Welcome back to Get Healthy Month! We are entering the last half of the series, where we are focusing on how to manage the day-to-day of a healthy diet. When you’ve been set in a specific pattern or routine with your cooking, shopping and eating, it can be tough to transition to something new and different. We develop these routines as a way to simplify our lives, so changing it up can consume more of our time and create a feeling of challenge and difficulty. That is one of the big reasons why trying to adopt a healthy way of life can fail pretty early on, and that is what I want to work through with you for the rest of the month.
This is an integral part of my ability to eat healthy, because it takes the guess work out of, 1) what to buy when grocery shopping, and 2) trying to figure out what to make for dinner or pack for lunch. When you plan ahead, you can create a shopping list based on the ingredients you actually need for meals and snacks, which will make your grocery shopping trips faster and less expensive. You also have your meals figured out ahead of time, including what ingredients you need for them, so when it’s time to make dinner you can just grab ingredients and get started; no endless staring into fridges and cabinets while racking your brain as to what you can make with the stuff in front of you.
Building a Database
Here is how I do my meal planning. I’ve compiled a list of bloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers (and hashtags) over the years that regularly put out new recipes and meal ideas. I follow them or subscribe to them, so when they post something new I get notifications and can view or watch it. If it’s something I like and want to try, then I save it or print the recipe and save it into a folder on my computer. I also have a spreadsheet with meal ideas for dinner, lunch, and kid-friendly recipes. Any time I have a new one I want to try that I think would be a good one to come back to often (i.e. weeknight friendly with familiar ingredients that isn’t too complex), I add it to the spreadsheet and include a comment about where the recipe is (saved on Instagram, on a YouTuber’s channel, in my recipe folder, etc.).
It definitely took some time to build this up, as I kept adding to it week after week. But now I have a big spreadsheet of meal ideas, saved Instagram posts, saved YouTube videos, and indexed blog recipes that I can go to for ideas when making my meal plan. I try to do three meals per week, with enough for leftovers a couple of days per week so that I don’t have to cook every single night. I can browse through this stuff and usually know what three meals I want to do for the week within about five minutes. This kind of planning ahead has been a huge game-changer for me over the years.
It’ll likely take some time to compile a list of people and channels and hashtags and pages to follow that you really like, so be patient with yourself. But once you have a good base started and meal and recipe ideas saved to go back to, your meal planning will be quick and painless! It might even be beneficial to just set aside a block of time to really dig into these social media avenues, blogs, Pinterest — whatever you use — to get a good base of sources going right off the bat. And once you have enough experience — you will start coming up with your own creations too because you’ve learned what works well together!
One tip I will give on this — don’t save meals just because you like the picture and it looks good. Take a look at the ingredients and the preparation details. If it is something that uses a lot of ingredients, especially any that are unfamiliar or won’t be easy to find, I wouldn’t suggest saving it as a go-to. The point of this is to build a base of budget-friendly and life-simplifying ideas for you. If you do want to save things that are more complex, maybe save them into a “special occasions” category so you don’t inadvertently choose one of them for a weeknight, where you end up browsing three different stores for one ingredient and spend an hour and a half cooking the meal!
Planning the Week in Food
Now for the actual planning part. Once you have a good database of meal ideas to rely on, you need to figure out your week. My boyfriend and I (we’ve been together almost six months so we do dinner together regularly, but have our own separate households) share a Google calendar, so that is my first stop for meal planning. I need to see what we have on the calendar for different nights of the week. That way I know if there are nights where I have plenty of time for cooking, and if there are nights we are busy or won’t be home and need to rely on leftovers or a quick throw-together meal.
For example, every Wednesday my son has a class from 6-7:30, which is right in the middle of the evening and a big disruption of our normal dinner routine. So I know that I need to do leftovers or have stuff to just throw together sandwiches or something that night. So I’ll do meals on Monday and Tuesday, with plans for leftovers on Wednesday. Then I’ll do another meal on Thursday, with leftovers for Friday. Every Friday night is either family movie night so we rarely cook, or I’m taking the boys to their dads, which is a 4-hour drive and we have to leave at 5:30pm, so there’s no time to cook.
