One of the most common questions I get from clients is: "Can you write me a meal plan?" Unfortunately, my answer is always the same - that I cannot, as only a registered dietitian can write a personalized meal plan. But that question makes me realize just how overwhelming prepping meals and planning menus can be, so I wanted to create a general guide to help simplify this process for you
Before we dive in, it's important to clarify a few things. For the purpose of this article, I want to express that meal planning is different than meal prepping. With meal planning, you are organizing a schedule or a menu for the week. With prepping, you are actually chopping and/or cooking meals or portions of meals ahead of time to simplify the day-of. Additionally important to note is that there is no one-right-way. These are simply suggestions to try to help you find a way that works for you and your family!
Ok, let's jump in!
1. How Many Meals Are You Preparing or Planning For?
Are you just focusing on dinner? Are you trying to tackle breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Knowing how many meals you plan to prep or plan for means you know how much time you need to set aside. If you're feeling overwhelmed with 3 meals a day, start with 1! If you want total focus and control and are ready for it, go for all 3. (See tip #8 for more info on simplifying your daily meals)
2. Look Ahead at Your Schedule for the Week.
This is why Sunday is such a great day to get organized. You can sit down with your calendar and know if you have late meetings, school trips, sports games to attend, etc. - anything that could throw off dinner or time spent making it.
3. Figure Out WHAT to Make.
This is often where people draw a total blank. The vastness of recipes and options can paralyze people into picking up takeout every night. Instead of giving in, let's get organized. There are a few ways you can go about this - you can utilize recipe resources (like The Fresh 20, EatingWell, or SkinnyTaste), or you can create a general "themed" menu that allows for flexibility and rotation. Personally, I think the latter works best for busy families because there isn't a ton of time/thought/energy that needs to go into it.
Here's an example of what I mean:
Whatever Wednesday (Whatever recipe you are looking to try, or a day you do a bigger cook)
When you have a theme, you don't have to worry specifically about the "what" you're cooking, you're moreso focusing on the "how". Are you eating tofu pad Thai, or grilling veggie burgers on Monday? Are you prepping taco salads, or throwing chicken and spices into a slow cooker and filling taco shells? This process worked SO well for my family, and even eased the burden of me having to be the only one who cooked. If I was running late on a Friday, my husband could look at our menu and know to pull out the tilapia and get the grill pan going! (Don't like the example above? That's ok! Develop your own menu guide with what works for you and your family!)
When it comes to recipes, sometimes it can be overwhelming to search or figure out what to make. Join our Facebook community where I share one recipe a week for you to add to your menu!
4. Planning the Meal.
For health, it's best to focus on veggies, complex carbs (like grains or starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes), and protein at every meal. Knowing this guideline can mean you, again, don't have to spend mental energy on what the meal looks like. You know you need a veggie, a protein, and possibly a complex carb. *Be sure to discuss with your doctor if you have any specific dietary restrictions or concerns.
5. Batch Prep.
This is absolutely a time saver. If salad is on your menu twice, perhaps as the main dish one night and a side dish another, make enough salad once to cover both days. Same goes for grains, meats, or cooked veggies. Don't be afraid of leftovers! Try a new spice on cooked veggies or proteins to make it different, or just keep it simple and season it all the same.
6. Invest in a Slow Cooker or Instant Pot.
These devices can be your best friend. I like to batch cook meat in the slow cooker, and serve it different ways throughout the week. I prep once, let the slow cooker do its thing, and have at least two meals available. Oftentimes, I take it a step further and make enough to put in the freezer - Boom, future meal prep.
7. Don't Compromise Quality for Convenience.
Bagged meals or frozen pizzas are definitely simple, but can be costly to your health goals. Read labels and opt for low sodium options and minimally processed meals.
8. Simplify and Utilize Meal Replacements.
You don't HAVE to spend all day Sunday in the kitchen. Utilize high quality meal replacements for 1-2 meals per day, such as breakfast and lunch, and you can save so much time while also still staying on track for your goals. If you're looking for good options, my go-to recommendation is Isagenix - the company standards for quality, research-backed products is hard to compete with for other products on the market. Shoot me an email if you want more info on why these products are so incredible, or to learn how they can help you stay on track.
I hope these tips helped you to simplify your approach to meal planning/prepping! The keys to preventing overwhelm are to simplify, so chunk it down and reach out if you have questions.