percentage of the meal.
Finally, make the shopping list.
Go through each of the meals and write down what you need to get. Always have a look in your fridge and cupboards to see if you already have something. I like to order my list as I if I were walking around the store. I start with the grains, produce, meat, dairy, frozen foods, etc. I like to be in and out of the store as quick as possible and hate walking from one side of the store to another wasting my precious down time.
If you follow these simple steps you should be meal planning like a pro in no time. But if you are just starting out and need a bit more personal coaching and working with specific diets or food preferences just check out my individual coaching sessions.
I offer a free 20 minute introductory session to discuss what I can do to help you build these healthy habits and transform your health. Right now I have 3 slots left at my super low introductory price of £25 (roughly $30) per 45 minute session (in person or virtually via phone, Skype or Facetime), so you need to act fast.
**Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my health coaching page for more info.