Most of my clients are surprised to hear that I menu plan every single week. That's right. Even as a pro chef and nutritionist if I want to eat the way that best nourishes my mind and body I follow the same advice I give my clients. In my CALMTM approach to health and healing we discuss the importance of creating a meal plan, a shopping list, and carving out time to cook. The basic principles in every meal plan include: real food, plant-centric, seasonality, a rainbow of color, local (as possible), and variety. Notice, there are no measurements of calories, no over analyzing micro and macro nutrients. Keep to these simple principles and the benefits will come back to you in flavor and health insurance.
If I were still single, meal planning would be much easier. I'm a happy camper sitting down to a vegetarian curry three nights in a row. But my husband likes more variety. Now menu planning is something we do together on the weekends and has become a bonding activity, pulling out tried and true recipes, looking through cookbooks, and bookmarking websites (kids love this too). It's a wonderful way to involve the whole family by making cooking and eating a more joyful, memorable experience. If you're not accustomed to meal planning, here's a way to structure your time and energy.
Start with dinners since they typically take the most planning and prep. Figure out how many nights you and your family will be home. This helps you decide when you will have time to cook, when you need leftovers, and how many nights you'll be eating in. For example, we usually cook a dish, like Black Bean Enchiladas, on Sunday that will last for Monday night (Monday never feels like the best day to cook) and maybe a lunch or two. Tuesday and Wednesday could be French Lentil Soup and salad, and thursday may look like grass-fed burgers with baked sweet potato fries and sauteed kale. Friday and/or Saturday is usually a night out.
Keep lunches simple
Keeping lunches simple doesn't mean you need to skip out on color, flavor, and presentation. I'll make a big mesclun or Kale salad for the week and throw in a quality protein, like canned salmon, sardines, hard boiled eggs, or legumes. Leftover dinners are excellent for quick lunches. Or make a little extra quinoa or rice for the week so that you can mix in leftover chicken or fish and vegetables.
Skip the cereal
Second to not eating breakfast at all, most people make the mistake of relying on processed, sugary cereals to start the day. This is a sure fire way to craving more simple carbs and sugar the rest of the day. Try a higher fiber, whole food option like a Minty Green Smoothie or a warm bowl of ancient grain porridge for those chilly mornings. Or try something more savory like leftover soup or Frittata with salad greens and whole grain toast.
Meal Planning Hacks
Here are some more ideas to help you feel a little saner in the kitchen during the week.
1. Prep your veggies on the weekend. Rip, strip, wash, dry, and chop hearty greens like kale, swiss chard, and collards ahead of time. Then store them in gallon size freezer bags. It's worth it! They are more likely to get pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten about if you don't do this step.
2. Chop up vegetables (that won't oxidize) for roasting, like carrots, beets, brussel sprouts, and squash.
3. Make a large salad and store in a beautiful bowl or casserole dish. Keep the vegetables divided from the lettuce so it doesn't get soggy. Whisk up a vinaigrette for the week and keep in a sealed container on the countertop.
4. Using a food processor, or do it by hand, dice up a couple of onions and mince some garlic for the week so it's ready when you are.
5. Broth at the ready. Whether it's vegetable, chicken, or beef bone broth, it's worth taking a weekend to simmer up batches of this stuff. It's an incredible way to infuse flavor and nutrients into soups, chowders, grains, vegetables, purees, etc.
Meal planning isn't a skill most of us are taught but it's definitely a worthwhile habit to practice. Doing a bit of planning and prep before the week begins keeps you motivated and inspired to cook nourishing meals, creates less waste, and leaves more time for other weekly pursuits.