We’ve all done this: the last-minute meal cop-out. When it’s time to eat and you haven’t given it a moment’s thought, you pull out a frozen pizza or order takeout because there’s no time to eat healthy. You’ve just got to eat.
That’s okay, once in a while. But studies have shown that cooking at home is not only cheaper, but healthier. And the health effects are even greater when you take the time to plan healthy menus and shop healthy, too.
Before you start mapping out the rest of your meals for the month or year, take a moment to assess what’s going to work for you and others in your household. Does it make more sense to plan by the week or by the month? How often can you repeat a meal? How much time do you have each day for meal prep? How much can you realistically get done ahead of time—say on the weekend?
Talk to everyone in your household to find out the healthy home meals they like best, any foods they’ve enjoyed elsewhere that they’d like to add to the rotation, and the “dealbreaker” dishes they just won’t eat.
Armed with your list, do some recipe research. Check your healthiest cookbooks. Go to the recipe sections of lifestyle websites like EverydayHealth, Real Simple, or Health. Or to the healthy section of recipe sites like AllRecipes or Epicurious.
Look for the healthiest versions of the meals your family already enjoys, accounting for any special dietary concerns. Keep your eye open for new ideas that seem like they could be winners, and add them to your list. As you go, bookmark the recipes for further reference; take note of prep times and whether the meals are simple or complex in terms of the number of steps and ingredients.
Building up a great stock of recipes takes time! You don’t have to do it all in one sitting. Once you have enough for a week or two, you’ve got enough to get started. To keep things fresh, just remember to keep your eyes open and make time to expand your list as you go.
Now it’s time to work the list of meals into your schedule. There are lots of templates, printables, and meal-planning apps out there that you can play around with, and they’ve got some very cool features.
Do what works for you, but consider the one tool that you’re already using to plan your life: your daily calendar. Whether it’s online or on the side of your fridge, it’s already giving you useful information about your life. So take advantage of it.
For those who are digital-minded, there is a lot to be said for merging your meal calendar with your other online calendars. You can see how much time you’ll have for meal prep, how busy your day will have been, and even who may (or may not) be home for a given meal, including you. Schedule simple meals for overscheduled days and save the more involved ones for those days when you’ll enjoy the chance to slow down.
Another advantage to your online calendar? You can add recipe information in the notes section, so you’ll always have it handy if you’re swinging by the grocery on the way home. And if you want to schedule the same meal for another week, just duplicate the entry.
Now that you know what meals you’ll be eating for days or weeks at a time, your shopping gets a whole lot easier. Make a list of all the ingredients you’ll be using, cross reference the repeats, and don’t be afraid to buy shelf-stable ingredients in bulk if you have the room.
Since you won’t be shopping by impulse or trying to make too many decisions on the fly, you’ll have the time to look for the healthiest options, and peruse fresh ingredients that may inspire other menu ideas. Use your phone to look up new recipe ideas whenever they arise and see how you can work them into your week.
Don’t get discouraged if you get off track. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means you’re one or two meals ahead in terms of planning for the next week. Your meal calendar is a great planning tool. But it’s only successful if it works with your life. So make it your own!