How to plan meals to maximize nutritional intake, cut down on food waste, and save time & money
By: Michelle Logsdon Viggiano
Two of the major components that influence health are exercise and diet. If you are a current client at CORE Personal Training & Pilates, there’s a good chance you’re already working on the exercise component. However, as you can see from the picture, exercise is only part of the equation; and not even the most significant piece. What you eat plays a critical role in how your body functions. Yet, this is not breaking news! We’ve heard it before, and know we should do it; but how?
A successful goal requires a detailed plan that breaks the goal down into small, achievable pieces. Planning your meals each week is the small step that will help you reach your health goal. But there’s more! Successful meal planning not only helps with healthy eating, but can cut down on food waste, save time in a busy schedule, and save money.
The following tips are designed to help you set up a successful meal plan, but you don’t have to implement all of them. Start slowly, figure out what works for you and your family, and remember that it’s an evolving process; just like your fitness goals.
The first step in successful meal planning is setting your healthy eating goal. This goal can be for just the current week of meals ahead or for a longer time period that will span multiple weeks of meals.
- What’s important to you?
- Are you trying to incorporate more vegetables, cut down on sugar, or eat more whole grains?
- Is there a specific calorie goal you want to stay within?
- Based on your exercise routine, are you trying to add more protein?
- Does eating items “in season” matter to you?
These are just a few of the ideas that can help you narrow down and focus on the meals you choose to eat that week. For example, if your goal is to incorporate more vegetables, you’ll want to plan a vegetable in as many meals as you can. Broccoli with Monday’s dinner, asparagus on Tuesday, stuffed peppers on Wednesday, and a smoothie with spinach for breakfast on Thursday might be a good way to get started.
The second step is to determine how many days you are comfortable planning for. Seven days works well for me for several reasons;
- It allows me to save time during the week because once it’s set, I don’t have to worry about it all week long. I can focus on work and know that dinner is planned. All I have to do is pull out the recipe and cook.
- In seven days, I allow myself only 2 trips to the grocery store. One in the early part of the week that covers the majority of the items, and one trip half way through the week to get the rest of the perishable items. This ensures the second half of the week still receives the freshest ingredients. Additionally, by limiting myself to 2 grocery store trips, I can keep my budget in check by purchasing only the items that are on my list. No more wandering around Wegmans and then wondering where that huge bill came from!
- In a seven day period I can keep track of those perishable items and make sure I use them before they go bad. Once a week has past, it’s “use it or toss it,” and as our Mom’s all said, “there are starving children who would love that food” so don’t let it go to waste. If seven days of planning feels daunting to you, start with a smaller goal. Try planning for the work week and let the weekends be open. There’s no right way to plan; just do what’s effective for you.
Ready to start? Grab paper and a pen. . .
On Saturdays I sit down with good old pen and paper and make my weekly meal plan. Here’s a peak into how that process looks. The goal in our house is a well balanced set of meals that incorporates plenty of fresh, in season vegetables, minimal sugar and processed foods, and a variety of lean protein sources.
An additional consideration is always the weather. I check the forecast to see what’s ahead and plan meals accordingly. If it’s going to be cold and damp, I might choose a soup or stew, a roast, or a meal from the crockpot. If the weather looks hot, I might choose items for the grill or cool, light salads.
Next, I open the fridge and make a list of all the perishable items that need to be used asap. If there are some items in the freezer that need to be used, I do the same thing. Figure out a way to incorporate these items in during the next seven days so you don’t have to throw them away. The average household of four, throws away $2,275 of food annually. It’s so easy to save that money with a little planning ahead.
Here’s the biggest part of the weekly meal planning; select recipes that meet your weekly goals. As I mentioned, eating a balanced diet is part of our weekly goals so I pick out one vegetarian recipe, one recipe that incorporates fish, one pork, one lean red meat, one chicken, and one night for leftovers. The seventh night is a “catch all,” meaning it could be whatever needs to be used, a night out, or a favorite dish. This is just one way of selecting recipes.
You could also have theme nights such as taco night, casserole night, pizza night, etc. The key is to find recipes that appeal to you, are within your scope of cooking skills, meet your time constraints, and most importantly, match your weekly goal.
Need help finding recipes? Head over to Instagram and follow me @Michelles_Yummy_Cooking for hundreds of ideas. I love posting our favorite dishes on social media and am always happy to share the recipe. Some additional places to look; ask friends and family, Pintrest, Cooking Light, and Wegmans.
As you choose your recipes, look at the ingredients needed to prepare the dish. If you don’t have an item on hand, write it down immediately on your grocery list. This is the list of ingredients you’ll need to purchase from the store. If you use an item from the perishable list, cross it off so you know that item has been incorporated into the weekly meal plan.
Don’t forget to write down where to find the recipes you’ve chosen. You don’t want to be searching for those recipes later in the week.
Final step, put the date next to each recipe. You may want to spread out similar dishes over the week. For example, you may not want to have 3 nights of chicken in a row. Also consider your time; don’t plan to a make an elaborate recipe on a night you get home late.
Now that you’ve completed your list, don’t forget to check it daily. Pull out any items from the freezer that need to be defrosted in the next few days. Set out the recipes for tomorrow the night before. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to the plan due to last minute schedule changes during your week
Successful meal planning takes time and effort, but the rewards of good nutrition, time saved during the busy week, and extra money in the bank make it well worth it! Use what you can from the information above. The key is to find a routine that works for you and stick to it. Just like exercise, good nutrition is a marathon, not a sprint. Try incorporating one of these tactics this week and build from there. Happy planning!