Back to Basics Baby Step Monday Mission no. 2: Using Meal Planning to Incorporate Nutrient Dense Foods

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This is a {guest post} series from Tiffany of Don’t Waste the Crumbs. Find the rest of the series right here.

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 It was a goal I originally made for January of 2012.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! Winking smile

This post is sponsored by Plan to Eat.

The Value of Meal Planning

black-eyed pea soup (3) smaller

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

Those are all really good posts by the way. Great information for all the meal planners out there. Let me offer one little tidbit of advice though:

Scroll down.

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

sprouted lentils

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

King Arhur's whole wheat sandwich bread (3) (475x356)

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.

How do you make meal planning work for you?

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Meet TiffanyTiffany 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.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

14 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    What a wonderful and helpful post, Tiffany! I’m also a huge proponent of meal planning – it truly does save time, money and sanity! Looking forward to popping over to check out your website and hopefully connect with you sometime. Keep up the great work! Lots of blessings, Kelly

  2. says

    I just learned about, which is very similar to Plan to Eat, but it’s free! And there are apps for our mobile devices (even the Kindle Fire) that sync automatically with our online version of Woot!

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Interesting – one thing that is pretty awesome about Plan to Eat, I admit, is the friending option and the groups – a few bloggers have “groups” that are populated with literally thousands of recipes from only that blog’s readers. That way, you know that you’re searching for a new recipe among real food, rather than on the vast expanse of the Internet where you have to close so many recipes when you see “box of…” or “can of…”

      :) Katie

      • says

        I don’t know if offers friending/groups. I know I can email a recipe to a person using the website, but I’ll have to investigate the grouping part of it more. You’re right, that is one nice feature of Plan to Eat.

  3. Oliver says

    The best solution to “issues” of meal planning is to find simple good elements of truly unaltered nutrient density and serve the same thing up every day. Now I know that in this country, and many others, that is just perposterous – “we need variety”, “we have to mix it up”, “it would get boring”. If you teach yourselves and your kids to find the spice of variety in other things, sports, architecture, music, politics and city planning, science and medical research, screewriting etc, and keep the sustenance issue simple and same (including water and sunlight) we would all be a lot better off. A crushing blow to many blogs and books I suppose but it’s for the greater good. :)
    Every other species keeps their meal plans simple – passed down for not hundreds or thousands of years like us humans, but for millions. The shark who has been around for 400 million years has stuck to their simple diet, and meal planning is a non issue, save for the hunt. And the shark and all the other wild species are so much the better for it. And healthier. They don’t have cancer or diabetes or heart disease or gastro intestinal issues and none of the 12,000 diseases and maladies that plague humans – half of which are food related. 12,000 diseases known to affect humans – How’s that for variety.

    • says

      I think finding fundamental foods that are nutrient dense and eating them every day is a good and easy way to incorporate real food into any diet. I do believe though that since not one single food offers every single vitamin, mineral, nutrient or enzyme that our body requires, eating a variety of nutrient dense foods would be even better. A very good point on the lack of prevalent disease in animals!

      • Oliver says

        A SINGLE BLADE OF GRASS; Hi Tiffany – The truth of the matter is not spoken about nor written about, anywhere, is that all of the nutrients that are in plants and animals exist solely for the purpose of enabling those plants and animals to live. What I mean is, your body, every body, every plant and animal, organism, and microorganism, makes it’s own nutrients – every last one of them – including the misleading “essential nutrients”. all of your proteins for instance are made, synthesized, inside your body, by RNA/DNA dynamics and genetics. You can’t eat a cows protein and expect it to join in on building your muscles or making your hair grow. Our body makes every protein it needs to do everything it needs. So too with vitamins. This is also what the other species knows. Thats why so many of them exists on a few things for their entire lives – bees (pollen, honey) bears (salmon and some vegetation) a lion (live kill) — and they all chase it down with water. All every organic entity needs is fuel – and the fuel is the same for all – glucose and fatty acids. All or most things get reduced, through metabolic pathways and processes, to glucose – even fat can and will be converted if needed.
        All grazing animals simply need a single blade of grass (or twenty) to provide them with this uber essential fuel – the real carb that gets converted to glucose – to make the body perform such wonderous functions along with energy to produce nutrients including energy to run a mile. Water, oxygen, and sunlight are also critical to providing the body with fuel. And yes, food science and marketing will never allow what you just read to be widespread – but many biologists and chemists – who are paying attention, no this to be the facts of life and living – you can research all of this science stuff for your self too – make sure it is true sciencs – proteomics, DNA dynamics, amino acid and protein synthsesis etc. Or, just realize, that testosterone, a protein is made by the body, along with insulin, hormones etc.

        • says

          Oliver, according to your words I wonder how is that so many children in poor countries die malnourished if their own bodies can produce everything they need?

          • Oliver says

            Disease, bacteria etc can disable the bodies normal functions, it’s abiltiy to synthesize certain nutrients and protiens etc.
            diabetes is a case wherein a seemingly normal body at one point can produce insulin then suddenly (or not so suddenly) it can no longer do so – then it has to rely on insulin from an outside source (used to be another animal, now they just make the protein in a lab).

  4. says

    I’ve only started meal planning since this January. I work 50 hours a week and am a full-time Grad student, so I’ve found it really helps to plan. If I don’t we just end up eating crap. I found this post very helpful and encouraging, but I almost feel like the “nutrient dense” part will have to wait a bit; Since October, we’ve gotten rid all boxed foods from our diet, and I’ve started soaking grains. We have freezer full of pastured meat. I make bone broth every Sunday. I want to bake bread . . . but planned or not, I don’t think that’s gonna happen right now. In the immediate future, if I manage to give up my dependence on canned beans by June, I’ll consider it victory.

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