You are driving home from work and realize that you forgot to take the meat out of the freezer. Now what? What will you make for dinner? As you pick up the kids you start to feel hungry. They’re hungry, too. The “witching hour” is about to begin. That crazy time when everyone finally gets home, hungry, and needs your attention while you frantically try to put a somewhat healthy meal together. You’re mad at yourself for not sticking to your plan. You’re stressed because you have no idea what to make. And it’s only Monday….
What’s the biggest underlying cause for people failing to stick to a diet or healthy eating habits?
Many people know that the key to success is planning. So why is it that so very few people stick to planning their meals? Well, we can start by saying change is hard. And trying to change according to some perfect system that you found online, is even harder. Why? Because you need to find a system that works best for you and your lifestyle. By skipping over this step, consistency will be even harder, setting yourself up for a fail.
Eventually, after about 66 days of effort, you’ll start to find meal planning a breeze. You’ll know, generally, what a healthy week looks like and how to maximize your food budget. Let’s have a look at some of the basics.
What is Meal Planning? What does it entail?
Before we even look into meal planning, let’s look at what kind of planner you might be. We find that most people will fall into three planning categories: Structured, Casual and Spontaneous.
Structured planners LOVE to plan ahead. They find comfort in structure and enjoy organized regimes. They tend to shop once a week and would be attracted to apps or websites that have a grocery shopping list or a reusable list of all the foods they want to have on hand. They have busy schedules, are good time managers and plan their meals to match their schedule. They cook in batches and like freezer-friendly recipes such as soup, stew, casseroles and more. Structured planners would be apt to pre-chop raw veggies for the week and prepare a part of a meal or an entire meal that could be eaten the next day to save time. They also tend to find eating easy.
The spontaneous planner lives by the quote, “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor.” They would find planning supper for the week suffocating as they enjoy spontaneity. Opposite to the structured planner (who plans-then-shops), the spontaneous planner shops-then-plans. They appreciate what is seasonal and fresh and will start meal planning with this in mind. Grocery shopping and farmers market trips are usually not a chore, but an adventure. They are foodies that allow their senses to inspire the menu. They enjoy the flexibility of knowing they are having seafood or chicken for supper today or tomorrow, but how it will be cooked and what it will be served with will be decided at the time of cooking and what is in the fridge ready to be used.
The casual planner uses a mix of structure and spontaneous meal planning. Often they enjoy planning three or four general supper themes for the week, such as “Meatless Mondays, Seafood Sundays or Family Favourite Fridays.” The other unplanned supper meals would be for quick grabs such as fast breakfast-for-supper options, leftovers, eating out or something spontaneous.
All of these three approaches are GREAT! There is not one that is better than the other. What is important is that you realize what type of planner you are so that you may use your skills and style for your weekly preparations. Knowing this will allow you to have a realistic approach.
Once you recognize what type of planner you are, you may notice that many meal planning apps are not geared towards your style. In fact, 90% of the popular apps often found online are geared towards fitness enthusiasts or have scripted menus. Although, at first, this seems easy, having a pre-designed meal plan can actually be overwhelming. And what about those of us with families? Or multiple jobs? How do this tools help with that? Our meal planner is made for people who just want to know what to prepare and when. You choose the recipes and which days you’d like to eat them. We hold you accountable and provide you with the tools you need to find success in the kitchen.
What to keep in mind when meal planning for one vs planning for a family.
Planning your meals for the family versus planning for you alone, is very different. Not only will your shopping list be impacted, but the various likes and dislikes of everyone at the table can make meal planning a real chore. When planning for yourself, coming up with ideas is easy. You know what you like and what you are willing to eat on any given day. Now, add a two year old to the mix and it’s a whole new meal planning game. Actually, add any variation of kids and spouses and you have a potential setback. However, we feel this is an even bigger motivation to plan. The last thing you want to do at 6pm on a Monday is start multi-cheffing in the kitchen to please everyone and their hungry bellies. Having a plan enables all parties to be on the same page, knowing what to expect for dinner and what kind of substitutions will be available.
The days of being solo are covered. You know what you’ll have for breakfast, snack and lunch without a worry. For dinner, if eating in a group setting, here are some meal planning strategies you can try:
1 – Every person in the house has a night to enjoy their favorite meal. Eg: Julie’s Spaghetti night, Sam’s Burger night, Jack’s steak night…
2 – Have your theme nights posted so that the whole family knows, in advance, what to expect. No surprises means everyone can try to accommodate the cook.
3 – Make flex meals. Taco nights are a great example of a way for everyone to build-their-own meal. Sushi bowls are another example of a great way to have a flex meal. With a little bit more prep, kids and adults can pick and choose their toppings to create the meal that works for them. Just ensure that there are plenty of healthy options.
