February 9, 2017

30 Day Challenge: Meal Planning Like a Pro

How to set yourself up for success when it comes to meals and eating well--one step at a time

Meal planning. Two words that are daunting to some, and exciting for others. This might be perfect timing–maybe this was on your list of goals for the new year. Here’s the great thing about tackling this goal: once you’ve got the process down, it’s easy to stick with all year long and won’t disappear into the “new year’s resolutions that never happened” pile. Nobody likes that pile.  

Back in October we came out with a whole collection of 30 Day Challenge ideas, and the importance of developing habits. We briefly touched on meal prepping for breakfasts and lunch, and today we’re back with a full-fledged version to help you get started and take the challenge further.

Meal planning may seem like a big task, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t even know what’s for dinner tonight, let alone 30 whole days. But I’ll tell you a secret–you can be still be that person, and meal plan like a pro. You just have to trust me. Do you trust me? Okay. Let’s get started.

Why does this goal matter? Why am I doing it?

Before I try to convert you into a meal planning wizard, let’s talk about how many benefits there are.

  1. Health. Look, eating out almost every day or reaching for a bag of popcorn for dinner isn’t going to cut it for the long term. Using whole, fresh ingredients and putting meals together means you’re the one in control and you have so much more freedom. You get to choose the ingredients, the dish, you get to choose how to prepare it, and you get to choose the portion. You are no longer limited to cop-out lunches and dinners, and takeout menus and delivery. Sometimes it’s not always about cutting hundreds of calories from your diet, but making sure they’re the good kind of calories from things like protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Portions don’t have to be huge in order to pack a huge nutritional punch.
  2. Time. We could all use more of this. Meal planning helps save time and maximize time. Meal planning allows you (essentially forces you) to think in advance, which will save you time throughout the week when you otherwise might be stuck wondering what you’re going to eat. Doing a little prep work at the beginning of the week will also help maximize your time spent chopping, prepping, and of course, cleaning the kitchen afterwards!
  3. Money. There’s no doubt that eating out is oftentimes much more expensive than making your own meals–especially when it comes to quality food. With a dash of planning and a sprinkle of willingness, your money will be well-spent on meals that are good for you, and over time you’ll notice the savings. 
  4. Reduce waste. The truth is, we waste far too much food–especially in the U.S. It comes from so many reasons; whether it be throwing out perfectly good food you never used but it hit the expiration date, or a rotten head of lettuce that was forgotten, food waste is a problem easily solved by good planning. When you plan your meals ahead of time and do some smart shopping and inventory, and especially when you get creative, less food will be hitting the trash can and that’s a good–really good–thing.
  5. Expand your skill set. It’s always a benefit to learn something new. Meal prepping, and perhaps learning to cook, are such beneficial skills with major long-term rewards like those listed above.

The plan of action

Step 1: Making time and setting goals

Making time to meal plan is important. Whether you work the weekday 9-5 grind, or maybe you work weekends, it’s important to find a good time to dedicate towards the planning, shopping, and prepping. So pull out your Volt Planner and find a spot to pencil it into your schedule and set some goals. 

Depending on what it is you are trying to achieve, your goals might be different. Maybe making a home-cooked meal every single day of the week just isn’t feasible for your lifestyle and schedule–maybe you have a weekly dinner date with a friend, or maybe you have a work event. Or more likely, maybe you have kids and cooking every day is not realistic. So take a look at your schedule and decide which meals and on which days you’ll need to prepare for (I dive into this deeper in step 3). That will make it much easier to create a shopping list of what you’ll need, and what you’ll need to prep.

Step 2: Find recipes and make a shopping list

After you’ve determined which meals you’ll need for the week, go online or break out a cookbook and find some recipes that meet your fancy. If you’re new to meal planning, it might be best to stick with recipes that meet the difficulty level you’re comfortable with. (At the bottom of this post you’ll find recipe suggestions, websites, and more to help you get started). I like to bookmark and categorize (breakfast, vegetarian, dinner, etc) the recipes I find.

