photo by Marten Bjork via Unsplash

Busy? Then Meal Planning is Where it’s At

August 2, 2021

by tiffany ricci, rdn

You’re busy - working, parenting, organizing schedules, getting kid A to points B, C, & D and in the midst of this, you’re responsible for keeping mouths fed. That’s a lot. So why add meal planning to your already packed life?

Before we dive into the meat of Meal Planning (pun intended), let’s define meal planning as a skill. The more you practice, the better you get. So, if you’ve tried this before and it has not worked or it was too stressful, now’s the time to give it another go. Ease yourself into this practice and make it work for your family. There are many benefits of planning your meals, such as:

  • Improved overall diet quality. The more meals you eat at home, the more likely you are to meet your nutrient needs by increasing your intake of vegetables and fiber. You’ll also lower your intake of added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. 
  • Decreased food waste. When you’re actually using the produce and perishable items you bought at the grocery store, you’re decreasing the amount you throw away. 
  • Saving money. Home cooked meals are cheaper than eating out. You’ll also save money by using the food you bought rather than throwing it away - aka decreasing food waste.
  • Saving time. When you’re planning your meals and creating a grocery list for the week, you decrease your trips to the store - saving you time, money, and gas.
  • Decreased stress level. You already know the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” so you reduce daily decision fatigue by making the decisions ahead of time. You don’t need to plan a late afternoon trip to the store to pick up ingredients for dinner...or rely on take-out, again. You already know what you’re having for dinner (and so does everyone else if you post your menu) - and know if you need to thaw meat, chop veggies, start a soup early, make a batch of rice. You remove stress and anxiety on the daily. 

If saving time, money, and stress while decreasing food waste and improving the quality of your diet sounds appealing, then let’s move on to the “how” of meal planning:

1. Start with your schedule. In order to plan meals to fit your family’s lifestyle and preferences, you have to know what’s going on. You don’t want to plan a time-intensive meal on a night when two kiddos have late afternoon soccer practice and you need to prep for a big day at work. Laying out your weekly schedule can determine when you need quick meals, when you need the InstantPot, and when you can prepare a double batch of stew to freeze for next week. 

2. Plug in your meals. This is where the fun begins! Now that you know how much time you have available during the week to prepare meals - you can pencil in tried-and-true favorites along with new recipes. 

  • This is where I recommend trying theme nights. It can reduce more of the decision fatigue when you’re looking for certain recipes to fit the theme. For example - Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Pizza Fridays, Spaghetti Sundays - are great starter options. You can also expand this to set aside different days for Breakfast for Dinner, Grill Night, Salad & Bread, Picnic Time and more to use for a month. There’s variety within the theme, but an overall direction to take some of the decision-making off the table when you’re creating your meal plan.
  • Don’t forget to include options for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. We tend to be good at repetition for these meals leaving the variety to the dinner meal. However, you can include more elaborate ideas for these meals if you’d like. The best part of your meal plan is that it’s YOURS!

3. Create your grocery list. Now that you have meals plugged into your schedule, you can create your grocery list based on what you need. Make sure you have items for breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. When you shop, it’s helpful to take your meal plan with you. This way, if the store is out of a crucial ingredient, you can adjust your meal plan accordingly on the spot rather than leaving a hole for one day.  

  • Keep a running grocery list near your kitchen. You can add to it when you run out of something. Make sure to consult this running list when making your weekly grocery list so you only have to make one trip to the store.

4. Get ahead of the game. Save time by meal prepping - chopping veggies, creating spice kits, and portioning meat - to ease the time commitment later in the week. You can also prepare your breakfast, lunch, and snacks all at once so that they’re ready to go when you are. This is not an essential step to meal planning, but one that can help once you get into the groove of planning your meals.

5. Stock the staples. We all know life happens. Unexpected meetings at work, trips to the walk-in clinic, car troubles, and the like can derail your meal planning. You can mitigate these issues by keeping staple meals handy. Stock your freezer with frozen veggies and cooked grains. Keep pasta in the pantry and cheese or pesto in the fridge. Prepare a double batch of soup or stew and freeze half to quickly thaw when necessary. Keep canned chicken or tuna on hand. You can throw together a quick and nutritious meal when you have the staples on hand to do so.

Meal Planning is considered a food skill that is connected to creativity, budgeting, time management, and self-care. It’s a great skill to involve your children. They’re never too young to see the variety and abundance of the grocery store. As they get older, they can help in creating meals, preparing grocery lists, and cooking the meal. As parents we are privileged to prepare our children for the world and meal planning is a lifetime skill from which your children can reap.

As we’re turning seasons, it’s prime time to practice meal planning if it’s not already part of your routine. It takes time to hone this skill so be patient and give yourself grace. In no time, you’ll be a meal planning pro! 

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