I am often asked if I meal plan. Not only is meal planning a very trendy thing to do, it can help people eat healthier, save money, and achieve their health and fitness goals quicker. Although meal planning has a ton of benefits and I definitely think it’s a great idea for a lot of people, I do not do it. The reason I don’t meal plan is because I’ve found a good system of being able to make “last minute” meals based on the foods I have at home. I determine exactly what I’m craving for that meal or snack, and I make it on the spot! I typically eat 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily.
Even when I was working full-time and hitting the gym after work, I was still able to get home and prepare dinner for myself and my husband. I continued throughout my entire pregnancy, while I was still working full-time and exercising regularly. I still continue to cook meals for my family which now includes an almost-toddler. My point is that no matter what season of life you are in, if you prioritize your health, you’ll “find” the time to eat smarter. Healthier eating has endless benefits from boosting energy, battling bloat, clearing brain fog and acne, weight loss, menstrual cycle regulation, boosting fertility, and so much more!
If you’re serious about trying to cook and eat healthier meals at home, I would encourage you to have a conversation with the other people in your household. I’ve seen numerous relationships where one partner was trying to eat healthier and the other would bring home tempting desserts or complain about the changes. If you and your partner are on the same page with starting a new routine, chances are you’ll be more successful long term.
My Grocery Shopping Habits & List
There are 4 main places I buy groceries: Whole Foods, Mom’s Organic Market, Harris Teeter, and Costco. When farmer’s markets come back around in the Spring, I’ll buy produce from there as well. Everywhere we’ve lived, there’s been a place like Mom’s Organic market- it’s a health food store, comparable to Natural Grocers (where I went in Colorado). Harris Teeter is a typical grocery store, comparable to Publix (but obviously not as good), King Soopers, or Safeway. I go to each place for various reasons, either due to quality, availability, or price. This winter, I’ve gone to Whole Foods only once or twice since I typically walk there when it’s warmer out.
Weekly I shop at either Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, or Mom’s Organic Market for everyday items including:
- Proteins: sliced turkey breast, sliced cheese, canned tuna, almond butter, shrimp, plain Greek yogurt, nuts (mixed, walnuts, almonds), seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), grass-fed organic beef, ricotta cheese
- Vegetables: sauerkraut, onions, garlic, others (seasonal)
- Carbohydrates: taco shells, fruits (seasonal), potatoes, whole wheat pasta, whole grain tortillas, rice cakes
- Snacks: I try to avoid that aisle
- Other: condiments (mayo, mustard, ketchup, sriracha, jelly), butter, honey, seasoning packets (Simply Organic brand of spicy chili, vegetarian chili, fajita, and fish taco)
Bi-weekly I shop at Costco for large amounts of certain items including:
- Proteins: eggs, fresh cheese (mozzarella or goat), seeds (chia, hemp), organic meats (chicken breast, ground turkey), seafood (scallops, salmon), peanut butter
- Vegetables: lettuce (Spring mix, spinach), asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, frozen varieties (broccoli, cauliflower)
- Carbohydrates: whole grain bread (Dave’s Killer Bread), frozen varieties (peas, berries), apples, kiwi, avocado
- Snacks: cheese sticks, dried fruit, pretzels
- Other: chicken broth (low-sodium), extra virgin olive oil, pasta sauce (red, pesto), pure maple syrup
Tips for Planning & Eating Healthier Meals at Home
- Keep a running list of items you need now or are running out of. I keep my list on my phone in the Notes app. I refer to my note often and add items to it frequently. Right now, my list includes honey, taco shells, walnuts, and cream of mushroom condensed soup (I like Pacific brand). I used the last of the honey the other night making spicy Thai peanut chicken. A few nights before that I made tacos and used the box of taco shells we had. Taco shells are a staple item I always have for a last minute dinner, since we also always have frozen meat, seasoning packets, avocados, cheese, and “sour cream” aka Greek yogurt to complete the meal. (Ryan didn’t notice for the longest time that we top our tacos, quesadillas, and chili with Greek yogurt, as I usually just put some in a little bowl with all the other fixin’s.) Be sure to look for taco shells and tortillas without shortening or hydrogenated oil.
- Always keep staple foods at home. What I mean by this is, always have foods at home you could throw together to make a complete meal, if in a hurry or you get home late. Since these will be foods you “always” have on hand, they will need to either be shelf stable or freezable. Build your meal by picturing your plate containing a protein source, a healthy carb, and vegetables. For protein, I always have chicken and seafood (usually shrimp and scallops) in the freezer and canned beans in my pantry. I also always have rice (wild, long grain brown, and short grain brown), quinoa, and whole grain pasta varieties on hand (and I always have red pasta sauce in the pantry and pesto in the freezer). For vegetables, I typically have salad ingredients in my fridge, along with several fresh vegetable options but I also always have vegetables in the freezer that I could steam in a pinch. Remember that a meal doesn’t have to be an intimidating fancy concoction with special sauces and exotic seasonings. Throw some chicken, veggies, and brown rice in a stir-fry with some salt and pepper and call it a day.
