Ah, menu planning. Some think of it as a creative outlet, others a dreaded chore. For those that enjoy menu planning you’re probably here for some useful tips to enhance your process. For those that don’t, you’re probably here because your dietitian told you to read this. Either way, I get really detailed in this blog. I want it to be a one stop shop for improving your menu planning.
Menu planning has several benefits. If you’re in active recovery, it can give you a hard boundary around your meals. My clients also report it reduces their anxiety, because they know what is available to eat. It can increase your variety by ensuring you have a wide range of foods planned before you go to the grocery store. It can also help you save money by reducing food waste or unnecessary purchases.
Without further ado, here’s Brenna’s complete guide to planning your meals:
1. Empty out fridge and pantry of old food or empty containers
You’d be surprised by how much space gets filled by stale products, or that moldy mystery leftovers that’s been in the back of the fridge for who knows how long. Once you’ve removed what you won’t be eating, it’s easier to see what you can eat.
2. See what needs to be eaten before it goes bad
Do a glance at expiration dates. Don’t worry about canned or frozen foods you know will last for months. Instead, look at things like vegetables, fruits, cheese, tofu, meat and bread. Make a list of the top 3-5 items that will expire that week, and plan to use those. This will stop you from spending hours with your head in the pantry.
3. Check your schedule- how much time do you have to cook?
This is an often forgotten, but very needed step in meal planning. It’s useless to plan meals you do not possibly have time to make. Don’t let perfectionism get you here- it’s better to plan to eat convenience food than to not eat or binge out of guilt.
Is it a take-out week, a ravioli and canned sauce week, a cooking week, or a combo of the three? Look at the time you will be home from work, and what time you’d like to have dinner. Look at how jam packed your day is. If you know it’s a stressful day, don’t plan a complicated dinner. You might even schedule a date night or family night that includes cooking, for some Friday night fun.
4. Check in with your cravings
Is there anything you want? Anything your spouse/roommate/kid has been asking for? The 4th and 5th principles of Intuitive eating are important here. Respectively, these are to “Challenge the Food Police'' and “Discover the Satisfaction Factor”. The food police might say ‘hey, you’re cooking at home, you know you should make something healthy!’. I encourage you to tap into what would be satisfying. It’s not worth the struggle to try to follow arbitrary and ever changing diet rules. You won’t want to stick to a menu if it doesn’t sound appetizing.
5. Balance, Variety, and Moderation
This buzz-phrase deserves an entire blog in and of itself. For times-sake, I’ll try my best to summarize.
Balance: Eat foods from all food groups. Enough food to keep you satisfied, but not so much where you feel overstuffed.
Variety: Do not discount the importance of a food group or praise it over another. This also goes for types of food, be it frozen or processed or fresh.
Moderation: Be aware of the foods you are eating and how your body feels, and what your body is craving. Then, give yourself permission to eat what you need, whether it’s a burger, salad, or both.
I wrote a previous blog titled “Mindfulness vs Moderation” if you want to check it out and learn more!
6. Decide your dinners
On the days where you will be less stressed, plan your more complicated meals. While we have all felt physical exhaustion after a long day of work, some of us are also feeling mental exhaustion. We give ourselves grace for not feeling up to cook if we’ve been running around all day, but not if we’re mentally exhausted. Cooking is a skill that takes mental stamina. If you don’t have it, it’s ok to have a take out or a half-homemade meal. I also wrote a blog about that titled “Benefits of a Half Homemade Meal”.
7. Decide your lunches
Will you have lunch with coworkers, or a friend some days? What about just taking yourself out on a lunch date? Do you have time to grab lunch, or will you need to bring it with you? What dinners can be microwaved for the next day?
These are all great questions to ask yourself when planning lunches.
8. Decide your breakfast staples
A great thing about breakfast is that it can take awhile to prepare or can be grab-and-go, and still be a complete meal. Running late? Granola bar, cheese sticks, and a box of raisins makes a compact on-the-go meal. You can also make a luxurious breakfast of french toast with berries and poached eggs. What all of these foods have in common is that they are pantry staples and usually last a few weeks in the pantry or fridge. Croissants and muffins from the bakery section, some fresh fruit, and a bag of hard boiled eggs are easy to grab and give you a variety of nutrients to start your day. These foods can also double as snacks!
9. Write your meals down
On your phone, on the calendar, or a dry erase board are all options of how to track your menu. Having a visual reminder is necessary to keep your brain focused on today's meal. This serves as a type of boundary to stop worrying about tomorrow.
10. Plan your grocery shopping list by aisle (or order curbside)
Grocery shopping will be the topic of my next blog. Make sure you sign up for our newsletter to have it sent to you directly! Signing up also gives you a free menu planning guide!
In summary, grouping your ingredients by area of store will help keep you focused during shopping. You don’t have to plan every single aisle, but quick notes like frozen, produce, or chip aisle will ensure you have gotten everything on your list. Curbside is also a convenient option, and you can triple check your list before you head out. Be sure to make a note of any specifics that you need so your shopper gets exactly what you desire.
And that’s my (not so simple) guide to meal planning! As you can see, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. So don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t have the perfect week right away. Part of healthy planning is knowing when to stray and go with the flow. Aim to plan 3 days at first, and build from there.