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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Young

How to Meal-Plan Without Rigidity

[This post is adapted from an article I wrote for the National Peanut Board (NPB) website.]

Do you hear the phrase “meal planning,” and think “stressful” or “time-consuming”?

I did too.

As a RD and a person who values eating well, I realize the benefit of meal planning – it helps make the workweek less stressful, it’s economically efficient and it ensures we eat nutrient-dense meals all week long. But is it worth giving up a large chunk of our weekends?

My vote’s No. But I also don’t want to take more than one trip to the store or break the bank. Ya with me?

Plus, I think meal planning is often coupled with rigidity, and the notion that we must control and plan every meal occasion. When it’s approached in that way, we become disconnected from the body (the opposite of intuitive eating), and probably stressed out. So, what was once an attempt at taking care of ourselves can easily turn into something that is actually not healthy and creating even MORE stress in our lives.

If we plan out every single meal at the start of week, and then robotically follow that script, we’re not truly listening to our needs and desires on a day-to-day basis. Plus, that’s just so NOT fun. Truth is, most of us don’t have the time or money to go out and buy whatever we are wanting to eat at every meal and snack. But it is possible to meal plan in a way that supports a balanced, unrestrictive and joyful relationship to food.

I like to approach meal planning with fluidity and fun, with the goal of nourishing myself in many ways – to include foods that provide me with adequate, consistent energy, as well as pleasure and satisfaction.

Check out some of my no-stress meal planning tips, so you can still eat intuitively and don’t have to sacrifice Sunday Fun-day:

Create a Foundation. Is your pantry empty? If so, you’ll want to start laying the base for easy meal planning each week. Start by filling with shelf-stable necessities that you don’t need to buy every week – think olive oil, rolled oats, cereal, tomato sauce, peanut butter, dried herbs and spices, etc. Don’t freak out – this can be done in one trip – and when you run low on something, just tack it onto your weekly list.

Once you’re ready to hit the grocery store, there is one essential item to bring with you (aside from your money!) – The List.

Here are some of my suggestions to help you become a grocery list pro:

Commit to one trip with one list. Pick a day that you have an hour or two — depending on your schedule each week — to hit the grocery store or market. Before you go, take a quick look in your fridge and pantry to see what you’re working with, and fill in from there. Then, before you go in the store (I tend to do it in the parking lot or right before I’m out the door), jot down a list in your phone or on a piece of paper. As you make your list, try to

  1. Include sources of each macro. To create balanced, nourishing meals, get all your macronutrient groups (carbs, fats and proteins), which include the foods that give us the most energy (calories), which are necessary for life. Each week, make sure you have at least a few foods from each group on your list. This will help ensure consistent energy and adequate nourishment so you can feel your best. Here are some examples:

Carbs: Grains (pasta, rice, breads, crackers, tortillas, quinoa, farro, cereal etc.), all fruit, and starchy veggies (potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, corn, etc.)

Fats: Peanuts, peanut butter, other nuts and nut butters, avocados, oils, seeds, butter, cheese, hummus, salad dressings

Proteins: Seeds, cheese, poultry, meat, seafood, beans, lentils, chickpeas, eggs, peanuts/nuts, peanut butter/nut butter, milk, yogurt.

  1. Include Produce. Whether they’re fresh or frozen (I like to buy some of both), don’t forget your veggies! As far as fresh produce goes, what’s in season is usually the cheapest and freshest. While non-starchy vegetables (i.e. cauliflower, broccoli, greens, etc.) do not provide many calories, they are full of essential nutrients – mostly micronutrients, which includes essential vitamins and minerals.

  2. Remember snacks. Snacks are an important part of a balanced diet. Try to include a carb source and a fat and/or protein source to keep you satisfied. These are easy things to grab throughout the week when you need something to hold you over. Some of my go-to snacks are graham crackers or apple with peanut butter, Greek yogurt with chocolate chips and fruit, and nuts with dried fruit.

