Healthy meal planning can seem like a lot of work. Determining what you’re going to eat days in advance appears to take the fun out of spontaneous cooking. But if you’re committed to healthy eating–or even just beginning to cook regularly–menu planning is a must. Good planning will help you avoid multiple trips to the store throughout the week, which is time-consuming (and can be expensive). Sitting down once a week with a cookbook and making a menu for the week can help you:
- Avoid the temptation of getting last-minute takeout, since dinner is already planned and shopped for
- Determine which cooking techniques you want to try that week (For example, you may choose a few simple dishes and one that requires a more complex process, like a homemade bechamel sauce.)
- Ensure you’re eating a balanced diet
- Try new foods. (You may want to mix things up one or two nights a week with a new ingredient you haven’t eaten before.)
Healthy Meal Planning: The Plate Method
If health is a main concern in your cooking endeavors, the “plate method” can help you ensure you’re planning meals that are balanced and portioned.
The plate method is a quick and simple way of planning a meal to maximize nutrition. Begin by drawing an imaginary line down the center of your plate. On one side, draw another line. You now have three sections. Fill the large section with non-starchy vegetables (spinach, carrots, turnip, broccoli). Fill one small section with a starch, such as noodles or potatoes. Fill the other small section with meats such as tuna, steak or chicken. If you prefer, choose meatless options for this area, such as tofu.
As you follow this method, you’ll notice your menu planning for each meal will contain a portion of vegetables, a portion of starch and a portion of meat or meat substitute. This is a form of healthy meal planning, as the majority of your plate is covered with vegetables.
Menu Planning in Action
To apply this healthy meal planning on a day-to-day basis will take some effort. You can begin by narrowing down your options:
- Make a list of all of the recipes you know how to cook.
- Ask your children or family members what they like to eat at restaurants. Look for recipes for these items.
- Pull out all cookbooks you own, and search for recipes you know you can make.
- Make a list of all vegetables you know how to cook. (And that your children will eat!)
This list will form the backbone of your healthy meal planning. Augment this list by choosing one or two items that you’ve never made before but would like to try. Planning a meal that is slightly challenging will help you learn new techniques, introduce new foods to your palate and keep you challenged.
Create a grid for the next week, with a column for each day and three rows for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Determine which days are the busiest for your family. If your children have soccer practice on Wednesdays, for example, choose the recipe you know is fast and easy for that night. Save the weekends for elaborate recipes you’ve never tried before. Plan on making additional servings of dinner items, and eat those for lunches the following days. Planning a meal with leftovers in mind can keep you from resorting to fast-food lunches.
Once you’ve completed your menu planning, generate your shopping list. To make shopping even easier, organize the list by ingredient type–all of the dairy items in one section, produce in another, and so forth–to avoid zig-zagging around the grocery store searching for items.