Healthy menu planning– where do you start? This guide will give you everything you need to know to go from “overwhelmed and out to dinner” to meal planning pro. With nourishing foods planned and prepped, you can reach your health, fitness, and weight loss goals!
Have you ever found yourself wanting to eat a nourishing, healthy meal and yet there was nothing that fit that description available? Or maybe it is a Tuesday evening and work or soccer practice has kept you out late, again.
You’d love to go home and throw together a tasty meal, but unpreparedness sends you through the drive-thru, once again. You long to feed your family higher quality foods but it feels overwhelming. And, so you do nothing.
What if you had a system that you knew would deliver the results you were looking for without making you overwhelmed? Stay tuned, this post will help you get where you want to go without buying 10 new spices or making meals that make your family gag.
Last week we discussed how you can get diet help and how small, sustainable changes are the key to making lifestyle changes that actually stick and become- a lifestyle! Meaning, this new “change” is now something that you do most of the time. I offered 4 potential habits to focus on… habits that can be tailored to fit your needs to move you towards your goals.
The first practice mentioned was Planning. I know, it’s b-o-r-i-n-g. But maybe, just maybe, the thing that doesn’t seem all that glamorous or exciting, the thing that we don’t do because it seems so elementary, is the very thing that would help the most.
At the very least, wouldn’t it just be nice to have an answer when your family asks the dreaded question, “what’s for dinner?”
CAN YOU BE OVERPREPARED?
When my clients run into a nutrition challenge, many times the crux of that challenge lies in unpreparedness. The food wasn’t there, so it couldn’t be eaten.
Here I am going to overview a few healthy menu planning strategies. When it comes to organization, my theory is to only be just as organized as you find helpful; anything above that becomes more of a burden than a relief.
To illustrate this, I will use an example from another necessary area of life- doing laundry!
Imagine all of your clean laundry piled high on the guest room bed. Now, that’s pretty unorganized. If you need your gray socks, it will take lots of time to find them. However, if those gray socks are in a drawer with your other socks, it’s probably going to be pretty easy to grab and go. The time and effort invested in sorting your laundry paid off!
But, being organized can also be taken to the extreme. Let’s pretend you take those same socks, match them and roll them perfectly so that they fit into your coordinating cube containers. While they look pretty, the additional time may not have been well spent because the gray socks are not that much easier to find.
There are a dozen options in between these two extremes, and finding the system that fits your life best is what this post is all about.
We’re going to start out with a few planning tips, and then I’ll point you toward a few resources.
CHOOSING WHAT TO EAT
So, what do you need to get going? Honestly, not a whole lot. We’ll build on the basics and then move up.
This means you don’t need a ton of recipes to get started. Keep it simple.
When we sit down to plan, it’s easy to feel like we need to have a vast variety of meals throughout the week. However, most of us tend to eat the same meals repeatedly because those are the foods we like the best.
If you can think of a dozen recipes that are a hit, you are off to an awesome start! Got six, stick with those for now. Then, add in new recipes as you go along. Starting out with the familiar is a nice way to get into the planning groove.
If your motivation to plan is to eat more nutritious meals and you don’t have many recipes to pull from, keep it easy. Consider doing simple protein + starch + veggie dishes and use your current recipe hits with more healthful ingredients.
For example, does your family LOVE pizza and tacos? Fantastic, that’s two meals in the bag!
For pizza night, you can pick up a pre-made whole grain pizza crust, use some flatbreads, or look up a recipe for whole-grain pizza dough. Load up some veggies (at least on your piece) and serve with a salad. Now you’ve got a Friday night family tradition and an easy healthy menu plan in the making!
For taco night, grab some whole-grain taco shells and make a Chipotle-style taco bar with grilled chicken or lean ground beef, beans, brown rice, sautéed veggies, lettuce, tomato, cheese and so on. I doubt you’ll hear any whining about this one as each member of your family can choose what they like best.
SIMPLE WAYS TO PLAN
Below are a few planning options to help you get started. Don’t feel like you have to be committed to one or the other. Try one on (or parts of it) and see how it works and then adjust, if needed.
Chances are your end result won’t look exactly like any of these, and that’s awesome–finding a good fit for you and your family is what matters most.
1. Simple pen and paper. Whether it’s in a notebook or a paper calendar, it doesn’t matter. If you are drawn to physical books and planners, this option is probably best for you.
2. An app. I personally like to use Pepperplate. It’s free and there are desktop and app versions that store your recipes, calendar, and grocery list. I’ll admit that it’s a little glitchy but, hey, it’s free. It will take a bit of time to import your recipes but once you are up and running, it’s pretty seamless.
I have also heard great things about Plan to Eat but this is a paid subscription service.
3. A complete planning system. Purchase a proven planning system like the Real Food Planning Challenge from Live Simply and take the fast track to becoming a planning pro.
HEALTHY MENU PLANNING TIPS
Once you have chosen a planning strategy to play with, consider trying a few of these ideas to help your planning process go more smoothly.
PLAN IN THEMES
One of the best tips that I have used and seen (and that has been perfected by my friend and fellow blogger Kristin at Live Simply) is planning in themes.
For example, each day of the week you choose a theme for dinner so that brainstorming meals is easy-peasy. This trick of the trade takes a lot of pain out of planning and saves innumerable brain cells.
Thursday: Breakfast for Dinner
Saturday: Soup & Salad
Within each category is a ton of variety so your family won’t get bored.
RECYCLE YOUR HEALTHY MENU PLANS
As I mentioned above, most of us tend to gravitate to the same recipes and foods. If you find your family is happy with their favorite meals repeated, you may recycle your menu plans and their coordinating grocery lists (it doesn’t get any easier than this!).
