meal plan

baby steps | meal plan

Quick! What comes to mind when you hear me say, “meal plan?”

If your mind immediately goes to a carefully laid-out grid showing a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks along with a detailed grocery list, you’re probably groaning. Possibly out loud.

Wait—don’t go. Let’s talk about it—and let’s start by taking the pressure off..

take the pressure off

Many of us don’t have time to think about what’s for dinner until someone asks, “What’s for dinner?”

(And yes, when the kids were a bit older, even I was known to occasionally snarl, “Whatever you make!” in response to that.)

A quick tip for those of you who sometimes feel like you’re being caught with your pants down by this question: designate a specific cuisine or theme for each night of the week. At least that way, you’re sort of covering your butt.

Here are some ideas:

  • Meatless Monday
  • Mexican Night
  • Italian Night (Wasn’t Wednesday Prince Spaghetti night at some point?)
  • Breakfast for Dinner
  • Leftover Night (Definitely don’t skip this one.)
  • Kids in the Kitchen and/or Everyone for Themselves (assuming everyone’s old enough)
  • Takeout Night (because we should all support our local, independent restaurants—there are LOTS of healthy takeout options!)

When you have a general idea of what each week looks like, you’ll be able to buy more or less the same ingredients weekly and combine them in different ways.

For example:

  • Mexican Night: Keep some beans and/or ground beef, some Mexican seasoning (preferably homemade), and some form of tortilla or rice on your grocery list and in your pantry. Add some lettuce, tomatoes, and/or cabbage slaw, and you’ll easily be able to switch between burritos, tacos, nachos.
  • Italian Night: Nothing wrong with pasta and marinara sauce (can you make it at home?) once a week. Think of all the different available pasta shapes: why, you could almost go 6 months without a repeat! Make sure to include a vegetable side or two and a green salad.
  • Breakfast for dinner: If you’ve gotten your veggies in during the day, go with pancakes or waffles and a fruit salad. Low on your veggie count? Make something savory—eggs are a great option and go well with a vegetable and/or salad on the side.

aim low

Who started this idea that a meal plan had to cover a week’s worth of meals?

If you don’t plan at all, planning one single meal ahead of time is a win—start there and congratulate yourself every time you do it.

If you try to plan but get put off by aiming for an entire week, think about planning for 2 dinners, then 3, then 4, etc. Take your time and give each stage a few weeks. Don’t move on until planning for that number feels easy—that could mean a month or more.

And another thing: don’t go looking on Instagram and Pinterest for simple, weekday meals unless that’s specifically the type of recipe the account offers. (And even then, remember that “simple” is relative!)

I took an entire semester’s course on how to write a recipe, and as a professional, I’d estimate that 75% of the people posting recipes online have no business writing them. (And that includes some cookbook authors who shall remain nameless.)

There’s nothing more frustrating than finding a recipe that looks wonderful only to have a spectacular fail when you least have time for it.

For starters, I highly recommend you invest in an older edition of the great standards (Betty Crocker, Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, etc.). And I say older edition because the newer ones tend to include a lot of prepared/processed ingredients. Or check out my cookbook, which is the basis for my meal planning system!

connect your meals

The biggest mistake I see novice meal planners make is that they select recipes that are simply too different, which means that every evening, they start dinner completely from scratch. Instead, I suggest you make sure each meal is somehow related to one later (or earlier) in the week.

My mantra is “Always cook for more than one meal.”

What does that look like? I teach four steps to meal planning, each of which helps you to “relate” two or more meals together.

  • Pre-prep: yes, this requires you to commit a little time to chopping vegetables and mixing together dry ingredients—and if you stop scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest looking for recipes, you’ll have the time to do this.
  • Batch cook: you can make multiple batches of dishes that can serve for more than one meal (see #4 below) and/or you can make a few batches of cooked grains, beans, veggies, animal proteins that can become part of another dish later in the week. The beauty of batch cooking these basics is that most of them can cook in the time it takes you to pre-prep for a few meals.
  • Create intentional leftovers: you can make enough for dinner that you have leftovers for breakfast or lunch the next day, or you can batch cook on the fly. For example:
    • If you are making rice for dinner, make extra—it can become hot cereal, a casserole base, a soup ingredient, part of a grain bowl or salad….
    • Roasting a chicken for that day? Roast two—you’ll have leftovers for salad, soup, casseroles, burritos….
    • Serving broccoli for dinner? Cook extra—you’ve got some for salad, soup, casseroles, grain bowls, topping baked potatoes….
  • Friend your freezer: learn how to use this excellent appliance efficiently and effectively. (And don’t forget to defrost things in the fridge the night before you need them.)

