Meal planning is associated with better health, as is prepping/making meals at home. Knowing the benefits may not be enough to go out and “just do it.” Common questions for a newcomer include:
• How do I fit this into my schedule?
• How will putting in all this effort save me time?
• How will this make a difference in my health and weight management?
When considering meal planning and meal prepping/making — which some people find even more intimidating than planning — it’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially if it is a new way of feeding yourself. Many clients think of meal prepping/making as a drain on time and can’t fit it into their busy lifestyle. Others fall into the “all-or-nothing” trap, aiming too high initially and becoming overwhelmed. Let me show you a framework that will help you create exactly what’s right for you when it comes to meal planning and prepping/making. Not only will this framework help you get started, it will also lay the groundwork for improving your health sustainably for the long-term!
Meal Planning vs. Meal Prepping: What’s The Difference?
Meal planning and meal prepping/making are two very different tasks. Meal planning is best done in advance of being hungry. If you wait until you are hungry, your choices will likely be whatever is handiest and gives you instant gratification. When hunger drives the “bus” instead of your intentions, you’ll have no idea where you will end up. Think SUGAR! Meal planning is the intentional process of actually thinking about the upcoming meal, meals for the day, or meals for the week, and answering the questions “what am I going to eat?” or “what are we eating?” and “when do I make it?” Answering these questions ahead of time allows your rational mind to plan the menu before hunger is in the driver’s seat!
Meal prepping/making, on the other hand, is the process of intentionally planning for the meal and getting it ready to consume, whether by cooking, defrosting, or ordering.
What to Consider When Beginning Meal Planning and Prepping/Making
When starting to meal plan and prep/make, it’s important to take inventory of a few key factors, including:
• Your skill level with cooking
• What kitchen appliances you own and can utilize
• What supplies you may need or supplies you already have on hand
• Your budget
As an example, I am going to take you through my weekly meal planning/prepping/making journey and share what I’ve learned. As we say on the Well Effect Team, “None of us knows what all of us know” — so if you have a tip or a trick, please put it in the comment section and share it with everyone.
Most people love eating good food. Some people love cooking. I LOVE both — but I also realize that not everyone likes to do the necessary activities that are important. I found the hidden value in meal planning and meal prepping/making turned out to be the biggest eye-opener for me. I learned that, because these are very different skill sets, it encouraged other household members to help out with whichever task was best suited to their abilities. My health and my family’s health is a big focus for me, and as a working professional and a mom of two preschoolers, I dedicate precious blocks of my time in an already busy week to get this done. For me, it keeps me on track with my health and saves an immense amount of time in the end.
Planning and Prepping/Making: How to Get Started
Here are four questions to consider as you get started:
- How many meals and how much food should I plan/prep/make?
Generally, I plan and prep/make for the upcoming week. My meal plan week typically spans from Friday to Thursday because we go grocery shopping on Thursdays. Most people choose to plan and prep/make meals for somewhere between three-to-seven days. I always prep lunch for the workweek, healthy snacks, and our dinners. Breakfast is put together each morning. An easy way to begin the intentional planning/prepping process is to select a couple of weeknight dinners and/or your lunches to start with. As with anything else in life, practice will improve the process, and it does get easier as you develop your system. Also for efficiency, think about multiple uses for the same protein and chopping veggies for the week versus for just one meal. These tactics allow me to get more completed in shorter periods of time because I’m doing it all at once and not setting up and cleaning up over and over throughout the week.
- What do I prep/make?
Now, this is where planning comes in as well as your individual preferences. What foods does your family enjoy? Are there new recipes you would like to try? Are there certain meals your family looks forward to each week? Try to guide overall food and meal choices with a focus on complex carbohydrates, high fiber, low sugar, and more plant-based fats than animal fats. When thinking about what to prep/make, consider using different cooking methods that are timesavers, such as the crockpot, instant pot, or perhaps meal kit delivery services. If you are looking for variety in your normal meal routine, browse Pinterest, cookbooks, or try Google searches. We try to make one or two new meals each week and fill in the other days with our tried-and-true favorites.
Once you have a plan in place, create a grocery list for shopping. Again, it saves time and will save money if you stick to what is on your list. It will also help with minimizing waste. Don’t ever go grocery shopping if you are hungry. If you’re like me, hunger will make it harder to stick to your list. There are also fun grocery shopping apps available. I have used “Out of Milk” for years. It is simple to use and I can share my list with someone else if they are doing the shopping.
- When do I prep/make?
For myself, since it is hard to set aside large chunks of time during the week to do it all, I choose to prep/make our meals in smaller blocks of time, over a couple of different days. I keep our prepped meals or ingredients for our meals fresh by freezing them for use later in the week. I cut and package healthy snacks, including hard-boiled eggs, carrot sticks, and sliced peppers, on Friday or Saturday. I also use that time for making a meal or two. I typically finish my advanced prepping for the upcoming week on Saturday or Sunday when I have a little bit of extra time. Honestly, I wasn’t always a fan of doing the meal prepping ahead of time; however, I have grown to love it because I know that it helps me to stay on track with my health and gives me time back in the evenings to be with my family. It is so quick to be able to cook our weekday evening meals if they have essentially already been prepped! If you don’t already love to cook as I do, you may grow to enjoy this time as “me time” and value it as a treat of very meaningful self-care.
- Where am I going to keep all this packaged food?
For my lunches, I usually prepare a large batch of soup, salad, and lentils, etc. and store it in a large container to be divided out each day – “grab and go” style. If you have space, you might choose to divide everything up into separate containers, but I have found that this requires extra space in the fridge. I package my fruit and veggie snacks and keep them in the appropriate drawer. For our dinners, I keep the dinners we plan to eat for the next couple of days in the fridge and freeze the rest. We have a freezer downstairs so I can utilize that space as needed. Sometimes I choose not to prep an entire meal but just prep the ingredients for a quick cooking, as I mentioned.
One Size Does Not Fit All
My ability to be successful with meal planning and prepping/making did not happen overnight. In fact, the whole process was guided by evidence-based best practices for food intake and evolved as I discovered how to put these practices into place in a sustainable fashion that works for me and my family. For our family, there is nothing like coming home after a long day of work and having a meal ready to put in the oven while I catch-up with the kids or my spouse.
Intentional meal planning and prepping/making are a lot like our program here at Well Effect —it’s not one size fits all and it’s guided by evidence-based, best practices. What this process evolves into for you will likely be different than it is for me or someone else. So have fun, make it your own, and make your health a part of “me time.” We look forward to working with you as your guides, to help address your individual concerns, meet your needs, and guide you with a lifestyle approach for your health and fitness. We’ll help put you on your intentional path to your best self!
If you’d like to learn more about our program, contact us and we can set up a consultation to learn more about your history and discuss how our approach can help!