By Jenni Wolf
We all know meal planning has its perks, especially when it comes to grocery trips and mealtimes.
No more stressful and harried “what’s for dinner” conversations at 6 p.m. when hunger is raging or trying to beat the clock to get your kid off to piano lessons on time. No more blank stares into the pantry at a sea of ingredients, yet seemingly, “nothing to make for dinner.”
Taking time to create a grocery list, plan meals and do food prep can make a world of difference when it comes to feeding you and your family wholesome, balanced meals during a busy week. While we may all recognize the value in meal planning and prep (less stress, delicious meals and nourishment) it can seem daunting or feel impossible to carry out for more than a week. I’m guilty here, too.
However, below are some tips to help refresh your approach to meal planning and find a strategy that works for you, without it feeling like another full-time job.
1. Challenge dinnertime expectations
This is number one for a reason: So often our expectations hold us back. Challenge and reframe your expectations around meals and your definition of dinner. Let’s be realistic. Our tables aren’t going to look like a perfectly curated foodie Instagram feed. We’re probably going to work late one night or make a few cooking blunders rendering some things inedible, leaving us feeling less than successful and leading us right back to the “let’s just wing-it” mentality. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Be more flexible and forgiving of yourself and you might be surprised by just how much easier meal prep and planning can be!
2. Do a weekly preview
This is a no-brainer, but often something that can be easy to forget. Look at your family’s schedule for the week ahead and realistically identify how many dinners you’ll make at home and when you may need to eat out or pick up a pizza and a bagged salad kit. There’s room for it all in a balanced diet, from homemade chicken parmesan to a frozen lasagna to Chinese delivery.
3. Embrace + embellish the “oldies but goodies”
While most of us may yawn at the thought of meals on repeat, embracing the “oldies but goodies” can be a helpful strategy if you incorporate a twist! Embrace your family’s favorites but embellish them by making a few simple changes to keep things fresh and exciting, yet still easy.
Does your family love tacos? Designate Tuesday as “Tex Mex Tuesday” but rotate through tacos, nachos and burrito bowls, using the same ingredients and new toppings, every week. Bonus: Use other “themes” to guide meal prep. Think “Soup Sundays,” “Pasta Mondays” or even “Breakfast-for-Dinner Wednesdays.”
4. Batch-cook building blocks
Get the most bang for your meal-prep spending by taking an hour one day to batch-cook some staples. Bonus points for using your slow cooker or Instant Pot as these techniques are mostly “hands-off.” Prep a large batch of rice with enough for rice pilaf for one night, fried rice the next, and some to throw in a soup after that. Cooked rice will keep up to a week in the fridge and freezes great. Other basics I like to prep and keep on hand for meals include roasted vegetables and potatoes, shredded chicken and hard-boiled eggs.
5. Identify “back-pocket” meals
Identify two meals that you and your family like, are easy to cook, and most importantly, contain five ingredients or less, all of which can easily be kept on hand. These “back-pocket meals” are an option that can be an easy go-to when a previously planned meal just isn’t going to happen, aka: reality!
One of my favorites: a box of plant-based pasta, a jar of marinara, some parmesan and frozen broccoli. The perks of choosing a plant-based pasta? The pasta packs some protein (because it’s made with lentils, quinoa and/or beans) without needing to add an additional protein source, although I certainly wouldn’t object to also tossing in some frozen meatballs.
Jenni Wolf is a member of the Como neighborhood and a practicing, registered dietitian in the community. She is passionate about helping others achieve a positive and balanced relationship with food.