You may know that a healthful diet includes whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and a variety of veggies and fruits. But busy schedules, tight finances or other challenges may make it tough to fit these foods into your everyday meals.
That's where menu planning comes in. By thinking ahead, incorporating nutritious foods into your daily meals may be easier than you realize.
And the benefits are big. Planning your meals can help you get the nutrients you need while maintaining your weight loss. Being at a healthy weight may help you lower your risk of certain health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers.
Here are some common scenarios you may have encountered and some tips to help you stay on track:
Is money tight?
- Before you shop, take stock of what you have in the fridge, freezer, pantry and cupboards. What kind of meals can you make with these items? Aim to use what you have. You may already have ingredients for stews, stir-fries and casseroles, which are meals that help stretch expensive items like meats.
- Get your family involved in the meal planning. Sit down together to discuss foods that everyone would like to eat.
- Stick to your shopping list to avoid buying not-so-healthy items on impulse. Only buy what you need.
- Take advantage of items that are available in bulk. Common bulk items like beans, unsalted nuts and seeds are good sources of lean protein. Enjoy these foods alone as a snack, sprinkled on salads or used in main dishes instead of meat. Just remember to eat smaller portions of nuts and seeds because they have more calories. Make sure not to buy too much, so you don't end up throwing out rancid nuts or soggy cereal.
- Buy a variety of fruits and vegetables in season, when they usually cost less. Red, orange and dark-green veggies — like tomatoes, sweet potatoes and broccoli — pack a nutritional punch. Why not challenge yourself (and the rest of your household) to eat one fruit and one vegetable each day as a snack? Have a peach for a mid-morning pick-me-up and some carrot sticks in the afternoon.
- Aim to use up the foods that will spoil quicker first. Be sure to freeze the items you will not use right away to keep them fresh.
Are you pressed for time?
- Let your meals do double duty. One night, make a batch of quinoa and eat it as a salad. The next night, use the leftovers in a vegetable soup. If you are making a roast chicken for dinner, shred the leftover meat for stir-fries, on salads or in a chicken chili.
- If you have some time on weekends, do some power cooking. Make several recipes and freeze them in individual portions. You can pull them out as needed during the week.
- If you often run late in the morning, trying packing your lunch the night before, while you make dinner.
- Do you need breakfast on the run? Try a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat toast. Or a sliced hard-boiled egg and low-fat cheese in a whole-wheat wrap.
- Cut up some of your vegetables when you bring them home from the store. Slice red bell peppers and keep them in the refrigerator for later. They are great in salads, on wraps or dipped in hummus as a snack.
- You can have veggies in a hurry by microwaving fresh or frozen vegetables. Cook carrots, green beans or broccoli with a few drops of water and you have a quick side dish.
Are you in a rut?
- Mix new foods into your rotation of regular meals. Who knows? Freekeh, a grain, and kale, a vegetable, may become new favorites.
- Try new cooking styles when you're preparing lean meats. Grilling, roasting, broiling or baking does not add extra fat to meats. Just skip the breading to avoid added calories.
- Have dinner for breakfast. Or vice versa. Try leftover veggie pizza.
- Dish up old favorites with a healthy twist. In the morning, whole grains like buckwheat, millet or oats can be substituted for up to half the amount of flour in pancake, muffin and waffle mixes. Try the whole-wheat or brown rice versions of pasta. They can be used just like regular pasta. Make macaroni and cheese with whole-wheat penne and low-fat cheese.
- Keep bananas or apples on the kitchen counter. They act as a reminder to grab one as part of breakfast, a snack or on the way out the door. Don't forget: popcorn is a whole grain. Make it without salt and sugar for a healthy snack. Remember, though, that not all foods — such as popcorn, seeds or nuts — are safe for small children because they may choke on them.
You may not be able to plan every meal for a whole week at first, but don't get discouraged. In time, you'll get the hang of planning meals and menus that are tasty and healthy.
Created on 03/19/2013
Updated on 03/19/2013
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Healthy eating plan.
- Let’s Move. Plan a healthy meal.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Planning meals.
- United States Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010.