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What’s for dinner? Meal planning can save busy families time, stress in the kitchen

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Meal planning naturally leads to healthier eating habits and a lot less pizza delivery and fast food takeout. 

This year has thrown families a lot of curveballs. And it’s a safe bet they’ll face additional challenges as school starts this month, parents continue to work at home and social distancing becomes the new normal. Despite all these changes and challenges, there is one constant: The people in your house need to eat. 

More time at home means more time in the kitchen. It can be a daunting task when faced with preparing three meals a day and fulfilling the endless “Can I have a snack?” question from the kids. Here’s where meal planning and prepping food in advance can really save the day (and your sanity). 

Experts agree that having a weekly game plan is the best way to save time, money and cut down on stress. Plus, meal planning naturally leads to healthier eating habits and a lot less pizza delivery and fast food takeout. 

Courtney Armstrong, registered dietitian and founder of Simply Nutrition, says planning meals for the week helps you ensure your meals are balanced with a variety of fruits, vegetables and proteins. She personally likes to write out her meal plan on a whiteboard and then check for a colorful selection of vegetables. If, for example, all the vegetables on her list are green, she needs to mix it up with other choices. 

“It gives you that 10,000-foot view,” she says. 

Tonya Turner, lead dietitian at MUSC Weight Management Center, says she sits down on Saturday or Sunday morning to plan out her meals for the week. Then, she places her grocery order online. Turner says she started ordering online as a result of the coronavirus, but she plans to keep it up. It’s much easier than shopping in the store. She doesn’t get distracted, forget something on the list or end up with extra snacks the kids toss into the cart. 

Turner adds plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to her shopping list, keeps salad ingredients on hand for a quick lunch or makes extra chicken or fish she can use for an additional meal. 

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Experts agree that having a weekly game plan is the best way to save time, money and cut down on stress.

With two kids ages 6 and 11, Turner says having meals planned and prepped really helps her survive the week.

The secret is simplicity

A lot of people assume meal planning means devoting a large portion of their weekend to shopping, searching for recipes and preparing the ingredients for seven gourmet meals. The concept feels daunting.

“I advise clients to keep it simple. We figure out which meals and snacks they struggle putting on the table. Then they can prep in bulk for those meals and snacks. It doesn’t have to take all day,” says Christy Meister, nutrition coach and personal trainer at Locomotion Fitness in Park Circle. “Once you get the hang of it, you realize how much food you need during the week and it becomes easier.” 

With a 15-month-old son, Meister practices exactly what she tells her clients. She might grill a big batch of chicken to use in multiple recipes for the week. Or she cooks plenty of sweet potatoes, brown rice or quinoa for the week ahead. 

Meister gives lots of example and soon her clients realize how simple it can be to create a meal of grilled chicken, brown rice and broccoli or snacks of Greek yogurt with some nuts and berries. 

Stocking the pantry and fridge with tuna fish, frozen vegetables or frozen veggie burgers helps in a pinch she adds. 

For big families, Meister is a fan of “dump and cook” meals. That could be chili or a lasagna made with lean meat and vegetables or even dumping chicken breasts, sweet potatoes and broccoli in a dish to bake. Having two or three of those meals on hand for the week can be a big time saver on a busy evening. 

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For big families, Christy Meister, nutrition coach and personal trainer at Locomotion Fitness in Park Circle, is a fan of “dump and cook” meals. That could be chili or a lasagna made with lean meat and vegetables or even dumping chicken breasts, sweet potatoes and broccoli in a dish to bake.

Rely on some staples

Stephanie S. Hodges, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of The Nourished Principles LLC, says if planning for the whole week feels overwhelming, start with a couple of days. 

“I always recommend taking an inventory of what you already have. Get creative and think about what you can make with the ingredients you already have,” Hodges says. “The internet is full of quick, easy and healthy recipes. Use those recipes combined with the likes and dislikes of your family as well as what you already have to make your menu.” 

Don’t relegate meal planning to dinner only. Planning and prepping breakfast, lunches and snacks is also a great way to save time, especially when everyone is rushing to get out the door each morning. 

Stick to a few favorite staples for breakfast and lunch. Oatmeal, overnight oats, yogurt with berries and nuts or egg muffins are all easy breakfast options and a healthier alternative to sugary cereals and breakfast bars. For lunch, leftovers are the easiest. Or pair some extra chicken with a side of vegetables. 

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Christy Meister, nutrition coach and personal trainer at Locomotion Fitness in Park Circle

Hodges says a go-to breakfast in her house is a yogurt bowl with frozen berries, granola and peanut butter. For lunches, she preps fruits and veggies on Sunday, so they are ready to go for the week and easily paired with chicken salad or a simple sandwich. 

Keeping breakfast and lunch simple allows Hodges to get a little more creative with dinners, maybe a seafood pasta or steak and veggie kabobs, she says. 

Simply Nutrition’s Armstrong says planning ahead allows you to cook the same ingredient in bulk but use it in different ways. This combats the objection she hears from clients who assume they might end up eating the same thing meal after meal. 

She makes chicken fajitas and then uses that fajita mix on a salad or with nachos later in the week. 

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Stephanie S. Hodges, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of The Nourished Principles LLC

“I hear from clients, ‘I don’t want to eat the same thing,’ but that’s not what meal planning is,” Armstrong says. “You can use the same ingredients in different ways.” 

She also says you don’t have to do all your meal prep on a dedicated day. Cut up your vegetables for the week on a Sunday and then on Monday when you’re cooking chicken, cook extra for the remainder of the week. 

A family affair 

The task of meal planning and prep shouldn’t land on mom or dad’s shoulders only. Involve the whole family in the process. 

“Ask each family member to suggest an idea for a meal,” Hodges says. “This ensures that each member of the family has a say in what is prepared, which may help in those tough situations where it seems as though no one can agree on what to have for dinner.

“To also help with buy-in, allow family members to help prepare the meal,” she adds. “Have a young child? They can wash the fruits or vegetables. Have a teenager? They can measure ingredients or chop.” 

If you’re skeptical of meal planning, keep it simple and start small. As families develop the habit, they’ll discover they’re saving time and money plus making healthier choices. 

“If your day goes haywire and you have nothing planned, that’s when we go for dining out or grab-and-go,” Turner says. “(Meal planning) can help you stay on a healthier track.” 

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