Several of my clients have gotten to the point where they have 2-4 weeks of menus and grocery lists and just rotate through them. That’s more than enough variety in day-to-day life, and it’s easy to swap out a meal here or there if you see a recipe you’d like to try.
KNOW YOUR STAPLES
Staples are items that you always keep on hand. Think baking soda, oil, and lip-smackin’ barbeque seasoning. These are the ones you forget that send you back to the store for the second (and maybe even third) time. Being organized here will save you lots of annoyances.
To get started, rummage through all your cabinets and refrigerator shelves and compile a checklist of all your staple items. Use a handwritten list or type it up and throw in a page protector. Then before you head to the store, mark the items you need to pick up.
HEALTHY MENU PLANNING FROM SCRATCH
I hope this overview has shown you the value of menu planning and how you can implement some strategies on your own.
If going all out feels intimidating then start with one meal per day or one meal per week. Really, it’s enough! The benefit comes with even a few meals planned, as you discover a system that works best for you. Truly, it’s homework. While it may seem ho-hum, as fast as the weeks fly, you’ll be a planning pro in no time!
WRITE YOUR FIRST HEALTHY MENU PLAN
Here is a simple path to get started. Several of the steps may take some time, so feel free to skip them and come back to them as time allows.
Remember, there is no right and wrong here. By simply becoming more aware of what you are buying and cooking, you are making strides!
1. Jot down 12 recipes that you and your family like.
If you have some more nutritious options, great! If all of your recipes start with a can of creamed soup, then consider looking for a few healthier alternatives or be sure to pair those meals with a salad or steamed vegetable.
Don’t overwhelm yourself– just do what feels comfortable. Remember, if you are looking for an improvement over fast food, you don’t have far to go.
2. Create your staples list.
These are items that you always want to have on hand. Rice, oats, flour, soy sauce, baking soda, spices, nut butter, etc.
You can download my Staples List here. Please make your own copy and do not modify this one (file–>make a copy)
For bonus points, include some non-perishables for easy recipes that you can fall back on if you need to:
- Whole-grain pasta, jarred marinara sauce, frozen ground meat (or veggie crumbles for a very last-minute meal) and frozen spinach to add to the sauce.
- Brown rice, canned black beans, frozen fajita veggies, and shredded cheese for a burrito bowl.
- Frozen shrimp, frozen stir-fry veggies and instant brown rice for a quick stir-fry.
- Canned minestrone soup (Amy’s is great) and a bag of frozen mixed veggies to bump up the veggie content.
3. Think about themes.
Using your schedule, consider how a theme might fit into each night. You may want to stick to the same themes each week or just use this list to inspire some ideas.
Here are some theme nights to get you started:
- Meat & Potatoes
- Breakfast for Dinner
- Soup & Salad
4. Look at your schedule.
It is important to review your week ahead before getting started. Otherwise, food waste and frustrations may come.
Pull out your calendar and ask yourself:
- Are there nights that you are going to eat out?
- Do you have a busy day where it would be best to throw something in the crockpot in the morning?
- Are there any free nights where you have time to cook a more involved meal? Maybe even a double batch!
- Is there a time during the week you can get some prep done?
Jotting that down into your schedule will remove the uncertainty of when you will get things done. Remember to keep it realistic. If you find the plan causing stress, simplify.
RELATED POST: Stop Dieting and Do This ONE Simple Thing Instead
5. Start your grocery list.
Begin by reviewing the Staples List you compiled above. Scan the list, scan your cabinets, add them to your shopping list.
6. Choose your meals and recipes.
Scanning your schedule, pick out time appropriate dinners for each night. As you add in your meals, be sure to add the necessary ingredients to your grocery list immediately.
7. It’s time to shop!
Maybe this is your most or least favorite step. Either way, make it fun. Stop for a coffee on the way or choose a store that you enjoy walking through. Bribe yourself with flowers. Try to go when it’s not too busy, just to preserve your sanity.
If you can, avoid shopping late Sunday or early Monday morning, as the shelves are typically pretty picked out from the weekend.
And, if the thought of grocery shopping still sends shivers down your spine, look into a grocery delivery service. Most major grocery chains, including Walmart, now offer online shopping.
8. Scheduling a mid-week produce run.
Because you are all about healthy menu planning, it goes without saying that you’ve probably got some vegetables on that grocery list. To up the freshness factor, schedule in a mid-week produce trip.
If you would rather shop once-per-week, plan your meals with more fragile produce earlier in the week and save those meals with frozen veggies or heartier varieties later in the week.
FINDING YOUR HEALTHY MENU PLANNING GROOVE
If you have made it this far, congratulations. You are on your way to reducing your stress and improving your health through tasty, home-cooked meals!
Your first couple of weeks will be the most time-consuming, but I promise, it will get easier each week.
I started out planning 6 dinners a week, leaving room for one Chipotle run on Friday night. However, I noticed that I was constantly shifting last week’s recipes to the following week.
We’d have leftovers, pick up something we wanted for dinner, or choose another meal we had on hand. Then, our planned meal would get bumped off the schedule.
Now I have settled into planning 4 meals per week. It’s easy and it works great for us.
With practice and some patience, you will find your planning groove too. Your wallet will love you and your family will thank you for tasty meals that leave them feeling energized and nourished.
It’s just one more way you care.
SEE ALL THE EMAILS IN THIS SERIES:
- The Biggest Problem With Diets and How to Solve It
- How to Create a Healthy Menu Plan from Scratch
- Are You Missing this Surprisingly Simple Diet Tip?
- How to Start Eating Slowly in 3 Easy Steps
- How to Eat Better Without Making Yourself Crazy
Brandice Lardner is a Certified Personal Trainer, Nutrition Coach, Author, and Jesus Girl whose mission in life is to help women ditch the diet mentality and find peace with food and their bodies so that they are better equipped to do the great things God has called them to do.