Wellness Wednesday: Meal Planning 101

Meal planning is key in a healthy lifestyle, but starting the habit can be difficult. Learn techniques in meal planning 101. 

Meal Planning 101

I worry that a few of my clients are starting to think I've turned into a broken record for all the time I spend nagging encouraging them to start meal planning. I hate to keep harping on it, but I know how critical it is to permanently change eating habits. When you've got healthy and tasty meals planned, you eat healthy and tasty meals. It's as simple as that.

Think about the last time you ate something you immediately regretted. I'm willing to wager a bet that it happened because you didn't have a plan for what to do when your stomach started to rumble.

Getting started is the hard part, but once you've done it awhile, it becomes second nature. Since it's the end of summer/back to the regular grind time, what better time than to develop a new habit?

To make it stick, you've got to find a method that works for you. There are many ways to meal plan, but most fall into one of these three categories.

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Three Meal Planning Strategies

THE RECIPE METHOD // The recipe method consists of taking out a cookbook (or pinterest), picking out the recipes you plan to cook that week, then creating a shopping list from those recipes. It's helpful to have at least a few different cookbooks geared towards the type of food you like and want to eat (check out my resource page for recommendations). Or, save the money and use the vast resources of the internet. Some of my favorite websites are Weelicious for family friendly meals (and for new cooks), Cooking Light for quick meal ideas, and Epicurious for those with more exotic taste buds. And of course, there's always pinterest.

When picking out recipes, there's a few questions you'll want to ask yourself:

  • How often do I want to go grocery shopping? I think a good goal is once a week, but some prefer more frequent trips, others, less frequent.
  • What food do you already have on hand? Look for recipes that use ingredients you already have, especially those that might go bad in the next week or so.
  • How many meals do you need? Seems obvious, but if you're going out of town or have plans a few nights, don't plan meals for those days.
  • Do you eat leftovers for lunch? Or do you like to pack a separate lunch? If so, plan a make ahead meal that will last five days. Try my mason jar salads or a grain bowl.
  • How long will my vegetables last? Some vegetables spoil quickly while others can last a week or longer. Plan meals with both perishable and sturdy vegetables and use the ones that go bad quickly first. Here's a handy printable guide with the shelf life of produce.
  • How much time do you have to cook? If your week is crazy, don't plan to make authentic Spanish paella from scratch.

Another tip - plan one meal made with ingredients that will last longer than a week or pantry staple ingredients. That way if plans pop up, you aren't left with tons of leftover food.

I use the recipe method to meal plan, partially because I like the security blanket of having a recipe in front of me, but also because I love getting inspiration from my cookbook collection.

THE FARMERS MARKET METHOD // Although I call this the farmer's market method, you don't have to shop at the farmers market. This recipe method allows you the flexibility of cooking balanced meals without a recipe, so you can pick up whatever looks fresh and beautiful at the farmers market, or wherever you do your shopping! As long as you have basic cooking skills and aren't afraid to get creative in the kitchen, you can make this time saving method work for you.

Knowing each meal will need a 1 protein, 1 carb and a couple vegetables, count up how many meals you want and purchase enough from each category. So for 4 meals, you'll need four proteins, four starches, and at least eight vegetables. To save time, cook enough to stretch the ingredients into two meals.

For this to work, you'll need a well stocked pantry with plenty of herbs, spices and flavorful condiments which can transform dishes from bland to exciting. Most of these last essentially forever, so once you have it on hand, all you have to do is replace what you use each week.

Here's an example for four meals using a pretend farmers market/grocery store stash:

Proteins: eggs, whole chicken, black beans

Starch: brown rice, tortillas

Vegetable: head of lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, celery, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, frozen spinach

Meal 1: Whole roasted chicken seasoned with dried herbs, brown rice cooked with onion and garlic, salad topped with sliced heirloom tomatoes and mustard-apple cider vinaigrette

Meal 2: Chicken and brown rice soup (made with leftovers) with carrots and celery. Swirl with jarred pesto for a flavor boost.

Meal 3: Make migas with scrambled eggs, black beans and tortilla strips served with grilled zucchini and cherry tomatoes. Garnish with jarred salsa and cilantro.

Meal 4: Vegan enchiladas filled with black beans, chopped broccoli, frozen spinach and a homemade enchilada sauce made with canned tomato sauce and spices.

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THE OUTSOURCE METHOD // Hate meal planning? Or maybe you've got multiple allergies and sensitivities in your household that make planning difficult. Pay someone else to do it. Hey, it's an option!

There are many websites that allow you to generate healthy menus for your family, but there's only one I know of that features meals designed by dietitians. My friend Ann and her colleague Lesley recently launched My Menu Pal, which provides you with weekly downloadable meal plans. As the parents to young children, they definitely kept busy parents needs in mind when creating their service. It adapts the recipes the the number of children in the household and all of the recipes are simple and kid friendly, but exciting enough to keep parents more evolved taste buds happy. For only $6-9 dollars a month depending on the package, it's a great value.

I also work with clients to create individualized meal plans rooted in my philosophy of whole (and delicious!) foods. Because I adapt each menu to your individual nutrition needs, cooking skills, taste preferences and dietary needs, it's especially beneficial for anyone struggling to plan meals around food sensitivities, a crazy lifestyle or limited cooking skills. It's developed specifically for you and (if applicable) your families needs! For $200, my five day meal plans include breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks and each recipe includes ideas for multiple adaptations so you never get bored! Purchase a personalized meal plan in the nutrition shop or email me at AnAvocadoADayRD@gmail.com for more details.

Now, I want to hear from you. Do you meal plan? If not, what's kept you from meal planning? If you do meal plan regularly, what are your favorite tips? Share in the comments below!