Eating Well: Meal Planning

“What am I going to eat today?”

This is a fairly common question, of course. Sadly, it’s one that is all too frequently answered with “fast food” or “the restaurant down the street”. This is a bad answer for several reasons. It’s expensive – a fast food “value meal” can run six to seven dollars, and the average cost of a meal at an O’Appleday’s is around $15 before you get something to drink. Do that fifteen times a week (that’s two to three meals five to seven days) and you’re probably spending $125 – $150 per person. It’s also not particularly healthy. Portion sizes are often absurd at any sort of restaurant, whether fast food or chain or local independent restaurant. It’s hard to avoid eating less than 800 calories a meal that way, and many platters and value meals hit a thousand or more. (To say nothing of the fact that you’re probably eating deep fried stuff with far too much fat and cholesterol…)

You can do better.

Just so you know, I am terrible at this. I’m writing this post as much to organize my thoughts on the subject and to get myself motivated as for any other reason.  I love cooking, but I get quite lazy about it. But I’m really getting tired of eating out, and wondering if this is the meal that will put me over my calorie budget for the day.

As I see it, there are four key components to meal planning. They are:

  • What can I eat?
  • What am I going to eat?
  • When am I going to make it?
  • When am I going to eat it?

First off, when meal planning, you need to know what you can eat. This starts with your calorie budget, assuming you have one. The rule of thumb I use is to assume each meal will consume about a quarter of that budget. For example, my calorie budget is 2,300. So I’d plan my meals to be about 575 calories each, with the remainder left over for snacking and for the nigh-inevitable moment when I eat a second helping at one of the meals.

It’s not all about the calories, though. Do you have special dietary requirements, or dietary preferences, or a medical condition that requires you to eat a certain way? If you’re allergic to dairy or nuts, for example, then don’t plan to eat them. And yes, I know that’s a ridiculous example. But it applies, regardless of whether you have a dietary requirement or a taste preference. Don’t try to force yourself to eat something that you hate, simply because it’s healthy. I, for example, won’t buy tofu. Sure, it’s healthy. But that putrescent sludge would just end up in the trash, uneaten, because I think it’s gross. Same thing with asparagus.

Once you’ve figured out what you can eat, now it’s time to think about what you are going to eat. This doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, if you’re just getting started, it shouldn’t be complicated. There’s nothing wrong with simple meals – taste comes from quality, not from the amount of fancy ingredients that go into the meal.

Here’s what I’d do, if you need a hint. Grab a piece of paper, and draw two lines down it so that you have it divided into three columns. Label one column “breakfast”, one “lunch”, and one “dinner”. Then draw six lines across the page to make seven rows. Label them “Sunday”, “Monday”, and so on. Once you do that, grab your calendar and check what you have to do each of those days, then fill them out. And don’t feel bad about putting the same thing down more than one day, unless you don’t like the food. My “breakfast” column would pretty much read either “three scrambled eggs and toast and fruit” or “fried egg sandwich and fruit” every day.

What can I say?  I like eggs.

Once you’ve brainstormed out your meals, it’s time to circle back and do a check of the calorie count (assuming you’re doing that). There’s no need to go and make your famous deep fried butter casserole with extra cheese and sausage gravy, only to find out that your meal will consist of half an ounce of food (and half a bottle of pepto…). If the calorie count is too high, this is your opportunity to start investigating ways to reduce it.

Oh, one last tip for the “what am I going to eat?” stage: if you’re cooking for others as well as yourself, run it by them as well. Making a huge meal that only one of the three people in the house will eat is counterproductive at best.

With your menu plan in place, it’s time to decide when you are going to cook the meal. This is an oft-overlooked but essential part of meal planning. All the plans in the world won’t help if you end up skipping them because you have eight minutes in which to cook. But keep in mind that there’s more to “when to cook” then simply carving out time in the day to actually put ingredients on the stove. Look at the recipie, and see if there’s things you can prep in advance. Maybe you can take an hour on Sunday and chop vegetables. Perhaps Thursday is a good day to pre-measure dry ingredients and store them in your pantry. It may sound silly, but it will help. Life is busy, after all. The more you can do to simplify the process, the more likely it is that you will do the process and actually cook.

Also, “leftovers” are an acceptable part of a meal plan. Make extra on the days when you have time, and reheat on the days you don’t. Or take it for lunch. You don’t [i]have[/i] to make everything from scratch, every meal.

Finally, when are you going to eat? This may sound like a no-brainer, but it really isn’t. No matter who you are, having a routine and doing things on a schedule helps make it happen. So try to establish as consistent a cooking and meal schedule as possible. But try to make it realistic and useful – if you get terribly hungry at 3 pm, then try to arrange some sort of meal for 3 pm! Don’t try to ‘tough it out’, because you probably won’t.

When you get right down to it, eating well is like any other exercise in setting goals. Have a plan. Know what you’re doing. Follow through. Sure, it’s a little more effort than going through a drive through. But the results are worth it.

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