By: Kristen Ueberschaer, R.D.
Whether you’re making a complete diet transition, or just trying to improve your current eating habits, learning to plan is a technique you’ll want to master. Just like brushing your teeth and tying your shoes, your meal planning routine, or lack thereof, is a habit. This means that it is easy and effortless to continue to do the same thing you’ve done because your brain has become efficient at executing this activity, whether it’s benefiting you or not. Therefore, unless you make the process of planning your meals a habit, your habit of failing to plan and resorting to fast food will prevail.
Fortunately, meal planning doesn’t have to mean an entire Sunday spent in the kitchen slaving over the stove to pack perfectly portioned meals into air tight containers for your 5-day work-week. The purpose of meal planning is to make your life easier and unless you’re being paid to do it, it doesn’t have to be perfect and pretty. In fact, until you get the hang of it, it will likely be far from either. The purpose of this article is not to provide you with a meal plan but instead help you determine what components of a meal planning routine would be most beneficial to you and and where you’re experiencing resistance to implementing one.
STEP 1: ASSESS YOUR LIFESTLYE
Understanding your lifestyle and how it will have a huge impact on your meal planning routine is important. It is crucial that your meal plan and recipe search matches your current lifestyle, not the lifestyle of the food blogger you admire. Although many of us would benefit from having all our meals prepared in advance, some approaches work better for different people for various reasons and some meals are more important to have prepared than others.
For example: If you are a busy professional who regularly has lunch meetings, it might be most effective to focus on ordering healthier meals at restaurants for lunch and balancing your diet with a healthy breakfast, dinner and snack rather than spending time preparing a lunch that may or may not get eaten.
If you are a nurse who works 12-hour shifts, your energy might be best spent on batch-cooking dinners on the weekend, so you can kick your feet up at the end your long work days.
If your spouse or family member often handles dinner in your home, it might make more sense for you to focus your efforts on breakfast and lunch.
It is important to determine exactly where your energy is best spent and what components of a meal plan would be most beneficial for you and your family. It may help to ask yourself questions like “How much time do I realistically want to spend in the kitchen per day?” and “What meal, if planned in advance, would make my week easier?”. The clearer you are on exactly what you need to do to be successful, the sooner you’ll get to where you want to go.
Try keeping a 3-day food log of everything you eat inclusive of the planning and preparation that went into each meal or snack, any feelings you had during the process and an idea of how the routine could be improved. Bringing awareness to your current routine is the first step in changing it.
STEP 2: PREDICT & ELIMINATE OBSTACLES
This is where you need to get really clear on what is standing in the way of you and your successful meal planning routine because it’s likely going to continue to come up and drive a wedge between you and your goals. Is it a lack of time? Energy? Ideas? Or maybe a lack of motivation? Whatever the reason for your delayed success, there is a solution.
If you struggle to find time or energy, take advantage of prechopped vegetables, frozen quick-cook grains, and simmer sauces, and just batch-cook the protein portion of your meal on the weekend.
If you struggle to come up with new ideas, try dedicating each night of the week to a different cuisine or utilize meal delivery services that provide both the recipe and ingredients and eliminate the decision-making process entirely.
If you have the time and ideas but you struggle to cater to the many food preferences in your house, allow each member of your family to choose the meal on different nights of the week and involve your children in cooking to increase compliance.
Refer to your 3-day food diary and make note of any frustrations and challenges you faced around mealtime and, based on the suggestions above, brainstorm how you may navigate them moving forward.
STEP 3: SET A GOAL
It is not only important to understand your goals and expectations but keep them realistic. Many people make the mistake of going “all-in” for a couple weeks before they burn out and give up. Going slow and steady by making small changes over time will ensure your long-term success.
Now before the image of 15 neatly packed and portion-controlled containers pop into your head, ask yourself what a realistic short-term goal for you is…meaning, just this week. It might be just having breakfast prepared OR simply remembering to set the timer on the coffee maker to avoid running to the Starbucks drive-thru. Each week address a new meal or snack to tackle until every area of your meal planning routine has been ironed out and simplified to suit your lifestyle and be easily repeated week after week.
