I feel like there is a misconception that meal planning always goes hand-in-hand with restrictive diets. So today I’m going to talk about some methods for meal planning that can absolutely be aligned with and support a non-diet approach or intuitive eating. Having some sort of plan or structure isn’t incompatible with intuitive eating. From this perspective, meal planning can be a tool for self-care, that helps us get the nutrition we need while also reducing stress around prepping and eating food. There is also room for considering enjoyment when meal planning. Contrary to popular belief, meal planning doesn’t have to involve deprivation or suffering (and in fact, if it does, I would argue it’s not health-promoting or sustainable).
Explore your “Why”
First of all, I want to talk a little bit about the intention behind meal planning. When the goal is to restrict calories (or anything else like carbs, fat, etc), then, no, that is not aligned with intuitive eating.
When I talk about meal planning, I’m not talking about sad tupperware containers of unadorned steamed vegetables and chicken that you have to weigh & track to the nearest gram in some calorie counting app. I’m also not going to be giving you some prescriptive or rigid meal plan to follow.
However, learning & practicing the skills involved in planning and preparing meals that are nourishing and satisfying is (in my opinion) a worthwhile pursuit that can support your health. What are some potential benefits of meal planning once we step out of diet culture’s obsessive and harmful focus on “eating perfectly” and/or manipulating our body size?
- Saving money & time
- Reducing food waste
- Making sure we have food available to be able to honour & respond to our hunger cues
- Reducing stress & decision fatigue around food
- Increasing satisfaction with eating
I encourage you to approach meal planning with flexibility, and also consider satisfaction. Planning meals that you look forward to and enjoy is an important part of the process! If meal planning feels too rigid or punitive, it’s not going to be sustainable. With that in mind, I’m going to walk you through some steps & considerations for meal planning from a non-diet perspective.
Start with what you have on hand
Before you jump in, it’s helpful to take stock of the food you already have in your fridge. In particular, check if you have any perishable goods like produce or meat, and come up with a plan for how to use those. This helps you reduce food waste – ultimately saving money. You can either pick a favourite tried-and-true recipe or method of preparation that you are familiar with, or explore other ways to use those foods. I like to use google to find recipes that use ingredients I want to use up.
Pick some recipes!
Have some fun picking recipes (flipping through cookbooks or browsing online). Personally, I like to use a mix of familiar & new recipes. Although trying new recipes is definitely exciting, and I totally recommend exploration of new ingredients & cooking techniques – you don’t want to overwhelm yourself by planning a week full of new stuff. When choosing new recipes, I also like to check reviews when possible to see feedback from other people. Then you can decide whether to pick a different recipe entirely or just make some adjustments.
I typically also plan to include some meals I’ve made many times that are quick & don’t require a lot of thought anymore. For me, examples would be coconut curry with tofu & veggies + rice, stir fry, or even just some frozen vegetarian chicken tenders with roasted potatoes and veggies or a big salad.
Plan for some basic pantry/freezer meals
It can also be helpful to have some ideas for meals that you can make with only or mainly pantry/freezer staples. Examples include vegetarian chili made with canned beans & tomatoes, pasta with pre-made sauce, mac & cheese or noodles with frozen vegetables, rice & beans, or frozen pizza with a side of cooked frozen veggies.
Consider making big batches
I am a big fan of leftovers, and I often double or triple a recipe so I can be more efficient with my cooking time. However, I know some people really aren’t fans of eating the same thing 2 days in a row. In these cases, you can consider freezing some leftovers so you don’t have to have them right away. Or, you can look at prepping some individual meal components to save time on the more labour intensive or time consuming aspects, like cooking grains, chopping & roasting veggies, etc. More on that in the next section.