If you want to learn more about these steps, you can get the workbook that goes with my cookbook (also available together as a combo pack) or take my online meal planning course.

meal plans for mixed-diet families and picky eaters

Listen—and really hear me on this. It is not your job to:

  • Make a meal that will please everyone.
  • Cook separate meals for family members.
  • Accommodate every single eating preference (of course, allergies and sensitivities are different).

There are ways to please different preferences and eating styles without making two (or more) different meals.

belly up to the bar

First of all, belly up to the bar. There are LOTS of options for meals that can be made more attractive to the picky eaters and those who have decided that they are vegetarian or vegan or whatever.

Just think “bar:”

  • Salad
  • Baked potato
  • Taco/Nacho/Burrito
  • Noodles (Dry or soupy)
  • Bowls

You get the idea.

think of it as a balanced week

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a pediatrician about how to feed my kids was this: “Don’t worry about it too much. Kids eat intuitively. Think of it as a balanced week—not a balanced meal!”

Don’t believe it? Keep an eye on your younger kids and see what happens if you don’t harass them about what they eat. You may just be surprised.

And in the meantime, think about meal planning this way: aim to make 50–75% of each meal acceptable to each family member. So if you know that one person doesn’t like fish, make the other items appealing—maybe rice and a vegetable they like. (Maybe one will like fish and rice but not the vegetable—that’s also okay.) The next day, aim to have a protein the non-fish-eater likes, etc.

“you’re on your own”

When family members are old enough to prefer one food to another and state that preference in a mature fashion, they’re old enough to make their own meals—healthy ones.

Sit down with your picky eaters and come up with a list of foods that they like and can make on their own AND that meet your health criteria.

I’m going to hazard a guess that 95% of microwaveable meals and cold cereals do not qualify for all kinds of reasons. Peanut butter sandwiches, grilled or toasted cheese sandwiches, hummus and veggies, crackers and cheese, yogurt and fruit all come to mind as healthy options that even a 5-year old can manage.

And here’s the key: the meal is to be made by themselves and eaten with the family at dinnertime. And cleanup of all their ingredients and dishes is on them. (Yeah, with that rule in place, some will drop out after one day and eat what you put in front of them—some even without a complaint.)

simplify, simplify, simplify.

I hope the above suggestions will help you to start meal planning without stress.

The key is to simplify, not overthink/overcomplicate. Start small, implement one small step until it’s a habit, then add another one. Nobody expects you to put an Instagrammable, Iron-Chef-Worthy meal on the table seven nights a week.

Find a meal that’s super easy and pleases most of the family? Put it in heavy rotation until they beg you to find something else.

Relate 2 meals, then 3, then 4, then 5. And don’t forget to leave 1 night for leftovers and 1 night for eating out or takeout! And once in awhile, just put a frozen pizza in the oven. Just don’t do it every week….

make the connection

This is the fifth challenge in a 12-part series that will run for all of 2022: every month, I’ll share a small, simple, sustainable shift to make on your way to healthier food and lifestyle choices. By the end of the year, you’ll be amazed at the difference in your health!

“A YEAR?!? But that’s so long,” you may be thinking. Remember: a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.

Let me ask you this: how long have you been making poor food and lifestyle choices? I’ll bet it’s been more than a year, maybe even more than a decade….

And those poor choices have resulted in poor health.

The good news is that you can reverse the downward trend by making better choices, and the only way those will stick is if you make them one baby step at a time.

Practice some small form of meal planning for the month of May and beyond—then come back for June’s Baby Step to Health! Want to make sure you don’t miss a single challenge? Join my email list.