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Meal Planning Tips for The New Year

If your goals for the coming year include eating healthier, saving money, and protecting the environment, then you should add meal planning to your New Year’s resolution. 

Having a weekly or monthly meal plan comes with more benefits than we can count. It’s a habit that can not only improve your diet but also change many aspects of your life for the better. It’s also flexible: you can plan for yourself or the family or for every or just one meal of the day. With meal planning, you not only take control of your food choices but your life as well. Here’s why that’s the case and how to start meal planning for 2022. 

What Is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is devising all or most of your meals ahead of time. It can help you improve your food choices but also provide many, many benefits that go beyond healthy eating. Most meal planning involves four basic stages: 

  1. Selecting meals
  2. Organizing a menu
  3. Buying the ingredients 
  4. Preparing the meals

If by now you’re thinking meal planning is too much hard work, you wouldn’t be wrong. It is true that meal planning initially involves a lot of mental energy, dedication, time, as well as trial and error. But after you’ve tried this new way of life for some time, it really becomes second nature. Most behaviors repeated enough times become a habit, and meal planning is no different!

And besides, there’s a right and wrong way to plan. Meal planning is supposed to make your life easier and healthier. A meal plan system that you can easily follow is one that you will stick to for a long time. We’ll explain how to do that in the following lines. 

What Are the Benefits of Meal Planning?

When making health and well-being a priority for the coming year, meal planning makes perfect sense. But in case you need more convincing to start planning your plate, here are benefits you get with this habit: 

1. It’s healthier

According to data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, cooking dinner at home is associated with healthier eating compared to eating out. Drive-thru meals are generally not very healthy and are often made with nutrient-poor ingredients. When you cook meals for yourself and others, you’ll choose the best ingredients you can find and automatically improve your overall diet. 

2. It’s better for the environment

Especially if you choose to go plant-based. If everyone gave up animal products at least occasionally it would save the environment thousands of tons of carbon emissions. Home-cooked meals lead to less food waste and electricity use. You also have the option to choose responsibly grown ingredients. And not to mention not using wasteful polymer packaging for take-out and delivery!

3. It saves you money

Eating out, take-outs, and meal kits are usually expensive compared to home-cooked food, especially with recent food cost surges. According to an analysis by Forbes of data from Priceonomics customer Wellio, the average cost of a home-cooked meal is around $4.30, while eating out costs Americans $20 on average. 

4. It saves you time

Meal planning is great for time management as well. Having all your meals pre-planned and the groceries already on-hand means less time spent on last-minute trips to the store, recipe searching, and cooking. Meal planning gives you options to fit every occasion and schedule. And with more time on your hands, you get to fill your schedule with things other than cooking.

5. It gives you control

Meal planning gives you control over the food you eat, your portion sizes, and your time. You call the shots not only on what’s on your plate but when and how. And while there’s not as much spontaneity with it, that does not mean you have to be a slave to your weekly or monthly menu. A good enough meal plan will allow for occasional cheat meals and outings. 

What Your Meal Plans Need to Be

Many people don’t bother with meal planning because they see it as something tedious and time-consuming. But that’s not what meal planning is or should be. Meal planning needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Easy to follow
  • Time-saving 
  • Flexible 

To make it this way, there are a couple of tried and tested strategies seen in most meal plans and that we’ll outline here. But before we tell you how to make your meal plan all of the above, here’s something about what foods should be on the menu.

Foods to Include

One of the goals of meal planning is to eat healthier but also to make dinner time simpler. So, how do you blend healthy eating with convenience? It all starts with the ingredients. 

Fresh produce

Buy a limited amount of produce that you can use up in a week. This way you’ll have fresh food on hand and prevent throwing away food. Fruits and vegetables are low in calories but high in essential nutrients and antioxidants. These ingredients are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. 

Frozen veggies

Frozen vegetables are quick and easy to prepare. Having a stash of frozen broccoli, sugar snap peas, or asparagus can ensure you always have a healthy side dish to go with your proteins. Although frozen vegetables are often seen as less nutritious, evidence points to the contrary, with most being just as vitamin-rich as their fresh counterparts. The same holds true for frozen fruits.

