Meal Planning Tips to Help You Stick to Your Nutrition Goals
Meal planning is a must for those looking to lose weight, manage chronic conditions, or stay healthy. But sometimes it’s boring, overwhelming, frustrating, or all of the above. Here are some tips to keep your meal planning organized and on track with a little variety and fun along the way.
Follow the Plate Method for Meal Planning
The plate method gives you a guide for how your plate should look. When meal planning make sure you’ve got all 5 food categories present: non-starchy vegetables, fruits, proteins, starch/grains, and healthy fats. I’m a big fan of Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate (below). You can read more about Harvard’s plate method here. I especially like that it focuses on water instead of milk as your main beverage. If you would like more information on following the plate method you can read my Ultimate Guide to the Anti-inflammatory Diet where I discuss each of the food groups in more detail.
Copyright © 2011, Harvard University. For more information about The Healthy Eating Plate, please see The Nutrition Source, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, www.thenutritionsource.org, and Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu.
Lose Weight by Meal Planning
Meal planning helps you stick to your nutrition plan and prevent excess snacking or extra calories from sneaking into your day. Make a plan and stick to it so you know how many calories are coming in and what foods will fit in your day. For additional weight loss advice check out these 25 weight loss tips. If you are serious about losing weight consider enrolling in my 12 week Weight Loss Inspirations Course!
You don’t have to plan an entire month or even an entire week to get started. Consider just meal planning your dinners for practice; you can even just do 2-3 to start with. As you refine your meal planning strategy you can increase the number of meals you plan each week or month. I use PepperPlate to plan my meals. You can use an app, calendar, or notebook. Find a system that works for you and keep at it. If you’d like to download my basic meal planning worksheet (pictured below) sign-up for my mailing list and I’ll send you a PDF for free at your request.
Use Ads for Meal Planning Ideas
Check out the weekly circular for meal ideas. Purchase sale items for budget friendly meals. Ads are a great way to get the ideas flowing. If roast is on sale you can consider a slow-cooker roast recipe or if salmon is on sale you might add that to your weekly menu plan. Ads also help you find out what produce is in season which helps your budget and your health; see the next point for more info.
Stick to Your Dietary Needs
Meal planning allows for you to meet your dietary needs without feeling overwhelmed or forgetful. Need to go low sodium to manage your blood pressure? Add recipes with limited salt. Aiming to manage your diabetes? Go low carb the healthy way and keep your starchy foods to one-fourth of your plate. Aiming to lose weight? Keep portions under control and pair higher calorie main dishes with lower calorie sides. Any dietary needs can be met by meal planning ahead of time and keeping your needs in mind.
Seasonal Simplicity in Meal Planning
Aim to eat vegetables and fruits that are in season. This can help with sticking to your budget as well as getting in a variety of foods throughout the year. Seasonal foods tend to be a better option since they are often grown locally and fresher when purchased. Seasonal produce tends to be a better price option since the store doesn’t have to pay extra for extravagant shipping requirements or special growing conditions. Meal planning based on the season can also help you get a range of nutrients each season and throughout the year.
Weather Appropriate Meal Planning
Speaking of seasons. Hot weather may call for cooler meals such as smoothies and salads. Cold weather tends to lead us to soups and chili. Consider how eating a certain food may affect how you feel or function that day. Hot soup on a day you’re working out in the yard may not be the best choice but would be perfect after playing in the snow! Meal planning with the weather in mind can help you relax and appreciate your foods in a new way.
Keep the freezer, fridge, and pantry stocked with essential items you use consistently. Things you should always keep on hand include: healthy oils, nuts/seeds, frozen vegetables and fruits, peanut butter, brown and wild rice, oats, salt and pepper, canned tuna, frozen meats, canned beans, tortillas, breads/pastas, eggs, etc. Basically always be able to throw together a simple snack or meal if your originally planned option falls through. Any time you finish off one of your essential items it goes directly onto the grocery list. This also helps you prevent running out of an essential item in the middle of your week after you’ve already completed your meal planning and grocery shopping for the week.
Theme Nights for Meal Planning
Consider having theme nights to keep your cuisines rotating and your planning on track. Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, and Fish Fridays are popular options. Obviously you don’t have to have tacos every Tuesday, but something Mexican or a similar flare would work with the theme night and help when you trying to come up with options. This is also not something you have to stick with at all times. Consider it more of a guide or idea generator instead of a rule book. It can keep your meal planning organized but can sometimes feel limiting. Remember you’re ultimately in control of what goes on the menu that night.
To prevent wasting food – plan leftovers into your week. One strategy is to eat leftovers every 4th night or you can plan to have leftovers on your busiest day of the week. Another option is to have leftovers as your lunch meals all week. Try giving leftovers a little twist. For example: Chili can be eaten alone the first night and then over a potato as lunch or the next night. This helps keep things new and fresh and prevents feeling like you’re always eating the same things. When meal planning for the week or month just write in “leftovers” for the meals you plan to use them; that way you don’t forget!
