Meal Planning? Who’s got time for that?

As a dietitian in private practice, not only is my job about teaching clients, a huge part of it is problem-solving with clients and unpacking barriers that get in the way of healthy habits. One thing that continuously comes up during conversation is TIME and the lack of it!

 “I’ve been working longer hours at work so I just grab fast-food after work,” “My child has been sick and I haven’t had time to cook,” I got home late from class today and ate the first thing I saw.”  All of these examples are totally relatable and we have ALL been there.  With the fast-paced lives we are all living, there will never be enough time to eat healthy.  There will always be a reason as to why things didn’t work out this week-but it’s ok-we will start next week.  There is no easy solution to this, unless we all hit the lottery and hire private chefs.  

Realistically, there is only one consistent way to address this-and yes this is where you can groan out loud-meal planning.  Eating healthy, intuitive eating, lifestyle changes-regardless of how you view your journey to wellness, it is all going to require some kind of plan.  None of this just happens, especially with the food system we have today.  Most restaurants and many items in the grocery store cater to those of us looking for convenience-and let’s be honest, most of us want a break from adulting and just want something to be easy.  This is where you can think of that annoying quote “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and as much as I want to argue this (I’m not a planner at all) it is totally appropriate in this context. 

I am a dietitian, that means food, nutrition, healthy eating-all of this is engrained in my head and almost second nature.  With that being said, even I have to set apart time to think, plan and most importantly grocery shop.  See below for some easy tricks to start meal planning and tune in next time for some of my favorite foods to meal prep.

  1. Schedule a time to meal plan
  • Find the day/time that works best for you and carve out 15-30 minutes to make a game plan. 
  • Think about the activities you have for that upcoming week.  Is there a day you work late? Or does your child have soccer practice in the evening? You might want to think about a crockpot meal or schedule leftovers, or even plan to pick something up.  But this way it’s already planned before so it’s not a last minute scramble trying to figure out what’s for dinner!
  • Pick a day that works for you!  Sunday’s work best for me, but if your weekends are chock full, maybe spend some time during your lunch break, or an evening after the kids have gone to bed. 

2. Pick 1-2 new recipes and keep it simple!

  • The worst thing you can do when you start planning, is getting really excited and thinking you’re going to try a new recipe every night of the week.  Let’s be honest, most of us are not Martha Stewart-if you’re anything like me, you’re just trying to put food on the table! 
  • I personally, like finding new recipes-but through trial and error, I’ve learned to try, maximum of one new recipe a week.  I think our brains are wired for routine and a lot of new things at once can seem really daunting.  Also, after a long day, the last thing you want to do is chiffonade basil-am I right? 

3. Keep the familiar

  • If you and your family have some favorite go-to meals, keep them! Taco Tuesday or Burger night all have a place on the schedule.  Plan for some of your routine meals, and schedule a new recipe on a day you think you will have extra time to think and decompress.  Once, you get familiar with the recipe, then you can start scheduling it in regularly and find another fun one to try!
  • Maybe, instead of finding a new recipe, just put a twist on an old favorite.  Try turkey burgers instead of hamburgers or chicken tacos instead of beef.  Small tweaks to your favorite recipes can add variety and is an opportunity to make a healthy modification.

4. Build in flexibility

  • This might seem counterintuitive to meal planning, but we all know life can get crazy and sometimes even best laid plans go awry.  Don’t get discouraged if something comes up and you forgot to turn on the crockpot (Guilty!)
    • When I meal plan, I don’t necessarily assign days to my meals-I try to have 1-2 crockpot options, 1-2 sheet pan or one pan meal options and ALWAYS breakfast for dinner items.  This way I have a good rotation of options that I can modify based on my day.

5. Remember, it gets better!

  • The first few times you meal plan, it might seem like the most mundane waste of time. But trust me, it gets better and makes life SO MUCH EASIER!!!  When I go to the grocery store without a plan or a list, I tend to wander like a lost little kid.  I’m sure we have all been there, just pacing up and down the aisles and haphazardly grabbing food.  I’ve gotten home after one of these trips, unpacked my bags and realized-I just spent a million dollars on protein bars but I have nothing to cook for dinner. 

6. Just start!

  • I’ve talked to many clients that are waiting to start eating better when they buy the next greatest gadget-maybe an Instant Pot or an Air Fryer.  When that happens-THEN-they will start meal planning and eating better.  Truth is, yes, some of these things can make life easier and can save time, but those things still take planning to use! They’re not going to magically start making your dinner.  SO, take inventory of what you have at home and start using those-this week!