4 – Pick three meals that, no matter what, everyone likes. Teach the whole family how to prepare and cook this meal and then ensure that all ingredients are on hand at all times.
What’s most important is that kids see how planning, preparing and eating as a family can be fun. Kids learn what they live and the pick up a lot of non-verbal. If being in the kitchen and at the table is stressful, they’ll learn to avoid the kitchen and the table. In fact, many researchers are looking into long term trends that people who eat together, stay together.
Plus, the habits that you instill now will have impact later on. As your children slowly transition to the teenage years (at least we hope for you it happens slowly!), they will begin taking charge of what they eat. By having taught them the family value of good food = good health, they’ll be more apt to make better choices when choosing their own snacks and meals. Keeping good food and healthy options for them will leave them with only good food and healthy options to choose from.
What about meal planning for one person?
We mentioned above that meal planning for one can be much easier than meal planning for a whole family with the assumption that you are incharge and in control of only yourself. However, meal planning for one person can bring about its own set of challenges.
OBSTACLE: Most recipes are for multiple servings. Unless you plan on eating the same food four days in a row, preparing recipes can become a challenge.
SOLUTION: There are a few things you can do. You can prepare the recipe in its entirety and put half in the freezer to have ready for another week or for those times when you’re in a jam and you haven’t prepared in advance. You can also half the recipe. Be mindful, however, that this doesn’t always work depending on the recipe. When baking, do some research around quantity substitutions. And finally, you can start or participate in a recipe exchange. Partner up with other singles at your work or in your neighborhood and share your recipes. Not only will you get a variety of foods that you didn’t have to cook up but you’ll have a chance to try many different recipes. Offer the recipe you prepared in your exchange.
OBSTACLE; Taking the easy route by not taking the time to prepare a meal as you only need to feed yourself.
SOLUTION: There are a couple of things you can do. Think of your meals and snacks in terms of macronutrients. So, no matter what you end up eating, you’ll make sure that you have a protein, a carb, a fat and a good amount of fiber. Think of fueling your body rather than preparing gourmet meals (although they are a great idea too!). If you just don’t feel like cooking for yourself. Make sure you have a lot of healthy options available to you to grab-n-go on demand. For example, breakfast can be an egg cup with some Greek yogurt and fresh berries. Snack can be an apple with almonds. Lunch can be a premade lettuce mix with cherry tomatoes, some tuna and some feta cheese – topped with balsamic and oil. PM snack can be veggies and hummus (you can even cut the veggies at work) and dinner is a leftover chicken breast with some roasted veggies (or even raw veggies). It doesn’t need to be fancy. Just make sure that when you do take the time to cook or cut veggies, that you prepare more than you need. That way, you’ll always have food available for you when you don’t feel like cooking.
OBSTACLE: No one is there to hold you accountable. It’s much easier to fall back into bad habits when you’re on your own. At times, the mere fact that someone is depending on you is motivation enough to keep things healthy and delicious. On a bad day, however, if you’re on your own, it’s super easy to take the quick pit stop of convenience food. No one will know, right?
SOLUTION: Depending on your goals, you can have an accountability buddy. Someone you can share your goals with and who will do regular check-ins to help you stay on track. If you are someone who tends to be more disciplined, you can set yourself up with a reward system. Tracking your meals and celebrating your successes.
Meal planning is one the biggest factors in diet success
When people adopt a new way of eating, they often find themselves attempting it with maybe just a few guidelines from an ebook or what their friend have told them. They don’t often take the time to consider what they need and how a change, whether drastic or subtle, will affect their lifestyle. As we know, change is hard and takes practice. A minimum of 66 days, in fact, and over 100 to solidify the new approach. How can you make sure that you make it to day 100? By planning.
Planning a diet or lifestyle change helps you to see the results associated with that diet. It means knowing that what you’re eating is what you SHOULD be eating. It gives you the control. It gives you full access to your success.
When you are following a calorie-restricted plan, it’s even more important to prepare ahead so that you are sure that you will have food available to you at all times, especially if (when) you are hungry. Planning your meals and snacks gives you the confidence that you won’t need to make poor food choices if you’re in a jam.
