Having a plan for your meals and snacks ahead of time is one of the single most effective things you can do to make a healthier choice, but for so many people, meal planning feels too hard, or they’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. Why is this and how can we make it easier to successfully plan meals?
One of the mot common barriers I see to successful meal planning is having expectations that are too high. It’s easy to feel like ‘good’ meal planning means sitting down for an hour with recipe books and the internet and finding the perfect meals that everyone in the family will love, will be perfectly balanced nutritionally, and that you will have the time and energy to cook. The prospect of considering all those factors is daunting (even to a seasoned dietitian) and you can often feel that you don’t have time for that and put it off until you REALLY need to buy groceries. Then you find yourself making reactive decisions in the supermarket or dropping into the shops every day of the week.
Put a time limit on it
Do you delay meal planning because you don’t have the time, energy or mental bandwidth to make the right decision? Do you over-estimate how long it will take to make a plan? You’re not alone. One of the best things we can do to overcome this mental barrier is to put a realistic time limit on the planning process. 5-10 minutes is perfect.
While it might not feel like a lot of time, you would be surprised what you can get done in 5-10 minutes of planning. But more importantly, this amount of time should feel easy. If it feels easy, you are far more likely to do it.
And even if you don’t get a whole week of meals planned in that time, the process has been started and you can always return to it. After spending 5-10 minutes, it’s also valuable to give yourself some kudos for getting a little bit ahead of the game. NICE WORK!
Write it down
Another mental barrier is trying to juggle all the variables at one time.
- What do we feel like eating?
- What will the family all eat?
- Do we need to change the recipe?
- Is it healthy?
- How much will that effect the grocery budget?
AHH! It’s too many moving parts. Getting the key bits of information out of your brain and onto paper can have a HUGE impact on your ability to think and plan clearly. This could be as simple as creating a note on your smartphone, putting it into a calendar or writing it down on a scrap piece of paper.
When getting it out of my brain and onto paper, these are the things I like to write down:
- What’s happening around that mealtime?
- What will we enjoy eating?
- What veg will we have with that meal?
Those three questions are the building blocks of a realistic, delicious and nutritious meal plan. If you’d like more details on how to use these questions, check out The Healthy Eating Hub’s article on the 6 steps to healthy meal planning.
Stop the scroll
When you last planned your meals, did you find yourself scrolling through the internet looking for something to eat and finding NOTHING? The struggle is real. If you start searching for a ‘dinner’ recipe, the search is too broad and you can find fault in every recipe, because you don’t really know what you’re looking for. We need to narrow the field.
The easiest way to do this is to decide on a few things before you start googling.
- Pick a protein (Beef, Pork, Chicken, Lamb, Eggs, Tofu, Chickpeas, Goat – you name it)
- Pick a flavour or cooking technique (Salad, Baked, BBQ, Stir-fry, Mexican, Vietnamese, Italian, French)
Once you have this decided, it’s much easier to look for a Chicken Stir-fry recipe or a Mexican Tofu recipe than it is start from a blank slate.
Build a shortlist
There are only so many meal ideas we can keep in your working memory. So, when it comes to deciding what to eat, it’s easy to draw a blank. I often find a winning recipe and use it every week or fortnight for a while and then get sick of it, but can’t remember any of the other meals that we did in it’s place.
To reduce the mental load, it can be helpful to create a list of your favourite meals and gradually add to it when you find a new winner. This can be kept in the form of a folder of recipes, but I find that there are many meals that we love that don’t require a recipe – like BBQ steak and salad or your family favourite stir-fry. If you want to keep these ideas in your repertoire, make sure you add a page in your folder for those family faves.
There’s no way you are going to cook a brand new recipe every day of the week. So don’t expect that in your planning process. Plan a few meals a week that require little to no preparation to make sure that you give pace to your efforts across the week.
- BBQ chicken with pre-cooked pasta, pesto sauce and baby spinach
- Frozen dumplings and pre-chopped stir-fry veg
- Oven baked fish with chopped oven baked vegetables
- A premade meal with some frozen vegetables
It feels like cheating but it’s important to be realistic with planning so you can set yourself up for long term success. You can also use shortcuts in the shopping process by ordering online and creating lists in your online ordering system for commonly purchased products or recipes.
If you’d like to hear more about other hot topics in nutrition, be sure to subscribe to Kate Freeman’s podcast, The Daily Dollop. She’s a registered nutritionist and the founder and managing director of The Healthy Eating Clinic and hopes to inspire you with sensible, easy to understand nutrition advice in a 15 minute daily podcast!