Eating healthy often requires that you prepare your own meals. Fast food, restaurant fare, and prepared foods at the market are usually laden with salt, fat, sugar, and chemicals. While eating these foods from time to time won’t cause any lasting harm, daily consumption is hardly recommended.
But preparing your own food may seem like a difficult task. You may not know how to cook, you may not have the time, or you may not have the interest. Relax, you don’t have to be a health nut and master chef with loads of time on your hands to be able to feed yourself well. The key is to create a meal plan that’s simple and easy to follow.
Here’s how my family eats: Breakfast is a routine affair. It involves little or no cooking. It’s usually one of three things: cereal with milk, whole grain bread with peanut butter and/or Nutella, or whole wheat crepes that I make on the weekend and serve during the week. If I cook other things like oatmeal or french toast, I always make enough for at least two meals.
Lunch is usually leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Only reheating or assembly is needed! Again, I purposely make more so there will be enough for two meals and perhaps some for the freezer as well for those weeks when there’s no time to shop or cook.
Snacks vary, including fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, whole grain crackers, cheese, yogurt, popcorn, and occasionally cooked items such as hard boiled egg, corn on the cob, or baked sweet potato (yum!).
So in reality, I only cook dinner. Some examples of meals that work for my family include curry chicken and veggies over rice, pasta with tomato sauce, wonton and veggie soup with noodles, veggie and sausage fried rice, tuna and green apple sandwich. Dessert is usually fresh fruit.
To make your own simple meal plan, do the following:
1) Come up with a list of breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner foods that meet all the following criteria:
- You must enjoy eating them. Why suffer? How are you going to stick with a plan and motivate yourself to do the work involved if you don’t like what you’re eating?
- The food should be reasonably healthy and meet your needs, whether that’s no carb or vegetarian or low salt, etc. Minimize use of processed foods when you can.
- The food should be fairly easy to prepare, preferably taking less than 30 minutes of hands on time and not require fancy ingredients or equipment. This minimizes shopping and clean up time. You can search online for simplified versions of your favorite recipes. If you’re a new cook, see #5 for some resources.
2) Plan a week’s worth of meals in advance. Figure out exactly what you’re having each day to eliminate the need to think about it later when you’re tired and hungry. Fill in a chart like the one below if it’ll help you. You don’t have to plan something different for each meal. If you are okay with leftovers, you can eat the same thing for several days. You decide how much variety you need. Plus, you might want to plan on having a couple of meals out each week for the sake of sanity or variety. This is especially important if you’re new to cooking.
3) Comb your pantry and refrigerator to see what you already have and what needs to be purchased for the week ahead. Make a shopping list and buy everything you need all at once. There shouldn’t be any extra trips to the store during the week.
4) Do any prep work you can ahead of time. For example, bookmark recipes, chop vegetables, put snacks in single serving containers. Some people cook a week’s worth of food on Sundays. Some cook everyday. Some set aside a whole weekend to cook and freeze meals for the month. Do what works for you.
5) Once you’ve gotten the hang of creating and following meal plans, try something new every week or every month. This expands your repertoire and keeps your diet interesting. Allrecipes.com has an extensive database of user rated recipes, including “healthy” and “quick and easy” categories. In his New York Times piece, Mark Bittman lists 101 foods that you can cook in 10 minutes (okay, maybe 15 if you’re not Bittman). And then there’s Rachael Ray with her 30 minute meals. I’d love to hear if you have other food resources to suggest.
Preparing your own meals does take time but it’s not only good for your waistline, it’s good for your wallet as well. So invest some energy in planning healthy, tasty, and easy meals so you aren’t as tempted to hit the fast food joints. The benefits are well worth it. Happy eating!