You know you should meal plan but how do you get beyond a good intention to actually doing it? In this blog, I share 6 easy hacks to help you plan your meals so they are quick, healthy and delicious.
You don’t need me to tell you that the key to consistent healthy eating is….drum roll… planning!!! Yep, I can hear the disappointed sighs from afar…surely there is a deep dark secret that I am going to reveal in this blog that will magically transform your eating habits from “I’m trying really hard to be healthy but I just ate the kids’ leftover pasta for dinner, followed by two chocolate biscuits” to you nailing your nutrition and actually enjoying what you are eating. But no, it really comes down to how you plan your meals on a daily and weekly basis and being really organised with your shopping and food prep. So, here’s the secret sauce for healthy eating…. get into the habit of planning your meals and being organised with your shopping and meal preparation. Honestly, once you do this, eating healthily becomes so much easier.
Now I’m a born planner and being organised comes quite naturally to me. I’m also a foodie and I love feeling healthy, so it generally doesn’t feel like a chore for me to plan and organise my family’s meals for the week. I pull out my favourite recipe books and flick through them, with my trusty Post- Its ready to go. Sometimes I’m inspired to try new things and other times I go back to my tried and trusted recipes. Then I get my colourful pens out to write up the meal plan for the week on the family blackboard. When I’m feeling really zen, I include a motivational quote on the blackboard, sometimes adorned with some squiggles and stars (such is the extent of my creativity). My husband and kids never notice the squiggly star quote or the neatly written plan on the blackboard (they just eat whatever’s written down…or sometimes not, if it’s my kids), but it makes me feel good. I should mention that there are probably apps for meal planning but I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to planning. I like to write stuff down.
But I get it that this process will not appeal to everyone all the time. If you have a full-on stressful job or family demands that leave you feeling like you are constantly chasing your tail, sitting down on Sunday afternoon to think about what you are going to have for lunch on Friday is not going to be top of your priority list. But you know what can happen if you haven’t planned your week? On Monday night you realise that you don’t have half the ingredients you need for your homemade chilli. So it’s a quick dash to your local shop only to find they don’t have mince, or peppers, or some other crucial ingredient… so you have to come up with a Plan B (fish fingers, anyone?), in the shop, with hungry, tired kids pestering you to buy Kinder Eggs. Not fun. Honestly, once you get into the routine of planning your meals, it is actually a real time saver and it takes so much of the stress out of mid-week cooking.
Before you get your colourful pens out, here are some of my top hacks to get you meal planning like a boss.
- You don’t have to buy a brand new cookbook and tackle 15 new recipes each week involving ingredients you’ve never heard of. While I encourage you to have plenty of variety in your diet, it’s ok to be a little bit boring when it comes to meal planning. If you’ve got 3 or 4 healthy meals that you know you can throw together quickly and easily, then include them on your meal plan. And don’t feel bad if you include them week after week. I have a few favourite mid-week dinners that make a regular appearance in my weekly meal plan –quinoa salad with feta and salmon and whatever veg I have the fridge, sweet potato and asparagus or broccoli frittata, and my easy peasy 3 tin dahl. I never get bored of eating them because they taste good. If your go-to recipes aren’t as healthy as you’d like them to be, think about how you can tweak them to make them a bit healthier. Spaghetti Bolognese can be pimped up in a healthy way by swapping the pasta for courgette ribbons, cutting down on the cheese and making your own avo guacomole. Chili con carne can easily be turned into a super healthy vegetarian meal by swapping the mince for black eye beans (or just adding more red kidney beans) and throwing in extra veggie goodies like cubes of butternut squash and some chopped kale. Meal planning is about making life easier (and healthier), not harder.
- We’ve all done it, gone to the supermarket with our shopping list only to get home and realise that the main ingredient needed for tonight’s dinner was not on the shopping list. Aaagh! (By the way, a risotto made with basmati rice doesn’t work, trust me). To avoid such disasters, plan your meals and write out your shopping list at the same time. Try to include all your meals in your plan, even breakfasts. It’s no good planning to have porridge 3 times a week if you run out of rolled oats on Tuesday. Shopping in this way should also mean you waste less food (good for the environment) and spend less money (good for the wallet). It’s up to you whether follow recipes or you follow a slightly more freestyle approach where you create something based on the ingredients you have. I tend to do a bit of both. The freestyle approach is good for using up leftover veg, jars of peppers and half blocks of feta cheese, which I pretty much always have sitting in my fridge.
