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What's for dinner? Meal Planning 101

Rachel O'Reilly

By: Erica Favela 

I recently sat down with one of my aunts, Tia Paulina, to pick her brain about meal planning. She’s a busy mother of four, and has been raising her children gluten-free for their entire lives.

Here’s her process: At the beginning of each week, she pulls out a calendar that’s specifically dedicated to meal planning.

Then, she takes out a few cookbooks, and flips through the pages until something jumps out at her.

Next, she writes the title and page number of each recipe into the planner, taking into consideration leftovers, and special nights during the week when she’ll need something made ahead of time.

Lastly, she makes a grocery list based on the recipes of the meals she’s chosen. She does this every week, on either Sunday or Monday. Sometimes she cooks nightly, or every other night, but it always depends on the type of week she and her family will have.

What I love about her process is that it’s simple. Yes, she has a special planner for meal planning, but all that’s written in the planner is a recipe title and page number! The important thing about her planning is that she prioritizes it because, well, she has to. One of her kids has a gluten allergy, so to make it easier, the entire family eats gluten-free.

If you’re interested in getting pregnant, currently pregnant, or already have a family, you’re probably motivated to eat healthy, nourishing food. Here are a few ways to make sure you’re set each week with a plan.

Create a process that works for you

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this, so try out a few strategies until something sticks.

How comfortable are you in the kitchen? Do you need recipes, or can you wing it?

If you feel like Top Chef at home, or you’re the type that just likes to put everything into a pot and see what happens, plan for bulk and mains, and switch things up with seasonal produce. Choose 2-3 protein options, and always grab your basic fresh produce, like lettuce, herbs, avocados, etc.

Here are a few other ideas if you’re more of a free spirit in the kitchen:

  • Plan 2-3 protein choices that can be used multiple times throughout the week. Consider a whole roasted chicken that’s pre-cooked if you’re in a pinch, or utilize a slow cooker (think slow cooked pork shoulder = pulled pork tacos, Mexican-style burrito bowl, or added to salad).  

  • Consider 1 large batch of grains to be used all week; great gluten-free grains include brown rice, quinoa, millet, and buckwheat.

  • Pre-chop raw veggies, like celery and peppers, for snacks. Cutting them before storing may increase your likelihood to eat them.

  • When roasting vegetables, do a few types of veggies at a time!

  • For quick prepping and convenience, buy lettuce pre-washed, use frozen fruit for smoothies, or buy sauces pre-made (but read ingredient labels).

  • Always make multiple servings and freeze for future use; stews, spaghetti sauce, and chilis all freeze great.

For those of us who like a bit more structure and just need inspiration, here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Cookbooks: If you feel more comfortable following recipes, then plan straight from a recipe book, similar to how Paulina plans for her family of six. Don’t forget to check out your local library for recipe books! You can put books on hold, and always have a new book for different ideas.

  • Get a magazine subscription. Next time you’re waiting in the grocery store line, flip through some food-centered magazines and see what style you like best. Examples include Real Simple, Bon Appetit, Paleo Magazine, etc. Every month you’ll receive fresh ideas, which are mostly seasonal. And remember, recipes are suggestions, so feel free to swap ingredients for healthier ones, or make replacements for what’s in season where you live.

  • Try a Meal Delivery Service. There are several services now that will deliver all your recipe ingredients, even measured out, and all you have to do is put them together! This is a good option for whenever you’re lacking inspiration, or want a fun bonding experience. Making it a weekly event could be a great way to bring all members of the family together. Some popular services include Blue Apron, HelloFresh, or Plated.

My Favorite Meal Planning App

I’ve tried several meal planning apps, and the Real Plans App is by far my favorite. I like it because it’s completely customizable to your own diet. For instance, you can choose a paleo diet with or without dairy, and specific food groups or ingredients to include or exclude. It also creates a food prep timeline based on the meals you choose, so you don’t forget to defrost something the night before if need be. Also, in the app you can access your shopping list, and mark things off as you add them to your basket. The shopping list also tells you which recipe each ingredient is for, and exactly how much of it you need. Two people can have the app on their phone, so when my partner says he’ll go to the grocery store, I choose the meals and he does the shopping from the list.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

Sometimes the thought of doing something is more stressful than actually doing it. Planning what to cook every week might sound like a big ordeal, but it doesn’t have to be - and will make your life easier down the road. Step into it with the intention of nourishing yourself and family. Begin with the planning and everything will fall into place.