Thursday, September 8, 2011

Healthy Eating: Meal Planning 101

There are some skills I feel we were born (blessed) with and others that take a lot of practice to master.  I was born a planner.  It's not something I remember ever being taught, it has just always come naturally to me.  Budgeting falls into this same category but that's a post in and of itself.

Being a planner keeps me on my toes.  I'm always thinking 2 steps ahead and get frustrated when others don't (uh um, Wes, I'm talking to you).  Every night I begin going through tomorrow's routine and getting lunches prepared, outfits selected (in my head), meals prepped, and schedules made.  Part of this is a curse because it's hard for me to live for today when I'm always thinking ahead to tomorrow but I like being prepared.

I plan my meals one week at a time.  I do allow some wiggle room in that I don't assign a certain meal to a certain day - at least not always but more on that later.  With both the CSA box and striving to eat more fresh produce, I've found 1 week is about as far out as I can plan in order to keep the food fresh.  I used to do 2 weeks at a time but I found my tastes changed too much from week to week and that was too long to let some vegetables stay in the fridge.  One week works for us but as long as what you're doing works, stick with it!

Since I'm always thinking ahead, I feel like I'm always thinking about dinner options.  As I read blogs through Google Reader, I bookmark those that appeal and sort them in folders, i.e. Main Dishes - Chicken, Main Dishes- Beef, Side Dishes, Salads, etc.  I also have a similar file system in Excel for recipes I find in Southern Living, Cooking Light, or blogs I don't subscribe to.  When I go to make my menu, I try to pick one dish from chicken, one beef, one seafood, and then either one breakfast, one vegetarian, or one pasta.  As I find the one I want, I go ahead and print it out so the grocery list process can move smoothly and it also allows me to have all my recipes in one place.

Once I have my protein, I focus on the vegetables.  I try to have at least 2 vegetables with each meal, one green and one of another color.  I try to be diverse with my options so no one gets burned out on any one item.  I'm lucky in that my family will eat just about anything (more on that in another post) but there are some exceptions.  I try to make sure I always have some frozen peas and/or lima beans on hand for these occasions.  Side dishes are often overlooked but they are the source for most of the vitamins and minerals in our diets, so don't neglect them!
As a side note, as I'm making my menu, if I find more dishes for a week than there are days to cook them, I often start a plan for the next week so as to not forget them and also to cut out some of the thinking for next week.  Now sometimes my feelings have changed by the next week but often it's a welcome jump start. 

In selecting both dinner and side dishes, I try to think of what items I have on hand.  I generally only buy items for the dishes I've selected but sometimes things jump out at me that are on sale or new items.  Those unplanned, spontaneous items are often the ones that sit on my pantry shelf for months, unused - thus, the list!  But I do often have leftover produce from the previous week that I try to incorporate into my menu early the next week to avoid it from spoiling.  It's easy to do a search in Excel if I have a specific item I'm trying to use up or Southern Living/Cooking Light has a search engine called, MyRecipes that is another great resource. 

I try not to duplicate many recipes but that's just because I have SO many bookmarked and saved that I want to try.  I think the variety helps spice things up and prevents anyone from getting bored of the same old meal week after week.  It also forces us to try new things and allows our ever-changing taste buds to retry certain foods we might have once disliked.

Seems simple enough, right?  With a little planning ahead, our weekly menu plan has cut out the need for eat-on-the-run and the dreaded processed foods.  I think about our schedule for the week as I'm planning and make quicker dishes or make-ahead meals on nights when we have soccer practice or other commitments.  Planning ahead is definitely key to maintaining a healthy dinner routine.

Well what are you waiting for, get busy creating next week's menu.  As a sort of "Clif's Note" version, if you will, here is my menu for this past week:

Garlic Shrimp (Scallop) Pasta, salad with nuts/cranberries/feta, bread
Chard, Tomato/Bread Salad, pan-fried chicken w/bbq sauce
Meatloaf, peas, mashed potatoes
Fish sandwiches w/Mmm sauce, zesty lime slaw, watermelon
Family Meal at local restaurant

Grocery Shopping 101 to be continued...


  1. I'd love to know more about how you use Excel...never thought of that. I do bookmark recipes & categorize them as you described. While I don't think I was blessed with the planning gene like you, being a mom has helped what few strengths I have in that area shine. Necessity!!!

  2. I'm like you, I plan all of our meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday and then create my grocery list, by store section, and go from there. I chop and prepare anything I can once home from the grocery ... making sure we have meals for most nights of the week (we usually get take out on Fridays and try to eat out on Saturday) ensures we're not sucked into less healthy takeout and keeps our budget in check. I'm glad I'm not the only one out there! It's funny that all of this seems so second-nature to me, and I'm surprised when people ask for my tips and tricks, ha.

  3. I would like you to move in and be our personal planner and chef! I love food, I love bookmarking recipes ... but when the time comes to meal plan, I sigh in defeat. And I'm always amazed at how you buy what you need and use it - I've got a pantry FULL of stuff!!

  4. Love how organized you are...I used to be better at it, and need to start planning meals again. I joined a CSA this year so most of our meals revolve around what I get each week in my CSA Box.

  5. Your meal planning sounds really healthful :) Way to go getting 2 veggie serving with each meal. That is awesome! My family is kinda picky so it can be hard to try to get in all the veggies!

  6. I totally need to start doing this. Bad about planning our meal plus I feel like we always have the same thing.

    Thanks for your comment on my Dogfish post. It's a brewery/restaurant. Pretty neat, they had a TV show about the place and the guy that runs it. It was pretty neat.

  7. You know, we've had people seem shocked when we tell them we plan our meals out for the week...but I don't know how you function if you don't! Sometimes our menus unfold almost effortlessly, other times it's a struggle to come up with dishes for every night. Either way though, we make our menu and then shop off of that, filling any staples that we might be out of also. I have a chalkboard in the kitchen where I write our menu out so we know what we're having and can remember if we need to take something out of the freezer or get something marinating for the next day.

    Great series!