The one rule for meal prep you might be missing

There are a lot of practical things to consider when prepping meals ahead, whether you are prepping for the week, or batch cooking to freeze and eat later. (More on that in future posts)

However, one very important and often forgotten thing is. . .

Do you like the meal enough to eat it?

It’s all well and good to prep meals ahead. Prepping has so much potential to help us get more nutrients, meet nutrition goals, save time, save money, even try new things. However all the planning and prepping in the world won’t help you unless you actually eat the meals.

Let me give you an example. I made a giant batch of broccoli, cheese, and potato soup. It was fine. It didn’t taste bad, but it was pretty bland, had no texture, and was a not-very-appetizing color.

soup in a bowl with spice and herb garnish
I don’t have a photo, but it was about this color, but much less appetizing-looking as it was in a big ziploc bag instead of this pretty garnished bowl (Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com)

I put most of it in the freezer. I kept looking at it and choosing something else to eat. Then when I was finally tired of it taking up space in the freezer, I took it out to thaw in the fridge, thinking it would be an easy meal later in the week. Guess what never got eaten and had to get thrown away? And I do NOT like to throw away food.

How do we make sure our hard work prepping meals doesn’t go to waste? Let me introduce you to the leftover rule.

The leftover rule: If I’m not excited to eat the leftovers, it’s not a good meal-prep meal.

Chicken tortilla soup? Yes please. Pulled pork? Meh for me, but my husband likes it as leftovers so it is a yes for us as a family. The kale and sweet potato cheese tart I made last week? It’s a no. My husband’s signature breakfast burritos? Yesssss. Lentil curry or lasagna? Even better as leftovers!

Eating meal-prepped meals is basically eating leftovers, so plan accordingly πŸ™‚ Don’t make something ahead imagining your tastes will magically change.

This rule won’t work for everyone obviously, as some people never like leftovers. However, I find it to be a pretty good indicator of whether I’ll use a meal-prepped meal – and I think because it’s based on your preference it’s pretty generalize-able. Give it a try — see how it affects your meal prep success!

Just remember – the best meal prep won’t help you unless you actually eat the meal, so make sure it’s something you actually like.

P.S. This is especially important if you are just starting meal prepping. When starting a new habit you want to make it as easy as possible. Overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? While I’m not you and can’t guarantee I’ll nail your preferences 100% the first time, I’m pretty good at helping first-time meal preppers choose meals that they will like and eat.

If this sounds like you and you want to work on this together, contact me here

Prefer to watch rather than read?

My #1 rule for meal prep

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Q&A: Meal Prep!

This is a recording of a Q&A I did over on Kaigo and Instagram Live. So many great questions were sent in!

Some questions asked:

  • How to meal prep in advance for kids? Do we need to meal prep for kids?
  • How do people meal prep for a whole week? Doesn’t this take tons of cooking?
  • How to motivate yourself to take the time to meal prep to commit to healthy eating?
  • What meals taste nice after being saved for a few days?
  • How to prevent boredom?
  • Is it normal to freeze meals for time saving? How do I make sure they are safe?
  • How to meal prep for a family that all eats different things?

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Carbs, what are they good for?

Nutrition basics: Carbs – short for carbohydrates
different types of italian macaroni
Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

So, what are carbs good for? What even are carbs?

What are carbs good for?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a main source of energy for the body.

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats), that our bodies break down into energy. This energy is what we measure with calories. So along with protein and fats, carbohydrates are where we get calories to use for energy.

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the brain, most of the time.

Carbohydrates are the quickest available form of energy

Carbohydrates, stored in our muscles in the form of glycogen, are an easily available energy source during exercise

Carbohydrates that are not used for energy can be stored as fat for later use.

Different types of carbohydrates break down at different rates and so can give us energy at different speeds

Some carbohydrates act as food for the bacteria that live in our digestive system. Choosing certain types of carbohydrates over others helps keep these bacteria (and us) healthier.

What even are carbohydrates?

Chemically

[This explanation is for the science nerds. Skip ahead if you want more practical definitions]

Carbohydrates are combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules in the ratio of 1:2:1 (carbon + H2O/water/hydro=carbohydrate for you word nerds).

