Meal planning can save time and money by helping to reduce food that goes uneaten because it was forgotten in your fridge or pantry. Create menus featuring commonly available ingredients – lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruits are often on sale and making plans using such recipes can save both.
MyPlate (USDA’s latest food guide pyramid) suggests including foods from all four food groups in your meals and snacks, for optimal health. For help on grocery shopping and cooking tips, consult with a registered dietitian.
Fruits and Vegetables
Diets rich in fruits and vegetables are key components of a healthy lifestyle. Not only are these low-cal foods high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber; they also can lower risk factors associated with heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Relying exclusively on fruits and vegetables for all your meals can be risky. While fruits and vegetables offer many essential vitamins and nutrients, they’re also packed with carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars like fructose. Too many carbs can contribute to weight gain as well as insulin resistance leading to type 2 diabetes.
Substituting fruit and vegetables alone for all your meals can make it hard to meet protein needs, which are vital in building muscle, tissue repair and providing essential nutrition to the body. Without enough protein in your diet, hair loss, brittle nails and an impaired immune system may occur as a result.
Make sure you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables by choosing meals with both. Add fruits to your breakfast to get vitamin C before work; or have a lunch featuring vegetables like a spinach salad to meet daily intake recommendations.
Be sure to incorporate vegetables and grains into each meal for best results, helping prevent you from overeating these items and helping meet your recommended calorie intake goals.
Try cooking up something you haven’t experienced before or exploring the produce aisle to discover new options that may save money by being seasonal and on sale.
Turoff suggests prepping produce as soon as you arrive home from the grocery store to save time during the week. This includes washing, cutting and storing it in containers so you can quickly add it to soup, stir fry or salad recipes. Doing this on weekends when there’s more time will save even more precious minutes during busy workweeks.
Whole grains are packed with essential fiber, iron and B vitamin. Their consumption can help manage blood sugar, cholesterol levels and body weight, making them an essential tool in managing lifestyle-related diseases such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. Many doctors and dietitians suggest adults consume at least three servings of whole grains daily.
Add whole grains to your diet easily by switching out refined grains with whole ones during meals and snacks. At your grocery store, search for options like brown rice, quinoa, bulger wheat, barley and oats – many can be found in either the rice or pasta sections; you might even find some in bulk bins at well-stocked supermarkets or natural food stores.
When shopping for whole grains, pay careful attention to the ingredient list. “Whole grain” should always be listed first if any product contains refined grains. Also watch out for ingredients such as molasses which add brown hue but no actual flavor enhancement.
One-dish meals such as casseroles can also be created quickly by layering whole grain foods with vegetables and proteins – an example being this cheesy vegetarian casserole, consisting of brown rice, lentils, toasted walnuts and lots of melty cheese! For convenient on-the-go options try picking up hot whole grain cereal or mixing together some quinoa with chopped vegetables and your preferred dressing to create a quick salad!
Whole grains are an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, which can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Plus, whole grains provide antioxidant protection from cancer and other diseases.
On the weekend, make a large batch of your favorite whole grains and use them throughout the week in salads, stir fries and grain bowls. Most cooked grains can stay fresh up to four days in the refrigerator and six months in the freezer.
Protein is an integral component of any healthy meal, yet it’s essential that lean sources take priority over fattier ones. According to the USDA definition, lean proteins contain no more than 10 grams total fats (4 or less from saturated fat) and 95 milligrams or fewer of cholesterol per serving. Options that meet this standard include skinless poultry, fish, shrimp and lean cuts of red meat like sirloin tip or loin. Vegetarians or those looking to avoid animal products will find many plant-based options such as low fat or fat free dairy products (edamame etc), beans/leguananas as well as chickpeas/blackbeans etc.
An eating plan featuring protein-rich foods and nutritious carbohydrates will keep you feeling satisfied from breakfast all the way to dinner. A light midmorning snack should suffice, followed by a larger lunchtime meal and then an lighter dinner option.
Participating with kids in meal planning is a great way to encourage healthier decisions – plus it can be fun! Plan the week’s nutritious meals together; they may suggest items for the grocery list and help prepare food throughout the week.
Meal-prepping your protein sources to save time during the week is another useful tip. Making dishes such as chicken breasts, salmon or lean ground beef ahead of time makes creating healthy dinners easy on busy evenings.
Make sure to pay close attention to portion sizes when dining out. Large restaurant portions can contribute to overeating and weight gain, so using your own measuring cups when dining out and when cooking at home may help curb overeating and weight gain. Furthermore, getting children involved with setting the table and serving their own healthy meals increases their likelihood of eating the nutritious foods they helped prepare themselves. Adjusting expectations about healthy portions can help ensure a balanced diet with plenty of energy for thriving.
Meal planning is key for reaching our nutrition goals and staying on a budget, taking away any guesswork about what to prepare each night for dinner and keeping costs under control. Meal planning removes this stressor, providing more time and peace of mind while reaching nutritional objectives more easily.
By taking the time and care to plan meals in advance, taking advantage of meal planning can save money and minimize food waste. When you know exactly what’s being made, shopping becomes much simpler for the ingredients that will make up that meal, enabling you to purchase exactly what’s necessary; and you won’t waste food by purchasing items you don’t require or cooking enough meals to last multiple meals before freezing leftovers for later.
An effective meal planning routine can help keep you on the path toward reaching your healthy eating goals, even during busy times. Use the Healthful Eating Plate as a guide, aiming to fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits (excluding potatoes), 1/4 of it with whole grains, and the remainder with lean proteins and healthy fats.
Meal planning can be an excellent way to fill your pantry, freezer and refrigerator with healthy options. Start by writing out a list of ingredients you will need for each meal; check your fridge and cabinets for items nearing their expiration dates; shop from your list to replenish food supplies – whether at home, work, school or while driving.
At times it may not always be feasible to eat every meal at home, so planning nutritious snacks for work or school and keeping a bag of healthful “go-to” foods in your car as “go-tos” when hunger strikes will help avoid unhealthy fast food options when traveling.
As soon as you’re ready to embark on this new food journey, take into account your taste preferences, dietary needs, food allergies, cooking ability and budget when crafting a meal plan. After this initial step is taken, give it a go – finding recipes and meal plans tailored specifically to you may take some time but will prove worthwhile in the end!