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Unlocking the Secrets of Successful Meal Planning: Transform Your Health and Simplify Your Busy Life

Published on: November 15, 2023

Ever found yourself at a loss about dinner, staring into the abyss of your fridge? Or perhaps you’ve munched on an overpriced salad during lunch, but wishing for a warm homemade meal? If so, it’s time to embrace the life-changing habit of meal planning!

Knowing what you’re going to eat ahead of time and having foods ready at your fingertips can have a huge impact on your health, your headspace (hello decision-fatigue!), and decrease chaos in your life. In this blog post, you’ll learn what meal planning is, why you should meal plan, how you start meal planning, common pitfalls and how to avoid them, and tips on how to make meal prep more fun.

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What is Meal Planning?

Meal planning is the intentional act of organizing and scheduling your meals ahead of time. It’s a proactive way to nourish your body where you decide on what you’ll be eating for the upcoming days or weeks. 

Why Should You Meal Plan?

A few reasons why I believe meal planning is so great:

  • It saves you time. With work, childcare and other responsibilities, who has time to add even more to their plate? While you might think meal planning is time consuming (newsflash: it doesn’t have to be), it also allows for specific time to plan and prepare meals rather than flying from the seat of your pants. Meal planning can save a significant amount of time during the week since you won’t have to constantly think about what to cook or make last-minute grocery trips. 
  • It reduces stress on figuring out what to eat. We make over 200 food decisions a day! That’s a lot of opportunities to make both healthful and less healthful choices. Meal planning takes the guesswork out of what to choose to eat.
  • It helps boost your nutrition and health because you’re deciding what to eat ahead of time when you can make sound decisions – not when cravings hit or when you’re hungrily scrounging the nearest cafe or restaurant. Meal planning definitely reduces your reliance on processed or less nutritious convenience foods.
  • It decreases waste because you’re actively planning out how to use up the foods you buy before they go bad.
  • It limits extra expenses because you’re going into a store with a plan, rather than trying to piece together meal ideas as you’re walking down the aisles checking out anything and everything that tastes good. Meal planning also reduced the likelihood of ordering take out or dining out as frequently, which can be expensive. 

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How Do You Start Meal Planning?

There’s a few things you want to consider before you dive in:

  1. Take a moment to think about your current health status and any medical conditions that impact what you should be eating.
  2. Consider any dietary restrictions, whether they be health reasons, religious beliefs, personal choices, allergies, etc. 
  3. Think about your fitness goals. For instance, are you aiming to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain your current physique?
  4. Be sure to include foods you love and flavours you enjoy so it’s a plan that you can stick to long-term. If you hate broccoli, don’t be choosing multiple meals that include it. Swap it with a vegetable you like.

3 things you want to make sure are part of your meal plan:

  1. Include variety. Eating the same thing every day can become monotonous for some people. Change things up regularly to keep it exciting and to avoid swearing off foods that you ate too often. 
  2. Aim for a mix of macros. Choose proteins, carbohydrates and fats at all meals so that meals are filling and satisfying.
  3. Choose colour. The more colourful your plate is, the larger range of vitamins and minerals you’ll be eating. Look for dark greens, oranges, purples, blues, etc. 

Common Pitfalls to Meal Prep and How to Avoid Them

The biggest complaint or common pitfall is that meal prep lacks variety. Sticking to the same meals can lead to boredom, making it more tempting to deviate from your plan and be more likely choose less healthy, impromptu choices. Meals should be enjoyed. You want them to taste good. You want to be excited for your next meal. You want your meal to make you feel good. 

A solution to a lack of variety is to experiment with new recipes. You can aim to try something new every week or every month. Another thing you can do is rotate your staple recipes. Any recipes you love to eat, keep them in the rotation every few weeks. 

The second biggest pitfall to meal planning is that people set unrealistic expectations for themselves. Planning intricate meals that take lots of time or cooking techniques that they don’t have much experience in, can lead to frustration and ultimately giving up on the whole idea altogether. 

