Providing well-balanced nutrition for the family can take practice and time – but what a big payoff! Everyone benefits from healthy homemade meals and a little planning makes mealtime magic easier to bring to life. Your menus can take into account specific preferences and dietary needs. Growing minds can also learn more about food and good health when they’re involved in making homemade meals.
Here are a few basics to get you started with the meal planning process. The supplies you’ll need to start and stay organized are:
- A calendar (paper, electronic or one available on a meal planning app, like pepperplate.com)
- A list of meals/dishes your family enjoys
- An inventory of the food at home
- About 30 minutes of time (it can get faster with more practice!)
Be sure to involve other adults and kids in the household in the planning process when you can. Knowing the “who, where, what, when and how” for the week helps with practical planning.
Step 1: Who is going to be where this week?
Meal planning can help you from feeling like you’re overrun with too much food spoiling in the fridge, or running out for unhealthy, costly options when the cupboards seem bare. Busy family life means that sometimes people are in varying places for different mealtimes.
Take a look at the week ahead and mark down when meals are going to be prepared/eaten at home, and when some meals might need to be taken on the go (such as packed school lunches) on your mealtime calendar. Try to plan family meals together as often as possible – it’s a great time to refuel on family discussions and food!
When certain family members are going to be away from home at mealtimes, account for that in the amount of food prepared. You might still make a larger batch of food, but have a plan for the leftovers. Some dishes can go in the freezer (add that to your inventory of food at home) or you can use them for meals later that week.
Step 2: What are we going to eat?
Take a look at the recipes your family enjoys, see if they match up with ingredients you already have, and start there. To avoid food waste, take stock of what you need to use. Are there some salad greens close to expiration date? Use them up earlier in the week! Do you have an everlasting head of cabbage in the fridge? Make a plan for it in the next week or two.
Keep in mind what the family loves to eat, and prioritize a balance of fiber and protein in meals and snacks. Most Americans don’t get enough fiber in their diet – don’t be one of them! A fiber-filled meal can easily come together if you make at least half of your plate vegetables and fruits! When including a starch (pasta, rice, bread, etc.), make sure it’s a whole grain and have it compose up to 25 percent of your meal. With this blueprint, you’ll get a good dose of nutrients without overloading calories (just make sure your ingredients aren’t prepared with too much added fat or sugar). Complete the plate with the other 25 percent made up of lean protein, and you have a nutritional win on your hands. Ideal proteins are beans, skinless chicken, ground meats that are at least 90 percent lean, and seafood. Keep them healthy by baking, grilling or sautéing with small amounts of healthy fats (like olive oil).
If you’re trying to eat healthier food on a budget, scan grocery store flyers for vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains that are on sale. Have those ingredients inspire your menus. You can look up recipes for these nutritious items on health-oriented websites like skinnytaste.com, eatingwell.com, chrichmond.org/recipes, 100daysofrealfood.com and elliekrieger.com if you need ideas. They have tons of tasty recipes!
Set up a menu draft for the week – then proceed to step 3!
Step 3: When and how is the food going to get made?
When examining your week, take stock of the time you need to buy, cook and clean the food items on your drafted menu. Do you only have time to go grocery shopping on the weekends? Then make sure you have the ingredients you need on hand for dishes earlier in the week. Do you have a long-cooking stew on the dinner menu on a night when you have 30 minutes of hands-on time to make the meal? Then switch it to another night, or make sure it’s a recipe that works well in the slow cooker.
Also think about how you can get the whole family involved in meal preparation. Are there certain weeknights where the kids have an extra 10 minutes to be in the kitchen with you? Use that time to teach them how to shake up a homemade salad dressing, clean and prep fresh produce, or flavor lean protein with fresh herbs and citrus.
Once you have a game plan that looks doable, make your grocery list. Take stock of what you already have and buy what you need on your next trip. You may also want to have some healthy back-ups on hand as well…read on for more details!
The best-laid plans have a built-in back-up
Life doesn’t always go 100 percent as planned. You might have your meal-prep time evaporate while stuck in traffic, or you may find that your salad greens for tonight have prematurely turned to slime. Don’t despair! Stocking your pantry, fridge and freezer with nutritious alternatives is a great strategy for keeping your wallet from shrinking and your waistline from growing. Our Keep Healthy Foods in the Kitchen: Cupboard/Fridge/Freezer Guide can help with planning.
Sometimes, our best option might turn out to be eating away from home – so be prepared. Look over restaurant nutrition info ahead of time to identify options that are high in fiber and protein without overloading the calories. For example, many restaurants now have lean grilled proteins, vegetables, fruits, water and low-fat dairy as part of their menus. You might also choose to purchase one time-consuming component of your meal away from home. A roast chicken is a great example. You can bring it home and use it as your lean protein by taking off the skin. Steam some frozen vegetables, cook quick brown rice in the microwave and you have an easy, healthy meal.
The payoff of planning
The process of meal planning is an investment that has physical, mental and financial payoffs. If you’re new at it, keep practicing and don’t be afraid to keep your meals simple. A homemade sandwich with veggies on the side is a great example of a nutritious meal that can come together in less than 10 minutes. When you have some extra time, spend time with your kids to teach them about how to prepare healthy, delicious food. Great things happen when your keep your family and yourself well-nourished!
By Sonya Islam, Healthy Lifestyles Center dietitian
Our Healthy Lifestyles Center aims to stem the rising tide of childhood obesity by promoting healthy weight management, eating, exercise and lifestyle habits that can last a lifetime. For more on this unique program, visit chrichmond.org/HLC.