Learn to Meal Plan + Prep for Less Stress

Fall is fast approaching, a time filled with school activities, sporting events and a kickoff to the holiday season. Just as it’s time to put away the shorts and bring out the sweatshirts, it’s time to put away the grill and bring out the slow cookers.

A few simple meal planning steps can help you save time, money and stress while feeding yourself and your family nutritious, well-balanced meals. Give these practical tips a whirl as you rush off to football games and pumpkin patches.

  • With the input of your family create a list of favorite meals and post it in the cupboard. As you try new recipes that most everyone likes, add them to the list.
  • Look at your family’s schedule for the week to see which meals will be prepared at home. Do you need a crockpot meal, or something quick and easy coupled with a fruit and vegetable? Post the meal plan along with your family’s schedule that may interfere with meal prep on the refrigerator.
  • Keep a grocery list in the kitchen where everyone can see it. As you run out of staple foods, add them to the list and instruct your family members to do the same. 
  • Create a weekly meal plan. Keep it simple and start with your family’s main meal. Use themes to help you with ideas such as: Pizza Party Sunday, Meatless Monday, Crock Pot Tuesday, Soup and Sandwich Wednesday, Pasta Thursday, From the Freezer Friday, and leftovers on Saturday. Involve your family as much as possible in the planning process. 
  • Include at least three to four food groups in your meals. Keep in mind that half of the plate should be fruits and vegetables, one fourth protein, one fourth grains and a serving of dairy or dairy substitute on the side. For dessert, consider baking apples with cinnamon in the slow cooker; add cool vanilla Greek yogurt for a sweet treat. 
  • Eat seasonally. Fall is a great time for several flavor-packed, versatile fruits and vegetables. Roast a butternut squash with herbs, garlic and olive oil until golden brown. For a simple side dish, toss fresh cauliflower florets with a few tablespoons of olive oil, pepper and chopped garlic. Roast in oven at 425 degrees until caramelized and crispy. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese if desired.
  • Don’t forgot to plan your breakfasts, even in the middle of a hectic schedule. Try oatmeal with a dab of pumpkin puree, all-spice and cinnamon to fit the season and give you a change of pace. Or, try a creamy fall smoothie such as:
    • Apple Crisp Smoothie: apples, yogurt, oats and cinnamon
    • Fall Green Smoothie: almond milk, kale, pear, green grapes and ½ banana 

Other meal planning ideas include:

  • Plan a meal swap with your friends. Each take a night of the week to prepare a meal for everyone’s family. You may have to cook four of the same meals on one night but the other nights, one of your friends will be delivering a meal to you!
  • Batch cooking either with a group of friends or by yourself. You can prepare meals, freeze and take out as needed. If you’re cooking ground beef, cook several pounds at once and re-freeze in one-pound packages. Or cook up several pounds of chicken in the crock pot, shred, repackage and use in hot dish, salads, tacos and soups. (Try this Spicy Taco Soup.)

  • Use “planned-overs.” Leftover chicken can be shredded and used for chicken salad, chicken tacos or BBQ chicken sandwiches. Cook a double batch of spaghetti sauce and use it to make a lasagna or freeze to use later.

Think of it this way: Time spent creating a meal plan takes about the same time as driving to a fast food restaurant. Instead of one meal, you will have a week’s worth of healthy meals to feed you and your family. Fuel up on the right stuff, and focus on what matters most: making wonderful memories together this fall.

For more healthy recipes approved by Altru’s dietitians, visit altru.org/recipes.

See also: A Dietitian’s Tips for Long-Lasting Fullness

Becky WesterengWestereng, Becky 4C is a registered dietitian at Altru Health System. She is a diabetes educator and certified in sports nutrition. Becky is especially interested in helping people improve their eating and exercise habits by encouraging small steps and a positive attitude. She enjoys spending time with her husband and watching her three children perform music and play sports, while finding time to stay active herself.

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