Aim to go vegetarian at least one day per week. There are countless health benefits to a plant-based diet. This doesn’t mean you need to eliminate meat completely – just eat less of it! Having one day a week meatless also makes some room in your budget. Meatless meals tend to be very budget friendly! It also doesn’t have to be Mondays or even a full day. One strategy I implement pretty regularly is having plant-based/vegetarian breakfast and lunches and only having animal products at dinner time. Incorporate meatless options into your meal planning strategy.
You need a back-up plan. This should be 2-3 meals that meet the following requirements: 1) You can keep the ingredients on hand at all times, 2) take less than 15 minutes to throw together, 3) You enjoy eating. These may include something like a simple shrimp stir-fry made with minute rice, frozen precooked shrimp, and a bag of frozen stir-fry vegetables or easy tuna salad sandwiches. These meals are not to be written into your meal plan. Instead, they are planning ahead for the unexpected. Your back-up plan is for those days when you’re running 2 hours behind by the time you finally make it home or your crock-pot dies along with your plans for dinner. This will help keep you out of the drive through and eating home-cooked, nutritionally balanced options instead.
Slow Cookers for Busy Days
If you know you’re going to be away from the house all day but don’t want to break the bank on restaurant meals; get a slow-cooker. I love my slow cooker. I typically use it once a week. Look at your schedule for the week and choose slow cooker meals for days when you’ll get home late or you know you’ll be extra tired and not feel like cooking. Meal planning is vital for those busy days and prepping ahead before you leave the house will make you extra grateful for meal planning when you arrive home to an inviting smell wafting from the slow cooker.
Have a prep day. Pick a day of the week you can set aside 30-60 minutes to do some chopping, slicing, marinating, etc. Prepping for the week can reduce your cooking times and help increase productivity in other areas. Prepping your lunches can keep you away from the vending machine and improve your bank account balance as well. Pre-cut vegetables and fruits will increase snacking of these items instead of junk foods because you’re improving the ease of access.
Make a Big Batch
Batch cooking saves so much time! Double or triple recipes and then freeze them. You can freeze after cooking for quick meals for the next week or month or freeze prior to cooking and place into a disposable casserole dish. Freeze in either single serve (for lunches) or meal sized containers. You can add your frozen dinners to the menu when meal planning for the next month. If you batch cook a few times a month you’ll have several meals each month you don’t have to cook! Just heat and eat. I like to double recipes during the week so I only have to cook twice. We will often eat the same meal Monday/Tuesday and a second meal Wednesday/Thursday. Weekends I’ll cook additional meals when I have more time. There are several ways batch cooking can make meal planning easier and efficient.
Prevent Boredom by Meal Planning
You want to make sure you keep things interesting and vary your options for optimal nutrition. This doesn’t necessarily mean having a new recipe every night! You can change things up simply by using different vegetables, seasoning it a new way, or using different cooking techniques. For example, salmon can be paired with asparagus or broccoli, seasoned with garlic and lemon or teriyaki marinade, and can be baked or grilled. These variations can keep things interesting but also consistently keep your favorite foods on the menu.
Make Meal Planning Easy
Consider how to make your life easier while you’re meal planning. A good rule of thumb is 30 minute or less for recipe times during the week. Experiment or do longer cooking recipes on the weekends when you have more time available. Salads, sandwiches, soups, and casseroles are easy and simple options that don’t take a lot of time or energy. Give yourself a break and buy frozen, pre-cut vegetables, canned beans, and premixed salads as needed. Just because someone else did the work for you doesn’t automatically make it unhealthy. Just stick with whole foods with minimal processing.
Reasons to Repeat
Some people really enjoy certain meals and there is not reason to avoid repeating if you love it! Rotating menus can be great for busy families in fact. Consider coming up with about 25 different meals that you can rotate through each month. You can implement a rotating menu where you basically repeat the menu each month if desired. Utilizing the rotating menu option can really cut down on your meal planning time; saving you time and energy. Swap out dishes occasionally as seasons change or you find something new. This can keep your favorites in steady supply but also allow for some variation from time to time.
Organize Your Recipes
Create a recipe organization system that works for you. You can go the old-fashioned way keep them in a tin if you want to write each one on an index card. You can print them or cut them out of magazines and place in a binder. Other options include organizing your pinterests boards just right or using an app designed to organize your recipes. Honestly how you organize them doesn’t matter. Just have a way to access your go-to recipes so you can easily find them and get dinner on the table.
Grocery Lists are Part of Meal Planning
Once you have your meal planning completed for the week or month, the next step is to write out your grocery list. Add all the ingredients you need for each meal down on your list. Then cross off or delete items you currently have in your pantry. Make sure you take your list to the store and stick to it!
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