Many of my clients lately have expressed difficulty with meal planning. I realize I may not be a normal segment of the population who has fun thinking about what to cook for dinner Monday so that I can use components from that meal again on Tuesday, and so on. I get that I’m not normal, but I figured for those of you who view it as a chore or find it overwhelming, boring or a time consuming task, we could strategize some tips to arm yourself with.
First of all, meal planning supports your health goals and sticking to a grocery budget. More than half of Americans don’t know what it is they will be eating for dinner when they wake up in the morning. Without a plan, those with busy lives can easily be tempted to reach for easy, less healthy options. I’d like to help you become a better food planner. You will cut down on food waste, save money, reduce cooking time, dirty less dishes, and may even eliminate some stress(not to mention last minute trips to the store for items you didn’t know you needed when you shopped without a plan). So without further ado, let’s try to lessen those obstacles in the way of you and your plan for next week!
Tip #1: Shop in your pantry first! Do An Inventory
Look through your fridge, freezer and pantry for items that will expire soon. If you have roast meat in the freezer, or ground turkey in your fridge, write these items down so you can look for recipes centered around what you already have in your kitchen. This will help you reduce food waste and avoid unnecessary extra spending at the store.
Tip #2: What Are You Craving? What Inspires You?
This week I saw a recipe for tortellini soup and I wanted it so bad! So, I looked in my pantry and saw I had beef broth, tomatoes canned, and in the fridge I had celery, carrots, and some diced onion. All I really needed was the tortellini at the store! I wanted that soup so badly, I cooked it up as soon as I got home. I found a recipe on pinterest. Think about foods you may have wanted over the last week, whether it is a pesto chicken dish or a savory soup and look for recipes that seem easy enough for the amount of time you would like to spend cooking. If you go with what you have been craving or what inspires you, then you won’t be in a position on Tuesday wishing you were making sausage and peppers when all you’ve wanted since Sunday is taco salad.
You can decide on your meals for the week depending on the inventory you saw in tip 1, what may be on sale this week(call you butcher at the grocery store and ask what organic, well-sourced items are on sale – that way you can know as you are building your grocery list). Areas to look for inspiration are: cookbooks, magazines, blogs, pinterest, even facebook these days, there are videos showing up in my feed all the time of people making food.
Tip #3: Consult You Calendar
Consider who will be home what nights, if Johnny is at soccer on Tuesday and Thursday consider a meal that could be in a crockpot that everyone can grab on the go that night. Consider if you are all going to be away from the home one night, so you don’t over purchase items that won’t get cooked and may be wasted. Look for when you will need quick and easy meals, and when it’s okay to sip on a glass of wine and cook for an hour or two (oh, no one else does that?).
The main thing I would suggest in this section is to try to make two meals out of every meat selection, so you can buy in larger bulk, that way you can save some money. So ground turkey can be apart of turkey burgers AND taco night, or turkey chili and healthy turkey lasagna. You get the point. Try to pair of meat nights back to back. You can even do something like greek turkey meatballs on Monday and spaghetti and meatballs the next night. As you make the meatballs use two bowls when you get to the seasonings, in the Italian mix use basil, oregano, and garlic powder. In the greek use parsley, oregano, and thyme.
Tip #4 Write It All Down
Right out the meals like this:
Monday: Arugula Salad with Strawberries and Grilled Steak
Tuesday: Steak Fajitas
Wednesday: Greek night with Pitas, Hummus, and Turkey Meatballs
Thursday: Spaghetti and Meatballs with a Ceasar Salad Kit
Friday: Salmon, Rice and Asparagus
Saturday: Going Out
Sunday: Stuffed Bell Peppers (use left over meatballs, rice and anything else)
Tip #5 Plan Your Healthy Snacks
You can leave your list vague like: 2 kinds of fruit. Then when shopping look for what is on sale. But, even if you have a vague plan, have a plan. This will help you to avoid forgetting to pack a snack and instead grabbing a snickers out of the vending machine at work, or making a stop for an expensive treat at a local coffee shop where you will waste money and calories.
Tip #6 Keep It Simple and Be Easy On Yourself
Just like anything, the more you practice meal planning the better you will be at it. I suggest saving your weekly menus. Once you develop 4 or 5 weeks worth consider rotating them. That way you can just redo your shopping list real quick and the work is already done for you. You can also involve your family or room mates. Ask them what they are interested in eating this week. Maybe your partner is just waiting for you to make that delicious Indian Curry recipe again. Ask them, they will tell you.
Tip #7 Be Flexible
Some nights will inevitably not go as planned. No problem! Quick meals can be easy and healthy enough, you can always make an omelet or a quick soup or stir-fry whatever protein you have with a couple veggies. I like to always keep some easy to whip up items around so that when life gets hectic, dinner doesn’t have to be. It could be an already prepared tomato soup, and you make a quick cheese quesadilla to go alongside it with those whole wheat tortillas you are making lunch wraps with. That won’t take you more than 5 minutes to do.
Tip #8 Batch Cooking
I find this to be the best piece to meal planning. If you know you will need brown rice twice this week, why not cook it up while you are putting away groceries on Sunday afternoon. You can cook up batches of lots of things to make dinners or even packed lunches an easier task during the week. Consider cooking batches of chicken breasts, eggs, quinoa, lentils, veggies, you can pack salads at the start of the week with dressings on the side. A large pot of soup made on Sunday can be made into Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays packed lunch. When you are putting it away, put it straight into the pyrex or Tupperware you will bring to school or work. You can even freeze extras in small, air-tight, labeled containers.
You can also buy bulk from places like Costco or when you see chicken breasts on sale. Then just freeze some of these bulk items. I like to keep a list of what I have put in my freezer, because sometimes it has a way of eating those items up and sending them to the bottom never to be found again. If you have a list, you can always know what to be searching for.
What other tips do you have and use? Please comment below or on facebook.
Caitlin Johnson is a dietitian, wife, lover of ice cream, chef wannabe, California-girl, Christian, liver eating, "food-avore."
218 W. Carmen Lane, Suite 108
Santa Maria, California 93458
Hours: Mon-Fri 9-5 PST