5 Time-Saving Meal Planning Tips
Clients are always asking, “Can you write me a meal plan?” I think what they’re asking for is a prescription of exactly what to eat at every meal and snack for several weeks in a row. “Just tell me what to eat and I’ll eat it. I don’t want to have to think.”
Thinking about food can be exhausting. I get it.
It takes effort to decide what to eat and then figure out what you need to buy at the grocery store to make it happen. But I’m not convinced that having an exact list of meals and snacks with outlined portion sizes is going to fix anything.
What if you don’t feel like eating spaghetti on the day it says spaghetti? Or what if you don’t like cottage cheese and grapes, which I’ve suggested as your 3pm snack? Or what if life happens and the meal plan doesn’t? And what about when you get really tired of eating the same foods week after week?
So, I’m going to take a pass on giving out meal plans. Instead, I’m flipping the term around to provide planned meals. See, instead of giving people fish, and making them eat fish when they don’t feel like fish, I prefer to teach people how to fish. Credit Jesus for the analogy. (And check out Mathew 4:19 where Jesus was actually “fishing for people” to follow Him.)
Here are my tried and true go-tos for keeping my family fed with minimal fuss.
1.Create a meal list library. I think you’ll find that the whole process of coming up with what to eat can be made much easier if you keep a list handy of your go-to dinner favorites. Now, creating this list does take a little bit of time, but it is SO worth it in the end. When brainstorming meal ideas, be very very selective. Only include the meals that are quick, easy, and taste good – meals that you will actually make on a busy weeknight.
As you write down meal ideas, don’t get overly consumed with nutrition, but do aim for an overall balance. In other words, consider not just the entrée, but the side dishes as well. Here are a few meals that are on my personal meal list library:
Taco bowls (rice, beans, tomatoes, avocado, canned/frozen corn, salsa, sour cream, cheese, cilantro, crock pot no fuss chicken if you please)
Baked potato bar (baked potatoes, steamed broccoli, cheese, sour cream, bacon bits, diced cooked chicken or beans)
Pesto pasta with veggies and sausage
Hamburgers (or veggie burgers) with canned baked beans and veggies and ranch dip
Tuna melts and tomato soup
Veggie omelet, hashbrowns, and a fruit salad
See? Nothing earth-shattering or especially snazzy about this list. Just meals that I can put together without too much fuss.
2. Select a set number of meals from the list to plan for the week. How often do you like to grocery shop? I’m a once-a-weeker, but I know from comparing notes with others that not everyone prefers this system. Some prefer to go a few times a week and others like to go a few times a month. Whatever floats your boat!
When you put your grocery list together, just consider how long you’d like it to be before you go back to the grocery store. If you’d like to go once a week, then select 5-6 meals off your meal list library. We might eat out, at church, or at a friend’s house on one of those days, so I never plan for 7 meals.
Start small. If you’ve never planned meals before, and have been eating out most of the time, perhaps an easier place to start would be to just plan 2-3 meals in a week. That might be a major victory compared to what you’ve been doing recently.
3. Make a grocery list. Pick a few meals from the master list and figure out what you need at the store. Once you’ve checked your cupboards and you know what you need for those meals, now it’s time to add in the items you might need for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. For me, I’ve sort of got the “staples” in my head, so I don’t write those down, but do what works for you. Just don’t forget the eggs, bread, milk, cereal, crackers, cheese, apples, bananas, etc.
4. Head to the grocery store. I hate this part…which is why I only put myself through the misery of it once a week. And I always pick Saturday, making the experience extra special. ;) I’m a one-stop-shopper – I only go to grocery stores where I can get everything I need in one place. Plus, I’m a penny pincher, so I congregate with the masses on Saturday morning at our local Fry’s and get ‘er done! And if you hate grocery shopping even more than I do, consider shopping online. I know for my friends, it has added years to their life. They order online and they have it delivered to their door or pick it up already bagged.
5. Pick a dinner meal from your list and let the fun begin! If you have 5 or 6 different dinner meals on your list, then it gives you some flexibility during the week, based on the tastes, textures, and flavors you’re after. Who am I kidding? For me, my dinner choice for the evening has little to do with flavor and almost everything to do with time. There are some evenings where I might have 30-45 minutes to leisurely cook a meal, and there are other evenings where all I have is 10-15 minutes, so it’s tuna melts that night!
Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. A balanced meal shared with others is a victory!
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Dawn is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a wife and a mother to an amazing 11-year old boy. Dawn enjoys finding creative ways to spread the word that God’s unconditional love can bring healing to every broken relationship, including one with food.