Meal Planning Tips for Beginners
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
The clock strikes noon and you feel ravenous! It’s been over four hours since you scarfed down your egg sandwich and coffee and headed to work. Your stomach is rumbling and all you can think about is your lunch.
As you debate about where to grab your next meal in your mind, you quickly settle on fast food. A burger, fries, and a milkshake are the only foods that you think will satisfy your hunger. On second thought, better make that a double burger.
A fresh salad flashes through your mind as you briefly remember the meal plan you are trying to follow, but the thought quickly passes. You want food and not the raw veggie kind!
Does this scenario sound familiar? We have all experienced this type of eating dilemma at some point in our lives.
The insatiable hunger that strikes when you have gone too long without eating and do not have a plan for your next meal is one of the biggest barriers to healthy eating.
Sometimes this type of situation is unforeseeable, but usually it can be prevented. By making a few small efforts to prepare for your meals in advance, you can save yourself from overeating and making rash food choices.
Here are eight easy tips for meal planning.
1 – Aim for a Balanced Plate
The most important thing to keep in mind at every meal is a visualization of the balanced plate. Strive to put together meals that resemble a plate made up of half vegetables and fruits, a quarter of complex carbs, and another quarter of lean protein. Add a serving of healthy fat to top it all off!
If you eat three balanced meals a day, you will stabilize your blood sugar, feel satisfied, and prevent the ravenous hunger that leads you to make poor food choices.
2 – Keep a Calendar
Preparing balanced meals, especially on busy weekdays, can be challenging without some type of calendar in place.
Spend some time every weekend researching a few recipes that you want to make for the week. Maybe you want to have a salad with chicken and avocado or a whole grain pasta dish with vegetables and ground beef. Decide on a few main dishes and write them down in a meal calendar. Even just having one or two dinner ideas on paper can make a big difference!
Fill in the other meals and snacks with easy options, such as hard-boiled eggs and fruit for breakfast, turkey slices, vegetables, and cheese for lunch, and nuts for snacks.
You may not stick exactly to your calendar, but at least you took the time to visualize and research a few healthy meals. If you do this, you may be more likely to reach for a healthier option that resembles a meal you planned if you are in a rush and need to purchase something on the go.
3 – Make a Shopping List and Stick to it
Once you figure out a few recipes you want for the week and the other nutritious foods you plan to eat, make a detailed shopping list. Next, head to the grocery store and do not sway from the list!
It can be easy to give in and purchase tempting foods when they are staring you right in the face at the grocery store. By making a list and sticking to it, you can complete your grocery trip without as much distraction and get exactly what you need without adding any unnecessary items to your cart.
4 – Prepare Food in Bulk
Cooking foods in bulk is one of the best ways to ensure you will stay on track with healthy eating.
Foods that can be prepared in advance in large batches include roasted vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins.
Try to choose versatile foods that can be put together in several different ways. For example, sautéed peppers and onions can be used for tacos one night then chopped up for a pasta dish later in the week.
Use a large baking sheet to drizzle olive oil over chopped vegetables before roasting them in the oven. While they roast, prepare quinoa, brown rice, or lentils in a large sauce pan. Whip out your crockpot to cook chicken breasts and prepare shredded chicken. You can also boil eggs, chop up raw veggies, put together salads, and slice fruit.
Even just performing one of these tasks can put you in a better position to make healthy food choices during the week.
5 – Use Your Freezer
When it comes to meal planning, the freezer is your friend. Not only can you freeze batches of whole grains and legumes for later use, you can also stock your freezer with frozen vegetables and fruit to use in a pinch.
If you do not have much time to prepare your meals in the evening, consider steaming frozen vegetables for a healthy side that comes together in no time! You can defrost some whole grains to go with it and prepare some eggs or use leftover protein.
Befriending your freezer also means you can take advantage of sales on meats and store them for later use. During a busy week, a well-stocked freezer can be a huge lifesaver!
6 – Keep Non Perishables on Hand
Keeping your pantry full of options can help you stay on track with healthy eating.
Some of the most nutritious pantry staples include canned beans and vegetables, whole grains, whole grain pasta, peanut butter, canned tuna and salmon, and nuts and seeds.
A simple meal made out of pantry foods could include canned tuna, canned vegetables, and brown rice. Instead of reaching for the takeout menu, try to get creative with what you already have on hand. The meals you can put together may surprise you!
7 – Review Menus Before You Eat Out
No matter how good your intentions may be, there will be some weeks when you will not be able to plan meals and prepare food.
Even though you will have to resort to eating out more during those times, you can still make healthy choices if you are prepared.
If you are trying to stick to your healthy eating routine but know that you will be eating lunch out all week, do your research. Check out menus from lunch spots in your area and narrow down a few options that you know are healthier choices for you.
By doing so, you will be prepared to select one of the few choices you identified when the time comes. This will prevent you from making a rash decision about what to eat and walking away with the deluxe burger meal, not matter how hungry you may feel!
8 – Pick Foods you Actually Enjoy
Meal planning should not be focused on trying completely new foods or struggling through meals that you do not like.
Instead of researching brand new recipes every week, stick with your go-to meals and figure out ways to spruce them up every once in a while. Maybe you like to have tacos every Tuesday but you decide to change the protein and try a new vegetable on the side every week.
If you do want to try a dish or food for the first time, designate one meal a week for new recipes. On the other days, stick with meals you know you like so that you do not have to rely on recipes you might not enjoy.
Putting together balanced meals may seem challenging at first, but even a few small efforts can prepare you for making better food choices. These simple tips will help you get started with meal planning.
Refer to this list to keep yourself on track and prevent those moments when you reach for less healthy foods in the face of hunger!
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