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A few weeks ago I shared Part 1 of this Meal Planning Guide where we covered three easy steps to meal planning and reviewed five different meal prep styles. The meal prep styles are intended to help you figure out what method of meal planning might work best for you. In today’s post, we will cover solutions to five common problems to help you master your meal plan. After reviewing both posts, you’ll have the tools you need to set up a meal planning routine that fits your individual circumstances and cooking skill level. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the previous post, you can click the link below to read it.
Side note: Since you’ll see both terms being used, meal planning is the overall way in which you figure out what food to prepare for the week. Meal prepping is the actual prep work you do to make it happen.
Problem #1: I Don’t Have Time to Meal Prep All Weekend
Solution: Don’t – Do What You Can, When You Can
If you don’t have time to cook all weekend, don’t. Why put all that extra stress and expectation on yourself if it’s not something realistic you can accomplish? Instead, figure out how much time you do have and go from there. Maybe it makes more sense for you to spend 30 minutes every 2-3 days prepping a few ingredients, making a couple breakfasts, or checking your cupboard to see what you have in the house already that can quickly be made into a meal. Or perhaps you have two meal prep sessions throughout the week; a longer one on the weekend and a shorter one on a weeknight that works for you.
Try to be strategic with the time you do have. If you regularly skip breakfast and you would like to get in the habit of having it, use your meal prep time to get some make-ahead breakfasts ready for the week. If you’re trying to add more vegetables to your eating pattern, use the time to wash, chop and cook some of your favourite vegetables. It’ll be easier to add them to meals and snacks throughout the week.
Other time saving tips:
- Make double the amount of your dinner once or twice a week to use the leftovers to take for lunch
- Purchase pre-cut vegetables and pre-marinated meats, if you can afford them
- Use frozen or canned vegetables when cooking – often they are already pre-cut. Add canned mushrooms and artichokes to jarred pasta sauce or frozen broccoli or peas to pasta water in the final minutes of cooking for a quick pasta dish.
- Try one of these 15-minute meal ideas
Problem #2: I Want to Start a Regular Meal Prep Routine, But I Don’t Know How to Cook
Solution: If You Want, Learn a Couple of Basics, Otherwise Eat Food You Don’t Need to Cook
You don’t actually need to know how to cook to meal prep or feed yourself. If you are interested in learning, start with simple things like boiling pasta or cooking quinoa or rice – just follow the instructions on the package. Maybe you could invest in a rice cooker? Many meals can be built from cooked pasta or grains.
Scrambling an egg is an easy, versatile cooking skill to have as well – add some chopped vegetables to the pan, top with some grated cheese, and you have a super quick meal.
If cooking just isn’t your thing, but you want to eat meals at home more often, take advantage of prepared food from the grocery store. It does cost more than whole ingredients, but it’s still less expensive than eating out, and getting into the rhythm of making your own meals at home could motivate you to learn some basic cooking skills down the road. Here are a few ideas for no cook (or almost no cook) meals:
- Make a quick meal out of a salad kit. Choose one you like best, and add canned beans, nuts and seeds, or some rotisserie chicken for protein.
- Grab some pre-chopped vegetables and have with hummus and whole wheat pita for a small meal or quick snack.
- Avocado toast and sandwiches aren’t just for breakfast and lunch; enjoy for dinner with a side of pre-made soup that you quickly heat up in the microwave, or top with some canned beans.
- Give pre-made soups a nutrition boost by adding canned beans and/or fresh or frozen vegetables.
- Top frozen pizza with extra vegetables or hearty greens like chopped kale, chard, or spinach before cooking or top with fresh herbs or arugula before eating.
Problem #3: My Meal Prep Ingredients go Bad Before I Get to Them
Solution: Be Realistic with Your Time and Learn Basic Inventory Management
Ah yes, the virtuous grocery shop where almost all of your cart is filled with fresh produce because you vowed to eat healthy and doing so means making everything from scratch. Right? I’d love to tell you that this is what my grocery cart looks like every week, but that would be a lie. I’ve learned over the years to be more realistic about the time I have to cook and what foods I actually enjoy eating and make my body feel energized (versus what foods I think I should be eating). It turns out when you eat food you like and makes you feel good, you eat better overall. Plus, there’s way less food waste too.