On weekends, at least for me, I don’t usually plan much for meals. I might have one thing that I make (like this weekend I’m going to make enchilada soup in the crockpot, plus stuff to throw together some quesadillas) so that when someone is hungry they can just eat it. None of us need to stop what we’re doing to cook a meal so our weekends can stay more casual and less structured. I also keep stuff around for sandwiches and snacks for the kids for that same reason. If they want lunch on Saturday and I’m busy with the weekly house cleaning I can send them to the kitchen to make their own sandwich (granted my kids are 12 and 14 and can get it themselves!).
So before you plan your meals, definitely take a look at your week to figure out what nights you’ll be home to cook, what nights you need something quick and easy, and what nights you need leftovers because there’s no time for making meals at all. Figuring out your schedule first and then working your meals around it will definitely help take the stress out of dinner time!
Snacks and Lunches
The final important component in meal planning for me is snacks and lunches. I work a mile from home, so I make the five minute drive home every day to eat lunch. That means I need to have stuff around for my lunch. And I also need to keep stuff around for snacks for work, and for my kids when they get home from school and on weekends. I usually have one additional recipe or meal idea that I do specifically for lunches and make early in the week, that can last for the week. For example, this coming up week I’m doing black bean burgers (I can get an 8-pack for $6 at Walmart) and a corn and avocado salad. I’ll make it Sunday evening in a double-batch, divide it between me and Michael so we each have some for the week, and then I can just grab and eat when I get home for lunch.
For snacks, I keep healthy things around that are easy to grab and go. Each of my kids has a preference. For Hunter, my 14-year-old, he loves snacking on peanuts and an ounce of cheese. For Logan, my 12-year-old, he likes fruit and yogurt (I buy organic plain Greek yogurt, then sweeten it with stevia and flavor it with vanilla extract). I also do organic multi-grain tortilla chips with salsa, brown rice crackers, and fresh veggies like mini bell peppers, broccoli, carrots and celery with hummus. And I will sometimes make things like date-based energy bites, or the low-carb granola bars that Michael loves.
So once I have my three meals chosen, my lunch for the week chosen, and our snacks picked out, I can then move on to the shopping list.
Creating a Shopping List
Let me preface this by saying that I have some OCD tendencies, that have honestly worked very much in my favor when navigating the grocery store and staying on budget. For whatever reason, I am very hyper-aware of wasted time, and do everything I can to limit wasted time and maximize time that serves a purpose or brings me joy and peace.
Now that I’ve put my neurosis out there for you… Spending time in the grocery store is definitely necessary, especially toward accomplishing my goal of health, but at the same time every minute I spend in the store is a minute I won’t have at home to get things done (which makes me feel pressured and spikes stress) or spend with those I love. Which means I keep my grocery shopping as efficient as possible so I can get back to what is important to me, and minimize stress. So I have a two-step process for creating my shopping list in a way that will get me in-and-out of the grocery store in an insanely short amount of time.
Step 1 — Ingredients
Once I know what meals I’m making for the week, I list them out by day in a spreadsheet, the put the ingredients to make them out to the right, with the price of each ingredient next to it. This way I can make sure that everything I need makes it onto my shopping list and I don’t find myself running back to the store for something I forgot. I also include ingredients that I already have and don’t need to buy, because I use this spreadsheet when actually making the meal so I can reference it to get out all of the stuff I need to make it. For the items that I don’t need to buy, I simply leave a price off so that I know it doesn’t need to go on the shopping list.
Step 2 — Making the List
I have a very specific way that I set up my shopping list, which is why I don’t just print out my meal plan list and take that to the store. I frequent the same stores every week and I know their layout well, so I make my list in the order of where things are in the store, so I can go straight to it, grab it, mark it off, and move on. There is no back tracking, there’s no wandering around looking for ingredients, and since I’ve figured out exactly what brands and products I like I can reach straight for it without needing to peruse countless options for the one ingredient (more on that on a later post).
Something else that I always do, is write the price of the item out to the right, then total it up at the bottom so I know exactly how much I will be spending before I ever set foot in the store. When you’re regularly buying a lot of the same products, you can get familiar with the prices. I actually used my receipt to create a spreadsheet to reference my usual stuff until I reached a point where I could recall the price from memory because I was buying it every week or most every week; like almond milk or organic salad greens, for example ($2 and $5 at Aldi). Whatever the shelf price is, I round up to the nearest dollar so that my grand total also accounts for tax.
