Research shows that about half of Americans don’t know what they will be doing for dinner when they wake up in the morning. That means when meal planning happens, it often happens at the last minute, when you’re hungry and vulnerable to temptation.
The saying is an old one, but no less true: When you fail to plan, you plan to fail. If we’re talking about nutrition and a healthful diet, that means meal planning. While playing it fast and loose with what you’re going to have for dinner (or breakfast, lunch and snacks) may have little effect if you do it occasionally, doing it regularly makes it difficult to eat in a way that supports good health.
Market research shows that about half of Americans don’t know what they will be doing for dinner when they wake up in the morning. That means when meal planning happens, it often happens at the last minute, when you’re hungry and vulnerable to temptation. While this doesn’t always lead to less-healthful food choices, it doesn’t put the odds in your favor.
Research has also found that people who order groceries online more than a few days ahead of planned delivery tend to choose more healthful foods, and people who order their lunch more than an hour before eating choose lower-calorie meals. This is likely because when we are acting in the moment we are more interested in short-term goals like pleasure, convenience and satisfying hunger than long-term goals like health and better nutrition.
Even though meal planning can help you make more healthful, balanced meal choices, there’s no one right way to meal plan. Some people like to plan meals based on staple items they already have in the fridge, freezer and pantry. Others like to cruise the farmers market on the weekend and see what inspires them. Still others like to sift through cookbooks, food magazines and online recipe sites to plan meals for the week. No matter your MO, here are some resources to get you started:
The basics: You can find detailed tips on how to meal plan, along with a downloadable PDF of a meal-planning template, on my website, at nutritionbycarrie.com/mealplanning.
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Online organization: If you love to look for recipes online but end up with an unwieldy list of bookmarked web pages or stack of printouts, check out Pepperplate.com. This free online recipe manager has both a web and an app version. Use the web interface to easily save recipes you find online and to create shopping lists and menus. The app, which syncs to the website when you are logged in, puts your recipe collection and shopping list right in your pocket or purse.
Dinner in the freezer: Do you find dinner a challenge because you’re too tired or too busy? One antidote to such dinner dilemmas is to have homemade freezer meals ready to plug-and-play into your weekly plan. Ellie Krieger’s “You Have It Made: Delicious, Healthy, Do-Ahead Meals” is full of recipes you’ll be happy to eat now — or later. There are options for every meal of the day, and I know from talking to her how carefully her team tested not only the recipes, but the freezing and reheating instructions, too.
One more thing: If you find that when you cook more often you end up with more food waste, build in some flexibility. Shop and cook on the weekend and the beginning of the week, and make dinner decisions for the end of the week based on what’s in the fridge. Fridge empty by Friday? Swing by the store to pick up something simple — like salmon for the grill and makings for a salad. Easy!