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How to Meal Plan
“Mom, what’s for dinner?” Ugh. I think everyone can agree that this is the most frustrating question we hear. That question is loaded with responsibility, decision making and work. “I don’t know!” This is our typical response. If this conversation happens frequently in your family, or even with yourself, you need to start meal planning.
The first habit of healthy eating is to eat regularly and with a purpose. The idea behind this is that you have a plan: you know when to eat and what to eat. This eliminates haphazard and spontaneous eating patterns, which are major obstacles to sticking with a nutritional plan. You probably experience this all the time…lunch time rolls around and you have no idea what to eat. You put it off for as long as you can, but suddenly it’s 2:00 and you’re starving. So, you grab whatever is convenient, quick and tasty. McDonald’s drive thru anyone? Be honest, you’ve done it.
Meal planning is your answer.
Not only will meal planning help you adhere to your nutritional goals much better, but it will also save your sanity. No more scrounging around at the last minute, staring hopelessly into your fridge trying to come up with a meal.
Here’s what you need to do to make it happen.
Plan your meals for one week. Sit down with your calendar before the week begins (on a Saturday or Sunday) and sync up your activities. Determine which days are busy with lots of errands and activities, and which days you’ll have more time to cook. On busy days, schedule meals that will be completely doable to throw together.
Also recognize when you’re having a brunch, office lunch meeting, date night out, etc. Put all of these “special meals” on your meal planner and work around them.
Things get a little fuzzy if you plan for more than one week at a time. This seems proactive, but when the second or third week rolls around, your schedule may completely change and the whole plan has to get thrown out the window.
Don’t get too creative. If you love to cook and try new recipes all the time, more power to you, but you don’t have to do this. You can have a basic rotation of easy recipes. It’s ok to write “smoothie” and “leftovers” every day for breakfast and lunch. If your meal plan looks too ambitious and fancy, the likelihood of you following through on all those meals is slim. Include variety, but don’t set the bar too high.
Create a “healthy dinner list”. This may take a couple minutes, but it’s a one-time job. Try to write down every healthy dinner you know how to make and maybe a couple new healthy recipes you’d like to try. This list can be modified over time, but it’s a great place to start. When you have a visual list of all the healthy meals you know how to make, it makes meal planning much easier. Put this list on your fridge for quick reference.
Fill in your dinners for the week. Draw from your healthy dinner list to write down the dinners you plan to make each evening. Remember, consider what that day will look like and how much time (or desire!) you’ll have to cook.
To narrow things down even more, you can create a “style schedule”. For example, Mondays-crockpot, Tuesdays-Mexican, Wednesdays-Fish, Thursdays-BBQ, Fridays-wild card. This means that on Mondays, you only have to come up with a crockpot meal. (I encourage making crockpot meals on Mondays or Tuesdays because it usually provides you with lunches for the next few days…win!)
Fill in your breakfasts, lunches and snacks for the week. Like I said before, don’t get too creative here. You can eat the same thing every day for these meals if you want. I even allow myself some flux. For example, for lunch every day, I write “smoothie or leftovers”. Simple. So, if Thursday rolls around, I know that lunch will either be leftovers if I have them or a smoothie. No-brainer.
Plan around your workouts. One of the healthy eating habits (if your goal is to get leaner and lose some bodyfat) is to save starchy carbohydrates for workout days. Write down which days you will be working out, and then your meals can reflect your needs for higher carbohydrates on those days. For instance, if you’ll be doing a hard mid-morning workout on Wednesday, then you might have a Mexican rice and bean bowl for lunch, instead of just a chicken salad. (An added benefit is that you’ll be more likely to complete your workouts when they’re written on a schedule.)
Plan your splurge meals. If you have a firm goal of losing body fat, don’t deviate from the healthy eating habits more than 3 or 4 times in a full week. If you are at a good place and want to just maintain, don’t deviate from the healthy eating habits more than 6 or 7 times in a full week. Your activity schedule greatly determines when your cheat meals will be. Going on a date Saturday night? Write down “dinner out”. If Friday night is pizza night, write down “pizza” for dinner. If you’re meeting a friend for breakfast at your favorite bakery/coffee shop on Tuesday morning, write down how you plan to splurge (pumpkin scone and a mocha). It’s helpful to highlight or star your cheat meals so you can easily see how many you have.
Use your meal plan to shop. (Or vice versa.) Once your meal plan is in place, head to the grocery store and get everything you need for all your meals. You can even prep some of the ingredients ahead of time if you desire.
I usually do this backwards. I go grocery shopping first, seeing what foods are on sale, what is fresh and in season, and load myself up with lots of healthy ingredients. Then I come home and plan my meals out based on what I purchased.
Stick to the plan but learn from it. Once the plan is in place, you need to stick to it. Remember, the daily decisions are now out of your hands (phew!), so you just need to trust the meal plan and go with it.
Pay attention to how you felt with your meal plan. Too boring? Add in more variety next week. Too complicated? Remove some variety and try to repeat more meals next week (eat those leftovers!). If you liked this week’s meal plan, save it and do it again in a couple weeks. I recommend having a three week rotation.
Meal planning is a fantastic tool for adhering to your nutritional habits and keeping you sane. Give these tips a go and start meal planning this next week. The next time you’re asked “what’s for dinner?” you can confidently look at your plan and say, “Crockpot Chili”! (Meal planning doesn’t eliminate 4 year old whining and complaining though…if you figure that one out, let me know.)
Need more help with what to put on your meal plan?
Click here to download a FREE Nutrition Report that will help clear up a lot of confusion around healthy nutrition!