Meal Planning for the Family
Meal planning is associated with a healthier weight and a more nutritious diet. However, planning and prepping meals for an entire family may sometimes feel like a daunting task.
Creating a meal planning system that fits your lifestyle is key to success. The meal plan should match your schedule, your food preferences, and your budget. If a plan becomes too complicated or time-consuming, it becomes harder to stick to. The biggest benefits of meal planning come when a consistent system is adopted that can be used over and over.
Learning how to fit meal planning into your daily life is essential. It makes it easier to stick to healthy eating and saves you time and energy. Furthemore, meal planning can help you to prepare for the busy days ahead, so you’re never scrambling to make a last-minute meal or finding yourself in line at the drive-thru.
Planning meals ahead of time also better prepares you fasting so you know what to expect. Planning ahead will help you maximize the benefits of fasting because you’ll have healthy food prepared during your eating window.
What is Meal Planning?
Meal planning is the process of both determining your meals and possibly preparing your meals ahead of time. In the simplest of terms, it is determining what and when you are going to eat in the coming days. There are many variations to meal planning, based on schedule, budget, flexibility, and food preferences.
Effective meal planning involves several steps. These steps are intended to be a general process, not necessarily a one-size-fits-all prescription. Giving yourself flexibility and taking it one step at a time will help build a better system for you and your family.
- Organize. Take charge of your pantry and refrigerated items and go through them regularly. Once a week, empty your fridge, freezer, and pantry pulling out anything that is close to expired or is already expired. Put the items that need to be used immediately out front, so you use them first as a base for some of your meals that week. Toss the rest. In doing this, you’re not wasting food or throwing away your hard earned money.
- Plan. Set aside an hour (30 minutes even) and plan your meals for the week. Start small if you’re new to meal planning. You can begin by planning your meals for 1-2 days, rather than an entire week. Pick your most challenging meal – breakfast, lunch, or dinner, to start.
- Research. Search for healthy recipes using some of the ingredients you already have on hand. Aim to try 1-2 new recipes a week and on other days use ones that are more familiar to you. Think about what you have going on the next week and stock accordingly. It can be helpful to make the same type of meal on certain days of the week to make things easier (for example – Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc.).
- Make a grocery list. Create the list based on your selected recipes for the week and staple items you like to keep on hand. Sticking to this list will assure you always have healthy options at home. This will also save money.
- Prep. Once you have your food, the first step is prepping it. Washing and pre-chopping items will save loads of time during the week. The prep work often takes longer than the time for cooking. Getting the prep out of the way is a huge time-saver on busy days.
- Cook. Set aside an hour to start cooking your meals for the week. You can set a small goal of cooking just one day ahead, so it’s not overwhelming. If you’re following a fasting protocol, make sure you plan when you’ll be eating your meals. This will help make it easier to stick to your fasting method and see more benefits.
Meal Planning Benefits
There are so many benefits to meal planning, both for your health, your waistline, and your sanity. When you plan meals for the family ahead of time, you help to create more of a routine in your household and reduce mealtime stress. Additionally, the biggest benefits come when you involve the entire family in the meal decision-making process.
When your day is very busy or chaotic, often the last thing you want to do is cook.
When you plan ahead, you have more control over your meal choices. If you have a busy day and things don’t go as planned, you know that you have your meal ready or almost ready to go. This results in less high-calorie takeout food because you didn’t have the energy to cook.
Meal planning leads to healthier meals for you and your family. When you are spending the time in advance to put thought into what you’ll be eating, you will likely eat more consistently balanced meals. And if you’re fasting and have a shorter window to eat, it’s important to make sure your meals are balanced.
Planning your meals and eating more at home also helps with portion control. When following a recipe and preparing ahead, you’ll only have a certain amount available and it will be easier to stick to a healthy portion. Lack of planning leads to less balanced meals and more meals out of the house, where the portions are typically much larger.
While meal planning involves some initial upfront time, it can save hours in the long run. A lack of planning often leads to extra grocery store trips, last-minute scrambling, and much more time spent on cooking and clean-up on a day-to-day basis. When you’re really busy and don’t have those long chunks of time, this can be very stressful.
Even something as simple as pre-chopping your produce all at once will save a lot of time during the week. This is called batch-cooking, or batch-prepping, and is a very efficient use of time. Spending the time all at once to do your prep and clean-up, rather than a little every day, adds up to many minutes saved, especially when you are in a hurry..