Pitfalls of Meal Planning
Hopefully by now you’ve been motivated to start planning your meals in advance. But motivation is only half of the battle. Now, you need to move to the action phase! Before you begin browsing recipes and jumping right in, it would be a good idea to figure out which method works best for you. Are you an app person or a paper person? Is it realistic to spend 2hr every week browsing recipes to schedule? Are you a person who goes “all in” or will the idea of a rigid meal plan feel too strict? Here are a few things that can lead you to more challenge than ease:
1 – You don’t have a good system. As we said, some people love apps and some people love paper. I can personally say that I’ve tried pre-designed meal plans more than once. And for me, they don’t work. Although I love the idea of having a plan, I don’t love the idea of starting from scratch every week with a ton of new meals and recipes. I then decided to start my own plan. I was spending a good hour or two browsing recipe sites and then planning my meals on a sheet of paper. At the time, this seemed like a good idea. But this didn’t work for me. My sheet of paper was at home, on my fridge, and I couldn’t access it when I was at work. Or I’d have to make multiple lists, one with meals for the fridge, one for my purse, one with my grocery items… Eventually, I stopped meal planning. Not because I didn’t like meal planning but because that system didn’t work for me. Now, I prefer an online meal planner like the one at Plan to Eat. It allows me to pick a few theme nights and I can easily browse my favourite recipes (which I’ve saved to my profile) and place them in the days of the week that I’m planning on enjoying the delicious meals I’ve chosen. I also have a great visual that I can print up for my family or access from my phone or computer.
2 – You start from scratch every week. This kind of ties into the previous comment. If you have to sit down, every week and spend hours researching and planning…. It will be tough for you to be consistent. It’s possible but tough. We recommend that you find a few “tried and true” recipes to rotate through weekly, leaving some room for leftovers and maybe a “new” recipe to test.
3 – You over complicate your choices. Although trying new recipes is fun, we’d recommend that you keep your recipes simpler at the beginning of the week. Monday nights are tough for most people. Getting back to a work week routine can often have us spinning. By setting up your week with easier recipes on Monday and Tuesday, you’ll find the adaptation to your week and meal planning much easier.
4 – You expect perfection. Look, you’re human. Which means some weeks you’ll be AWESOME at meal planning and some weeks you’ll be trying really hard to stay ahead of the game. Don’t compare yourself to the meal planning gurus that you see on social media and just know that you’re doing the best that you can. Flexibility is key. If you’re hard on yourself for missing a day or not prepping a meal, you’ll eventually quit trying to plan. Celebrate your successes and honor your humanity.
5 – You’re unrealistic with your time. How much time do you realistically have to allocate to food prep and planning? Some people start with great expectations of taking a couple of hours on Saturday to browse recipes, then an hour or so to shop on Sunday and a full afternoon of food prepping with music and a good bottle of wine. Do it once and then maybe you’ll get side-tracked by your son’s hockey game. Your your Mom wants to have Brunch. Your leisurely and romantic afternoon in the kitchen will be sabotaged. Again, what’s actually realistic for you? Maybe only have time to do a couple of things every day. Maybe you can spend an afternoon chopping veggies. No matter how you do it, just make sure it’s realistic and something that you can easily repeat every week. This Sunday may be free but next week might be jammed. How will you prepare for that? We’ve come to realize that starting from scratch is more challenging. Doing a little every day (chopping an onion in the morning, preparing items for the crockpot the night before, taking out your herbs and spices for tonight’s meal before going to work) is much easier and more achievable in the long run.
Keeping yourself accountable so it actually works!
Here’s where we see the most challenge. Accountability. Motivation is generally not enough to keep you going, it’s the accountability that will help you. What are some ways to hold yourself accountable?
- Write everything down. Planning is a great way to look at the week ahead and set up a strategy for what’s to come… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you’ll end up doing. Maybe you’ll be rushed on Wednesday morning and end up eating half of your breakfast in the car. Or, you’ll decide to have lunch with friends on Friday. By tracking what you’re ACTUALLY doing, you’ll get great insight into your patterns and habits and be more intune with what you can actually prepare for. If you notice that around every Thursday you just want to go out for lunch, you can plan and budget for that moving forward.
- Identify where you want to be and bring it to your attention every morning. Your mind can achieve anything! And the best way to stay on track is to remind yourself every morning of your mission and your goals. Affirmations are an amazing way to uplift you and keep you focused. Starting your day with positive statements will keep you positive.
- Reward yourself when you hit milestones. What keeps you motivated to move forward? Success. Start by making yourself a list of 10 small and larger rewards. They don’t need to be all financially charged. Small rewards could be a walk in the park with a loved one. A night at home to pamper yourself. Larger rewards could be a new book you’ve been wanting to read. Break your lifestyle goals down into small bites and then start celebrating your successes. Let’s say you stuck to your meal plan for the three days straight. Why not take yourself to the movies? Whatever works for you, do it!
- Review your performance. Take the time, at the end of each week, to have a look at the meals you’ve stuck to and the times you’ve strayed from the plan… This isn’t a time to shame yourself for not being “perfect”. This becomes a time for you to learn what worked, and what didn’t, so you can better prepare and strategize how to be more successful the following week.
“If you change nothing, nothing will change.” The wonderful thing is when you break down the large goal and start to realize that “it’s” possible. Anything you want, is possible. All you need is a plan.