This month marks my one year anniversary with meal planning. It was a goal I originally made for January of 2012. Nope, that’s not a typo. The goal was for January, not the whole year. Since I was new to the idea of not waiting until the last minute before deciding what the family was going to eat for dinner, figuring out what we were going to eat for the next two days was daunting enough. Keep it up for a whole year?! Ain’t gonna happen.
But then the fruits of my labor started rolling in. The husband would ask “What’s for dinner?” and I could boldly quip an answer without hesitation. Dinner prep started as soon as breakfast was done and suddenly 4pm wasn’t so dreadful anymore. New recipes were strewn throughout the month and I began to look forward to making dinner again!
Was meal planning a dream come true? Did it really solve all my dinner woes?
No, but it certainly did help!
This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat.
The Value of Meal Planning
I firmly believe that without meal planning, a person could easily temporarily lose their sanity. It’s serious pressure to come up with a healthy, palate-pleasing dinner (using only ingredients you have on hand, might I add) on the spot every night. It’s like a twisted version of the Food Network show “Chopped,” only the torture repeats itself every night. On top of that, there’s dealing with the inevitable “Aw, but MOM! I don’t like peas!” when you answer their “What’s for dinner?” question.
Having a plan in place ahead of time relieves some of the pressure. It also gives you a few days to come up with a fun comeback to their “Aw Moms!” We’ve devised two staple answers at our house, one for each of our kids. So far they’ve worked pretty well, so I’ll share for your enjoyment. Maybe it’ll help ease your pea woes too!
Girl (3 yrs old): Are you sure you don’t like (insert problem food here)? They’re really good for your hair. They help make it grow really long and shiny!
Boy (5 yrs old): Are you sure you don’t like (insert problem food here)? They help your muscles grow strong so you can ride your scooter really fast!
Meal planning was so successful last January that I kept it up for another month… and then two, then three… and after a few months of planning, I wondered how I could ever live without the concept.
Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to renew your commitment to meal planning.
But don’t just plan to plan. There’s a greater purpose behind this mission. Let me explain.
The undertaking of Katie’s baby steps began six months after the initial meal planning challenge and let me tell you, seeing this step was such a relief! Educating myself on trans fat was tough and confusing. Already feeling like a pro at meal planning, I was ready to check that box and call it done! My bruised ego needed a boosting!
But of course, if it was meant to be THAT easy it wouldn’t be listed in those steps to begin with, right? So I did some digging around the KS archives and found some useful information.
Meal Planning 101
- The Very First Meal Planning Mission – helpful for those like me, eager to check that box and move on
- Benefits of Meal Planning – it’s more than just a time and sanity saver
- Inspiration, How-To’s and Recipe Ideas – note to self to read up on some of those linked articles!
- Maximizing the Freezer – it’s not just for casseroles
- Help for Those Who Spend 8-5 Away From Home – yes, you can do it too!
Those are all really good posts by the way. Great information for all the meal planners out there. Let me offer one little tid bit of advice though:
You see, I began reading this post proudly, thinking “Oh yeah, I’ve got this down. No last minute trips to the store, no stress before dinner, cooking nearly never meal at home… I’m golden!”
And then the bullets turned to paragraphs and I did what many of us have done at one time or another, I stopped reading. My “all that and a bag of chips” self moved on to another topic.
If I had kept reading, I would have seen that there was a two week meal plan listed, complete with preparation tips and even links to tried-and-true recipes. But here’s the kicker: that plan was JAM-PACKED with nutrition. Could I say the same about my own meal plans?
Nope. All this time I had been planning for the sake of simply having a plan. Never once did I think that meal planning could actually improve the nutrition of my family.
So that’s where my personal baby step lies – to plan meals that are packed with as much nutrition as I can possibly get into seven days, or two weeks, or one month… however long it is that I plan. Whether you’re a meal planning novice or self-proclaimed expert, this should be your goal too.
How Does Nutrient-Dense Meal Planning Look?
First you need a plan. It can be a plan you created or it can be a hodge podge from a few different sources. There’s no shame in “borrowing” someone else’s meal plans either, so feel free to use my own monthly meal plans or weekly meal plans if you need to.
If you plan online, Plan to Eat‘s system can save your own meal plans that you can easily reuse from week to week and month to month.
Any plan will do for now because it’s the next step that’s important.
Review the plan and upgrade the nutrition where ever possible. Seeing the entire line-up of meals at one time is like the blimp flying over football games – it can see everything at the same time.
