The familiar adage “People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan” was never more appropriate than when you’re trying to establish a healthier or more economical routine! You may be trying to achieve your ideal weight, avoid foods which cause allergic reactions or rein in your food expenses. No matter the reason, creating a meal plan gives you a visual aid to keep you on track. Written meal plans save time and money, allow you to plan ahead and will give you a sense of accomplishment. Think of your meal plan as the road map to your goal. You wouldn’t drive across the country without some kind of navigational assistance, so don’t set out on the road to a physically or financially healthier you without a plan! As with any long-distance trip, you’ll need to break it up into manageable segments. For purposes of this article, you’ll be working with a seven day time frame. First, you’ll determine meals according to the guidelines you’ve chosen. Your next steps are shopping for ingredients and, when practical, preparing food ahead. Regardless of your ultimate goal, saving money is always a plus, so when planning your meals, remember to check your coupons and grocery store circulars.
TIP: Buying in bulk may reduce your cost per serving , but if you’re going to end up throwing half away, your savings go in the trash too! If you’re not sure you’re going to use all of it, buy only what you need.
When you first sit down to make your meal plan, it may seem like a daunting task. Before you begin, decide how much time you have to devote to devising your plan. Turn off the television, put your phone on mute and set a kitchen timer for the amount of time you’ve chosen.
The first thing you’ll need to do is create a document, either on paper or on your computer for the next seven days. On each day, put a heading for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you know you can’t get through a day without a morning snack and a little nibble before bed, put those in too. Next to each meal and snack entry, enter your limits, whether that’s calories, carbs, or cost.
Take a look at your calendar – what events in the coming week will require special planning? If you have a business lunch or an evening out with friends planned, then take advantage of the internet – most restaurants have their menus and nutritional information for items available online. Don’t wait until you get to the restaurant to decide – knowing ahead of time that you are going to order the Asian Chicken Salad will help you to avoid the temptation of going with the double bacon cheeseburger and fries on the spur of the moment. On the other hand, knowing you are going to order the burger will help you plan your other meals for that day.
Now it’s time to fill in the rest of the meals for the week. Again, the internet is your friend. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites available with recipes, nutritional information and cost per serving. As you plan, note the impact each meal will have on your limits (calories, grams of fat, etc.). Play with your plan until you’re satisfied with the totals for each day.
TIP: Use post-it notes so it’s easy to move meals around to meet goals.
Is there anything more frustrating than looking forward to preparing a meal and realizing you’re missing a critical ingredient? Review your meal plan for the week, then make a list of ingredients and make sure you’ve got the containers you’re going to need to take your meals and snacks to work or school. If you’ve got whole wheat English muffins on the menu for breakfast every morning, make sure you’ve got seven of them on that list – last minute substitutions can easily throw a monkey wrench into your plan!
Check your pantry and refrigerator, noting what you’ve already got on hand. Put together a detailed list to take to the store and stick to that list! Avoid the aisles that don’t have anything that’s on your list, and don’t “wander” – go directly to the item you’re looking for, and don’t stop to check out surrounding items unless you’re comparing unit price or nutritional info. Many grocery stores have at least one checkout lane that doesn’t have the displays of candy and other impulse food purchases. Whenever practical, go to that register to minimize temptation.
TIP: After leaving home a few times without my list, I got into the habit of taking a picture of the list on my phone the moment I finish it.
GET IT TOGETHER
Back at home with the goods! With your meal plan in front of you, portion and package ahead what you can for the coming week. I find it helpful to label my bags and containers with the day of the week for which they’re designated. Keep them together in a dedicated drawer or larger container so they’re easy to find when you’re packing for meals outside your home. Do as much prep work as possible – cook and portion, clean fruits and vegetables, and measure snacks. The small investment in time will pay off big in the coming week. By the time the middle of your week rolls around, you’ll be pretty happy you planned ahead! Every evening, pack up the meals and snacks you’ll be taking to work or school the next day. Make sure to include any dressings, seasonings and utensils. You’re not saving any time in the morning if you’re scrambling around looking for a container! This also minimizes the likelihood that you’ll use this as an excuse to go off the track you’ve so carefully laid.
Re-usable containers are less expensive than plastic bags and foil. They also keep food from being crushed or, horror of horrors – leaking out of a torn bag or wrapping! If you don’t already have one, buy an insulated lunch bag/box. If your school or workplace doesn’t have a refrigerator, putting your drink in the freezer the night before allows it to do double-duty, keeping your meal chilled. It’s also a good way to help you stay away from the expensive and unhealthy soft drink machine, which is usually located next to the overpriced and calorie-laden snack machine.
TIP: Put your car keys in your lunch bag so you won’t run off in the morning and forget it!
GET IN THE GROOVE
According to experts, it takes anywhere from 21 to 66 days to make a habit. This is why it’s so important that you establish a routine for making your meal plan and putting it into action. Set your day to make your meal plan, shop and prep your food, and unless absolutely unavoidable, don’t deviate from that schedule. After your first week, you’ll learn what recipes require more effort than you want to make, while others may become a foundation for your weekly meal plan. Again, the internet is your friend. There are several recipe sites that allow you to search by the inclusion or absence of certain ingredients. If you love chicken but hate mushrooms, using these filters can save you a lot of time. Although variety is the spice of life, you may find that you want the same meal three times a week every week. As long as it fits into your requirements and goals, there’s no reason you can’t do that! You are the only person who needs to be satisfied with your choices, so find the meals you enjoy and have them as often as they work for you. By the same token, limiting yourself to the same seven breakfasts, lunches and dinners for any length of time may make you feel like your meal plan is controlling you instead of you controlling it. Boredom and rigidity can sabotage the best of intentions, so be aware of your feelings. If you start resenting the limitations of your plan, use your imagination to mix things up. Unless your plan requires you to eat certain foods at certain times throughout the day, switch lunch and breakfast around. Find ways to alter the presentation of your meals or change where you eat your meals.
TIP: Pick one day each week for your “something new” day, when you put a new twist on an old favorite or try an altogether new recipe.
Just as the meal plan is a visual aid to keep you on track, you’ll want to visually chart your progress as encouragement. Are you trying to save money with your meal plan? Try drawing a thermometer like so many fundraisers use so you can see how much you’ve saved each week by making your meals instead of eating out. Is your goal to lose weight? You’ll be able to tell by the way your clothes fit and the way you feel, but you can still give yourself a visual – maybe it’s a smiley face sticker on the calendar for each day you stick with your plan, or a jar for your loose change at the end of the day labelled “New Wardrobe Fund”.
There are going to be times when you step off the path you’ve laid out for yourself. Don’t let that change your destination – it’s just a wrong turn. It may add some extra time or expense, but it’s not a reason to totally abandon your trip. Once you’ve identified what took you off course, think of ways to prevent that in the future. You’ve designed the action plan to get to where you want to be, so get back on track and get there!