  3. Make room for fun. A truly balanced diet includes “fun foods,” like ice cream and cookies. Deprivation of foods we love should not be part of balanced meal planning, and can lead to food preoccupation and overeating/binging on those foods in the future. So, pick a few of your favorites each week, and enjoy the hell out of them.

  4. Let the list be fluid. And I don’t mean add a bunch of stuff to your list when you’re shopping! But if something’s on sale (and you’re on a budget like me) that’s not on your list, make a swap. For example, if I see kale’s on sale, but spinach is on my list, I’m buying the kale. For my fellow budget-shoppers, it can help to check sales and coupons beforehand (most grocery stores have phone apps now to make it easier and quicker), and let that shape your list.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Short Cuts. There is absolutely no shame in taking the easy route! When there just isn’t time for – or you don’t feel like — making everything (or anything) from scratch, things like jarred pasta sauce, salsa and pesto, premade pizza dough, canned beans, pre-made cookie dough and cake mixes are life-savers. Some of my favorite short-cut meals are:

  1. Black Bean & Cheese Quesadillas: Place a tortilla in skillet on medium heat. Add your favorite cheese, canned (drained and rinsed) beans, and cumin (or spice of choice, and top with another tortilla. Cook for a few minutes, until tortillas are crispy and cheese melts. Top with avocado and salsa.

  2. Naan Veggie Pizzas: Spread jarred pesto on naan bread, and top with cheese, chickpeas and sundried tomatoes. Bake at 400 for 10 minutes. Add handful of arugula. Season with salt, pepper, and/or oregano.

  3. Breakfast stuffed sweet potatoes: Poke holes in and microwave potato (wrapped in paper towel) for 8-10 minutes. While it’s cooking, warm frozen blueberries on the stove. Spread peanut butter on potato, add berries, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a spoonful of Greek yogurt.

Once you get in the groove, creating your list and forming delicious, nutrient-dense and simple meals will be second nature.

Make Extra. At the beginning of the week, I’ll just make lots of extras of whatever I’m making for dinner that night, so I don’t do much cooking for the rest of the week. I usually cook grains like rice, farro or quinoa in bulk, and store them in the fridge. Then, I have them all ready to use as the base for breakfasts, lunches or dinners all weeklong. The same goes for roasted veggies – I’ll cook large batches of my favorites like cauliflower, with rosemary or thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper. You can throw them into omelets, put on top of pizzas and add them to sandwiches. And some weeks I’ll make a large batch of pancakes early in the week — Sunday or Monday morning — and have them for breakfast for around two more days, depending on how many I make.

Plus, there are lots of shortcut kitchen tools out there (besides the microwave), like the crockpot or slow cooker, or my latest obsession: the egg cooker, which hard boils multiple eggs at once, perfectly. I’ll typically turn it on when I’m in the kitchen making dinner at the start of the week, and I have them to put on salads and sandwiches all week long.

Be Flexible. Meal planning does not need to be rigid or stressful, and eating well and stress do not have to go hand-in-hand. It’s not necessary to know on Sunday exactly what you will eat every day that week. Instead, think about having the ingredients on hand that you need to form tasty, balanced meals. Then, it’s letting taste buds, moods and unplanned events (AKA Life) guide meal creation each day.

Stocking up on foods from each group on my grocery trip, with a little bit of thought about potential meal combinations, allows me to eat with flexibility each day. By the end of the week, it’s a creative challenge to create meals with ingredients left in my fridge and pantry.

Which leads to my last tip…

Consider Snack-y dinners. One of my favorite ways to eat dinner is to fill a board or large plate with cheese, olives, bread or crackers, peanuts, dried fruit, raw veggies and hummus. Grab a glass of wine and dinner is a done deal. It’s the perfect Friday night kind of meal when you’re out of cooked food from the beginning of the week, ready to chill. Absolutely no cooking necessary! Grab some of NPB’s charcuterie ideas for a little inspo.

With a little forethought, meal planning will add to your life in more ways than one. Cheers to Sunday Fun-day!



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