Meal Planning: Make it Work

We are a generation reviving the almost lost art of meal planning, and it makes me very happy. From those entering into this territory anew, I’m often asked: “Where do I begin?” or “How can I do it when I juggle so many other things?”

So, as regular postings to the Weekly Suppers series continue (helpful?), now seemed as good a time as any to tackle your questions, and look at the basic elements of why and how to make meal planning work.

Meal planning_HGN
Why should I plan meals?

Meal planning is an important part of successfully maintaining a healthy lifestyle for you and your family. Here are a few of the many excellent reasons why:

1. To provide wholesome, balanced meals.

+ Regain control in the kitchen! Planning and shopping ahead allows you to offer fresh, nutritious ingredients made using preparation methods you feel good about. (Not to mention that knowing exactly what to make cuts down on mindless munching we often succumb to while searching the kitchen for something other than cereal.)

+ For the parents reading: Remember that your responsibility is not policing the “clean plate club.” Rather it’s to offer balanced meals and snack options. Studies show that children receive the nutrients they need to grow and thrive when provided with a wide variety of healthy foods.

2. To decrease stress and save time.

+ Bid farewell to scrambling around on the heels of a long day, or at the start of one! Having a plan eliminates last-minute thinking about what to make, thereby relieving tension and freeing you up to enjoy more of the things you and your family love in a more relaxed atmosphere. (Another nod to the mindless munching comment in reason #1.)

3. To keep the food budget in check. 

+ Hopeless wandering may be good for Mumford, but not so for you when grocery shopping. Without a plan you’re more likely to purchase unnecessary ingredients that may go to waste: A study from the Natural Resource Defense Council found that each month Americans trash roughly 33 pounds of food, averaging about $40. Wandering time is also when marketers earn their salaries: According to the Food Marketing Institute, you spend $2 for every minute you are in the grocery store.

+ A commitment to meals made at home — even if only once or twice a week to start — spares the cash (and calories) that come with regular dining out or ordering in. Shopping “seasonally” further decreases costs, as fresh local produce is often less expensive when in season and abundant. Farmers’ markets are plentiful this time of year, and a great activity for the whole family, which leads into the next point…

4. To promote stronger family ties and long-lasting healthy habits.  

+ Family time is a valuable, yet elusive commodity for many of us. Meal planning to the rescue! By involving the whole family in dreaming up ideas for meals, shopping (don’t forget the farmers’ market), prep, and/or cooking, you not only take advantage of extra help but inherently get to spend more time together. Win-win.

+ These activities also provide opportunities to be a good role model to your impressionable little eaters, instilling positive habits and attitudes that will last a lifetime!

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How do I begin planning meals?

Adopting meal planning as a regular healthy habit for you and your family comes down to a few basic steps. Like with anything new, it’s best to start small. My recommendation is to plan only one week at a time.

Step 1 Take inventory of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer.

+ Check out your staple items to see: 1) What is well stocked already — thus, doesn’t need to be purchased; and 2) Which, if any, need replenishing.

+ Make note of fresh produce and perishable items you have that need to be used this week. (Anything really on its way out is probably best suited to the trash or compost bin. Not sure? There’s an app for that.)

Step 2 Create a realistic plan.

+ With a notebook, calendar, or dry-erase/chalk board, sketch out a plan for the week’s meals. I recommend beginning with familiar favorites, and if this is an entirely new process to you, start with one meal per day. (Gauge your own comfort level here.)

+ For added ease and time-saving, consider keeping the recipes with your list, or noting where they can be accessed, e.g., magazine, book, website.

+ HGN Hint: Plan once to eat twice. Purposely repeat ingredients throughout the week, and make extras for supper to include in the next day’s meals or snacks!

Step 3 Use your plan to create a list.

+ I find it’s helpful to write your grocery list while you plan the meals. Another good practice is to note quantities of ingredients needed, and if you discovered staples that need replenishing (see Step 1), add these to the list as well.

+ VERY IMPORTANT: Stash your list in a place you’ll remember it — in a wallet, purse, car, reusable shopping tote, tacked on the fridge, taped to your forehead… What good will it do if you forget it on the counter?

Step 4 Stick to your list.

+ As we learned above, time and a plan literally equate to money at the market. Stick to your list.

+ BUT, don’t go into full blinders mode. Keep an eye out for non-perishable staple items on sale that you could stock up on (if you have room at home), as well as for less expensive seasonal fruit and veg. There are overlooked gems on those “bargain produce” tables!

Step 5 Be flexible, because plans can, and do, change.

+ Life happens. Relax. Go with the flow. For me, an habitual planner, this is a test of nerves some weeks, but I do my best to remain flexible and pick up with the meal plan on the next day!

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I promise that with time the process becomes easier, and will absolutely eliminate some of the stress from shopping, cooking and at mealtimes. Please don’t worry about aiming for “perfection” — I’m certainly not Martha Stewart, and neither are you. Even with the most basic outline and stash of ingredients going into the week, I do a better job of getting nutritionally balanced meals to the table, amid far less chaos.

Meal planning is all about finding balance, and is a delicious investment in your health and the health of your family!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Do you plan meals? What’s your style — weekdays only? Every meal for every day? Please share!

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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  1. I’ve gone in and out of phases with meal planning, but right now I’m in deep :) I always love to read other people’s approaches to it, and now that I’m getting more systematic about the routine, it is making me SO MUCH SANER. The saved time/stress/budget make such a big impact on my quality of life, I think I’m finally starting to appreciate it as another form of self-care. Obviously I could go on about this all day, haha, thanks for this well-written post!

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