Q: I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to meal plan in order to put healthier meals on the dinner table. How should I do this so that it doesn’t take up a lot of my time?
If “what’s for dinner?” is a daily question, it’s time to embrace meal planning. A play-it-by-ear approach to meals can undermine your diet, not to mention create additional stress.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be a complicated, time-consuming task. With the right plan of attack, it’s possible to make home cooking a manageable (and enjoyable) part of your busy schedule.
There are many reasons to add meal planning to your healthy-eating tool box. Improved nutrition is definitely one of them.
A French study published in 2016 revealed that, among 40,554 participants, meal planners ate a wider variety of foods (especially fruits and vegetables), had more nutritionally balanced diets and were less likely to be overweight than participants who didn’t plan meals in advance.
That makes sense. If you’re tired and hungry at the end of a workday and don’t have a plan, it’s all too easy to order a quick takeout meal or snack your way through the evening.
Meal planning also reduces the stress of last-minute meal decisions. If the whole family knows what’s for dinner in advance, meal battles can be avoided.
Being organized saves money and prevents food waste, too. Your meal plan creates a weekly shopping list for ingredients that will be used rather than spoiling in the fridge.
You’ll know exactly what you need to buy and be more likely to resist impulse purchases at the grocery store. And you’ll rely less on restaurant and takeout meals.
Meal planning may seem like an extra “to-do” in a busy week, but it will ultimately save you time in the kitchen. And the more often you do it, the easier it becomes.
7 strategies for successful meal planning
Schedule it in. Establish a day and time of the week to plan your weekly menu, perhaps on the weekend or a week night after the kids are in bed. Once meal planning becomes integrated into your schedule it will seem less like a chore.
Create a blueprint. To keep meal planning easy, map out a simple framework that’s based on meal categories for days of the week. For example, plant-based Mondays, chicken Tuesdays, stir-fry Wednesdays, pasta Thursdays, slow cooker Sundays and so on.
Then, when planning for the week, assign a recipe to each category. Include breaks from cooking, such as a day for takeout or leftovers.
Make your meal plan visible (for example, on the fridge) to help hold yourself accountable. Doing so can also ward off complaints by reminding everyone what’s been agreed upon for dinner.
Plan for leftovers. As you plan your meals, think about how you can cook once and make two or more meals out of it. Leftover roasted chicken, for example, can be made into salads, wraps and tacos.
Cook an extra serving of dinner for an easy, no-prep lunch the next day.
Get everyone involved. Engage your family in the meal-planning process. When everyone has a say about which meals they’d like to eat, they’re more likely to be open to eating other people’s selections.
Meal prep for the week. Once you’ve planned your meals, consider prepping some of them in advance. Cook a batch of soup, pasta sauce or chili for later in the week, or freeze for another week.
Batch-cook whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and oats. Make a bean or lentil salad for a meatless lunch or side dish for dinner.
Chop vegetables for snacks and salads during the week. Hard boil a bunch of eggs or make frittata muffins for a quick breakfast protein.
Grill or bake salmon, chicken or tofu for a few days’ worth of lunches.
If you’re prepping meals for one, store prepped ingredients individually so you can vary your meals each night.
Consider convenience. Take advantage of time-savers at the grocery store that require zero or minimal prep, such as prewashed salad greens, precut fresh vegetables and chopped fresh fruit.
Stock your freezer with frozen vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower and butternut squash can be roasted from frozen for dinner. Keep frozen kale or spinach on hand to add to smoothies and pastas.
Have a backup plan. Sometimes dinners don’t go according to plan. Keep your pantry stocked with staples you can quickly throw together for a healthy meal, such as tinned tuna, canned beans, eggs, frozen vegetables and frozen veggie burgers.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.