One of the most frequent questions I get from my regular clients is about best tips for meal planning. Most of us know that nutrient dense food makes us feel our best. We know that. And we know that the best way to eat delicious, nutrient-dense food is to meal plan ahead of time. But we often don’t make the time to prioritize it. It just feels too hard, too overwhelming, and maybe even, dare I say, too wasteful when you prep healthy meals and end up throwing them away because they got ‘old looking’ in the back of your fridge in your mason jars. Yep, I’ve done it too.
I know, we all want meal planning to be gorgeous and delightful. But, it isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always easy. So, that said, I have a few tips to make it a smidge simpler, more cost effective, and more DELICIOUS.
Here we go:
First, meal plan when you are a little bit hungry and food sounds amazing. That way you’ll pick foods that you actually want to eat. Sure, we all love the look of mason jar salads, but if you’re anything like me, by the time Tuesday rolls around, that salad you prepped on Sunday isn’t looking very appealing and I am looking for something tastier. I also know that if my lunch is anything short of amazing, come 3 o’clock I will be meandering the halls, pining for cheezies from the vending machine….
Second, meal plan when you have about 15 (or better, 30!) minutes of uninterrupted time. I typically meal plan during nap time, my lunch break at the office, or after the kiddos head to bed. I need to be able to hear my own thoughts, something I find insanely difficult with a toddler.
Third, be realistic about the meals you’ll be making and cut yourself some slack. Look at the week ahead (yes, I mean open your calendar and consult it) and plan accordingly. For example, if Tuesday evenings are crazy, plan a simple meal that needs very little prep. Use pre-prepped veggies (no shame). Plan quesadilla night. You get the idea.
On to the actual pen to paper strategies:
I made up this fun little crafty shopping list/meal planning sheet that I use every week. I keep trying cute stationary or fancy meal planning sheets, but they never last. This system does.
As you can see, I fold the paper down the centre and then turn the sheet hotdog style. On the left half, at the top of the paper, I write: Meals. Below that, I list the days, then at the bottom, make little boxes for breakfast and lunch. Once this structure is set up, I fill in the dinner ideas next to each day of the week. Then, I typically pick 2 breakfasts and 2 lunches to rotate through each week. This amount of variety works for me. Find what works for you. I prefer to shop just once a week to save money and trips to the store, but we are definitely not perfect at that. Again, find what works for you and your family.
On the right, I write Buy. Then, I list all of the ingredients that I need to buy to make those meals happen. I am a total nerd, so I list the groceries in the order of my local store: produce items first, then frozen fruit, dairy/eggs, etc. I find this insanely helpful when I go to the grocery store, especially when the girls are there with me and I don’t have time to think about anything.
And finally, the hands-on meal prep strategies:
Once I get home, I unload the groceries, leaving out the items that I need immediately for meal prep. I arrange them in little piles throughout the kitchen and get to work. I usually plan for 1-2 hours of meal prep a week for our family of four. I make this happen quickly by making sure my kitchen is clean and ready to be worked in, by washing dishes by hand as I go, involving my kiddos as much as is reasonable (!), making sure the hubs is on kiddo duty, and by having fun (listening to podcasts in my earbuds, playing music, etc.).
During this time, I usually focus on making all of the breakfasts and lunches (or ensuring the prep for them is done) for the week ahead. Then, I just make sure that dinners are simple to prepare. I don’t do much prep for them because I am not a big fan of pre-chopping onions, garlic, or other veggies for 2 reasons:
1) they start to lose nutrients and fresh flavour as soon as you cut into them
2) they start to look drab in the fridge and I know that I won’t use drab looking veggies. I just won’t. Wish I could. I already know I won’t.
These are my own hang-ups though. They don’t need to be yours. The important thing here is to know what the deal breakers are for you. If you know you won’t eat rice after it has been chilled, then don’t prep it, no matter how much you like the idea. It is better to spend a bit of extra time preparing homemade meals that you’ll love, right when you need them, than spend a bunch of time prepping food you’re going to end up wasting.
A couple final points in closing:
- The instant pot is a lifesaver: I love making lentil soups and bean/grain bowls for lunch and this is the best way to do that quickly and efficiently.
- Did I mention to cook food you love??? Hopefully you realize how important that part is.
- In a rut? I offer meal inspiration! For $75, I send you 5 breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas and corresponding recipes, as well as a smattering of snacks and sides. The meal plans are customizable to your specific dietary needs, and already come vegetarian and gluten-free. The idea is that these ideas will help you branch out of your usual favourites and try some new, delicious foods. Shoot me an email if you’re interested.
- Finally, have fun with it and figure out what system works best for you, your family, and your life. Remember that this system will change over time and that is okay. The only important thing here is that meal planning only exists to make your life easier. If it doesn’t do that, then don’t do it!