We get energy from these molecules when they go through a process called cellular respiration (which nutrition students spend A LOT of time memorizing for how little we use it in day to day nutrition practice). This process requires oxygen and produces energy, carbon dioxide, and water. This one of the main reasons we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide and water by the way.

hand illustrated guide showin interaction between photosynthesis, cellular respiration
Drawn by me as a student. I’m proud enough of this study aid that it’s been on my office wall for years.

Practically

The carbohydrates we eat come in three forms: sugars, starches, and fibers.

Sugars can come in naturally occurring forms like in fruit, milk (lactose), vegetables, honey, grains, etc. They can can also be refined and added to foods (white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, agave, etc.). This is the quickest to digest form of energy.

There are lots of types of starches but these are the carbohydrates we mainly get from foods like grains, starchy veggies (potato, corn, cassava, sweet potato), seeds, legumes. These can be in the form of breads, pastries, cereals, porridges, noodles, doughs – carbohydrates and starches are very versatile!

Fiber is a mostly indigestible carbohydrate that we actually don’t break down well into energy, but gives us lots of other health benefits (including feeding good bacteria in the digestive system). Lots of foods have fiber, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans.

chocolate cereal on white bowl near glass of milk
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com – Many of us think of high fiber cereals or bran but fiber is present in many foods!

Many foods that contain carbohydrates contain a combination of sugar, starch and/or fiber.

When people in general talk about carbs, they often mean different things. Some people just mean bread or pastries. Other people mean foods made with flour: bread, pasta, crackers, cereal. Some people mean all starchy foods and sweets: bread, rice, potatoes, tortillas, cookies. Some people mean any foods that contain any significant amount of carbohydrates at all – they include fruits and many veggies in this list (especially common when following a keto diet)

When dietitians talk about carbohydrates, we usually just mean a category of foods that are rich in carbohydrates. Usually this means: fruits, milk, starchy foods, sweets, sweet drinks, etc. But it is always a good idea to clarify. Most of us aren’t talking about molecules when we talk about what we eat.

I always have to be careful when I am speaking with a client about carbs that we are thinking of them same foods. If not, that’s ok – we just need to make sure we have the same understanding.

Are carbs bad?

No. See: what are carbs good for?

Are there a wide variety of carbohydrate foods with a wide variety of nutritional benefits and/or lack of benefits?

Yes. A can of Coke is very different than an apple is very different than a loaf of sourdough is very different from a pot of beans. All of these foods provide carbohydrates.

Do I need to restrict carbs? How much carbs should I eat?

This is a great question to discuss with a dietitian who can go over your individual needs with you. They can also determine if there are specific types of carbohydrate-rich foods that might be a better fit for you than others. There are many different diet patterns as far as carbohydrates go that are healthy options – telling you what pattern is right for you is NOT within the scope of this article.

TL;DR on Carbohydrates:

  • Carbohydrates are good for energy and to feed our gut bacteria
  • Carbohydrates come in three forms: sugar, starches, and fiber
  • There are a variety of foods rich in carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains. Different foods have different benefits and effects on the body
  • Talk to a dietitian if you need help figuring out how much carbohydrate or what type of carbohydrate you need.

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, here’s a reward. Crabohydrates is a common typo for me, so I finally illustrated it.

various carbohydrates but drawn as if they were crabs. (orange crab, crusty bread crab, cupcake hermit crab, ugly potater crab, le petit crabe croissant, tiny grain of rice crab)
Crabohydrates

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

How to Meal Plan for Picky Kids

I’ve previously talked about reasons your meal plan might fail and what to do about it.

Feeding picky kids is one of those reasons. So let’s talk about how to successfully meal plan for picky kids.

Let’s rephrase that though, because you can’t successfully meal plan for picky kids.

You won’t be able to make a meal plan that makes everyone completely happy and where they will eat everything, every time. That’s not realistic. Not if you don’t want to eat the same thing all the time, or make several meals daily. And kids are often fickle, so even if you make them exactly what they ask for, sometimes they won’t even eat it! You know how it goes.

But we can talk about how to successfully meal plan with picky kids in mind.

