Understandably, meal planning can feel like an overwhelming or elusive task. It’s not something you can simply start and figure out right away. It’s a systematic process that involves figuring out what best works for you, your family and your weekly schedule.
We have identified the most effective and simplest system for creating a weekly meal plan, which we will break down into 5 steps. These steps might seem obvious, but there is a critical strategy in each of them. But first, let’s look at some of the reasons why you should meal plan for your week.
Why should you meal plan?
You will eat Healthier meals: if you don’t have an actionable meal plan in place, you’re more likely to rely on processed or takeout foods when dinner suddenly sneaks on you. When you plan your meals ahead of time you can ensure that all your meals are well balanced and include plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins. There is a very slim chance you’ll indulge in junk food (1).
You’ll save time: the idea of batching all your weekly meal planning tasks into one day is an effective strategy for saving time. Think of this like your emails –if your check your emails every hour, you will spend more time in your inbox than if you check them twice per day and respond immediately. The same applies when carrying out your tasks in the kitchen.
Sitting down to make a thoroughly weekly meal plan once a week will also mean that you minimise your trips to the grocery, which saves you both time and money. A weekly meal will also allow you to cook smarter by handling some of the preparation work ahead of time.
You will save money: As earlier mentioned, lack of a solid weekly meal plan in place will mean too many trips to the grocery and occasionally eating out. Smart meal planning will also allow you to efficiently use what you already have and make ingredients do double the work –by utilising them in multiple meal preparations and making proper use of leftovers.
You will have less stress: going in a new week with the knowledge that your meals are planned out offers incomparable peace of mind. You get to plan your meals around your busy schedule so that everything works for your stress-free. The last thing you need is coming home after a busy day to hungry, whiny kids that will eat anything they can find in the pantry. With a meal plan in place and even some meal prep done in advance, you will save yourself from going nuts.
Key principles of meal planning
When it comes to healthy meal planning, you need to employ intuitive and mindful eating habits. Here are the 5 key principles you should apply when planning your weekly meal.
• Balance: this means all the major foods groups need to be present in your meals and about two are present in your snacks. Your body requires a sufficient amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat to function properly. The 2016 The Dietary Guidelines for Americans developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend eating a balanced diet with grains, proteins, vegetables, fruit and dairy (2).
• Variety: you need to get nutrition from a wide range of foods. Mix things up a bit to ensure that your body is exposed to a variety of micronutrients and phytochemicals. There’s actually no magic superfood, but if you incorporate a variety of foods into your meal plan, you can maximise the nutrition you’re getting. This also ensures that you don’t get stuck in a rut, day in day out, eating the same type of foods.
• Moderation: this complements the adequacy principle –while you want to eat enough meals, you also want to stop eating at a comfortable place when you’ve had enough. Desserts should be included in your meal plan and should consist of foods that you’re in the mood to eat, but you should also learn to notice when enough is enough.
• Nourishment: most of us eat to enjoy and socialise, and often times are intrigued by something new in the diet or revisiting an old favourite recipe. Other than your biological needs and hunger, feel free to eat for fun and other thrilling reasons –experiment, as long as you’re sticking to the healthy food types.
5 simple steps to making a weekly meal plan that actually works
1. Reserve time for planning your meals before the week begins
Setting aside meal planning time before your week gets busy is very important. This could be a Saturday morning or Friday evening before the weekend fun begins. Simply find a time that works and stick to it. Planning before the week begins will also allow you to factor the leftovers and produce and is still on hand after the just concluded week. I personally prefer planning on Friday so that I get enough grocery shopping time on Saturday.
2. Who are you planning the meals for?
A weekly meal plan for one person is a lot easier and different from a full family meal plan. If you’re meal planning for your entire family, you should consider their input and needs. For instance, do you need to prepare separate meals for your teens or kids? Will all adults in your family follow the same meal plan? Does anyone in your family has special dieting needs? Generally, consider the number of people that will actually be following your diet because it will influence the amount and number of meals you prepare.
3. Check for activities and events in your week’s calendar
It can be quite a bummer to write a well-thought-out, amazing meal plan for a week only to be disrupted by someone’s office lunch potluck or birthday party. If there will be meals offered at an event, factoring this in will help you to avoid preparing too many meals than you should. Additionally, you can plan to make a freezer meal or a full meal in advance in you know you won’t have enough time to prepare meals after an event. Be sure to check with the people you’re preparing the meal plan to see if they have any meal reservations in the coming week.
4. Plan meals to use up the ingredients and leftovers you already have
It’s always a good idea to plan meals around the ingredients and food reserves that you already have. You should prioritise things that will either go bad quickly or those that are open and half used. This approach will reduce food waste, save money and give you some starting ideas for your meal plan. For instance, if you have a head of cauliflower, you can whip up a creamy cauliflower sauce and put it over noodles, chicken and some vegetables. Simply choose an ingredient, plan a meal around it and stick to your plan.
5. Leave some room for leftovers
You don’t really have to whip up a new meal every single meal time. One of the meal planning goals is planning not to cook when you don’t have the time to. For instance, you can prepare a large meal on Sunday that will provide leftovers for that busy after-work Monday evening when you don’t even feel like stepping in the kitchen. This is technically “planned leftovers”. Planning for leftovers will also help save time and money and reduce food waste.
Well, that’s pretty much all you need to know about coming up with a decent and healthy weekly meal plan for you and your family. The most important thing is to know why you’re creating your meal plan, follow the principles of meal planning and keep the above steps in mind. That’s it!
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