Next, list out the ingredients and do some kitchen/pantry inventory to see what staple ingredients (grains, spices, oils, condiments, etc) might already be on-hand. The rest of the items will go on your grocery list. I personally use the Volt Planner with Notes, and like to jot down these ideas and inventory in my notes pages in the back. It might also be worthwhile, as well as a time and money saver, to stock up on [non-perishable] staples for future recipes down the line. Easy peasy. Off to the store!

Step 3: Prep and plan

Now that you have everything you need, the next step is to figure out what can be prepped ahead of time. What vegetables can be chopped, peeled, or even cooked ahead of time? If you don’t have much time during the week, maybe make the entire dish on Sunday (or whatever day falls before your work week) so you can just heat it up throughout the week. Other things that can be made ahead of time include salad dressings, sauces, spice mixes, or grains (rice, quinoa, etc). I’ve found that the Weekly Outlook pages in the Volt Planner are perfect for planning out meals, as well as noting any prep work or cooking that need to take place day-of. And don’t forget–the freezer is your friend. If you have a lot of leftovers or made a hefty batch of something, stash away a couple portions in your freezer for those extra busy days. 

Meal Planning in Action

When I first started using my Volt Planner, it was already March and I had a day planner I was using. Instead, I decided to use the Volt Planner  as my meal planning system, and it has worked out pretty well so far. I wanted to share some examples of my weekly outlook pages to show you how I plan my meals for the week, and some of the methods I personally like to use.

I go grocery shopping about every weekend. Over the years of learning to cook and meal plan, I’ve stocked up on a good amount of staples like canned goods, grains, condiments, spices, etc, so when I go grocery shopping, I’m almost always getting fresh produce, fish, meat, and other sorts of perishables. The other important thing to note is how a lot of my ingredients roll over into another week. For example, things like carrots, cabbage and celery might last me for two weeks depending on how much of it was used from previous recipes. I also take into account what kind of things I have in my freezer and see if I can’t incorporate those into my meals (keeping in mind that not all food lasts forever in the freezer either).

Learning to be flexible is an important factor when it comes to meal planning, especially for me. Just as I mentioned in step 1 above, making something for every meal of the week isn’t entirely feasible for everyone. Maybe you have a family you’re cooking for, food allergies to consider, or maybe there were some last minute changes to your schedule that throws off your meal planning schedule. These situations are entirely normal, and are good reasons to build in some flexibility into your meal planning. So if you can’t make the dinner you planned for Wednesday, no problem. Either move it to another night, or repurpose the ingredients for the dish in another way.

 

You also shouldn’t be afraid to substitute, add, or omit ingredients if need be–I do this all time if I don’t have a certain ingredient that I need for a recipe. I’ll take an example out of my planner from a couple months ago. I had chicken, corn, black beans, and cabbage so I decided to make tacos. But I also had these mushrooms that needed to be used up fairly soon, so I decided to throw those in the pan with my chicken and spices. That way, the mushrooms didn’t go to waste, and you know what? It was delicious together. I also substitute in plain greek yogurt if something calls for sour cream because I almost always have greek yogurt in my fridge as a staple. Don’t be afraid to get creative and do some experimenting.

There you have it–the basics of meal planning. Yes, it takes some work and sometimes creativity. But the best motivation when it comes to working towards any goal is to remember why you are doing it. So when you set off the smoke alarm in your kitchen, or your chicken is too dry, just remember these two essential ingredients: patience and practice.

Resources

Here are some of my favorite resources and go-to food bloggers and websites when I’m in a “food rut.”

Shutterbean

Minimalist Baker

The Kitchn

Eating Well

Greatist  

Spoon Fork Bacon

Half Baked Harvest

And, check out these links below for some ideas, tips, and strategies for meal planning.

The Ultimate Cooking Resource Guide

Meal Prep For the Upcoming Week with Shutterbean and https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/shutterbeanmealprep/

Beginners Guide to Once-a-Week Food Prep

Best Meal Planning Apps – Lifehacker

Healthy Dinner Recipes for Beginners  

15 Healthy Lunches That Don’t Need To Be Reheated  

12 Salad Dressings Made with 3 Ingredients

Choosing and Cooking Whole Grains

The Ultimate Infographic Guide to Spices   

All About Groceries with Kath Eats Real Food

Good luck and bon appétit!

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