By: Mae Reilly, MS, RD, LDN
What’s for dinner? It’s a question we are all too familiar with and one that seems overwhelming and complicated at times. However, once you find a strategy that works for you, you will soon find that meal planning can help save time and energy, cut down on food waste, and decrease the stress and uncertainty around eating because you already have a plan in place. Here are several strategies for planning and prepping balanced meals:
Start by thinking about the types of food you and your family enjoy eating. You can think of it by cuisine type like Italian, Mexican, or Thai. You can also think of it by type of food for example, soup, pasta, tacos, or crock pot meals. Make a list of some of your go-to quick and easy recipes that fall into these categories and that you feel confident making. Use this list as a starting point when planning out your week.
Create a flexible plan that allows for life to happen. Some people find it helpful to assign meals to specific days of the week, but that doesn’t have to be set in stone. Maybe it feels better to just write down four or five dinner options on a piece of paper and not assign them to specific days. Either way, having a plan that is flexible is key. It’s also helpful to have a backup plan in case whatever you had planned doesn’t work out for whatever reason. Breakfast for dinner is the perfect example of a backup plan you can implement any day of the week. Think of things like omelettes or frittata with some leftover roasted vegetables. It may also be helpful to build in a day or two for leftovers so that you are cooking once and eating multiple times.
Take inventory of what you have on hand and make your grocery list from there. Think about what needs to be used up in the refrigerator or freezer and brainstorm ways to incorporate those things into your plan for the next week. This will help reduce food waste. It can be helpful to go into the grocery store with a list organized based on your store’s layout. For example, have produce in one column, dry pantry goods in the next, followed by dairy or refrigerated foods, and then a section for frozen items. This can help you navigate the store efficiently with less chance of forgetting something.
Keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer.
This can be a game changer for busy nights. If you are making soup, make a double batch and freeze half as a future gift to yourself. Keep frozen vegetables on hand for a quick and easy side dish. Keeping a well-stocked pantry with versatile basics can help you create meals even when you feel like there is nothing in the house to eat. Some staples to consider are:
- Olive or avocado oil
- Broths or stocks
- Grains such as brown rice, quinoa, farro or whole wheat pasta
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts, nut butters, and seeds
Streamline dinner time by finding a few minutes to prep things ahead of time. Chop up vegetables, make a sauce or a dressing, marinate your chicken or start thawing something from your freezer. Doing these things earlier in the day or the night before can make dinner time run more smoothly for everyone.
Consider batch cooking several components of meals at the start of the week. For example, make a large sheet pan of roasted vegetables. Cook a batch of whole grains. Bake or grill a few extra chicken breasts. By doing these things ahead of time, you now have several components ready to incorporate into other recipes throughout the week or simply assemble into something like a grain bowl instead of having to cook each night. Curious about how to make a grain bowl? Start with a base of whole grains like quinoa, farro or brown rice. Next, add some vegetable toppings. This could be whatever raw vegetables you have in the refrigerator like cucumbers, carrots, or salad greens. It can also be some leftover roasted vegetables, like broccoli or sweet potatoes. Next add a protein source that you enjoy such as grilled chicken, baked tofu, beans, or even cheese. Finally add a healthy fat like nuts, seeds, hummus or avocado. These make a quick and easy lunch or dinner option!
When in doubt, keep meals simple and aim to build plates at mealtimes with 50% of your meal coming from colorful vegetables or fruit, 25% from whole grains and 25% from lean proteins. By following this method, you are putting an emphasis on plant-based foods which offer many different phytonutrients or immune supporting properties. Whole grains include things like brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, millet, and whole grain breads and cereals. Animal sources of protein include chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. Plant-based foods can also be a source of protein including nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans, lentils, hummus, or soy foods.