- Here’s another secret, you don’t have to spend Sunday batch cooking for the week ahead. It’s a lovely idea but who really wants to spend their precious weekend time doing extra cooking, labelling lots of containers (I never have enough containers) and finding space in the freezer for all them? Not me! Be smart and get into the habit of make bigger portions whenever you are cooking and saving the leftovers. Whenever I’m roasting vegetables like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, peppers or courgettes for a recipe like my frittata, I always roast more than I need and then I keep the extras in the fridge. It’s the same for when I’m preparing quinoa. Two days later, I’ve got a yummy lunch of quinoa and roast vegetables, which I can add feta or some chickpeas to and top with some pumpkin seeds and fresh herbs.
- You’ve got a crazy week ahead of you and you don’t know how you’re going to get everything done, let alone implement your lovely new meal plan. I’ll let you in on another little secret that would make some of the social media wellness queens gasp in horror…. you don’t have to cook everything from scratch all the time. If you are careful with your choices, you can get some very healthy ready-made food from the supermarket. I recently bought some absolutely delicious beetroot burgers. They just needed to be heated up in the oven and I had them on a green salad with some avocado and bit of Greek yoghurt. Totally yum and super quick and easy. Here’s another little secret…you can make a multitude of healthy and yummy meals really easily with the following ingredients: eggs, feta, smoked salmon or mackerel, sweet potatoes, red peppers, broccoli, salad leaves and tinned chickpeas. So for those weeks when you just can’t bring yourself to write out a plan, add these (or similar) ingredients to your shopping list and with a bit of imagination, you can create at least 3 or 4 meals.
- Always think about where your next snack is coming from. So many people fall down in their mission to eat healthily with their snacking habits. I reckon this is because most people fail to think about their snacks in the same way as they think about their meals. The tendency for snacks is to just grab whatever’s easy or is put in front of us (the cake that a colleague has brought in for morning tea, for example). I’m a big advocate of healthy snacks as they help keep your blood sugars balanced and they’ll give you an energy boost to help get you through the rest of your morning or afternoon. You only need 2 snacks a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Again, you can be boring with your snacks! A piece of fruit or some nuts is all it takes – or for something savoury, some raw veg and hummus. Just try to have a bit of variety in the fruit or veg you choose to ensure you get maximum nutritional benefits. If you fancy getting messy with your food processor, try making some energy bites (link to recipe) which keep well in the fridge. So when you are doing your weekly shopping list, make sure you’ve got your snacks covered too.
- I tend to meal plan up to Friday lunchtime and then I leave things fairly flexible over the weekend. (Plus my husband has usually had enough of chickpeas and quinoa by the time Friday rolls around). It can be tempting to kind of forget about healthy eating once the weekend arrives, especially if you’ve had a “good” week on the food front. But don’t let the weekends be your downfall. You can very easily undo all the good work you’ve done during the week if you are not careful at the weekend too. I know, I’ve been there! I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy the odd glass of wine or a dessert on Saturday night, but try to limit the damage as much as possible. So if you are going out for a big lunch on Sunday, have a light healthy breakfast such as fruit and yoghurt and something like soup or salad for dinner. A bit of thinking ahead can make a huge difference in how you eat at the weekend. This also applies when you’re going out to a restaurant to eat. Have an idea in your mind as to what you will eat before you arrive at the restaurant – if you can, check out the menu online beforehand. If the main courses all look a bit stodgy, don’t be afraid to order two starters or ask if they can make a starter in a main size.
Hopefully I’ve infused you with loads of enthusiasm for meal planning and I hope you will give it a try, if you’re not doing it already. If anyone is thinking this all sounds a bit, well, boring (and yes, I know I’ve said it’s ok to be boring. Twice.), let me assure that it is worth it. Thinking about your food and planning your meals so that they are nutritious and delicious is like giving yourself and your family a big healthy present every week. Also, when you plan and organise your meals (and your life generally), you’ll have more time and energy to do the really fun stuff. Plus you get play around with felt tip pens and Post-Its. Win, win.