Here’s where you see the nights that become “grab what’s quick and easy” because of a soccer game. Family pizza night begins to stand out when you realize you haven’t been eating those starter salads after all. And those bring-a-dish meals with friends and family where everyone is afraid to bring a vegetable? Yep, those are red flags too.
Seeing all this on paper makes us suddenly aware of how often (or not often) we really eat good food. And it’s ok to not eat perfectly 100% of the time. But it is important that we eat well whenever possible.
Evaluate Each Meal
Instead of haphazardly reaching for whatever is convenient when you’re already five minutes late for ballet, plan for it. Try a pasta salad filled with white beans and fresh vegetables; a leafy spinach salad with fresh fruits, nuts a sprinkle of cheese and a yogurt-based dressing; or even tuna salad with homemade crackers. Whatever you decide, make it ahead of time and have it waiting for you in the fridge.
For the meals planned at home, evaluate every single one and really make sure you’ve packed in the nutrition. Have colored vegetables outnumber the grains and starches in each meal. Add beans to main meats or even as a side dish. Make vegetable soup with bone broth. View these nights as opportunities to make up for lost nutrition on the other, not-so-good days.
Evaluate the Week as a Whole
We want to eat purposefully, squeezing as many nutrients into our meals as often as we can. Many times this requires advance preparation and seeing the whole meal plan for the entire week allows us to see what’s coming and plan accordingly.
- Want soup this week but don’t have broth? Start two days out to really get the most nutrients those bones offer.
- Need beans for tacos? They don’t soak themselves! Start those the day before to make them easier to digest, or a few days before to sprout. I have a “soak beans” note on my Plan to Eat recipe list that I can drag to the appropriate day on the calendar.
- Desiring some greens with your meals, despite being out of season and expensive? Serve those organic veggies with your meals for the week so your hard earned money doesn’t get soggy and slimy in the fridge. You can search the KS group at Plan to Eat for “spinach” recipes to help ensure the greens get used up, too.
Our bird’s eye view allows us to evaluate the entire week as a whole. How many nights are we eating pasta? Can we try a different grain to boost nutrition? How about planning a leftover night so that we’re not wasting all that good food?
Make From Scratch When it Counts
Often times our carts are filled with convenience foods when we don’t even realize it. Canned beans, yogurt and broth are three big ones (good thing we’re covering those in this series too!). On top of these, my family considers bread a convenience food too. After a side by side comparison of store-bought bread and the equivalent homemade version, I’m determined to bake my own bread whenever possible.
Sandwich breads, artisan loaves, specialty breads like jalapeño cheddar focaccia, even dinner rolls and buns for tri-tip sandwiches – it’s all made at home. But none of this happens those last 15 minutes before dinner hits the table. It’s made ahead of time, according to the plan for the week.
Make Quality Ingredients Go Further
Because we’re not big fans of added hormones, growth enhancers and antibiotics, my family is committed to buying only organic, pasture-raised chickens. This means at $2.49/lb, I’m shelling out nearly $12 for one bird! Fortunately I pull out a few tricks to really stretch both the animal and my money.
The big one being butchering the whole chicken into parts so I have all the various parts of the animal to use for my meal plan. The second being turning the carcass and wings into 1 cup of shredded chicken plus six quarts of organic bone broth (saving $22 alone according to Amazon’s prices!).
The best part though is USING this chicken and broth! Shredded chicken goes further when beans are added and broth shouldn’t be reserved for soup alone. Benefit from the nutrition by using it for rice, adding liquid to vegetables and it’s a reason to make risotto (with mushrooms and Parmesan… mmm!) more often.
I’ll admit that learning how to plan meals wasn’t “easy,” but at least with this new frame of mind it’s no longer has to be a chore – make meal planning work for you! Each new month brings an opportunity to explore creativity in the kitchen while maximizing nutrition for your family.
If it’s a chore for you and you’d rather go high tech, Plan to Eat has a 30-day free trial and a mobile app, including the grocery shopping list it generates based on your meal plan for the week! Sometimes I wish I had a smart phone… Be sure to click on the link for the KS group if you do sign up, and you’ll automatically have access to over 16,000 recipes. I’m not kidding. Use the code KitchenStewards through 3/31 for a huge 30% off!
How do you make meal planning work for you?
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Tiffany is a newbie real food eater who is trying to master and incorporate nourishing foods into her kitchen without breaking the bank. She documents her baby-sized strides at DontWastetheCrumbs.
If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.
Disclosure: Plan to Eat sponsored this post.