Meal Planning – Taking the Stress Out of the ‘What’s for Dinner’

by Laura on March 13, 2011

in Food

I wrote this post as a participant in the Eat Better, Eat Together Balancing Act blog carnival hosted by MealsMatterand Dairy Council of California to share ways families everywhere can make time for family meals that include foods from all the food groups. A list of other registered dietitians and moms who are participating in the Balancing Act blog carnival will be listed at the bottom of this post or can be found at MealsMatter.

Planning is one of the Four Pillars of Family Eats  (Planning, Purchasing, Preparing and Partaking) and definitely one that many of us struggle to get under control.  Proper meal planning is the foundation for any successful eat-at-home venture. It is a great way to incorporate new recipes, more healthful options, and get the family involved. Once you get into the groove of meal planning, you’ll find how much easier it is to get out of the rut of wondering what to cook for dinner. By Planning, you’ll become more efficient in shopping, save money, and spend time with the family at the dinner table.

Recently, Laura ventured to 18 Reasons in San Francisco to participate in a class on Meal Planning. Tali Sedgwick, a nutrition educator and registered dietician of Food NE/RD, offered up some great advice. Below are Steps to Make Meal Planning Easy and Effective.

Steps to Make Meal Planning Easy and Effective:

1. Generating an Idea – Get thinking and start making a plan for what you want to accomplish. Do you want to incorporate more healthy recipes into your mealtime?

Do you desire to take your lunch to work instead of spending money daily in a restaurant? Are you tired of throwing away unused and spoiled food? Are you frustrated with wondering what’s for dinner every evening? Take a look at the obstacles that cause stress in the kitchen (and at mealtime) and create a plan that will help you overcome those obstacles.

2. Keep it Simple – Don’t strive to create that complicated recipe you saw on your favorite cooking show if you don’t have the time or the energy to do so. Keep those on hand for a rainy day, and focus on keeping it simple for every day. Instead, Sedgwick suggests finding recipes that are comprised of six ingredients or less. Then, take the time to read through recipes and determine how simple they will be to create.

3. Have Healthy Foods on Hand – This is all about stocking your pantry. Buy staples and have them ready – from rice and other grains to tomato sauce, condiments, spices and stock. Nothing is worse than deciding to make a recipe only to find out you don’t have ingredients on hand. And, as Sedgwick points out, “frozen vegetables are underrated, so keep a stash of them in your freezer for a quick and healthy side dish.” Also, she suggests to look for other ways to have healthy choices on hand, such as freezing cooked grains, so that a healthy option is always on hand.

4. Go With What You Know – Why experiment with a totally new recipe when you’re hungry and have limited time? Save the new recipe or technique for a weekend, for example, when you may have a bit more time. To help transition into making meals on a more regular basis, Sedgwick suggests having 7-10 meals that you feel comfortable making and then rotate them throughout the week.

5. Incorporate a Shopping Day and Prep Day – Shop one day, Cook the Next. One of the biggest deterrents to making food is the idea that you have to prep foods before you start cooking. Complete your shopping on one day (Saturday, for example), then prep food on the next. For instance, wash and chop ingredients for a fresh salad – a perfect lunch or snack time option. It is also helpful to chop vegetables for recipes used later in the week, then store them tightly in the refrigerator. If you know you’ll need 1 cup of chopped carrots for a recipe on Tuesday and another ½ cup on Friday, chop 1 ½ cups on prep day, and you’ll be ready to cook later in the week. You can even cook rice and other grains ahead of time and store them in the freezer.

6. Build Your Meals – Or, get in the habit of planning leftovers. This may take a bit of getting used to, but plan your meals and the following day’s lunch with leftovers in mind. If you’ve created a deliciously simple Chicken Paillardon a bed of orzo and steamed carrots for dinner, cook a bit extra and incorporate the leftovers into a tasty salad topped with sliced chicken, orzo, and some cheese. Reinvent leftovers into new meals by adding a new ingredient (such as cheese) so you don’t feel as if you are eating the same meal twice in one week.

7. Find Yourself a Safe Companion – A book or a friend to turn to when you get in a rut, or are confused about something. Back when I was in high school, I remember calling my Mom while she was at work and having her walk me through a recipe for dinner. These days, I still find myself reaching for the phone to call my Mom when I’ve a question about a recipe. She is my ‘go to’ source for all my cooking and baking questions. Find yourself someone, something (cookbook, internet), who you can turn to when you just aren’t quite sure how to proceed.

8. Enjoy – Don’t make mealtime a chore time. By incorporating meal planning into your week, you’ll open new possibilities for mealtime. And take the stress out of wondering what to make for dinner.

Tali’s Tips for Simple Meal Planning:

  • Look ahead to extra busy days and plan something quick for those days.
  • During the week, plan simpler one-pot meals, broiled or roasted meats, steamed vegetables, salads, fresh fruit desserts and a glass of milk.
  • Save sauces and multi-step meals for the weekends.
  •  Have a cook swap with your friends/co-workers
  • Read ahead in the recipe so you can plot out what needs to be done while the oven pre-heats, or chop 1 cup of carrots when two recipes (for the week) call for ½ cup.
  • Plan simple, tasty and healthful mid-day snacks. Top fresh berries with freshly whipped cream, or mix berries with yogurt. Enjoy slices of cheese along with crackers, or melt it on a bagel.

To read more about the Four Pillars of Family Eats, clickhere.

Don’t stop here! Other bloggers share their stories and tips on how they juggle the balancing act of getting a well-balanced meal on the table!

10 Commandments for Guilt-Free Feeding – Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD Beating the Lunch Box Blues – Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD Dinner Time – Michelle Rowe, RN and Health Educator Eat Better, Eat Together– Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN Family Dinners Fuel Healthier Kids – Susan Weiner, RD, MS, CDE, CDN Families that Cook Together Eat Together – Kia Robertson Making Time for Family Meals: How I’ve Earned My “RDH” – Trina Robertson, MS, RD Meal Planning: Taking the Stress Out of the ‘What’s for Dinner’– Laura Everage Pressed for Time? Moms Know Best: Tips for Getting Food on the Table – FAST!– Samantha Lewandowski, MS, RD, LDN Roasted Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal – Cheri Liefeld Sunday Night Family Dinner, In the Dining Room – Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN  The Balancing Act – Ann Dunaway Teh, MS, RD, LD The Power of Family Meal Time & How to Squeeze It In! – Bridget Swinney MS, RD, LD The Truth About Family Dinner – Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD Toughen up: Give Two Choices for Dinner – Take it or Leave it! – Glenda Gourley

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