If dinner prep makes you drag your feet or your morning rush doesn’t involve packing a lunch, these tips, tricks and ideas can help you simplify your weekly meals.
There’s the old adage: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And so it goes with preparing healthy meals.
Putting nutritious, balanced meals on the table every night requires more than a decision. It takes planning and preparation — otherwise it’s too easy to resort to a meal in a box or succumb to the Golden Arches.
“Healthy eating is harder than the drive-thru,” says Stephen Compston, a registered dietitian, a licensed dietitian and an outpatient dietary educator with Health Improvement Programs at Renown Health. “You have to think about what you want to eat, shop for the meal, cook the meal and then enjoy the meal. Without a plan, you can go to the store and buy ingredients that may not add up to a whole meal.”
What does a healthy meal look like?
Take a cue from the FDA’s MyPlate.
- A nutritious, balanced meal comprises one-half fruits and vegetables with an eye for color and variety to get the most health benefits.
- Whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat and oats should complete another quarter of the meal.
- Fill the remainder of the plate with a healthy protein such as fish, legumes, nuts or chicken.
For example, say you made a pot of chicken noodle soup for dinner, which contains vegetables, meat and whole grains (make sure to buy whole wheat noodles!). You can balance the meal with a side of in-season fruit.
Do you love veggie stir fry? Just add some chicken, beef or tofu for protein and serve with a side of whole grains — brown rice.
“When you, as a parent, instill good eating habits in your kids, those habits will likely continue on through the rest of their lives,” Stephen explains. “Your family’s health improve — you can enjoy an outing in the mountains hiking together or a day shopping together without feeling exhausted.”
Does it mean you have to serve a completely balanced meal every night? No. But setting a goal to create balanced meals means that those nights where dinner preparation is an afterthought will become fewer and fewer.
Try these four meal planning tips to get you started on simplifying your week:
- Set aside some time at the beginning of the week to look for recipes. Pull from your favorite cookbooks or food blogs. Reuse menus from the past and look to those tried-and-true, family-favorite recipes.
- Create 2-in-1 meals. Tonight’s pulled pork becomes tomorrow’s tacos. A roasted chicken one night makes a delicious soup the next day. You can also double a recipe and freeze the extra portion. And don’t forget the value of leftovers – anything that goes in the fridge after dinner becomes your pre-packed lunch for the next day.
- Write out the week’s menu and shopping list. Jot down your ideas for meals for the week and note ingredients as you go to simplify creating a shopping list. Compare your list to the contents of your refrigerator and pantry before heading to the store. “My wife and I plan our dinners according to what we have going on that week,” says Stephen. “After we make a plan, we shop for the plan. If you don’t have the food in the house, you can’t consume it.”
- Do some prep work. Wash and dry lettuce. Peel and freeze ginger. Chop onions and garlic. Prepare meal components: Brown hamburger meat for vegetable-beef soup, or cook crock pot chicken to shred for enchiladas later in the week. A little work on the front end means a balanced meal is still attainable on a busy night.
Eating healthy meals is a smart choice. Now back up your decision to eat well — set some attainable goals and get the whole family involved.
“Keep a list on the refrigerator that anyone can add food to,” Stephen recommends. “Maybe you didn’t know that your daughter likes your homemade lasagna or that your husband likes your meatloaf. Ask what others would like to have for the week, and include everyone’s input.”
No one method works perfectly for everyone when it comes to planning healthy meals, so take our advice and run with it. Figure out what works best for you and yours.
And next time that what’s-for-dinner-hour descends, you won’t have to scramble to put together a balanced meal.