Planning ahead is such an important part of healthy eating that I don’t think it would be possible to stick to a nutritious diet without it. Not for me, anyway!
Little things like running late, forgetting your lunch or having a to-do list the length of your arm all of a sudden become huge obstacles when you’re trying to eat healthier. No time to make breakfast in the morning? The fast food drive-thru is quick and easy. Too tired to cook dinner? All it takes is a few taps on your iPad and the delivery guy is at the door.
The biggest hurdle for me is lunchtime at the office. On days when I don’t bring a lunch (usually because of my own poor planning), I’m all too quick to grab something at the nearest chain restaurant. It seems like a good idea at the time—mmm, French fries!—but I almost always end up ordering something I don’t really want and eating more than I need just because it’s there.
Having an idea of what you’d like to eat throughout the week, and then shopping and prepping in advance, helps overcome some of the things that make it difficult to eat healthfully.
I like to do my bigger grocery trip on Sundays and then spend an hour or so prepping food for the week. This might sound like a pain, but it ends up saving a ton of time in the long run.
Here’s what my typical meal planning day looks like…
I pick up the usual staples (the list varies depending on what I’m planning on cooking that week):
- Fresh vegetables, salad greens, herbs, garlic, onions
- Fresh fruit including lemons and limes
- Whole grain tortillas, pitas, English muffins
- A pre-cooked rotisserie chicken
- Two or three kinds of meat or seafood to freeze: steak, pork tenderloin, chicken breasts, extra lean ground beef, ground turkey, shrimp, tilapia
- Eggs, cheese, 1% milk, plain yogurt (Greek or regular)
- Canned beans, lentils, chickpeas
- Nuts like walnuts, sunflower seeds and cashews
- Canned tuna
- Grains such as quinoa, whole grain pasta, Asian noodles, couscous, brown rice
- Frozen vegetables like broccoli, peas, corn
- Pantry staples if needed that week: chicken stock, soy sauce, mustard, hot sauce, canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, olive oil, vinegars, pickles
- A treat or two: wasabi peas, flavoured goldfish crackers…I love anything crunchy! My husband’s an ice cream and chocolate kind of guy.
Note that there aren’t many pre-packaged foods on this list. Maybe it’s because I love cooking, but I’d rather buy whole ingredients (produce, protein, grains, herbs, spices) and use them to create different dishes than purchase already made products (frozen dinners, granola bars, crackers, cookies, chicken fingers, bottled sauces).
Before Sunday dinner, I cook and prep things that can be made ahead. Here’s what I typically do (keep in mind there are only two of us!):
- Chop a variety of fresh vegetables that keep well, such as peppers, carrots, celery, cucumber, radishes, cauliflower and broccoli
- Wash and chop lettuce and other salad greens such as baby spinach, romaine, radicchio, arugula, red leaf lettuce (note that this prep method can make greens go bad more quickly, though I don’t mind because it means we’re more likely to use them up faster)
- Drain and rinse 1 can of legumes such as beans, lentils or chickpeas
- Make about 1 cup of homemade vinaigrette salad dressing
- It can be stored in the refrigerator and brought to room temperature before using.
- Cook 2 cups of grains that take well to storing, such as quinoa, couscous and brown rice (never pasta! Pasta is wonderful, but this make-ahead method would have my Italian ancestors turning in their graves!). Sometimes I’ll make 1 cup each of two different kinds
- Cook 6 hard-boiled eggs
- Shred rotisserie chicken with a fork. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious that day, I’ll use the carcass to make stock but this admittedly doesn’t happen often.
- Cook 4 to 6 portions of meat or seafood for Sunday dinner (such as steak, fish or pork), eat 2 and save the rest for leftovers
The cooking and prep process takes about an hour to do and requires lots of tupperware containers and zip-top bags of various sizes. I cook the grains and eggs at the same time and chop the vegetables and lettuce, prep the legumes, shred the chicken and make the salad dressing while they’re cooking. I transfer everything to small containers or bags and pop it all into the fridge.
The end result is a fridge brimming with all the ingredients you’ll need to make salads, wraps, quesadillas, stir-fries, soups, stews, curries and healthy snacks all week long.
At first it might seem overwhelming, but you’ll gradually discover different ways to combine all the delicious, nutritious ingredients you took the time to prepare. A few ideas:
- Indian-spiced egg salad wrap = mashed hard-boiled eggs + light mayonnaise + curry powder + chopped carrots, celery or radishes
- Chicken, apple and pecan salad = shredded chicken + mixed greens + chopped apple + crushed pecans + homemade balsamic vinaigrette
- Beef and mixed vegetable stir-fry with quinoa = thinly sliced leftover steak + chopped peppers, broccoli, carrots + soy sauce + hot sauce + cooked quinoa on the side
- Quick bean stew = carrot + celery + onion + red or white kidney beans + tomato paste + canned diced tomatoes + dried herbs