Planning out your meals for the week–in advance and with a shopping list by your side–is a key part of maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? The truth is, it can be a fun and exciting adventure to figure out exactly what you would love to eat this week, which new foods you might love to chow down on, and what kinds of snacks or nutritious desserts you might pack in your kids’ lunches to keep them coming back for more (healthy) meals.
I’m happy to say that at least for me, health has never been about fad or popular diets but instead about practical and genuinely helpful tools, tips and yes, sometimes even shortcuts, to help us keep up our energy levels, good looks and big ole’ brains for the long term.
We know that healthy meal planning can help us get to optimal health. So how about some helpful “do’s and don’ts” to make this sometimes dreaded chore a bit easier?
When it comes to healthy meal planning,
1. Do schedule specific time for it.
Just like a massage, an oil change or a dental cleaning, if you don’t set a specific day and time for planning your weekly meals, it probably won’t happen. It’s easy to forget about it or fail to make time for it because scheduling things automatically makes them more of a priority. For most of the year, I usually meal plan on Sundays and shop on Mondays (a day that I’m not normally in my nutrition office). During the summer, this can change because I like to see what’s in my CSA basket first and then plan my meals around that… but I always pick one specific day to do it.
2. Do stick to old favourites, and do try something new.
Sounds like a contradiction, right? The thing is, when you’re planning your meals for the week, it’s always wise to include recipes you’ve made a hundred times (or could make in your sleep – though if that’s the case, I highly recommend not using an oven – just kidding) and a few new recipes to keep things exciting and interesting.
Schedule your old favourites on your busiest days of the week and your new or “would love to try” recipes for those days or nights when you’ll have more time to cook. Reading through a new recipe and figuring out the necessary steps usually takes longer, in my experience.
3. Do try to include recipes that can benefit from batch cooking.
Batch cooking—or cooking larger amounts of a particular food at one time, such as grains or roasted vegetables—can be a lifesaver on busy weeknights when you feel like the only thing you have the energy to do is call for delivery pizza.
It takes about as much time to cook 1 cup of quinoa as it does to cook 3 cups, but doing it this way means you can save time, energy (for you and for your hydro), and use your batch foods in multiple recipes throughout the week. In addition, you can often freeze extras and make meals even easier to prepare.
Quinoa in your lunchtime tabbouleh salad? Check. Quinoa primavera as a delicious side at dinner? Check. Quinoa breakfast “oatmeal” with fresh strawberries, toasted almonds, and a splash of homemade vanilla almond milk? Yep, sounds delish to me!
4. Do try to include the same key food or ingredient in more than one meal.
For example, if you like black beans, look for both a dinner recipe and a different breakfast or dessert recipe where you can use black beans.
This is one of my favourite tips and in fact, my Double Duty Dinners cooking workshops are based on this exact principle!
5. Do keep it simple.
Whether you love to cook or simply consider it an endless chore, you’re better off sticking to easy, fresh and simple recipes. This means no complicated ingredient lists and no complex cooking techniques.
Here’s a tip: most of the recipes on my website meet these criteria!
If you want to challenge yourself, that’s a totally different ballgame… but for the most part, and for most weekly healthy meal planning, recipes with 10 ingredients or fewer, that can be made in an hour or less, are your best bets.
Now, there are also some key “don’ts” to keep in mind when planning out your healthy meals and here they are.
6. Don’t try to multitask or do 2, 3, 4 or more things at the same time.
You’re never as effective or efficient when you multitask—and the research shows it takes you 10 minutes to refocus on your task whenever you switch to something new—so it will take less time to plan your meals during a quiet time when you’re less likely to be distracted by TVs blaring, phones ringing, kids crying, etc.
7. Don’t wait until the last minute to start your meal planning.
Waiting until the last minute to start your meal planning, say Sunday night at 10 pm when you’re winding down from a busy weekend and mentally preparing for the week ahead, is probably not the ideal time to start planning. You might be rushing, you won’t enjoy the process of discovering new recipes and you may even forget an ingredient or two when writing up your shopping list. As long as I have a few sources I trust on hand, I find 1-2 hours is usually enough for me to plan all or most of my meals for the coming week.
8. Don’t try to ignore the seasons.
Let me say that I’m committed to eating locally and in season as much as I possibly can. You will rarely catch me doing otherwise because as much as I occasionally like to chow down on asparagus or a ripe red tomato in the dead of winter, I also know that this isn’t when these foods are at their peak flavour or freshness. So what’s the point, right?
The foods may be shipped from far away, chemically manipulated (why doesn’t a so-called ‘ripe’ tomato taste as good in January as it does in the middle of August?), lack flavour, lack nutrition and cost more. In fact, the costs of these foods are guaranteed to be much, much higher than when these foods are locally in season. It’s the simple reality of supply, demand and availability.
So, as much as possible, try to focus on the foods and ingredients that are in season where you live when planning your meals. As an extra tip, current magazines can be a great source of information for this.
9. Don’t be afraid to try new foods or ingredients.
Never tried turmeric before? It’s a tasty and equally powerful anti-inflammatory spice that deserves a prime spot in your kitchen spice cabinet. Never tried teff before? It’s a gluten-free, tiny (might even be the tiniest grain in the world) that is awesome in breakfast porridge or the popular Ethiopian bread, injera.
Stepping out of your comfort zone ingredients-wise can be a great way to enjoy favourite recipes but in an entirely new way.
10. Don’t give up.
Just do your best. If you miss a week or if you only want to plan your dinner meals because you like having more freedom when it comes to breakfasts and lunches, it’s perfectly fine. Make a plan and find a routine that works for you and your life. But do schedule time for it–that one is a non-negotiable! 🙂
Do you have a favourite meal planning tip or trick? Please share it with me in the comments!
Life is a plate… Eat up!