Menu and Meal Planning for Real People
So many of us want to be healthy and organized, but life gets in the way. We end up at the grocery store tired, hungry without a list, and with only a vague idea of what we are going to cook for dinner. We may not have even planned for breakfast or lunch. This may lead to frequent fast food stops or skipped meals followed by hunger and binges on high calorie food. Every week, you resolve to do better, but groan at the thought of paging through your cook books, making both a menu and shopping list. It seems like so much work! Many weeks become hectic with last-minute, unsatisfying meals. Some nights you might be so tired you throw in the towel and just order pizza. But deep down inside you desire to eat healthy. Does it have to be difficult?
I lived in that cycle for many years and finally found a way to plan my meals and to stick to a good routine for our very busy life with 2 working parents, 2 active and demanding boys and frequent out-of-town travel.
For those of you who are frustrated and ready to make some changes that stick, here are my personal guidelines for success for healthy and inexpensive weekly menu and meal planning:
- You DON’T have to cook every single night! I usually only cook 3-4 times per week. I always double my recipes so we have leftovers for lunches or for the following night if that’s the meal plan for the week. We also purposely plan one night per week when we go out to eat. This is part of my 90/10 rule (90% healthy as possible, 10% fun), and the kids really look forward to Friday nights at their favorite restaurant.
- Plan to eat leftovers for lunch! I don't have to think about separate meals or re-invent the wheel every day. After we eat dinner, I pack up the leftovers in airtight containers so they are easy to grab and place into lunch boxes in the morning. I know I will always have something yummy to eat the next day.
- Consider batch cooking. I’m not great at this because I don't have several hours to cook at a time. If you have a free day to pre-cook your meals, there are several great recipes that freeze well or can be stored in your fridge for a few days.
- Memorize 8-10 of your favorite, simplest recipes you can make in 30 minutes or less and rotate these throughout the month. You can even decide to have certain nights of the week that you cook certain things like “pizza night”, “taco night”, or “soup night”. You can get creative and add variety by changing the exact recipes, but this gives you a template to work with requiring minimal effort.
- Pick a day where you can sit down and plan your meals once per week or once per month. When planning your meals, consider things like your work schedule, travel, holidays, and special events. When I work late, I usually plan to eat leftovers because I know I will be too tired to cook a meal from scratch when I get home.
- Go grocery shopping only once per week. This one is huge for me. I don't really have time to go to the grocery store more than once per week. But when I do go, I always go with a list and stick to it.
- Consider using a meal planning service. I use the Happy Herbivore meal plans (www.happyherbivore.com) for the family and I love them! I get choices of fresh recipes every week with little effort. The other reason I like using this type of service is I can trust the source to provide healthy, whole-foods plant-based recipes that are balanced and nutritious. In addition, it eliminates boredom.
- Consider using a personal meal planning program. My favorite online program is called Plant to Eat (www.plantoeat.com). This is a very user-friendly program where you can plug in your existing recipes or download recipes from blogs or other online resources. You can then easily plan your weekly menu (including breakfast, snacks, and lunch if you want), adjust serving sizes (I always do since I double each dinner) and print out a beautiful, user-friendly shopping list. You can access your recipes, menu and shopping lists from any mobile device. I even use this on vacation when I decide to cook for a family member or when we have an extended stay in a place with a kitchen. Plan to Eat is an easy and inexpensive way to stay on track.
- Have healthy back-ups available for those extra crazy weeks. I admit I‘m not perfect and sometimes I give into the temptation of spontaneity and choose to hang out with a friend and do something really cool instead of getting to the grocery store. If I my plans get delayed by a day or so, I usually have some relatively healthy options as back-ups in the pantry, fridge or freezer. These include homemade or store-bought veggie burgers and buns (I actually freeze the buns so I know I’ll have them when I need them), hummus, whole wheat wraps and canned beans, frozen veggies and stir-fry sauce, pasta and tomato sauce. In a pinch, I know I can make it a day or two with healthy meals that are easy to prepare from non-perishable or frozen foods.
- Make planning a habit. If you have to write it down your menu planning and grocery shopping in the calendar, do it! Try to stick to your routine for 30 days and see if it feels right for you. Once you get the hang of it, planning gets easier and faster, and you will likely enjoy the benefits of a happy body and digestive system. You will probably also lose weight! The benefits of something so simple can be amazing!
- Don’t give up! Keep trying different things and scrap what doesn’t work for you. You may not be successful right away, but try to problem solve. Evaluate why certain strategies don’t work for you. Only you know what is realistic for your lifestyle and your budget. Be open and creative and discover what helps you plan healthy, nutritious meals for your lifestyle and family.
I hope you will give some of these a try if you are feeling frustrated with meal planning. If these tips have been helpful, feel free to share with others. Comment below and let me know what you think!
With much gratitude,