Does Feeding Your Family Give You the Blues Every Night? Follow these terrific tips to ease the stress of “What’s for Dinner”? It’s The Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning for Beginners!
The Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning for Beginners
If you are like many people, you have such a busy life, that making homemade, healthy meals each day is a constant struggle. Instead of just giving in and going through the local drive-thru or ordering pizza, why not give meal planning and meal prepping a try? Want to know about it? Here is a run down how meal planning and prep can help save you time, money, and prepare healthy meals for your family.
What is Meal Planning?
At it’s most basic level, meal planning for beginners is:
- making a plan of the meals you will eat
- considering the recipes it will take to make these meals
- creating a list of the ingredients you will have to buy in order to prepare your meals
Why Meal Plan?
Meal planning has so many benefits, it’s hard to choose the MOST beneficial! Here are few reasons why you should do it:
- It tends to make people make healthier choices
- It takes the guess work out of the dreaded question, “What’s for dinner?”
- If weight loss one of your goals, this is vital in the process
- It helps you save money
Meal planning can be as detailed as you want, though the more information you include in your meal planning, the better off you will be. By starting with a plan, you will then know what and how to better prepare your meals. This is going to help save you time because you aren’t running to the supermarket every day trying to figure out what to get for dinner that night. You already know the meals that you will have ahead of time. Here is a rundown of how meal planning works.
How Long to Plan For?
You need to decide how long of a time period you want to plan your meals for. This is up to you. I’ve tried it all kinds of ways…one week, two weeks, I even tried to do a month once or twice. If you are just starting out with meal planning, I recommend starting with planning just a week at a time. Other things to consider when meal planning:
How Much Food Can You Store?
Keep in mind what kind of pantry, refrigerator and freezer space you have. You may not be able to store a month’s worth of food in your refrigerator or freezer.
Consider Your Time and Budget?
Consider how much time you have to shop and how much money you have to spend on your meals. Also, how much time do you have for meal prep. If you want to prep some things ahead (like browning your ground meat, or making freezer meals), how much time do you have to do that? I can get a week or two together, but I work full-time and usually always have something going on over the weekend, so I can’t really spend an entire day in the kitchen and grocery shopping too.
Meal Plan Based on Your Needs
There is no “one size fits all” meal plan. You may be a stay at home mom who needs to plan breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper. I tend to only plan supper because all of my family is either at work or school all day. Consider making large meals in order to have leftovers. Also take into account your schedule. Do you have an evening event like a sports game? If so, you’ll need something quick and easy. Plan according if you be gone or out-of-town? It will take some time, but you can tailor your meal plan to your family’s needs.
How to Start Meal Planning?
There are a couple of things that you need to do when you start your plan for the week.
- Take stock of what you have available already in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. This will save you so much money by not duplicating things when you shop. These ingredients might give you an idea of some recipes you can make as well.
- Get your family involved. What do they feel like eating during the week. Lots of times I get great ideas from them, and that’s a few less meals I have to come up with. So, I start with these things and start to pull all of the pieces together. I come up with the meals I want to cook and even jot down if I plan to have leftovers and what I will do with them.
- Flexibility is a key. It’s ok to move meals around. If you plan one night to cook a meal that takes a lot of time, but get home late, choose something else on you plan that is quicker. Just move the time-consuming recipe to another day.
How to Meal Prep?
The next step in our guide to meal is meal preparation. Meal prep includes buying the ingredients for your planned meals, then starting to get certain parts of the meal prepared. This way, you will have very little to do when cooking time arrives. It should make it easier and quicker for you to get your dinner on the table.
There are basically two aspects of meal prepping: Cleaning and chopping foods you may need for your recipe and putting them in containers, and actually cooking parts of the meal and freezing them. You can really do as much or as little of this as you want.
Over time, you will learn if there are ingredients you don’t like to defrost. For example, I don’t really like the way ground beef tastes after it’s been cooked and frozen. So, if I have a ground beef meal within 2 days of shopping, I will brown it, drain it, and put it in the fridge.
Prepping can also involve pre-portioning snacks for the week, or measuring dry ingredients and putting them in containers so that they are ready to go when it’s time to prepare the meal.
Tips for Successful Meal Prepping?
Here are some other things you need to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you are done with meal planning:
- Cook all your meat at once, or package it and store it properly to use when it is time to cook it.
- Label every container so you know what is in it and when to use it.
- Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals. For example, if you know you have a few chicken meals in a week, cook all of your chicken and store them separately for each meal. When you get ready to make that recipe during the week, the chicken will be ready to use, majorly reducing the time it takes to get dinner on the table.
- Get freezer bags together with ingredients that will go in a slow cooker. For example, if you are going to cook a roast in a crock pot and are going to use beef broth and onion soup mix, put all of those things in a freezer bag and put it in the freezer. When it’s time to cook the roast, all you have to do is get the bag and its contents in the slow cooker.
What If I am Not a Great Cook?
Look, if you are not a great cook, you can still do this. You aren’t trying to be a chef in Paris, you are just trying to get easy, quick and healthy meals on the table for your family. My biggest piece of advice is to keep it simple. Don’t try to use extravagant recipes and ingredients that you have never used. Don’t choose recipes that take hours to prepare and cook.
Involve your family. It is never too early to get help from your kids, even it’s getting them to help you open bags or put ingredients into bags. It’s ok to plan some meals that don’t involve a ton of cooking. One of our favorite meals is a huge salad with some kind of grilled meat on top. My family loves that, and the only thing I actually cook is the meat and I usually boil some eggs.
Ready to Start Meal Planning and Prepping?
The moral of this story is that meal planning and prepping is a win/win situation. It helps you save money, eat healthier, and provide your family with home cooked quick and easy meals. It doesn’t have to be elaborate and it isn’t hard. After some practice, I now have a list of main dishes, side dishes and combination dishes that I can pull from each week. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Every now and then I will try a new recipe, and if my family likes it, it goes on the list, if not….well, it’s history. So go ahead and jump in there and try it. Once you start, it will make such a positive difference in your life, that you won’t be able to stop!
Thanks to Jennifer Lee Coburn RD, LDN for writing this guest post.
Jennifer Lee Coburn is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Licensed/Dietitian Nutritionist (LDN) with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and Nutrition from Louisiana State University. Since becoming a dietitian in 1996, Jennifer has worked in the community and clinical setting, and is currently the Supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services in her local school district, where they serve over 25,000 meals per day.
Jennifer is also the owner and author of Jennifer Lee Coburn Nutrition and JENerating Joy, a nutrition consulting business and a healthy lifestyle and food blog that she started in 2017 as a way to motivate others to lead happier and healthier lives through nutrition and meal planning.
Jennifer and her husband, Chad, live in a small town in Louisiana where they have raised their two daughters Katelyn (20) and Emily (16). They love LSU football and good Louisiana cooking. Jennifer’s mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1982, and going through this experience with her is what inspired her to become a dietitian. She hopes to continue to educate and inspire others.