By Heather A. Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN

People who frequently cook at home – for themselves or for their families – consume fewer calories. Not only is planning meals and cooking at home healthier, it also costs less, creates less stress around mealtimes. Furthermore, time together in the kitchen and around the table is for building relationships, reconnecting at the end (or beginning or middle) of a day, and to help teach kids about food and nutrition.

Research has shown that 11-14 homemade meals per week can cut diabetes risk by as much as 13%, in comparison to six or fewer homemade meals per week [1]. Another positive observation from a different study is that home cooks tended to consume fewer calories on average, even when dining out [2].

Meal planning is an important part of eating more home-prepared meals. But for these and many additional good things that can be said about meal planning and eating more homemade meals, I’m regularly confronted with: “Where do I begin?” or “How can I do it when I juggle so many other things?” or even “Why bother?”

So, in light of the upcoming National Family Meals Month in September, we will look at the basic elements of meal planning and how to make it a success.

Why plan meals?

  • To provide wholesome, balanced meals for yourself/your family.
    – Planning and shopping ahead allows you to offer fresh, nutritious ingredients made using preparation methods you feel good about.
  • To decrease stress and save time.
    – Having a set plan eliminates last-minute scramble through the refrigerator and kitchen cupboards on the heels of a long day, or at the start of one, which relieves tension and gives you more time to enjoy other things you and your family love. (And also minimizes that mindless munching we often succumb to during that hunt!)
  • To keep the food budget in check.
    – Without a plan you’re more likely to purchase unnecessary ingredients that attract your attention in the store, or unnecessary ingredients that ultimately go to waste.
    – A study from the Natural Resource Defense Council found that each month Americans trash roughly 33 pounds of food, averaging about $40.
    – Wandering time is also when marketers earn their salaries: According to the Food Marketing Institute, you spend $2 for every minute you are in the grocery store.
    – A commitment to meals made at home — even if only 1-2x/week to start — spares the cash (and calories) that come with regular dining out or ordering in. Shopping “seasonally” further decreases costs, as fresh local produce is often less expensive when in season and abundant.
  • To promote stronger family ties and long-lasting healthy habits.
    – By involving the whole family in meal planning, shopping, prep, and/or cooking, you not only take advantage of extra help but inherently get to spend more time together.
    – These activities also provide opportunities to be a good role model to impressionable little eaters, instilling positive habits and attitudes that will last a lifetime!

How to begin?
Adopting meal planning as a regular healthy habit for you and your family comes down to a few basic steps. Like any new routine or habit, it’s best to start small. My recommendation is to plan only one week at a time.

  1. Take inventory of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to see what you do and do not need.
  2. Write/type up a realistic plan of the week’s meals and/or snacks, adding clipped, printed out or links to the recipes you’ll use for ease – snag ideas from these free online menu-creating tools on Cooking Light + Eating Well.
  3. Use your plan to create a grocery list so you have everything you need to prepare the week’s recipes – then stash the list in a place you’ll remember it — in a wallet, purse, car, reusable shopping tote, tacked on the fridge, in Google Keep (free for both Android + Apple) or etc.
  4. Stick to your list to save headaches, time and money at the store!
  5. Most important: BE FLEXIBLE, because life happens – pick up the meal plan on the next day if a wrench is thrown in your original plans.

Meal planning is a routine that becomes easier with practice, and will absolutely eliminate some of the stress from shopping, cooking and at mealtimes – whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner or even a snack. This one simple weekly habit is a delicious investment in your health and the health of your family.

Bonus Tips:

Plan once to eat twice. Purposely repeat ingredients throughout the week, and make extras for supper to include in the next day’s meals or snacks!
Farmers’ markets are plentiful this time of year, and a great activity for the whole family.
Don’t go into full blinders mode when shopping – keep an eye out for non-perishable staple items on sale that you could stock up on (if you have room at home), as well as for less expensive seasonal fruit and veg. There are overlooked gems on those “bargain produce” tables!
And finally, please don’t worry about aiming for perfection – no one but Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart. Besides, she has a whole staff on hire!

 

RESOURCES

Family Food Pinterest boards for recipe ideas
Pinch Your Pennies: Ten Tips for Eating Right without Breaking the Bank, Family Food Blog
Save More at the Grocery Store, Eat Right
Family Dinners in a Flash, Eat Right
Cook Once, Eat Safely Throughout the Week, Eat Right
The Most Important Meal of the Day: The Family Dinner, Forbes
The Family Dinner Project – a national endeavor providing resources and an online community to promote family bonding at the table
75+ ideas for quick pantry meals, the kitchn

REFERENCES

Zong, G; Eisenberg, DM; Hu, FB; Sun, Q. Consumption of Meals Prepared at Home and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: An Analysis of Two Prospective Cohort Studies. PLOS Medicine. 2016 Jul 5. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002052
Wolfson, JA; Bleich, SN. Is cooking at home associated with better diet quality or weight-loss intention? Public Health Nutr. 2015 Jun;18(8):1397-406. doi: 10.1017/S1368980014001943. Epub 2014 Nov 17.

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