Just pre-chopping food alone will make it much easier to put together a healthy meal. When food is not chopped and ready to go, it’s more daunting to have to do it at the last minute. When you’re tired and starving, this can be difficult to do.
Meal planning can also help save a lot of money. First, it reduces the number of times you’ll go to a restaurant or order take-out. Also, it involves buying things in bulk, which results in a huge cost savings. It helps reduce waste because you use the things you purchase.
Finally, meal planning helps you stick to a list and reduces the likelihood of impulse buys. This process helps keep spending in check, encouraging you to only buy what you actually need.
Creates a Schedule
Meal planning helps provide more structure in your meal routine. This can be especially helpful if you are following a fasting method such as time-restricted fasting. Then in this way, you are planning ahead, making sure that you eat within your eating window and have healthy foods available.
Whether you choose to follow a time-restricting feeding, intermittent fasting, or perioding fasting routine, meal planning will create a structure for when and what you and the family will eat. When you have a good strategy and plan in place, maintaining healthy habits becomes easier.
Meal Planning Tips
There are many ways to make meal planning easier and a more seamless process. Creating a system that is unique to you and your family is most helpful for success.
Keep It Simple
You don’t have to start from nothing and immediately start planning weeks ahead of time. Start with one day at a time to get used to planning ahead. If it is harder than it has to be, it will not be sustainable.
In the beginning, keep recipes simple as well. Choosing easy recipes that are not time-consuming will help make the transition easier. Search for recipes with few ingredients that take 30 minutes or less. You may be spending a little extra time initially by prepping you food in advance, so keep meals as simple as possible.
Don’t Go All-or-Nothing
There is not one right way to meal planning. If breakfast and lunch is easier to prepare, then maybe the focus can be for dinner when it is a busier time. You don’t have to plan every meal, every day. Dinner is usually the most challenging, so start with that meal to practice planning ahead.
Consider Your Schedule
Figuring out what works best for you and your family’s schedule is what is most important. This may mean that one day a week you do eat out just because of a tighter schedule. This doesn’t mean you are failing at meal planning.
If you prepare ahead, you can have a healthy meal on the table, even for busy days. For example, if your kids have sports on certain days, those days are probably even more critical to plan meals and prepare them ahead of time. Then, if you are all getting home a little later, all you have to do is heat your meals up.
It’s important to allow flexibility in your meal planning efforts. It doesn’t have to be completely rigid or the exact same process every week. If you had a busier than normal weekend and didn’t get to cook ahead of time, that’s okay. That may be a weekend to just do some washing and pre-chopping of your food so even half the work is done.
Also, sometimes you may prepare a meal in advance and when the time comes, you don’t want it. It’s okay to have something different. If you have the energy to cook, you can always make something else. Think of meal planning as a healthy eating insurance policy – a way of ensuring you always have something to eat, even if it’s a “back-up.”
Mix Things Up
Eating the same meals all the time can get monotonous. Mix up your meals regularly so it doesn’t get boring. Once you get into a more consistent rotation and schedule, try switching up 1-2 recipes per week and try something new.
Involve your family in the process of deciding on new recipes to try so you’re all helping each other. This will also make it easier for everyone to know what to expect so there are no surprises.
Save Your Recipes
Depending on where you’re finding your recipes, you can save them on your phone, an app, or print them out and create a recipe binder. Keeping your recipes all in one place helps you stay organized, and makes it so much easier when you’re searching for inspiration.
Pull from these recipes when you’re starting your meal planning process and need more ideas, so you’re not wasting time searching online for new recipes every time. Over time, you’ll have an arsenal of recipes that support you and your family’s health goals.
Meal planning, with practice, can fit into your life and become a consistent healthy habit. It can help support you and your family’s healthy eating goals as well as bring more structure to a fasting lifestyle. Remember – start small and keep it simple. There is always room to modify it along the way.
Melissa Mitri, MS, RD
Melissa is a health writer with over 12 years of experience in the field of nutrition. She specializes in helping women move away from restrictive habits that lead to vicious yo-yo weight cycles. Melissa enjoys writing about health, nutrition, and fitness with the goal of simplifying complex health topics for the reader. You can find out more about Melissa at www.melissamitri.com.