How to Plan Meals for a Healthier {and Happier} New Year {and a free printable meal planner}

healthy year

Happy 2014 everyone! Every year I look forward to cooking more and sharing my experiences with you. I also hope to inspire more people to take charge of their plates and have fun doing so! There is nothing better than realizing you can make amazing, healthy dishes at home in the company of loved ones.

I know a lot of people like to start the new year with a diet resolution of some sort. I’m not a dieter (as in count calories and/or cut out entire food groups for weight reasons).  If they work for you, fabulous. But I don’t think they work for most people, and I don’t think they are healthy for the body or soul.  I don’t know about you, but life just isn’t beautiful without hot bread and real butter, or homemade cookies on occasion.

Focusing on short-term weight loss, rather than changing habits and lifestyles, is why I believe so many people fail to achieve the diet goals they set. This blog started out of a love of making my own food and practicing what I think is key to healthy living – moderation. While I don’t like diets, I do believe eating healthy is essential for good emotional and physical health. And the one thing I think ANYONE can do to have a healthier {and happier!} year life, is to cook more food at home.

It’s almost guaranteed that what you cook at home will be healthier than what you purchase elsewhere – less salt, less fat, less corn syrup, fewer chemicals and words you can’t pronounce … you get the picture.  Now I love to eat out, but eating out is a celebration of good food and company, not something I do because I’m constantly wondering – what the hell do I eat tonight? That totally takes the fun out of eating out and ensures you will end up hitting fast food and take out way too often.  And why I hope to share how simple home cooking can be through this blog, I also realize it takes some planning and change in habit. So, I thought I would start out 2014 by sharing some tips to get you started on a year of great meals at home.

Yes, it will take a little bit of time to get in the habit of planning meals, but it is worth it! Imagine not freaking out each night about what to make for dinner because you have a plan. Not to mention the health and financial benefits that go along with planning meals weekly. And it can be so much fun – stop making the same chicken casserole every week and embrace the wide world of cooking. Let’s get started!

beach

Step 1  – Find recipes

Pick a day of the week that works for you to do this and set aside some time to browse magazines, cookbooks, Pinterest, and of course the plethora of great cooking blogs out there. Read the entire recipe so you have an idea of the time, materials, and ingredients you will need. I always try to post the time required for each recipe and I also note if there is a particular material needed like an oven-proof pot, etc. This can save you from stress down the road.

Utilize search functions and recipe indexes, like those found on Q&DK, to easily find recipes that suit your preferences. There are literally millions of recipes out there … experiment, take risks, and explore what the tasty world has to offer.

I have a drawer in the kitchen where I keep the recipes I’m planning for the next month or so. Usually that includes post-it marked cookbooks and pages from cooking magazines. I also use bookmark folders, folders on Gmail, and Pinterest to organize recipes online. Once you start sifting through your resources you will figure out what works best for you. And imagine – you will actually start using your Pinterest boards that contain hundreds of recipes you hope to “get to one day.” Get there NOW 🙂

thai beef salad

Meal planning and healthy home-cooking tips:

*Don’t over do it and burn yourself out of the kitchen: I plan about 3-4 meals per week. The other nights are designated for leftovers or eating out. If you plan 7 meals per week you will probably never get to them all and get really tired of cooking, really fast. Also, keep in mind the time required for each recipe – I plan quick meals for nights I know I have other things going on or late workouts planned. Make the meals work for you and your schedule.

*5-course meals are not necessary: Don’t feel like you need to try a new entree, side dish, salad, and dessert recipe each night. If you are new to cooking, I suggest starting with entrees and making quick sides like green salad and frozen vegetables. Work your way into a routine so you can focus on the main entree and then experiment with everything else. If you enjoy it, weekends are a great time to try longer recipes and multiple recipe meals.

*Give yourself a break if needed: It’s been a rough week, or a long day – don’t stress about getting to the recipe you have planned. Understand that sometimes things won’t go as planned and that is totally fine. That’s why I try to have leftovers available during the week or quick staples in the freezer. I absolutely love Vital Choice salmon burgers, for example, and keep those on hand. If I don’t feel like cooking, these take me 5 minutes to cook up from frozen and I put over salad, rice, or on a bun. I also keep frozen vegetables and rice on hand for quick meals. Keep your house stocked with healthy, easy staples for days when you don’t feel like doing anything else and this will ensure you still have a healthy meal at home. This blog is filled with 30 minute or less meals you can browse and keep in mind for these days as well.

