SALT LAKE CITY — Eating well, which I would define as feeding yourself consistently, regularly and adequately, is largely dependent on planning ahead. Like most forms of self-care, it’s easy to put this on the back burner when life gets busy.
Meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation often feel like a luxury; however, I would classify them as essential.
It’s very unlikely that planning ahead will ever feel convenient. But without a plan, you’ll wind up making decisions when you are too hungry and have to make do with whatever is convenient. Being unprepared leads to impulsive and reactive food behaviors, which creates negative experiences with food, making you feel like you need a diet.
In fact, I think what we often want from a diet or food plan is the structure and predictability it provides. However, you can create that structure and predictability in a flexible, non-militant way. The kind of meal planning I am encouraging here is a flexible structure where you anticipate your needs while leaving room for life to happen. This allows for positive food experiences that build trust and confidence in your ability to take care of yourself.
Time, as I’ve mentioned, is a common hurdle for meal planning. Some others may include finances, knowledge and interest in doing so. Here are some tips for how to simplify the meal planning process:
- Grocery delivery: You don’t have to set foot in a grocery store nowadays if you don’t want to. Many local and national chains offer online orders that you either swing by to pick up or are delivered to your house. That can eliminate a step, making it feel less overwhelming.
- Kitchen shortcuts: Whether you order online or shop yourself, take advantage of prechopped produce, canned beans, instant rice, jarred marinara sauce, rotisserie chicken, frozen fruits and vegetables, etc. Let someone else do some of the steps for you so preparing a meal only needs assembling instead of a lot of cooking.
- Leftovers: If you are already preparing a meal, why not double or triple the recipe and have it ready for another meal? Essentially, cook less often but have more to eat — sounds pretty great, right?
- Outsource: Meal delivery services like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh can alleviate the need for a lot of planning or preparation. The downside is they may be more expensive than buying your own groceries. The potential benefits include more meal variety with someone else planning balanced meals for you.
I asked some fellow dietitians to offer advice for simpler and less intimidating meal planning:
1. "For a flexible approach, I often encourage clients to have approximately three main dish options for the week, three side options and a few snacks. I think it makes it less overwhelming for people if they have some things at home that they know they have available. This also allows them to mix and match based on what sounds good. I find that strict meal planning does not allow for you to explore what sounds satisfying to you. But having a variety of tasty options can certainly be helpful. I usually encourage having a couple of freezer meal options (whether you make them yourself, or you have a kind from the grocery store that you like.) This way, when you have a long day and absolutely don’t feel like cooking or didn’t prep anything in advance, you still have some choices." —Amanda Lambrecths, registered dietitian, Spilling the Beans
2. "Rather than meal planning/prepping, I recommend batch cooking a grain, a protein or two, and sometimes veggies (or just having veggies on hand). Then you can mix and match options for easy weeknight dinners and it offers the flexibility to add new flavors through seasoning!” —Samantha Osterhaus, registered dietitian, Live Mindfully Well
3. "My best strategy for meal planning is to BE FLEXIBLE. I personally plan for five meals per week. I give myself two nights off — one of those nights is usually a frozen food night like pizza or chicken tenders and the other we may eat out or have leftovers. The other five nights I have easy, balanced meals planned, but I switch them around if needed, and I remind myself that it’s only a plan and it’s flexible. I place foods in the freezer if I’m not going to use it in an appropriate time frame. Knowing that it’s not rigid helps me and my clients feel more at ease and less discouraged when “life happens” and we all know that things come up and plans change.” —Stacy Cluxton Michael, registered dietitian, Cluxton Consulting
4. "Doing some meal planning for the week is an excellent form of self care. It ensures you have food ready for when hunger or intuition kicks in. I like to make a list of three to four dinner ideas, including a protein, fat, a couple carbohydrates (with some fiber of course), and something to add satisfaction (maybe a fun sauce, some crunchy topping, etc)." —Hannah Turnbull, registered dietitian nutritionist, Healthy Hanny
5. "I always encourage my clients to look at meal planning as an experiment. For many of my clients (and me) the point of meal planning is to eat more deliciously, reduce stress during the week, and save money. Try out a meal planning method for a week, then look back on what actually helped make the week easier and more enjoyable, and what didn't. Then take that and tweak it. Looking at it through this lens allows for flexibility and reduces guilt which is really beneficial when using these tactics to improve wellbeing and reduce stress levels long term." —Rebecca Clyde, registered dietitian, Nourish Nutrition
6. "I teach clients to make lists of favorite family items so that sitting down to plan out the week doesn't take as much time or thought. If possible, pick a night once a week or once every two weeks to try a new recipe to help expand the favorites lists. Keep in mind schedule, balance, budget, and life's hiccups. Make sure to match meal intensity to schedule intensity— don't plan a complex meal on a busy day!" —Yaffi Lvova, registered dietitian nutritionist, Baby Bloom Nutrition
7. "When I'm working with someone who is new to menu planning I start by encouraging them to pick some ideas for themed meals. This could be something like Pasta Thursdays, Fiesta Fridays, or more commonly known themes like Taco Tuesdays or Meatless Mondays. Whichever themes they choose (maybe they're ready for a theme every day, maybe they're only ready for a couple of themes), I work with them to select one or two easy-to-make fall-back recipes they can keep in their proverbial back pocket for each of the themed days. I've found that a simple structure like this gives individuals the freedom to experiment with new recipes (like an interesting enchilada recipe they saw on their favorite cooking show) while having the peace of mind to know they can always make their "back pocket" recipes of quesadillas or taco salad. Having these "back pocket" recipes also allows for the development of a kitchen staples list they can use to make their grocery shopping streamlined and less of a headache." —Sydney Cavero-Egúsquiza, registered dietitian, Simply You Nutrition
8. "Cooking/preparing meals will always feel chaotic if we don’t at least have some basics on hand to build meals with. Having a well stocked pantry can help you in a pinch. Have a list of meals that you can always pull from pantry staples ex; canned tuna for tuna salad, sandwiches, canned soups you can pair with bread, a frozen meal/entree, etc. Check this stock weekly and see if you need to replenish anything on hand." —Jaren Soloff, registered dietitian, Empowered RD: Nutrition + Lactation
9. "When I talk with clients about meal planning as self care, we look at their schedule or routine and try to see patterns for when they notice their hunger the most or when they feel unprepared. We come up with two or three "go-to" items they can pack or grab quickly for snacks and talk about how practical hunger can be a useful tool to help them avoid becoming too hungry if they wait too long to eat. Often, they're afraid of eating if they aren't ravenous or think they shouldn't or can't eat, so we also talk a lot about permission...permission to eat if you aren't starving, permission to have a snack even if you already ate a meal, permission to change your plans or eat something other than what you brought with you." —Cara Harbstreet, registered dietitian, Street Smart Nutrition
10. "Food values can play a role in meal planning. I would consider sticking within a reasonable grocery budget and eating more foods with less environmental impact as food values. I also encourage all families members to participate in meal planning, instead of it being one person’s responsibility. Everyone gets a say this way!" —Andrea Paul, registered dietitian, Kale, Quinoa and Cookies
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