Let's face it, life's hectic. Planning ahead may help relieve mealtime stress. Follow these three steps and you'll be planning and prepping nutritious and delicious meals that fit your preferences and lifestyle!
Step 1: Make a Menu
First, think about your approach to meal planning — do you:
- Want to make a weekly or a monthly plan?
- Prefer to prepare meals ahead of time, just before the meal or a combination of both?
- Want to pick a day to cook meals for the week or a month that you can store in the freezer?
- Need to consider any special nutrition needs for yourself or your family?
Next, either on a sheet of paper, in your phone or on or the computer, create your menu:
- Take a minute to read about how to put together a healthy meal and make sure you are getting the right amount of each food group.
- Flip through cookbooks or online sites and find recipes that look good. Evaluate the level of cooking skill required to make the recipe. Do you have those skills? If not, are you up for the challenge? Also, make sure that you have any special cooking utensils or pans needed for the recipe.
- Check in with your family about their schedules and meal preferences. Weigh those factors as you put together your menu.
- Think about the weather. Hearty soups and stews are ideal for a cold winter’s night. A salad with lean protein can make a perfect entrée on a hot summer day. If you are packing lunches, make sure any perishables can be stored in a refrigerator or in an insulated bag with an ice pack.
- Find out what ingredients you already have on hand. It is best to continually rotate foodstuffs rather than store them for long periods of time. So, try to use up the items that you have on hand. You’ll also save money!
- Check out the sales at your local supermarkets. Sometimes a discounted price can allow you to treat yourself and your family to a special meal. Remember: produce that is in season tends to be less expensive.
- Aim for variety in meals; but, don’t feel like every day must be different. It’s OK to have oatmeal or low-fat yogurt with berries several times a week for breakfast. The same goes for lunch; pick a few options and rotate them across a week. Jot down breakfast, lunch and dinner options. And, don’t forget about snacks.
- Think about how to handle leftovers. Might you serve them again that week or freeze them for another week? Remember to consider food safety, as refrigerated leftovers should be used up within three to four days or frozen for later use.
- Run the menu by others in your household. Does it look good to them? Make any adjustments needed.
- During the week, keep notes about how well the menu worked. These notes can remind you of ways to improve your recipes and menu.
Step 2: Stock Your Pantry and Freezer with the Five Food Groups
To help get started with meal planning, take time to stock up on the basics. This includes healthy foods that you like to eat and prepare. The lists below provide pantry and freezer items to stock up on from the five food groups. Circle the items you want to stock in your pantry and freezer. Plus, add other items based on your personal health needs and food preferences.
Five Food Groups Pantry List
Vegetables: Keep a variety of canned tomatoes in stock (diced, crushed, whole, stewed). Use them in soups, stews, sauces, casseroles and more! Also, pick up a bottle of your favorite spaghetti sauce. Dried mushrooms are another great pantry item because they can add depth of flavor to your meals.
Fruits: Raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots and other dried fruits are loaded with dietary fiber. They add a punch of flavor to your morning breakfast, midday salad and dinner grains.
Milk and Dairy Products: Dried milk is a great back-up item to have on stock. You can use it in your coffee or tea. Boxed milk is also available in single-serving packages and is a great item for lunch boxes. Evaporated milk, available in cans in the baking aisle, can be substituted for liquid milk in most recipes.
Protein Foods: Stock up on canned or dried lentils, black, pinto, cannellini, garbanzo and kidney beans. These legumes are a great source of protein. Toss cooked beans in salads, soups, stews and other dishes. Canned tuna, anchovies and sardines are a pantry must — they are a quick way to add protein, healthy fats and flavor to meals.
Grains: Keep a stash of oatmeal, buckwheat and other whole-grain cereals in the pantry. For an extra boost, add nuts and fresh berries to these hot cereals. Barley, farro, quinoa and other grains provide staples for healthy meals. Also, keep a variety of rice on hand — long grain, short grain, basmati and brown rice. Spaghetti, ziti, penne and other pastas are great for an easy, quick and filling family meal. Give yourself an extra nutrition boost by buying whole-grain pasta or trying pasta made from legumes.
Also, stock up on:
- Condiments: Ketchup, mustard and relish can be stored in the pantry until they are opened. Once you open them, keep them in the fridge.
- Oil and vinegar: Extra-virgin olive oil is a versatile, heart-healthy option. Other oils, such as peanut, walnut and sesame add a burst of flavor to meals. Pick up different types of vinegar, such as cider, white and balsamic. Each imparts a unique flavor to your recipes.
- Stock: Vegetable, chicken and beef stock are the basics of many recipes. Opt for those are low-sodium or contain no added salt.
- Herbs and spices: Pick up small containers of ground herbs and spices. That way they are as fresh as possible when you use them.
- Flax and other seeds: Flax and chia seeds deliver of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Add them to cereal, salads, sauces and home-baked goods. If you buy whole flaxseed, make sure you grind it up before eating so your body can absorb the nutrients.
Five Food Groups Freezer List
To help make sure you don’t store food beyond freshness, put dates on the packages before storing in the freezer. And, use the oldest first.
Vegetables: Pick up some of your favorite frozen veggies. These are a great source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients because the flash-freezing process locks in the nutrition. Look for packages without sodium. And, while you are in the produce aisle, grab some fresh herbs. When you get home, fill ice cube trays with chopped herbs, top off the herbs with boiling water, and carefully place in the freezer. Add these herbs cubes for a punch of freshness to your meals.
Fruits: Stash frozen berries and other fruits in the freezer. They are a great way to add nutrition to a morning smoothie.
Milk and Dairy Products: Freeze Parmesan and other pre-shredded cheeses — toss them into soups, stews and pasta dishes. Low fat, frozen yogurt can be a quick dessert for a special occasion.
Protein Foods: Stock up on salmon and other fatty fishes to ensure you have ready access to healthy fats. Frozen lean meats and poultry also store well in the freezer. One tip: make sure you move it to the refrigerator one day before cooking to give adequate time for defrosting. Keep a variety of nuts in the freezer. This helps prevent them from spoiling. Add them to cold cereal, salads, hot grains and other dishes.
Grains: Whole-grain corn tortillas freeze well and can be used for quick breakfasts, lunches or dinners. Can’t eat that loaf of bread fast enough while it is fresh? Make it a habit to freeze part of the loaf and defrost slices as you need them.
Step 3: Keep a Running Grocery List
In a convenient place keep a pad and pen and, as you use up grocery items, write them down on the list. This way you don’t have to worry about forgetting anything when you hit the supermarket. Or, use an app for that.
There are many grocery shopping apps available for both iOS and Android platforms. Some apps even include information on where to get the best deals on food prices. For example, after you enter your list, the app might suggest which local supermarket has the best prices for those items. Others allow you to sort your list into categories for ease of shopping. And, meal planning options also are special features of some apps.
On your list — be it paper or app-based — compile the needed ingredients for the meals you plan to make for the week. Also, think about how often you are able and want to shop. Plus, think about your plan for meals and check to see what ingredients you already have and what items you need. Remember to check the cabinets, pantry, fridge and freezer. Ideally, you want to continually use what you have on hand so that your meals are made with fresh ingredients and this will also help reduce food waste.