STEP 4: EXECUTE
A. PLAN: The first step to reaching any goal is to plan. Whether you are keeping things simple and making only one change at a time or trying to tackle a few at once, having a plan of action is critical to your success.
- MAKE THE TIME: Schedule a time block each week to shop, cook, and prepare your meal(s). The amount of time you set aside will depend on the changes you choose to tackle.
- PLAN THE WEEK: Use a weekly meal planner to jot down meals and snacks for the week including days you might eat out, so you can plan accordingly.
- STICK TO YOUR GUNS: Keep your meal prep appointment and as if it were an important work meeting or an event you’ve been waiting months for. You wouldn’t reschedule either of those so don’t reschedule this – it will save you time in the long run. Your weeks meal plan is a blueprint and you have the flexibility to switch things up but do your best to follow your plan as closely as possible to save you time and ensure you’re progressing towards your goals.
- Utilize the time after dinner to meal prep since you’re already in cooking mode and it will save you clean up time.
- Always make slightly more food than you think you need to provide enough for lunch leftovers.
- Plan breakfast the night before and resort to easy options like hard boiled eggs or chia pudding.
B. SHOP: With the creation of a detailed and well thought out plan, shopping can be a lot less cumbersome. Follow the tips below to take the headache out of your next grocery shopping trip.
- KEEP A LIST: If you struggle to keep track of which foods items you have in stock and which you need to buy, or you frequently leave your grocery list as home, try smart phone apps such as Out of Milk or GroceryPal, AnyList, or iPhone reminders to keep track for you.
- READ THE LABEL: Rather than scanning packaging for words like ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, or ‘low-fat’, take the extra time to read the nutrition label and aim for foods low in sugar and trans-fat and with fewer ingredients.
- SHOP THE PERIMETER: Since healthy foods like produce and proteins tend to be on the perimeter of the store, this is where your time should be spent. Sticking to the perimeter will save you both time and temptation. During your next grocery haul, try avoiding the aisles that tempt you altogether.
- Utilize grocery shopping services available in your area. Many grocery stores offer a service that allows you to order your groceries online and deliver them to your door or at the front of the store to your car.
- Save and reuse old meal plans and grocery list for busier weeks that don’t have much time for creating a new plan.
- Stick to a variety of vegetables, low-sugar antioxidant-rich fruits like berries and citrus, quality sourced meats and fish, quality avocado, olive, and coconut oils, and frozen fruits and vegetables (if preferred).
- Use self-check-out whenever able to avoid reaching for tempting snacks while waiting in line for a cashier.
- Pay with cash as studied have shown that people spend less money when they pay with cash than when they pay with a card.
C. PREP: Now that you’ve planned and shopped, its time to prepare. Follow the tips below for stress-free meal preparation.
- CONSULT YOUR PLAN: Refer to your plan and see where you can combine cooking methods to make the most of your efforts. This might mean roasting all your vegetables in shifts or firing up the grill and cooking all your meats for the week at one time. Identify ingredients, recipes, and one-pot meals and the preparation required for each meal and snack so you have a plan of action in the kitchen.
- MASTER THE ART OF MULTITASKING: Take advantage of the time you have waiting for vegetables to roast, meat to grill, or water to boil and slice and bag fruits and vegetables or portion and pack dipping sauces and salad dressings while you wait.
- ASSEMBLY LINE: Determine which food items should be prepared in advance to reduce time spent in the kitchen at mealtime and focus your attention on preparing those items in advance. This way, when meal time comes, your only job is to assemble and heat your meals.
- PORTION & PACK: If you are interested in taking your meal planning routine a step further, portion and pack your meals in advance for healthy, on-the-go eating. This step is especially helpful if your day-to-day schedule does not leave much room for the assembly at mealtime. Be sure to store in glass containers to ensure food is reheated properly and reduce clean-up.
Looking for a more personalized food plan? Or more specifics based on your lifestyle? Come and see Kristen, our Registered Dietitian Health Coach at Arizona Wellness Medicine. Request an appointment or call (602) 892-4727.