I recently asked the question "What is the hardest part of meal planning for you?" and instead of following up individually with each person, I decided to type up my responses on here for everyone to see - especially since several answers were the same!
When you think of meal planning you might picture making ALL of your food on Sunday and prepping it in little containers to eat throughout the week. That is NOT how meal planning has to work. If you like doing that and it works for you - then great! BUT for most of us, we don't have the time (or want to use it) to cook food all day on Sunday and then eat the same thing every day.
The balanced approach to meal planning means looking ahead at your week, seeing what all is going on and what needs to be planned around and thinking of a few food ideas that sound good (and hopefully healthy) to you. You could either do this for the entire week OR half the week if you have trouble thinking that far ahead. An example of looking ahead for the week would be: I have an early workout on Mon/Wed/Fri, Tuesday is Trivia Night at my favorite Mexican restaurant, Thursday I have a client lunch, Friday is date night and Sunday is brunch with friends. From this, you can see that you need a quick grab and go breakfast this week, Tuesday and Friday night your dinner will be out, Thursday lunch will be out, and Sunday brunch is out. That leaves you with breakfast for 6 days, lunch for 5 days, and dinner for 5 days. If it were me, I would plan my meals but also have other ingredients on hand for back-ups (Hint: I LOVE cooking once and eating that meal at least twice but always have other options on hand to keep it interesting). My meal plan would look like this for the above scenario:
*bagel with avocado, egg and an orange (x3 meals)
*pumpkin oatmeal (x1 meal - I usually have these ingredients on hand for an easy breakfast option)
*berry smoothie (x1 meal - I usually have these ingredients on hand for an easy breakfast option)
*pbj (x1 meal - I usually have these ingredients on hand for an easy breakfast option)
*pulled chicken sandwich with chips and fruit (x 3 meals - I would also have crackers, tortillas and salad mix available in case I got bored of sandwiches)
*salmon salad with crackers and fruit (x 2 meals - I usually have canned salmon and tuna on hand for an easy lunch option)
*minestrone soup with a roll and fruit (x2 meals - this could be homemade or canned/boxed - low sodium preferred)
*cod with a sweet potato and broccoli (x2 meals - I usually have these ingredients on hand for an easy dinner option)
*steak with baked french fries and a side salad (x1 meal - a fun "splurge meal" to make at home)
*banana and peanut butter (I usually have these available at home as snack options and will switch them up if I get bored)
*trail mix (I usually have these available at home as snack options and will switch them up if I get bored)
*popcorn (I usually have these available at home as snack options and will switch them up if I get bored)
*fruit, chocolate and nuts (I usually have these available at home as snack options and will switch them up if I get bored)
See below to read through the most common meal planning problems and solutions.
#1. "I get bored eating the same foods every day."
You don't have to eat the same foods every day for a meal plan. While it might be easier to make just a few things and eat them for the whole week, another option would be to plan 2-3 different breakfast options, and 3-4 easy lunch and dinner options. If you don't have a ton of time maybe you could just start by making a different dinner 4 days during the week and then eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. That doesn't give you much time to get bored before a new meal for dinner happens!
If you don't want to deal with prepping a bunch of different items, you could also just make a bunch of chicken to cut down on cooking time during the week but use it in different ways for unique meals each day. Also, using the tips from below could be helpful as well!
#2. "It doesn't sound good when it's time to eat it."
Plan your meals for each day but mix and match so you don't have to buy a ton of ingredients AND so you can switch things up if you need to. For example, have a bunch of chicken, lean ground beef and shrimp as your proteins for the week plus a can of tuna and salmon (keep some of the protein frozen and pull it out when you need to cook it so you don't waste food). You can either have it raw and ready to cook as you want it OR each time you cook something, make a lot of it and freeze the extra portions for later.
Select a few different veggies and grains that could be partnered with a few of the proteins in different ways. Again, you could either have these fresh, frozen, or already prepared and ready to go. Some options include: chopped potatoes or sweet potatoes, quartered brussels sprouts, sliced mushrooms, diced onions, sliced bell peppers - all things you can cook as stir-fry, sides, pasta dishes, sandwiches, etc. You can also have some fresh ingredients that don't need any cooking too, like tomatoes, green onion, spinach, avocado, carrots, cucumber and herbs. Brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, crackers, bread and beans all are great options that can be mixed with the protein and veggies to complete your meal.
Have different spices and sauces available as well and add them once you are ready to eat them - just the different flavor profiles can change the meal even if it's the same ingredients. If you end up having a bunch of leftover food at the end of the week, reduce what you buy next week, make frittatas, nachos, pizza, salads or omelets to use up what's left and freeze what else you can.
#3. "I don't have enough time."
Meal planning doesn't have to take a ton of time. Think ahead for the week and write down a few different meals that you like eating. You can either grocery shop on Saturday or order your groceries online to be delivered Sunday (this app helps with that). If you want chicken for your lunches during the week, plan for Sunday night to be a chicken dinner and make all of the chicken for the week so you don't have to spend extra time cooking. Freeze some for the end of the week and put the rest in containers for each day.
Choose easy meals that you are familiar with - it doesn't have to be complicated. Cereal and hard boiled eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich with chips and a fruit/veggie for lunch and salmon with a baked potato and broccoli for dinner. The time it takes to make any of these items is much quicker than if you went out to eat (even for fast food).
You could also invest in a slow cooker and throw everything in it that morning so all you have to do is eat it when you get home! Another option is a meal kit or delivery service. This takes the planning and shopping time out and all you have to do is heat up or cook the food delivered to you. Most grocery stores even have meal kit options available now.
Also, your freezer is your friend and so is pre-prepped food from the grocery store - meal planning doesn't mean making every little thing from scratch. Always keep it stocked - even if it's not the "healthiest" foods, it's probably better than going out to eat or grabbing fast food. Check out this post to see what you should keep on hand so you can always whip up a healthy meal in no time - no planning needed!
#4. "It's too expensive."
If you were to add up the amount of money you spend in one week going out to eat, buying drinks/coffee, snacks, etc. you will likely find that it is way more money than shopping for groceries for the week. Produce, whole-grains and most lean proteins are not that expensive plus they actually fill you up and are healthier options.
To be healthy, you don't have to eat complicated, fancy foods. Keep it simple and easy and focus on whole foods.
#5. "I don't know what I should eat."
Start small. Take what you normally do/eat and just add a fruit and vegetable to each meal/snack. Work your way up from there. You can't go wrong with a combination of lean protein + produce + whole-grains + healthy fats.
If you want help with an arsenal of trusted, delicious and healthy recipes you can check out the Prepear app and purchase my Balanced Eating + Workout Plan virtual cookbook or just use any of my recipes!
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I am a food loving, activity seeking health coach who resides in Franklin, TN with my husband and two sweet dogs (Lola & Penny).
I believe everyone should eat balanced and not cut food groups if you don't medically need to. All foods can fit in a healthy diet. Unfortunately, I have to avoid gluten and also limit myself with dairy, so my goal is to provide healthy, gluten-free/dairy-free recipes so EVERYONE can enjoy all foods, even if you do have to cut out certain food groups. My recipes are encouraged for everyone to eat, not just for those with sensitivities/allergies! Most of my recipes can be easily converted by using real dairy and whole-wheat in place of my allergy-free substitutes.
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