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7 Simple Steps for Meal Planning

Before starting Bring About Happy, I operated an online nutrition practice. I’ve worked as a dietitian for the past 10 years. In that time, I have talked to a lot of people about nutrition. One sticking point I heard over and over again was the difficulty surrounding meal time. Can you relate?

A Quick Story About My Meal Planning Journey

Nearly 10 years ago, I was on an elimination diet trying to figure out what foods were causing me problems. At the time, I had several signs and symptoms of food sensitivities, such as digestive issues, upset stomach, reflux (heartburn), chronic rhinitis, and a bunch of other issues. While trying to figure out the source of my problems, I eliminated the eight major (eggs, wheat, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and soy) allergens to determine if they were the cause of my issues.

Long story short, I had a hard time trying to figure out what I could eat. Before the elimination diet, my daily food consumption consisted of pretty much all of foods that now needed to be eliminated – with the exception of fish and shellfish as I had known they were problem foods already.

As a result of the elimination diet, and not knowing what I could eat, I would basically be hungry all the time. It was time for me to put some thought and planning into what I would eat each day to prevent me being overly hungry.

Disclaimer, the whole not eating enough is not recommended. Admittedly, looking back, some of my issues could have also resulted from not eating enough food. Coupling that with the overwhelm of expectations, it is no wonder why I was having a hard time. Thankfully, this process is far behind me now. And, I have successfully identified foods that caused me problems.

Creating a Meal Plan

While I was overly frustrated with not knowing what to eat and always being hungry, I realized it was time to come up with a PLAN. It was time to think ahead to what I would be eating for each meal. And, I could no longer wait until I was hungry to determine what I was going to eat.

What started out as a solution to my own problem, slowly morphed into a project to help others streamline their own meal planning process. That said, I’ve spent several years refining this process to help others – like yourself – learn how to meal plan.

Meal Planning 101 (NOT Meal Prep)

Before we get too far into this conversation, we need to clarify one thing:

  • Meal planning is complete different from meal prep.
    • It is essentially a food itinerary where as meal prep is actually preparing the meals ahead of time.

Personally, I am not a fan of meal prep. Yes, I gave it a solid try… and it was an epic fail. Now, of course you may form your own opinion.

Here are the reasons why I do not like meal prep:

  • Sundays are not meant for cooking. Spending all day in the kitchen getting food ready for the week is not my idea of fun.
  • The nasty dry chicken five days in a row for lunch does not sound appealing.
  • The f-ing dishes. I have never been a fan of doing the dishes, yet meal prepping meant I had a week’s worth of dishes to do in one night.
    • Having to do dishes after spending a shit ton of time cooking all day was not my idea of fun… it was like add salt to my wounds.
  • Leftovers – Blah! Since all the food is prepared in one night, it feels as though I am eating leftovers every. single. day. I’ve never been a fan of leftovers and meal prep was not going to change that.

Now, there are many different ways meal prepping can happen. Perhaps my approach was not successful. Maybe you have a better way of going about it. That’s cool, I won’t tell you to not do it then.

Just in case you are also not on board with meal prep, I’ve got the solution for you – Meal Planning!

Meal Planning is the Best Solution (in my opinion!)

Whether you are trying to navigate a new way of eating, such as my experience with the elimination diet. Or, you are trying to solve your pain points around meal time, I’ve got you covered!

Meal time frustrations may include…

  • Decision fatigue
    • You spend all day making decisions, the last thing you want to do at the end of the day is decide what to eat.
  • Lack of time
    • The days fly by quickly and before you know it, it is 7 pm, you haven’t eaten dinner yet, and you just realized you are starving! This means you need to get food ASAP… and could very well result in fast food, or easy to grab foods in the fridge or pantry, such as chips, candy bar, or a bowl of cereal.
  • Group decision
    • When there a multiple opinions about what to have for dinner, it can be difficult to satisfy everyone – take out ends up being an easier solution.
  • Limited kitchen confidence
    • For all my people born in the 1980s or 1990s, we were raised in a world where cookings skills were not passed down (Hello, Lunchables and McDonald’s drive-thru!). At the same time, home economics classes were cut from schools, resulting in an entire generation that doesn’t know how to cook much other than Kraft Mac & Cheese. If you are in this category, hugs!! I know it can be hard. But, let’s focus on making meal time simple with easier to prepare meals… no Martha Stewart or Julia Child recipes here!
  • Not feelin’ it
    • After a busy day of work, school, and life, the last thing you want to do is stand in the kitchen and prepare a meal. So, all those fresh veggies sitting in the crisper die a slow death until they meet the trash can.
  • Don’t know where to start
    • Meal planning is a multi-step process, you might know the first step: planning, but have a hard time putting the rest of the puzzle together. As in, once you’ve planned, how do you take that and apply it to everyday life? That’s why I made this guide!
  • All. the. things.
    • Yep, all (or most of) the above. Simply the words meal planning causes you to have a knot in your stomach! Trust me, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and there are still days I don’t want to even think about meal planning.

Solution to Your Meal Plan Problem(s)

This simple 7-step meal plan process is exactly what you need. It will help you to streamline meal time with a game plan. And, best part, after a while you can rotate the same weekly meal plans.

That said, if getting started feels overwhelming, allow yourself some grace. It will get easier in time. And, once you get a few meal plans done, you can plagiarize from yourself.

Let me explain some more — When I worked in the hospital, we had a five week menu plan for the cafeteria. Each week we would rotate though a meal plan, after five weeks, we would return to the first meal plan.

Of course, the chef would make some changes to it here and there, but we used pretty much the same menu over and over again. However, since it was a five week meal plan, there was very little fatigue or boredom with meals. In fact, I vividly recall getting really excited for a few meals!

Wait, don’t assume you won’t like meal planning just yet… This solution does NOT mean you pick exactly what you are going to eat each day. As in, you will not say, “Taco Tuesday” or “Hamburgers on Friday.” So, don’t let the fear of committing to eating something you aren’t feelin’ each night stand in your way.

The 7-Step Meal Plan Process

  1. Brainstorm a master list
  2. Categorize your recipes (optional)
  3. Take stock of the food you already have on hand
  4. Plan your week
  5. Pick your meals for the week & plan ahead
  6. Post the meal plan for everyone to see
  7. When it’s dinner time, refer to your list of meals!

To learn more about how to implement this meal plan, download the meal planning handout! It will take you through all the steps and includes a template to help you write out your meal plan each week.

Last Updated on March 6, 2022 by Kristi Coughlin

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