All of this means that, 1) I can get in and out of the store super fast (Aldi and Neighborhood Market are right next door to each other, and I can usually hit both for an entire week’s-worth of groceries and be on my way home within 30 minutes, maybe 45 if they’re overly busy, short on cashiers, or people are being especially indecisive or slow), and 2) no surprises at the cash register! I can set a grocery budget and always be able to stick to it. If I’m making meals that are blowing my budget out of the water, then I know I can nix those and stick to things that are more simple and use fewer or less expensive ingredients.
I will never forget the first time Michael went shopping with me. It was a day I needed some personal care items so we had to throw in a third store stop at Target, which is across town, onto the schedule. He was on the quiet side on the 10 minute drive to Target, so I was afraid I might’ve overwhelmed him with how quick I moved in the store and trying to keep up with me. When I asked him, he said, “no, that was awesome! I never want to go shopping without you again! We’ve already been to two stores and are almost to the third and we’ve only been gone 45 minutes!” It’s actually even better when he goes with me, because he can stay with the cart at the end of the aisle so I can just dart down the aisle and grab stuff without trying to navigate my cart around people.
Prepping Whole Foods
This is another component to planning ahead for the week. I mentioned above the snacks I like to keep around for myself and the kids. Since I do veggies and hummus, I need to clean and cut the veggies, which I then store in a large container in the fridge for grab-and-go. I also wash berries and grapes in a baking soda and vinegar wash. Place in large bowl, generously sprinkle on baking soda, pour white vinegar halfway up the bowl, then fill the rest with water and soak for 15-20 minutes.
Then there’s divvying and measuring bulk items. Both of my boys, but my oldest especially, will sit and eat an entire container of something if I don’t divide it into servings, so that’s something I make sure I do. Hunter loves peanuts, a serving of which is 1/4 cup. We have little metal cups that are exactly 1/4 cup, so I will pour peanuts into them, wrap them with plastic wrap, and place in the cabinet so he can grab a cup and is getting one serving. He also likes cheese with his peanuts, so I will buy it by the block, then cut it into one-ounce servings and put in a bowl. He knows to pull out one chunk of cheese to go with his peanuts and that’s a serving for his snack.
For Logan, I don’t care how much fruit he eats, but he loves yogurt and I definitely don’t want him over-eating that since it’s dairy. I have little storage containers that hold a little over 1/2 cup, so I will scoop out 1/2 cup of yogurt into these containers, sprinkle in a little stevia and vanilla, stir together, then put on the lid and pop the containers into the fridge. I will do the same thing with tortilla chips and salsa. I don’t care how much salsa they eat, but I’ll divide the chips into baggies by the number of chips that are considered a serving.
Washing, chopping, and dividing these things out ahead of time most definitely simplifies life throughout the week! And since Michael and I combine our shopping and our meals, I’ll also separate things out among our houses. For example, I might make Monday’s meal at my house, but we’ll do Tuesday’s meal at his house. So I pack up the ingredients for the meals we do at his house and he takes them home with him. I also double whatever I do for lunch for the week (I make that ahead too) and send half of it home with him.
Planning ahead, making a shopping list for efficiency and budget, and prepping and dividing food keeps the week so much easier. It might take a little extra time to do the planning and prepping on the weekends, but it is well worth it when the busy week comes around. Maintaining a sense of peace and making sure we all have time to get in some downtime or time for things we enjoy is a huge part of overall health. And if we didn’t plan ahead and prepare, there would be a whole lot more pizza delivery and Chinese take-out in our lives.
Decoding the Grocery Store to Choose Safe and Healthy Foods
In Monday’s post I will be talking about how I choose foods. Once upon a time, it meant a whole lot of label reading. Luckily modern technology has taken a lot of the work out of it by use of apps and information at your finger tips. I will dig into this and share with you great ways to find out if something is good for you or not without needing a degree in chemistry to understand an ingredients list.
And for a little word of encouragement — prepare yourself for this to be a little time consuming in the beginning. Remember, it’s like riding a bike — you’re learning a new way of doing things, but with practice and repetition it will become second nature soon enough. You’ll know what products are good for you and develop your very own go-to’s once you’ve put a little experience under your belt. So as with everything else I’ve shared this month — be patient and give it time.
See you on Monday!