Another tip is to focus on keeping a well stocked pantry, and building your meal plan around this. Pantry items tend to last longer than fresh, and can make up a significant part of your weekly food intake (bonus, a lot are available in bulk, so you can save money). Whole grains, low sodium and low sugar canned foods, beans, legumes, plant-based oils, nuts and seeds are all nourishing foods that you can build your weekly meal plan from. Make a list of your family’s favourite dishes and focus on keeping the pantry items for those in stock.
Be sure to check your fridge, freezer, and pantry before you plan your meals and go to the grocery store, and read up on some additional tips on reducing food waste. If you are able, try doing the bulk of your meal prep within a day or two of grocery shopping.
Problem #4: We Eat Different Foods Than Our Kids Do
Solution: Serve Family-Style Meals
You might disagree with me here, but I’m going to recommend that you stop doing this. No one has time to be a short-order cook, making individual meals to accommodate everyone’s preferences. It might take some time to adjust, but trust me; it’s worth it in the long run. Start serving family-style meals, and let each family member choose what foods and how much to eat. Make sure to include at least one item you know everyone likes when you make your meal plan, even if it’s just bread.
If this seems drastically different than what you are doing, I would recommend starting with just one or two meals a week where you introduce this, so everyone has time to adjust. Let you kids know ahead of time that you are making the change and explain that they get to pick what foods they want to eat and that they don’t have to eat everything if they don’t want to (something I recommend applies to all meals, regardless of how you serve them). Over time, increase the number of meals per week eaten together this way. Try introducing new foods and let your kids decide if they want to try them.
If your kids are old enough, have them get involved in the cooking and meal plan process by letting them decide what to eat one night a week. They can even help prepare the meal themselves.
Problem #5: I Have Trouble Deciding What to Make for the Week
Solution: Try a Weekly Formula for Meal Planning
It can take a lot of mental energy to try and come up with new ideas for your meal plan each week. My suggestion – use a formula to do the thinking for you. There are a few different ways you can approach this, which I’ve listed below. Remember, you don’t have to try making gourmet, Insta-worthy meals every night (or ever). Getting yourself and your family fed is enough.
By Type of Protein
This can be a great way to focus on some big-picture health goals, like adding more fish or plant-based protein into your diet. Decide what type of protein you have each night for dinner and build your menu plan around that. For example:
- Monday: Lentils or Beans
- Tuesday: Fish
- Wednesday: Tofu
- Thursday: Poultry
- Friday: Fish
- Saturday: Red Meat
- Sunday: Poultry
By Cuisine Type or Theme Night
Taco Tuesday anyone? Choosing a type of cuisine or dish that you repeat each night of the week can help streamline your menu planning process, and still allows for variety. You can even expand this out to a monthly menu plan (first Taco Tuesday is chicken, second is fish, third is beef, fourth is vegetarian, and so on). For example:
- Monday: Meatless Dish
- Tuesday: Tacos
- Wednesday: Italian Cuisine
- Thursday: Asian Cuisine
- Friday: Pizza Night
- Saturday: American Cuisine
- Sunday: Comfort Food (stew, chili, or mac n cheese)
By Style of Eating
This works especially well if you have regularly scheduled evening activities, like recreational sports, music classes, games night, etc. Plan for quick meals on nights you know your time is limited. For example:
- Monday: Quick Dinner
- Tuesday: Slow-cooker Meal
- Wednesday: Freezer Meal
- Thursday: Quick Dinner
- Friday: Pizza night
- Saturday: Games Night – casual dinner (nachos, meat & cheese platter, etc.)
- Sunday: Roast with vegetables (chicken, pork, or beef)
What challenges have you faced with your own meal planning?