Whether we work inside or outside the home, raise families or live alone or with a partner, are financially well-off or just getting by, everyone has faced the question, “What’s for dinner?” while having no earthly plan to answer with.
As much as I love good food and can even love cooking at times, the stress of figuring out my family’s meals for the week and compiling our grocery list is overwhelming to me. But I know what doesn’t work: flying by the seat of our pants day after day. We waste time going to the grocery store multiple times, or spend more than we need to on “convenient” processed foods or take-out that don’t make us feel our best.
I’ve found that I need practical meal planning strategies to support a routine of healthy eating habits and to avoid getting burned out in the kitchen. What’s more, I’ve seen in my private health coaching practice that the individuals who dial in meal planning have the smoothest transition into healthy eating and are best able to sustain these habits over time. Once they find a system that works for them, they take off! Here are some tips I have used to make cooking and planning as easy as possible.
Web-based meal planning
There are many online meal-planning services that allow you to customize your weekly menu according to allergens and sensitivities, number of portions, food preferences, and even preparation methods. I personally can’t say enough good things about eMeals, but there are endless web-based meal planning programs out there. Every week I get an email that includes seven meal suggestions based on our dietary preferences, along with the associated recipes, and a complete grocery list. I am constantly making decisions throughout my day as I work, parent, and manage a house, so having my grocery list handed to me every week—and only needing to make one trip to the store!—is like a breath of fresh air. Although I have never received a meal that we didn’t enjoy, we may periodically receive one that I don’t want to make or don’t think my family will enjoy. In these rare cases, I simply substitute it with a meal that I know our family likes.
Taking convenience a step further (and at a higher price point) are meal kit subscriptions. Services like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Plated actually ship fresh foods to you in pre-measured amounts with accompanying recipes. These programs particularly appeal to folks who want to be exposed to new foods and cooking techniques and who aren’t opposed to paying $9 to $12 per person per meal. If you default to eating out more often than not, this may be a great way to eat more whole foods, increase your comfort in the kitchen, and save some money over restaurant dining! (My family lives in a rural area, and these services are not as available for us—be sure to check your zip code to see if they deliver to your region.)
Throwing a bunch of raw food in my slow cooker in the morning and having a healthy meal magically ready to go at five p.m. is a small pleasure in life that never ceases to excite me. An extra bonus of the slow cooker is that I can make enough food for multiple meals. If I know I am going to cook a meal in the slow cooker, I’ll often chop and prep my ingredients the night before, which really makes it feel like a snap.
I thank myself a million times when I plan ahead and double the recipe or triple a menu, leaving some quick healthy meals for later in the week. Last night’s dinner becomes tomorrow’s tasty lunch—or I often freeze single serving portions to eat later in the month, if I’m worried about things feeling repetitive.
Think outside the box
We have been well trained to believe that foods that are convenient all come from the processed food aisle. Although processed foods are quick to prepare and may be part of our overall strategy, whole food options can also be convenient. Keeping staple "whole finger foods" in the refrigerator can be just as simple, or even more so, than a frozen dinner. Simple foods like bell peppers, carrots, nuts, fermented pickles, lunchmeat, coconut flakes, nut butters with fruit or vegetables, avocadoes, olives, and berries all make great snacks on their own. It’s also very easy to throw a mix of these items into a coconut wrap, making a quick burrito. There are many fresh food options that can be quick and convenient if we think outside the box.
Sharing the load
Look at your family routine to see how different family members can contribute to meal preparation. When my husband is not traveling, he prepares all the breakfasts and I prepare all the dinners. My kids are too young to cook on their own, but I look forward to having them learn to prepare individual dishes, then entire meals, as they grow older and more confident in the kitchen. This will teach them the skills to prepare fresh foods, so that eventually when they are feeding themselves, they hopefully won’t just reach for the closest box, can, or bag. In the meantime, I try to get them involved as sous chefs when I can.
We also regularly dine with other families, potluck style. The opportunity to share food and build community feeds more than just our bellies, and I love getting inspiration from the tasty recipes my friends create.
For even more meal planning strategies, please message me for a free chapter from my book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World.
Let’s chat on social: How have you cracked the code for sanity in the kitchen?
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.