How you can simplify your meal planning process
Posted May 26
I remember my mom constantly asking my sister and me what we wanted to eat for dinner. We thought we were being considerate by telling her we didn’t care what she cooked and that we loved everything she made. She would always mention how the hardest part about cooking was to come up with what to eat, and I always thought she was a little crazy for it.
Fast forward to now. I’m a mom myself, finding it very difficult to plan meals. Even though I’m a registered dietitian, I find myself feeling the meal planning fatigue as I sit down to come up with meals to feed my family. I talk about, write about and think about food so much in my professional life, sometimes it’s really hard to do any more of that in my personal life.
Since I know I’m not alone with the monotony and tedium of meal planning, I’m always looking for ways to make healthy eating and meal planning realistic and simple.
So, after thinking about this a lot and seeing my own life improve as I take some time to plan, I’ve come up with some great methods to make meal planning more convenient, less daunting and more likely to actually happen. So let’s talk about some different methods for coming up with an answer to the age old question of what to eat for dinner.
Theme nights. Coming up with what to eat can be so much easier when you think of the nights of the weeks as themes. For example, you could do Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Quick Dinner Wednesday, Try Something New Thursday, Fun Friday, Seasonal Saturday and Comfort Food Sunday. Come up with four or five favorites within each theme and you’ll be eating something different each month. Planning weekly menus will simply involve deciding what sounds good within each theme for the week.
Ingredient-inspired. Right now I have rosemary, Thai basil, oregano, parsley and sage growing in my garden. I love this because it inspires meals. Later this summer I’ll have tomatoes galore, squash and zucchini, peppers, root vegetables and more to help inspire what to cook. Having something as simple as an herb garden in your window can help inspire you for that elusive question of what to eat for dinner. There are many online recipe resources where you can search by ingredient to find a recipe to use something you have on hand and want to use.
International favorites. If you love international foods, use that to your advantage in meal planning. Similar to the theme night idea above, plan meals according to a region in the world whose cuisine you love. Mexican, Italian, American, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Mediterranean foods and more can inspire some amazing home-cooked meals that will never get boring. Find a few family favorites within each category and rotate through your favorites.
Monthly rotation. Sit down and brainstorm your favorite meals. If you can come up with 30 of your favorites, create a monthly rotation to be able to eat each of those meals during each month. This works well for people who are willing to put the initial work in to create the list and then don’t want to have to think about it on a weekly basis.
Batch cooking. I’ve known people who cook a big batch of soup, jambalaya, casserole, grains, protein, veggies, etc., at the beginning of the week that’s used for dinners throughout the week. If you don’t mind eating the same thing for a few days in a row and don’t mind leftovers, this is a very simple solution for quick, easy home-cooked meals.
Simple square meals. If actually planning meals seems daunting, try going to the store and simply buying seven different vegetables, seven grain options and seven protein choices. Each night for dinner you can decide which veggie, protein and grain/starch sounds good. Adjust numbers for each food group based on what you might already have on hand at home or based on when you’re planning on eating outside of your home.
Pre-prepping. Although this isn’t technically a meal planning method, I think it’s helpful to consider this as a method to make eating a home-cooked meal more attainable. Many people find it helpful to invest some time on the weekend to pre-prep their foods. This can take shape in the form of chopping vegetables, portioning out protein options for the freezer, or even precooking certain things that take longer to cook like brown rice.
Family (or roommate) participation. Invite the people who live in your home to help contribute to the meal planning process. Put each person in charge of coming up with a meal and perhaps even ask them to generate a grocery list and help cook the meal. For your kids, this not only helps teach them about meal planning but also helps to teach them the art of cooking.
Last-minute meals. Let’s face it, sometimes we have great intentions to plan meals but life gets away from us. When life gets busy, it’s always great to know there are grains in your pantry (brown rice, pasta, quinoa, etc.), frozen protein options (salmon, chicken, beef, etc.) and some type of veggie (canned, frozen or fresh) that could be whipped together for a meal in a few short minutes.
Maybe some of these ideas seem like they might work and others seem less realistic. Pull from this list and create a sustainable and flexible plan that works for you. Find ways to make eating wholesome, healthy meals at home more realistic and watch how your health and well-being improves.
Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.