- Keep convenience items on hand too. Okay, so obviously the idea of cooking at home is so you can eat healthier, cut back on sodium, etc, but that doesn’t mean that every item in the meal has to be homemade. If you pair convenience items with lots of vegetables, lean protein, and/or whole grains, “semi-homemade” is still way better than eating out. Some of the convenience items I usually have on hand include: seasoning packets, microwave steamer vegetables, microwave steamer grains (like rice or quinoa), meats/seafood/poultry that come in marinade or seasoned already, jarred pasta sauce, minced garlic, and canned beans. Throw a meal together incredibly fast by thinly slicing chicken breast and throwing it in a pan with canola or olive oil and a seasoning packet (like fajita, one of my favorites). Load the cooked chicken onto a bed of brown rice and sliced red and yellow bell pepper and Voila! The seasoning packet did all the work for you by flavoring the meal. Forgot to thaw your chicken and you’re hungry now? Make a quick bean chili with canned beans, seasonings, a splash of chicken broth, and top with avocado chunks and shredded cheese.
- Don’t buy something unless it fits into a meal or snack. People often tell me how they spend so much money at the grocery store but then get home and feel like there’s nothing to eat. Or they get home from work starving and stuff their face with “junk” foods. I ask them why they had the junk foods in the house in the first place. “For the kids” is a typical response. You know my response to that? Your kids shouldn’t be eating junk either! Don’t keep chips, Little Debbies, Oreos, soda, or Fruit Loops at home if you’re likely to eat them when you get hungry. I’m not saying that you should never have a treat or a dessert but spend your time, energy, and money more wisely when at the grocery store.
- Always cook enough for leftovers. It can be frustrating when you take the time to cook a meal and its gone in the 5 minutes it takes you to scarf it down. What makes it worth the effort is being able to enjoy that meal again, especially if eating those leftovers saves you from yet another takeout meal. My husband usually takes our leftovers for his lunch the next day. I know if he didn’t bring those leftovers with him, he would likely either skip lunch or grab fast food.
- Pack your lunch. Step 1: Buy a lunchbox. This is not a joke. I know you might think that using a grocery store plastic bag will suffice, but you’ll enjoy your lunch a whole lot more if it’s not squished or hot from sitting in your gym bag all morning (this is true, it’s scientifically proven). Seriously, go to Target and get yourself a cute lunchbox or cooler and grab one of those gel things you freeze and put inside to keep everything cold. Personally, I’ve found that having a lunchbox encourages me to actually pack it. Bringing your lunch to work could prevent you from skipping lunch or grabbing fast food, both not ideal options.
- Prep ingredients, not necessarily whole meals. What I mean by this is wash and cut fruit, slice or dice onions, clean mushrooms, chop vegetables, and/or mince garlic. Keep all of these items in a container in the fridge until you can eat or use them. You’re more likely to reach into the fridge and grab a few strawberries to eat if they’re already washed and stemmed, right? Are you more likely to eat an apple if its sliced? I noticed that sometimes Ryan’s apple would come back in his lunchbox whole, but if I sliced it, it never did. You’d be more likely to eat a salad if the ingredients were already prepared, right? I always keep sliced onions in my fridge. 50% of the time I have sliced cucumber and carrots too. I like to slice my veggies using a mandolin so its quick and uniform.
- Always eat breakfast. I never skip breakfast. If you typically skip this meal, it should be one of the first things you add to your day. If you’re thinking, “I’m not really hungry in the morning” or “I don’t have time to cook a breakfast meal,” my answer is, you still need to eat breakfast. Breakfast doesn’t have to be this elaborate meal like you’d get at IHOP. For me, breakfast is something quick. I’m usually getting ready to run out the door to workout, but before I can do that I get Laurel and myself ready and fed. Breakfast is important because it physically regulates you for your day. By eating breakfast, you’re stabilizing your blood sugar which in turn stabilizes your energy, mood, and stamina. This is especially important if you have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), insulin resistance, or diabetes. My daily breakfast is one of three options: toast with avocado and eggs (takes an extra 5 minutes to cook the eggs), toast with peanut butter and cinnamon (quick & easy), or chia seed pudding (made the night before).
Implementing Healthier Meals with Kids
To put it simply, your kids should eat what you cook them. Yes, I understand that kids can be picky eaters and temperamental when it comes to food. I’m here to empower you to offer your kids healthy foods, whether they like it or not. Notice, I used the word offer. It’s their choice to eat or not. Will your child scarf down all the asparagus on their plate the first time? Maybe not. That doesn’t mean that you should stop offering it. If your child throws a tantrum because they wanted a hot dog but you made salmon instead, for goodness sake, don’t then make them the hot dog. You’ll have just reinforced that behavior and non-verbally told your child, “If you throw a tantrum, I’ll give you whatever you want to eat.” It’s okay for a child to go to bed without dinner one night because they refused to eat your veggie chili. Under normal circumstances,* a child will not starve themselves. When they realize that they won’t get mac and cheese after refusing what you cooked, they will eventually eat their dinner. It might take time. It will take consistency. It definitely takes you and your partner being on the same page. Kids watch and model their parents behavior. If dad complains about the meal or doesn’t eat his vegetables, why would 7-year-old Timmy want to?
Don’t make a big deal about the changes you implement and they might even go unnoticed. For example, if you switch to whole grain pasta from white, your family might not notice the difference once the sauce is added. But if you start the meal with, “This is a new healthy thing we’re trying…” you’ve already set the tone for the meal as Proceed With Caution.
*If your child is picky to the point of eating less than 10 different foods, throws tantrums when offered new foods, doesn’t want certain foods on his/her plate, or avoids certain textures of foods, discuss these issues with your pediatrician or registered dietitian.