Whole grains

Oats, barley, whole wheat flour, millet, and buckwheat are just some examples of whole grains to add to your pantry. Most hold up well for a long time and can be used in a wide range of dishes. These are an important source of dietary fiber, which we need to maintain gut and metabolic health. 


Legumes

Legumes are a fantastic source of high-quality plant protein, and they can last a really long time in the pantry or fridge. You can buy them dried, frozen, or canned for convenience. Add them to power bowls, salads, or soup for a filling lunch or dinner. 


Healthy “convenience” foods

Forget frozen pizza and go for canned tuna, canned tomatoes, pesto, hummus, quick oats, and protein powder, to name a few. Since you’ll be making fewer trips to the store and occasionally need to skip cooking, it’s a good idea to have some of these on hand at all times. 

And, of course, don’t forget to add oils, herbs, and spices to the list. Since you’ll be cooking more at home, you’ll need ingredients to flavor your home-cooked food with.

As a rule of thumb, minimally processed options for from-scratch cooking should make up the majority of your groceries, and leave the convenience options for emergencies and times when you won’t be able to meal prep.

How to Meal Plan

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to meal planning. It all boils down to what works with your schedule, budget, and household. But in case you need help getting started, consider doing the following: 

  • Start by looking for recipes with similar ingredients for easier shopping.
  • Buy enough ingredients for one or two weeks at first.
  • Make meals that are freezer-friendly or cook in large batches.
  • Follow the rule of three: protein, starch, and veg in every meal.
  • Make oatmeal your go-to breakfast for variety and convenience.
  • Schedule one day for shopping and two days for cooking and meal prep. 
  • Cook several foods at the same time, i.e. roast veggies and chicken.
  • Pre-cut or prep some of your ingredients to save time. 

When making your daily, weekly, or monthly menu, allow for some leeway since life can get in the way of your plans. Think of your menu as a rough guideline and not something set in stone. The point is to always have something pre-chopped, pre-cooked, or convenient in your home. And if you don’t, allow one day of the week to be for dining out or food ordering. 

Other Tips

In an “ideal” world, most of us would make dinner every night and have the energy in the morning to make lunch for the family. But there’s no way that can work in the real world. That’s why it’s a good idea to take these shortcuts:

Make use of leftovers. And choose recipes that will leave you with leftovers to turn into meals for the next day. Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and cooked rice are some examples. 

Purchase easy, go-to snacks. Having a stash of nuts, granola, apple slices, string cheese, olives, and Belly Crush Cookies will keep you full between meals while helping you stick to your budget. 

Make food you love. It’s easier to stick to a new habit when you actually enjoy the results. Healthy food does not mean bland food. As long as you include plenty of whole grains, veggies, and fruit, you’ll be doing your health good. 

And if you are trying to lose weight, use nutrition and diet apps to keep track of how many calories a day you’re eating and to help you with portioning. 

 

 

 


References:

Wolfson JA, Bleich SN. Is cooking at home associated with better diet quality or weight-loss intention?. Public Health Nutr. 2015;18(8):1397-1406. doi:10.1017/S1368980014001943


Hunnes D. The Case for Plant-Based. UCLA Sustainability. Accessed December 2020. https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/food-systems/the-case-for-plant-based/


Priceonomics. Here's How Much Money You Save By Cooking At Home. Forbes. July 2018.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/priceonomics/2018/07/10/heres-how-much-money-do-you-save-by-cooking-at-home/?sh=24eb8bf35e54


Bouzari A, Holstege D, Barrett DM. Vitamin retention in eight fruits and vegetables: a comparison of refrigerated and frozen storage. J Agric Food Chem. 2015;63(3):957-962. doi:10.1021/jf5058793


Hervik AK, Svihus B. The Role of Fiber in Energy Balance. J Nutr Metab. 2019;2019:4983657. Published 2019 Jan 21. doi:10.1155/2019/4983657