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Meal Planning Strategies for People on the Go

After a busy day at work, there are few questions more frustrating than, “What’s for dinner,” especially when you’re not the only person who needs to eat.

If you don’t have a plan for your next meal, it can lead to oversnacking, restaurant meals that cost more than you should spend, or fast food that’s not winning any awards for good nutrition.

Meanwhile, your Instagram is filled with pictures from people showing off a week’s worth of planned and prepared meals – breakfasts, lunches and dinners, all neatly packaged and refrigerated. Ugh! How do they do it?

You’re pretty sure meal planning would be better for you and your family, but where do you find the time in your busy schedule? We asked OhioHealth registered dietitian Jenalee Richner. Here’s the advice she gave us.

What are the benefits of meal planning for people who are busy?

Meal planning helps prevent impulsive eating out. Rather than thinking, “What do I want tonight for dinner,” you can look at your plan and say, “We are having ‘this’ for dinner.” Dining out is less healthy and can get expensive. Plus, meal planning helps you only buy what you need at the grocery store, which means you spend less money and waste less food.

Doesn’t meal planning involve spending a whole Sunday over the stove?

Meal planning can be as intensive as you have time for. Yes, you can prepare every meal so that they only need reheated throughout the week, but there are other alternatives. You could wash and chop all of your vegetables, marinate proteins and cook grains on Sundays, so your prep time is less during the week. Even if all you have time for is choosing the meals, that’s still a great start – choose a few recipes and make sure the ingredients are in the house. You can even buy prechopped vegetables to save time.

Actually, what is the best day for meal planning?

I break planning, shopping and prepping across several days. I tend to meal plan on Wednesdays, because that’s when grocery store flyers for the upcoming week are available. I usually grocery shop on Friday or Saturday, and then meal prep on Sunday afternoon. There’s no need to devote an entire day to it. It may take some time in the beginning because it’s new, but like everything else, practice will make you more efficient.

How long does this all take?

On my planning day, I review the flyers and check my fridge, freezer and pantry. I create meals around the food I already have in the house and what’s on sale. I also try to choose recipes that overlap ingredients. That can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on whether I want to keep it simple or try some new recipes. Grocery shopping usually takes an hour. And meal prepping can take two to four hours depending on how in-depth the recipes are.

Do you plan a week of meals at a time? More? Fewer?

You can plan as many meals as you like. Some people only need to plan their lunches or dinners. Others plan breakfast, lunch and dinner for the weekdays and leave the weekends open. It all depends on what works best for you.

Which foods are best for meal planning?

I’ve never really thought about it in terms of “best.” Nearly any meal can be planned, just be aware of how long you can safely refrigerate and freeze uncooked and cooked foods. I tend to prepare soups, roasted chicken and vegetables, and pasta sauce. I’ll cook whole wheat pasta right before I plan to eat it. Roasted vegetables are easy to prep, just chop them and toss them with olive oil and spices and put them in the refrigerator. On the day you plan to eat them, spread them on a baking sheet and roast them for 20-25 minutes. I also like to repurpose foods; if I roast a chicken, for example, I’ll use the leftovers in a soup.

What equipment do I need to make this work?

Aside from regular baking equipment, just make sure you have adequate storage containers.

Do you have places you recommend to find inspiration?

I like using SkinnyTaste.com for recipes, and of course the OhioHealth blog!

How can I share the load with other members of my family? Is meal planning hard do to for one person?

My son is 5 and he helps me with planning and prepping. He chooses one meal a week that he would like to eat. As for meal prepping, I purchased kid knives for him, which are sharper than table knives, but not as sharp as a chef’s knife, and he washes and chops the vegetables. It’s a win all around – it’s teaching him how to choose healthy, tasty foods, it’s teaching him that making meals is a family effort, and it’s helping him develop the skills he’ll need to cook when he is older. And best of all, I get to spend time with him.

Ready to take control of your nutrition? Contact us at the McConnell Heart Health Center, we’re ready to support you!