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Meal planning for successful weight loss - UPDATED!


When I first started as a coach, I wrote an overview of how to meal plan. But now, as I've gotten more experience, and even taken some nutrition courses, I have expanded that blog post to give you more tips to help you create your own meal plan. How do you get dinner on the table, week in and week out, without getting bored? How do you stay energized and engaged with the act of cooking at home? Here are fifteen of my best and most universal tips for learning how to plan your meals.
What do I mean by Meal Planning?
It's whatever way you organize yourself to cook a meal, whether that's breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It is the plan you make before you shop. Some people plan a month in advance, freezing neatly-labeled packets of soup and stew. Others wing it, shopping for that evening's meal at the farmers' market and picking up whatever looks good to them. Meal planning is a really personal thing. What works for you may not work for me. The goal, I think, is to find a process that is both enjoyable and effective.

One of the things I enjoy is reading through cookbooks, clipping recipes from blogs and websites, and taking some time to anticipate cooking. I think this is an important part of meal planning. Meals aren't just solutions to the problem of needing to eat; making a meal is also an expression of creativity — even if it's just cutting a PB&J sandwich into a new shape. Find ways to inspire yourself and to look forward to cooking. That's the spirit that animates this whole endeavor.

There's no right way to plan your meals; you should just do what is effective for you. I read over ten ways of gathering and organizing recipes. Your way may be messier and less elegant than you like, but if it works, why worry? Don't spend too much time looking for the most perfect and impeccably-maintained system. The system is just the tool. The point is the meal. Well, really, it's people, and enjoying good food with them and nourishing oneself.

This list of tips is all over the map — there are plenty of ideas here for getting more organized and helping yourself think ahead. Others are to just jog your memory and help you get inspired to dream up meals you'd love to eat.
meal planning, how to meal plan, meal planning basics, weekly meal plan, vanessadotfitness

Getting Inspired

  1. Spend time each week looking for recipes. This may feel like an indulgence, but just let yourself do it. Browse blogs and websites for recipes that look delicious. Hang out on Pinterest, look at the recipes on my Healthy Eating page. Pile up some cookbooks and reach for the sticky notes. Get inspired! Once you have recipes you like, then you can rotate them from week to week.
  2. Create a place to save recipes, and keep it SIMPLE.
    Do whatever works for you. Don't get caught up in a system, just use whatever works best and most easily. Personally, I like Pinterest because it's easy to visually browse what I've saved.
  3. Ask your partner, family, and roommates what they like to eat.This might sound obvious, but it's easy to get caught up in our weeks and forget to ask our households what they would like to eat. I get extra inspired, too, when I feel like I'm cooking a meal as a gift — trying to please and delight the palate of someone I love.
  4. Check the weather.
    Again, you may say, duh, but seriously. Right now, the weather is changeable in many parts of the country. Look at the weather forecast, and try to predict if you're going to be in the mood for soup (or grilled shrimp salad!) on Friday.
  5. Keep a meal journal or calendar. 
    One of my best inspirations is my own record of things I've cooked in the past. Take a look at what you were cooking a year ago, two years ago. It's a good way to remember things you used to cook, and still love. I have an extra calendar I got as a freebie from a bank. I just write down the meal every night so I can easily recycle it through my future meal plans. Now I have a year's worth of meals to choose from!
  6. Getting Organized

  7. Start a calendar.
    Now that you're getting inspired in what to eat, start a calendar of what you'd like to cook over the next few days or few weeks. It can be as organized as a Google Calendar, with notes on each day for that day's menu. Or you can just jot notes to yourself in the corner of your laptop screen, or even a sheet of notebook paper. The important thing is to write it down. I use Google Docs for my meal plans. Here is a sample of one of my 21 Day Fix weekly meal plans.
  8. Go with theme nights (soup night, pasta night, beans, taco Tuesday, Italian night, Mexican night....).
    Some readers found it really helpful to have a theme night each week. Monday is pasta, Tuesday is fish, Wednesday is tacos. This doesn't work for everyone, but it may be especially helpful for those with kids. See if they want to get involved with planning their favorite tacos one week, or suggesting soups for the next month. Keeping the focus narrow will help you and your household make quick recipe decisions.
  9. Choose a shopping day and make a shopping list. Those who have success in meal planning shop very purposefully. They look at their recipes and make a shopping list. Some of the meal planning and recipe-saving services let you do this easily, extracting ingredients from the recipes you have saved.
  10. Check what's on sale.
    Some folks really like to organize their meals around sales. Is organic chicken a dollar off this week? Or canned chickpeas? Check out your grocery store circular and adjust your meal plan or shopping list a bit.
  11. Plan for leftovers.
    Most of us have at least some tolerance for leftovers. I regularly cook one or two big healthy meals or crockpot recipes at the beginning of the week and eat off them all week long for lunch. Some people can only eat leftovers for a single night. Either way, try to make your cooking always do double duty. Make a little extra of everything, and if you don't want it right away, freeze it.

Getting it Done

11. Prep food as soon as you get home from the store.
Wash and dry lettuce. Chop onions. Roast vegetables. Brown ground meat to put on past, rice, or salads. Slice cucumbers, celery, and lettuce so you can grab and go. Stack up containers of prepped ingredients in the refrigerator and bask in your own awesome preparedness. Do this on the day of the week you have the most time. For me it's Sundays. Check out my busy woman's guide to meal prep.

12. Cook components of your meals.

Going beyond prep, cook components of the meals. For instance, start a batch of tomato sauce while you wash greens and prep squash. The sauce can go on pizza one night, and in lasagna the next. Or roast a chicken right then that you can eat that night and use for sandwiches and pasta the rest of the week.

13. Be strategic about freezing.
The freezer is your friend. Actually, it's the friend of future you. Make a double batch of that sauce mentioned above and freeze half for later. Make a double batch of soup, stew, chicken cacciatore, cooked beans — throw it in the freezer. Let a month go by, and those leftovers will look fresh and tasty!

14. Don't overstuff the refrigerator.
It's easy to get overwhelmed when your fridge is over-full. Also, things get hidden in the back, lost behind the mustard. Don't let things go bad. Keep your fridge airy and light, with a sensible, realistic amount of food in it. Keep a list nearby of everything in the fridge, especially leftovers, as a visual reminder of what remains to be eaten.

15. Keep a well-stocked pantry.
Meals are easier and quicker to prepare if you keep your pantry well-stocked. Don't run out of olive oil at inconvenient moments. Have spices ready to dress up chicken and beans quickly. Keep a lemon and a sheaf of fresh herbs in the fridge at all times.

To get more meal planning tips and help to create your own meal plan, as well as motivation, support, and accountability in your health and fitness goals, fill out the form below.
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1 comment

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