Adventures In Meal Planning (And How To Start Planning Your Own Meals)
The Moment I Knew I Needed A Change
My experience with meal planning started long before I even heard of Naturopathic Medicine. In my early 20s, my sister and I were focused on working out and feeling amazing. Our at-the-time guru, Bill Phillips said: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." And we did not plan to fail. Or fail to plan. And we ate amazingly well.
As you can imagine, being the single parent of a picky child throws a wrench into meal planning and I’d pretty well given up on it for the past couple years. That meant I was usually winging it when it came to meals. Winging it translated into:
a couple good, healthy meals per week
a couple of boring, convenience meals per week (thank goodness for Annie’s Gluten Free Mac & Cheese)
more money than I’d like to spend on take out
It wasn’t great, but it was comfortable. Comfortable chaos. And to be honest, I probably could have kept on this way for the next decade.
The “ah-hah moment” that inspired me to start planning my meals came when my friend Kirstin introduced me to Cronometer. It’s a great app that lets you enter your food and track the nutrients that you’re getting. Seeing my numbers in black and white was shocking: I wasn’t meeting my targets for most nutrients. I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough calories (which BTW slows your metabolism right down). I was, however, meeting (and often exceeding) the amount of carbs I was supposed to be eating. Excess carbs = fat gain. Fabulous.
I know a LOT about eating healthy- but it wasn’t translating into my lifestyle. After two days of meal tracking, I knew I needed a plan! ASAP!
Getting Real About My Challenges and Meeting Them Head-On
I knew that there were going to be some challenges (there are challenges for almost anyone looking to make a lifestyle change). TBH, thinking about it almost made me give up before I started! BUT, I figured, if a patient came to me with these challenges, I would be dedicated to helping them find the solutions. So, I laid them out and got to work solving them.
Here were my challenges:
Variety of food restrictions (both food sensitivities and personal preferences)
Never knowing how many people I’m cooking for (1-4 adults & 1-2 kids)
Time & energy (by the end of the day on Friday, I have no interest in cooking after work)
Trying to budget (if you buy indiscriminately, health food can be $$$!)
Family not on board (“don’t you think this is a little extreme?”)
These are common problems, and I share a lot of them with my patients. Other barriers that I often see include: not knowing what to eat, not knowing how to cook, not being familiar with healthy foods, not being aware of food sensitivities.
Here are my solutions:
Food restrictions: these aren’t too difficult to navigate because I have years of practice. It often involves making an extra dish or two at dinner, but that small amount of extra effort is worth it to me if it means everyone can eat something nourishing. The key to living a gluten-free, dairy-free lifestyle is to seek out foods that wouldn’t usually contain those ingredients rather than focusing on wheat and dairy alternatives (which are almost always less tasty AND less nutritious than the original).
Personal preferences: these are a little trickier. I like spicy, interesting food. My daughter prefers typical kid foods (think carbs, cheese, salt). Again, this is usually solved by making an extra dish or two. For example, tonight I made red curry chicken. One pan had curry chicken, another had plain chicken. Easy.
Not knowing how many people to cook for: this was the hardest to wrap my head around. I’ve solved it by 1) keeping some extra meat in single portions in the freezer. 2) Having some fast/easy protein rich side dish recipes in my back pocket to help stretch a meal. 3) Planning on using dinner leftovers for lunch, while also having a back-up lunch plan in case we had more people than anticipated for dinner. 4) Releasing the ideal of having all my food bought and veggies chopped at the beginning of the week.
Time & energy: to solve this challenge, I reflected on the past couple weeks and identified the days when my nutrition really went off the rails. On these days I experimented with some different solutions: having my meals prepped in advance, meals that take less than 30 minutes to prepare, leftovers, or a healthy take-out option.
Trying to budget: I had to let go of having *a budget* when I didn’t know how many people would be showing up for my meals. Add to that the high cost of groceries in my small town, gluten-free/dairy-free living, and a desire for organic foods… and that feeling of *this-is-impossible* started creeping up on me again. However, I knew that I can focus on budget-friendly foods by choosing plant-based protein, cheaper cuts of quality meat, and keeping my eyes on the grocery fliers. It turns out that I ended up saving money by cutting down on convenience foods and take-out.
Family not on board: it’s a bummer when you decide to do something to improve your health and your family isn’t supportive. When it comes down to it, I can spend time worrying that people will think I’m being silly, or I can just get on with making my life better. Sometimes it really is that simple.
How To Get Started With DIY Meal Planning
Once I had the solutions to my personal challenges, I could get on with the business of meal planning. Here’s my process:
List all the food that needs to get used in the fridge
List any seasonal foods that look good/are on sale
List my favorite recipes
Look up extra recipes if I need to use up certain foods
Plot out the meals that I need for the week
Breakfast for me
Breakfast for my daughter
Lunch for me
Lunch for my daughter
Snacks x2 for my daughter
Circle my problem meals
Friday after work I’m usually pretty tired- this has to be a fast/easy meal.
Wednesday mornings are usually rushed so breakfast and lunch needs to be prepped Tuesday night.
Saturdays and Sundays are unpredictable so I need to make sure that meals are flexible.
Write down any goals that I have for the week
5+ servings of vegetables per day
1-2 servings of fruit per day
Protein within 30 minutes of waking up
Minimal processed foods
Start filling in my meals keeping my goals in mind
Make notes of what has to happen the day before
Tuesday night: pack Wednesday’s lunches after dinner
Soak dried beans the night before
Make sure that avocados are ripening on the counter
It’s a work in progress, so every week I make note of meals that worked and ones that didn’t. I’m also keeping track on Cronometer so that I’m aware of what nutrients I’m getting enough of and what ones I’m missing. I’ve changed up my supplements based on my results and I’m feeling great about it. Most surprising Cronometer discovery: I almost never get enough potassium in my diet- even with well-planned meals. Do you get enough potassium?
So there you have it, my meal-planning DIY. Do you meal plan? If you have any great tips or resources, let me know in the comments!