There are lots of resources out there for finding pre-made meal plans, ranging from websites to subscription services to cookbooks. However, we are living in strange times right now, where all the ingredients we want or need may not be available or even accessible. Being able to create a meal plan by ourselves – that is a really useful skill to have.
I’m excited to start sharing the nuts and bolts of meal planning with you. I know that meal planning is kind of nerdy, but it’s something I really enjoy. To keep this post a reasonable length, I’ve decided to split it into two. For today’s post, I’m going to cover the what, when, where, and why aspects of meal planning. In my next post, I’ll get into the more lengthy how.
Why should you meal plan, at now of all times?
It seems counterintuitive to start meal planning now, when trips to the store are less frequent and shelves are more empty than usual. But it’s actually the perfect time, for a few reasons:
- You can start planning with what you already have, thereby decreasing the number of times you go to the grocery store. This also makes things less overwhelming, since you’ve narrowed the scope of your meal planning from “anything and everything” to “what I’ve got in my house right now.” This can also help reduce food waste.
- You probably have some time on your hands and would like to use it constructively. Just think: how great would it be to come out on the other side of this social isolation having acquired a new skill, especially one that will improve your health?
- Finally, Coronavirus has robbed us of a lot of things, including our sense of control. Meal planning can help restore some of that. You can’t be in charge of what’s going on out in the great wide world; you can be in charge of what foods you eat and how and when you prepare them.
What is a meal plan?
A meal plan is simply blueprint of what you’re going to eat, prepared in advance. This can vary from a detailed plan where you decide on every meal and snack ahead of time, to a more casual plan where you just write down what you’re going to have for a single meal, like dinner. The level of detail depends on your individual needs and what you hope to get out of the meal plan.
What meals do you need to plan?
Again, this really depends on your particular situation. As a general rule, if a lack of planning is causing you to make poor choices, feel stressed, or increase your intake of less healthy foods at a particular time of the day, then it would be helpful to plan that meal or snack.
For instance, if you struggle to eat breakfast, then I recommend planning that meal, as that will increase the likelihood of your actually eating it. If you never know what to eat for lunch and end up eating junk food or skipping it, you might want to plan that one. If dinner seems to land upon you out of nowhere every night, and you find yourself scrambling to find something to eat, then by all means, plan dinner. This is true of snacks as well.
With that being said, I am also a very big believer in starting small when creating new behaviors and habits. If you are currently not meal planning at all, then pick just one meal to start with. That way, you are more likely to succeed and stick with a meal planning habit. It is also much less cumbersome to choose one meal in advance than to choose an entire day’s worth.
What we do at my house
In our house, I always plan dinner. I don’t bother planning breakfast or lunch though, because I don’t feel like I need to. For breakfast, we usually eat some variation of the same thing each day (cereal or oatmeal with milk and a fruit). I just make sure to add cereal and oatmeal to the grocery list when we are running low. End of planning for that.
For lunch, one of two things happens. In the first scenario, I warm up leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. In the second scenario, I pull something together from the staples that I always keep in the house. Some examples of this would be: peanut butter and jelly with baby carrots and an apple; grilled cheese with veggie chips and a fruit cup; a bean and cheese burrito with applesauce. I usually eat whatever I make for the boys, and my husband, thankfully, always manages to feed himself. So I don’t feel I need to plan lunch either.
As for dinner, well, that is a different story. In spite of being aware that, yes, indeed, we do eat dinner every single night, it catches me by surprise if I don’t plan ahead. I also cohabitate with several different types of eaters (I prefer vegetarian, my husband loves meat, my six-year-old is picky, and the baby, thank goodness, will eat almost anything). It is much more challenging for me to throw together a dinner that will make everyone happy if I don’t think about it in advance. The benefits of planning dinners ahead of time far outweigh the cost, in my house at least.
When should you meal plan?
I usually meal plan a week at a time, but you can do it with whatever frequency works for you. I suggest meal planning at the same time of the week or month. That’s because we are more likely to keep up on habits that are predictable. According to James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, “people who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through.” (i)
Before Coronavirus, I would meal plan on Sundays. I would then split my grocery list in two. Because I have two little ones at home, I had gotten in the habit of ordering my groceries online for store pick-up. (If you have small children, I highly recommend this. It is infinitely easier to pull up to a store and open your trunk than it is to put two small children in a shopping cart and try to get everything that you need. This is true now more than ever with Coronavirus.) I would place an order Sunday night for pick-up Monday morning, and then I would place an order later in the week for a Thursday pick-up. This worked really well for my family, because foods didn’t linger in the fridge for week waiting for me to cook them.
One last piece of advice: don’t meal plan while you’re hungry. Looking through recipes online or perusing cookbooks is guaranteed to get me reaching for a snack if my stomach is empty. I imagine it would have a similar effect on others, especially late at night.
Where should you meal plan?
When you’re ready to start meal planning, I recommend finding a comfortable place where you can work uninterrupted. I like to turn on my diffuser and drink a cup of tea too, just to make it a more fun experience. If you’ve got a lot of cookbooks and you want to use them for inspiration, find a location where they are easily accessible. You may also want to do your planning close to the kitchen, in case you need to get up to check to see if you have a particular ingredient already in the house.
With that being said, we are living in a time when meal planning can be done anywhere. This is especially true if your recipes and/or grocery list are housed online. In that case, all you need is your device of choice, and you can meal plan from anywhere with internet connectivity. Pre-Coronavirus, I am guilty of meal planning from my tablet or smart phone while at the playground or the children’s museum. (When you’ve got small children, it can be hard to find a quiet moment.) Sometimes you just have to work with whatever time you’ve got available.
How should you meal plan?
Stay tuned – I’m going to cover the “how to’s” of meal planning in my next post.
Need recipe inspiration while you’re meal planning?
Yours in good health,
While Helena is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), she is not providing Medical Nutrition Therapy on this website. Anything found here, including downloads and other content, should not be construed as medical advice. The information provided by her is general nutrition/health/fitness information, and is not individualized to your specific medical condition. Helena is not liable for any losses or damages related to any actions you take (or fail to take) as a result of the content presented herein. Please note that the information presented here is not intended to diagnosis or treat any health conditions. Talk to a qualified health professional, such as a doctor or a registered dietitian, about your specific health questions or concerns.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results (pp. 70-71). Penguin Publishing Group.