Know your limits. Really think about your cooking skills and time constraints. And these will change from week to week. If you have an extra busy schedule coming up, don’t attempt to spend even more time in the kitchen. 

You also want to start simple. Choose straightforward recipes until you gain confidence in the kitchen, then go for the more complex recipes. 

Manage your time. Save longer recipes for a day you know you’ll have time for, like when you have the day off work. Schedule time to meal prep. For many, it can be a designated ‘meal planning day’. For others, it could be shorter periods of time throughout the week. For example, grocery shopping on Saturdays, washing and cutting veggies and fruit as you get home, cooking recipes on Sunday for 3 days, using two hours Wednesday night to cook and prep the next three days, and repeat.

If the thought of full-out meal prep seems like a really daunting goal for you at this moment, take it slower. Do some flexible prep. That means, just focus on chopping your veggies ahead of time or just focus on cooking an entire meal. Remember, what you’re ultimately aiming for is anything that works best for your routine!  

Another meal prep pitfall is overlooking snacks. Now I know for some, meal planning is focused solely on breakfast, lunch and dinner, which are great! But, if you’re struggling with snacks, forgetting to plan these can lead to you reaching for less healthy, convenient options when hunger strikes between meals. 

So what to do about this? Also prep your snacks! This could be as simple as washing and cutting up fruits and veggies, buying or making hummus, making a batch of homemade granola bars, etc. You also want to consider portion control. Have your snacks prepped in containers or bags that are easy to grab and go. Lastly, have a few options for snacks. Again, you don’t want to keep it monotonous all the time. Have a mix of savoury and sweet snack options so you can choose based on your mood. 

Tips on How to Make Meal Prep More Fun

For some, the idea of buying new meal prep containers, kitchen equipment, etc. is a good motivation to get things going. You can also subscribe to food blogs, get a new cookbook, or find a food or recipe influencer on social media that you love (fyi that is not me…yet). Another option is to have theme nights throughout the week. ‘Meatless Monday’, ‘Taco Tuesday’, or ‘homemade pizza Fridays’ are some ideas. 

Do I Have to Meal Prep Alone?

Nope! Not unless you want to. 

Prepping meals can be your ‘alone time’. Cranking up tunes or listening to your favourite podcast or audiobook is a great way to add enjoyment as you cook, but meal prep can also be a time to get your family members involved too. Share the responsibility with your partner, use meal prep as a learning opportunity with your kids, and use time in the kitchen as bonding time with everyone. Heck, you can even turn an afternoon with friends as a fun meal prep gathering. Head to the grocery store together and do all the chopping and cooking in one kitchen to keep each other company. You can even switch recipes and get ideas!

Keep Your Meal Planning Flexible

The last thing I want to add here is to keep your plan flexible. Life is unpredictable. There will be days where you won’t feel like eating what you prepared, days when unexpected events pop up, or days when you just don’t want to spend time cooking in the kitchen. It’s okay to swap meals around. If you’re craving something else, incorporate it into your meals so you don’t binge on it later on. Keep essential ingredients on hand that you can whip up into quick meals. Or have freezer meals (meals you cooked and froze on a day where you were feeling productive), that you can easily thaw and reheat. Single servings of frozen soup or chili are great for this. Just pop in your lunch bag and heat up at work for lunch. 

The Bottom Line

Remember that the ultimate purpose of meal planning is to make your life simpler and healthier. If meal prep is becoming a source of stress, take a step back and reassess. You could be too strict or ambitious in your meal prep goals. Focus just on prepping snacks, or one meal each day, or perhaps just a few dinners each week. You need to adjust your approach to find what’s most sustainable for you!

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MEET THE AUTHOR

Kaitlyn is a registered dietitian and fitness enthusiast dedicated to helping busy women improve their health through sustainable habits.

She’s seen firsthand how difficult it can be to balance a demanding schedule with a healthy lifestyle. That’s why she is passionate about empowering women with the knowledge and skills they need to prioritize their health, even when life gets hectic.

She aims to spread the word about the power of habits and to make healthier living more manageable for busy women who are trying to do all of the things, like herself.

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