Note: This post originally appeared October 23, 2014, on a blog that was a project for dietetics school. In order to consolidate my writings, I will be moving several posts from that site to this one.
Things are pretty crazy around here right now. We are still settling into new routines after adding baby number three, I am in school full-time, and my husband works three jobs.
While we are struggling in some aspects to meet our basic health needs (um, hello, sleepless nights), eating well and exercising are always a priority for our self-care during difficult times.
I was recently speaking with a loved one about how to make eating well a habit. Healthy eating is a process, and I admit that it is sometimes a two steps forward/one step back process for our household. One tool that helps me to stay on track and give in less to the call of the curly fries is meal planning.
Meal planning helps me meet my nutritional goals in several ways. First, I am less likely to grab a less-healthy convenience food when I have decided what to eat and made preparations in advance. Second, I am able to keep our menus more exciting, because I plan for variety and am more likely to research new recipes during my planning time. Additionally, while the planning itself takes a bit of time, I can usually cut out a shopping trip or two every few days when I plan my meals. I also save money because I eat out less and waste less food in the house.
Sounds great, right? So here's how it works.
1. Take a quick inventory of what you have in the fridge and pantry. If, say, I have a massive haul of tomatoes from my garden, I will think of recipes that call for tomatoes. Or if I have a tray of leftover roasted veggies, I think about soups that might use them up.
2. With the contents of your fridge and pantry in mind, sit down and think of the types of foods you might like to eat during the week. I stick to just dinners, because I eat the same thing most days for breakfast and like to eat dinner leftovers for lunch. But if you like to plan your breakfast and lunch, then just apply the same steps to those meals.
As you consider meals, try to vary protein sources and cuisines. In our home, we typically have red meat one night per week, white meat three times a week, and fish twice a week. Most weeks, we do takeout one night. So I might roast a big pork shoulder Monday and use it for carnitas that night and shepherd's pie Thursday, then do spaghetti squash with meatballs Tuesday, grilled salmon on Wednesday, etc.
3. Once you've sketched out what your week of meals might look like, gather your recipes. I cook from my computer a lot, so I just open the recipes in tabs; however, you can also print them out for quick access, or you can bookmark your cookbook pages.
4. List out the ingredients of your first recipe on a sheet of paper, and add the quantity needed to the right. For each subsequent recipe, add new ingredients at the bottom. But if it is an ingredient that you used in a previous recipe, just write the quantity of the ingredient to the right of the previous quantity.
Once you've listed all ingredients and quantities, add up the quantities needed for each ingredient. This is the first draft of your grocery list.
5. Now, return to your pantry and fridge, and cross off any ingredients you already have. Recopy your list to take to the grocery with you. If you are super fancy, you can organize your list in order of store layout, so that you can breeze through the aisles without forgetting anything.
So how far in advance should you plan? Depends on your preferences. I typically plan 3 days at a time, because I prefer to shop a couple of days a week. Some people like to do one big grocery trip per week, so a weekly plan might be best. Totally up to you!
What about you--are you a meal planner? What strategies work for you?
Thanks for reading, and happy planning!