Have you ever set an intention to eat healthy (whether for the day, for a week or even a whole year) only to find that your objective becomes thwarted when you're presented with more seductive options?
Like when you’re confronted with a doughnut platter at a morning meeting or you’re too hungry to think about anything that involves more effort than a pre-packaged, frozen TV dinner after work.
Situations like these can make it difficult to adopt consistent healthy eating habits, but with a little bit of forward thinking in the form of meal planning you can stick to your good intentions by avoiding them almost entirely.
“Meal planning puts healthy eating at the top of your to-do list,” says Elle Penner MPH, RD, Registered Dietitian and Food & Nutrition Editor at MyFitnessPal and a member of the California Dietetics Association and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Putting you back in control of what you eat. By doing it, you commit to at least some home cooking each week, which is healthier and more nutritious than dining on take-out and packaged meals.”
Meal planning might sound complicated and time consuming, but with the right tools and strategies it can be a simple and hassle-free process.
What exactly does it involve? Basically, you plan out the meals you’re going to eat each day for the upcoming week and then pre-prepare some or all of them ahead of time.
“When hunger hits, having a fridge and pantry stocked with nourishing foods that are ready to eat, or cook, can mean the difference between noshing on something nutritious and hitting up the drive through for a fast food fix,” Penner said. “In addition to helping you eat better, food prep can save time, money, and help keep things sane in the kitchen.”
To keep the nutritional value of your meals on point, Penner suggests including lean protein, high-quality carbohydrates, and healthy fats in each dish.
“Adding well-balanced meals and snacks to your meal plan will ensure you're getting the essential nutrients your body needs and keep you feeling fuller, longer,” she said.
How exactly do you put meal planning into action, though?
Penner says it all starts with putting pen to paper.
“First, sketch out your weekly eats,” she explains. “Grab a pen and paper and write the days of the week on the left side of the page and the meals you want to plan across the top. [Then,] start filling in the blanks, jotting down vague descriptions like ‘quick dinner’ or ‘packable lunch’ if you don't have anything specific in mind. Oh, and don't forget to plan for leftovers.”
Next, you should start referencing your recipe collection. Penner says this is when you can start allocating specific dishes to the meals you jotted down earlier.
“When starting out, I recommend relying heavily on those familiar favorites,” she said. “Once you've gotten the hang of meal planning, it's fun to branch out. I try to add one new dish to our meal plan each week.”
Finally, Penner recommends “posting your meal plan in plain sight”.
“Making your meal plan visual adds accountability when it comes to executing the cooking,” she said.
For those who might be worried that they won’t be able to fit meal planning and prepping into their busy schedule, Penner offers the following time-saving tips.
- Create a master recipe list. Having a list of beloved, go-to meals is one of the easiest ways to expedite the meal planning process. Just add to it every time you find a new dish you love.
- Recycle meal plans from previous weeks. Don't just toss them in the trash. Old meal plans are great to fall back on, especially those weeks you don't have time to sit down and start from scratch.
- Build out your grocery list as you go. Write your grocery list while you fill out your calendar, jotting down quantities for each ingredient too. Before you head to the store take a quick inventory of what you have on hand and cross off the ingredients you don’t need to purchase.
According to Penner, adopting meal planning as a consistent healthy habit comes down to a few simple tips.
First and most importantly, she suggests scheduling time for it each week.
“The last thing we want to do is add one more thing to the calendar, but setting aside time to meal plan is probably the single most important thing you can do to make it a regular habit,” she said.
Second, make sure you have the right tools on hand.
“When starting out, it's important to figure out what works for you,” she explained. “There are lots of meal planning tools out there–everything from free printables on Pinterest to drag-and-drop digital tools to inexpensive meal planning services that do the work for you.”
And finally, “Get friends and family involved,” says Penner. “Not only will you be learning important life skills together, but involving others in your weekly meal planning makes it harder to skip out on–not to mention more fun.”