I know, I know, planning takes effort and time and blah, blah, blah. Here's the deal, plain and simple: If you want to eat healthy you have to plan ahead. I'm not kidding - you're probably making it much more difficult than it needs to be, but one of the most frustrating things I deal with when working with clients are people who expect that a healthy, well-balanced meal is just going to show up on their dinner tables each night. I can give you all of the tips you want, but if you don't use them nothing will change.
Ready for a change?
You don't need a fancy notepad or a thousand cookbooks - you just need a piece of scratch paper, a writing utensil and some basic knowledge of cooking.
The more often you do this the easier it will become, but for starters, you want to set aside at least an hour or two a week. I like to do this on Sundays after church. I plan out my meals, get my recipes in order, take things out to thaw, chop and prep.
The number one mistake I find people making is that they plan their meals around protein. If they have chicken they try and come up with a chicken dish. Then when half the produce in their fridge goes bad because they didn't use it up fast enough, they complain that healthy eating is expensive and they end up throwing things away.
Rule #1: Plan your meals around your produce, not your protein.
Why not plan your meals around the things that are going to spoil first if you don't use them? Afterall, the meat can sit in your freezer for a month, but the bok choy will only last a few days.
Make a list of all of the items you have in your fridge or pantry that will go bad if you don't use them in the next week. Then make a list of all of the proteins you have and then the "extras" you have in your pantry (canned tomatoes, beans, pasta, etc). Remember you only need a handful of recipes for the week - there will most likely be leftovers. Also keep in mind produce that is starting to lose it's "oomph" can easily be thrown in a sauté, or baked in a dish and no one will ever know it was on it's last leg.
Rule #2: Utilize your resources.
Don't be afraid to browse cookbooks, food blogs (ahem) and even Pinterest (even though I think Pinterest is the devil and you'll end up needing to set aside 5 hours a week instead of 1 for this task). Just keep one thing in mind: you're not Martha Stewart, and unless you're entertaining a crowd every night of the week, your family will just be happy that you're putting hot, healthy food on the table.
Rule #3: Get your spouse/kids involved.
I realize the last sentence in the above paragraph might not be realistic. I happen to have a husband that isn't picky, but if you do have picky eaters, ask their input. Especially kids, don't forget to ask them what they would like to eat during the week. If they pick the meals, then they will take ownership in that meal and want to eat it. Don't forget to have them help you cook it too!
Rule #4: Write it down.
I have a whiteboard in my kitchen that lists out: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday....and next to each day is listed what we're eating. If I have salad mix that needs to get eaten and cherry tomatoes that are getting wrinkly, then I'll grill up some chicken breast and make Southwest Chicken Salads. After you have your list of what you have and what recipes look good to your family, write it down so that you have an action plan. This doesn't mean the plan can't change, but knowing what you intend to make the next night will help you to take meat of the freezer the night before, get a head start on chopping veggies and adding any additional items you need from the store to your weekly list so you're not stuck that night without an ingredient.
Writing it down will also help you identify nights that might be a bit crazier than normal that week. If you've got soccer practice Tuesday nights and piano lessons on Thursdays, you can plan meals those evenings that take less time to prep and cook.
Rule #5: Do as much as you can ahead of time
I mentioned earlier that you should set aside 1-2 hours. If you have your weekly list written out, and you know you'll need chopped veggies for stir fry, chop them that day and then store them in a container in the fridge until the night you need them. If you need to grate some cheese or make a marinade, do it ahead of time and store it in the fridge until you need it. The more steps you can get out of the way, the less time you'll spend scrambling that night.
These are just some basic steps to help you get started. To help save more time, do one grocery store trip in a week. If you are planning ahead and writing it down, you'll know what items you need for each meal that you don't already have at home. This way you're also less likely to purchase a bunch of food at the store that you'll never eat before it goes bad. Grocery stores are like Targets, you need a list to stay on track or you'll end up spending more than you need on things you won't use.
Meal planning can be very enjoyable, once you get the hang of it! I encourage you to set time aside each week to make this a family practice. You spend time each week planning out when you'll get your nails done, see friends, and even what you'll wear - why don't you plan what you feed yourself and your family? Afterall, isn't what you put IN your body more important than what you put ON it?
Here's a sample of our menu this week - where I had a lot of zucchini to get rid of!
Sunday: Labor Day Cookout at Dad's
Monday: Zucchini Pizza and Salad
Tuesday: Fresh Brats on the grill and grilled zucchini with tomato vinaigrette
Wednesday: Pasta with Pesto Sauce and Tomato, Cucumber and Red Onion Salad
Thursday: Dinner Out with Friends
Friday: Pork Chops with Scallion Citrus Relish and Salad with Avocado dressing
Saturday: Honey - Jalapeno Chicken Tenders with Cilantro Chili Corn-on-the-cob
I'd love to hear any additional tips and comments you have. Has meal planning become a part of your routine?