Consider prepping some “meal components”
In addition to planning some entire meals, I like to prep some individual components that can be used to mix-and-match in different combinations. Some type of rice bowl or grain salad is a good example of this. Or chickpea or egg salad sandwiches with veggies or a side salad, for example. Basically, you can use the following list to consider some options and then combine them in ways that sound good to you:
- Veggies: leafy greens & raw veggies for a salad, roasted vegetables, stir-fried or steamed vegetables (or a combination of both cooked & raw)
- Carbs: rice, quinoa, baked sweet potatoes, noodles, or bread for sandwiches
- Protein: meat, fish, tofu, beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, eggs
- Fat + flavour: dressing/sauce (some examples would be olive oil vinaigrette, tahini dressing, pesto, and so on); nuts/seeds; avocado; cheese
Allow room for flexibility
Meal planning helps you avoid the stress of panicking about what’s for dinner every night. However, I encourage you to plan for some “unplanned” meals. For example, if your coworkers decide to go out for lunch so you save your leftovers in the fridge for the next day. Or you have a ridiculously busy or stressful day and feel exhausted so you make a pre-prepared frozen meal or order takeout. In a non-diet approach to meal planning, this doesn’t mean you’ve “failed.” With a rigid or perfectionist approach, the perception that we’ve “broken the rules” or “fallen off the plan” can lead us to abandon it entirely in frustration or feelings of failure. Allowing for flexibility keeps you from getting sick of the meal planning process and allows you to keep it up over a much longer period of time. Enjoy your takeout, and the food you’ve planned will be there for you tomorrow!
Don’t forget breakfast & snacks
An approach to consider for breakfast could be having a few different options on hand, so you can decide what you want day to day. For example:
- Milk/plant-based beverage
- Fruit (fresh, frozen, canned)
- Nut butter
With the above ingredients, you have quite a few possibilities, such as: smoothies, toast with nut butter, eggs & toast, yogurt parfait, oats with fruit & yogurt (cooked or overnight oats), cereal with milk & fruit, and so on.
As for snacks, I also like to have some different options on hand as well. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Granola bars or energy balls
- Baked goods & milk (e.g. muffin, cookies, banana bread)
- Fruit & yogurt
- Apple/banana & PB
- Veggies & hummus or ranch dip
- Chips & salsa, hummus, or guacamole
- Cheese and crackers and/or fruit
Putting it all together
Here is an example of how I might plan a week. This could look different from one week to the next. Some weeks I might order a meal delivery kit too, or other weeks I may not really feel like experimenting at all in the kitchen so there would be more familiar recipes and no new ones.
- 2 new recipes (usually I will just make 1 batch of these before I know how I like them! I don’t always want to commit to eating a meal for leftovers until I’m sure I like it) = 2 suppers
- 2 tried-and-true recipes – usually I will make enough of these for 1 supper + 1-2 lunches each = 2 suppers + let’s say 4 lunches
- prep components for mix & match meals = 1 supper + 2 lunches
- quick and easy meal using pantry/freezer ingredients = 1 supper + 1 lunch (some weeks this might be something I make a big batch of, where it would give me leftovers for more lunches)
- take out (or in non-Covid times going out for a meal) = 1 supper
So that gives me 7 suppers & 7 lunches (plus or minus, remembering that I also plan in some flexibility, so for example maybe I end up ordering takeout twice and ditching the pantry meal this week – no problem, I can make it next week!)
Then I would figure out some breakfast & snack options as I discussed in the previous section.
Make a grocery list
OK, now that you’ve figured out what you want to eat, it’s time to make a grocery list. Basically what you’ll need to do is compare what your recipes/plans require and figure out what you have on hand. This is where I like to have some idea whether I’m going to be doubling or tripling a recipe, for example.
I like to organize my grocery list into sections of the store (e.g. dry/canned goods, bakery, produce, and so on). I find this makes it easier in the store and I don’t have to run around back and forth if I missed something from a different section.
Another note – I also like to include some flexibility at this stage too. For example, maybe a particular item is on sale, so I decide to switch up my plans based on that. Or, sometimes I just like to look around and find new things I haven’t tried before. If you have the time and inclination, that can be fun too!
Evaluate how things went
When trying new recipes or different ways of prepping food, it can be helpful to document that in some way. This will help you when you’re meal planning again in the future. For example, you may want to come up with a system for holding onto recipes you have enjoyed. This could be a paper system like a binder or folder, or something digital like a google doc, spreadsheet or a folder of bookmarks.
You might want to keep notes for future reference as well. For example, maybe a recipe said it would make 4 servings, but you found that it wasn’t quite enough or it left you with some extra – you could note that for next time. Or maybe you found a recipe too salty, so you’d like to adjust that the next time you make it.
I hope you found this post helpful! If you have any meal planning questions or tips, please share in the comments below.