*Learn to double batch: Going along with the previous tip, I highly suggest doubling recipes on occasion so you can freeze one batch. This works great for soups, casseroles, and other freezer-friendly meals. Always have something available and you won’t bring home burgers and fries.

Step 2 – Plan your meals

Once I have ideas for recipes, I sit down with a planner I print every two weeks and schedule out the meals. I’ve attached the planner for your use as well. It’s in word format so you should be able to open and edit to suit your needs. Breakfast and lunch are usually the same thing each week (something I can make on the weekend and pack for work). I also include my workout schedule because this often dictates how much time I will have available to cook. Take a look at your recipes, your other commitments/workout schedule, and jot down your recipe plan. I keep this next to my normal agenda book and it makes planning meals and grocery lists so easy. I have a list of healthy quick meal ideas and goals I keep as well. You can find that in this post if you are interested in creating your own. Those planners, along with the recipe I’m working with at the moment, go on a clipboard and keep everything organized in the kitchen. I can see my work week/commitments, meals, workouts, and goals in one place.

Meal Planner

green smoothie

 Step 3 – Grocery shop 

Using your meal planner and recipes, make your grocery list and head to the store. As this becomes a habit, you will learn to pick recipes that use up ingredients you already have on hand so you don’t waste food and spend less on the grocery bills. In the beginning you may spend more to stock up spices and pantry staples, but soon you will have the necessities.

*Become a perimeter shopper: Everyone has their Achilles heel of food products. For me, potato chips and packaged cookies. My solution? I rarely, rarely go down those aisles. And the result? I rarely, rarely buy those products. The fresh food of a grocery store is located around the perimeter. Therefore, I shop around the perimeter and only go down the aisles I need to for canned items, spices, etc.  I know exactly where the frozen vegetables and bread are located, and those are the only frozen sections I tend to shop. I completely skip the processed, pre-packaged aisles and this has totally changed my grocery habits. I cannot LOOK at a bag of potato chips and not want them – it’s that bad. So, I totally skip the temptation at the grocery store. If your weakness is candy bars, well that may take a little more will-power considering they are at every check-out counter – but you can do it! 😉

*Make your fridge habit-friendly: Store healthy snacks in the front so they are easily accessible. For example, I put bowls/colanders of fresh, washed fruits and veggies right front and center so I will see and hopefully grab these when I want a quick snack.  The only drinks you will find in my fridge are almond milk and occasionally cherry juice and coconut water for fitness hydration. So many empty calories are wasted on juice, soda, and other drinks. If you like a variety of drink options, try adding fruit to your water and putting pitchers of water with tea bags (cold brew) in the fridge. Store leftovers in clear containers so you can see and will use them. I have a stash of dark chocolate I store in the bottom drawer- when I really want it, I will remember it. More often, though, I forget it’s there. It’s amazing what we will eat simply because we see it. Make healthy choices visible and easy.

ramen soup

Step 4 – Cook and Enjoy!

Now you have everything you need to start cooking – ingredients, recipes, and the desire. I suggest prepping ingredients before you start cooking – have things out, washed, chopped, measured, etc. This makes it much easier once you start actually cooking. Maybe even work on prepping ingredients on Sunday so the week flows more efficiently.

Have children? Get them involved by giving them “manager” positions (a teacher trick 🙂 ). Time manager can watch over the timer, so you don’t let anything burn. Mixer manager can stir, mix, and combine ingredients. Older kids can learn how to safely chop and who knows, maybe you have a budding chef on your hands?

Slow down, enjoy each bite – this will signal your brain to stop eating when you are full. Plate entrees in the kitchen, but serve healthy sides like salad and vegetables family-style so you are more likely to eat more of these.

Sit down to a beautiful meal at home, share your gratitude for the good things that happened today, and enjoy this time together. You are awesome. You just made a healthy, tasty meal at home!

p/s

Last year, I wrote about the best dietary habit change I had made that year. Maybe you are interested in adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet? If so, check out that post. Since last year I’ve also moved to home juicing using an affordable Breville Juice Fountain. I absolutely love it and now make smoothies and juice on a regular basis. If you have questions about moving to juicing, feel free to ask …

kale soup

 

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2 thoughts on “How to Plan Meals for a Healthier {and Happier} New Year {and a free printable meal planner}

  1. Laurie G February 6, 2014 / 7:01 PM

    Love this post! Great ideas on organizing and preparing! I have found meal planning to be essential in saving money, time and sanity during a busy week! I think people who have never meal planned will be totally surprised at how much money they will save and how much less food they will waste! I love the clipboard idea!

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