We can talk about meal planning that:

  • makes sure everyone can eat enough to feel satisfied without drama
  • doesn’t require making multiple meals at each mealtime
  • gently helps picky eaters expand their preferences
  • doesn’t require eating the same 3 meals all the time
  • gives you, as a parent or other feeder or picky eaters, peace of mind that your kid is getting the nutrition they need while developing a healthy relationship with food

This method of planning for meals is based on the gold standard for feeding kids: the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding and specifically the concept of being “considerate without catering” . If this is something you are struggling with, I highly recommend spending some time at the link above and related website. It is overall a great way to help kids 1) get the nutrition their bodies need, AND 2) develop a healthy relationship with food.

These top tips are based on the Division of Responsibility in Feeding and will help picky eaters learn to eat new foods gradually while letting everyone else enjoy variety and making sure everyone has a chance to get the nutrition they need.

Top tips for meal planning with a picky eater in mind:

Plan at least one “safe” food with every meal and snack

A “safe” food is a food that you know your child is comfortable with and is pretty likely to eat. This varies depending on the kid, and will also change over time. This does NOT have to be a favorite food and is still not a guarantee that your child will eat it (nor should they be required to), but it means they have something they can trust they can fill up on if they don’t like anything else.

Having a safe food helps remove the pressure from trying new foods because the picky eater knows they can feel full without having to fill up on the new or uncomfortable food. It also removes the pressure for you because you know they have something to eat that’s acceptable to them! They won’t go hungry just because they are scared of a new food. (Yes they might eat only rice for the meal, but hold on, that’s related to the last tip)

Many safe foods are starchy, (crackers, bread, noodles, cereal) but most kids have a few safe foods in each food group, they usually have even have a few “safe” vegetables. Broccoli is a surprisingly common safe vegetable in my experience.

If it helps you, make a list of “Safe” foods in each food group so you don’t have to think about it when planning meals.

Offer and serve uncomfortable foods (without pressure) at most meals and snacks

It’s a commonly quoted fact in nutrition education that kids may have to be exposed to a new food twenty times before they will try it.

I have tried to find the study supporting this – and I can’t, but I have found plenty of studies supporting the same concept.

Note, that’s twenty times of exposure (seeing it, being served it, etc.) before even trying it. Not twenty times before they will like it or eat it consistently. Twenty times before they’re willing to try it. To like it and eat it consistently, it’s probably gonna be more.

Twenty times is an average. For some kids it will be 50 or 100 times before they’re willing to try it. For other kids it might be five times or less.

The more times you offer a new or uncomfortable food without pressure, the more likely they will be to eat it, eventually.

The good news is, we humans eat every day, and usually, multiple times per day. That’s lots of opportunities to be exposed to new foods. A lot of kids eat 4-5 times per day. 7 days per week – that’s 28-35 new opportunities a week! So take advantage of the opportunities to get kids used to seeing uncomfortable foods!

It is important to do this without pressure. No telling them they have to eat it, no making them eat it before other foods, just serve it, and don’t make a big deal. Sometimes serving a tiny portion can also make it less intimidating. Think one blueberry, or one green bean, or one bite of chicken. And remember, you are also always serving at least one “safe” food.

Different parents feel differently about how to encourage kids to try new foods, but generally bargaining, forcing to try bites, not letting them eat other foods until they’ve tried the new food, isn’t helpful in the long term because it creates a negative association with food. Just the continued multiple, casual exposures is what will be effective long term.

Also a key here, is that these uncomfortable foods are foods that you as the parent (or feeder) are also eating. Watching parents eat foods makes a bigger difference than you think. No fair making kids eat foods that you won’t eat. They’ve got to see you eating them, or a least trying them.

Offer most food groups at most meals and snacks (not just dinner)

Kids have whims and eat inconsistently so offering most food groups at most meals and snacks increases the probability that they will eat all the food groups over the course of the day and/or the week.

This is where your list of “safe” foods can help you. Vary which food group you choose your “safe” food from to help your kids get all their food groups.

This will also help you as the parent put less pressure on yourself and them, because if you know they ate a good protein-rich breakfast (PB toast, eggs with cheese, sausage), and lunch (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, tuna salad), you can be less worried if they don’t eat a bunch of the new chicken recipe you’ve tried for dinner. If they eat baby carrots almost every day for lunch and celery sticks frequently for snacks, you can worry less that they don’t eat much veggies at dinner.

This also helps kids learn that different food groups can belong at all meals and can be eaten in different ways. They don’t get stuck thinking that steamed broccoli or salad are the only 2 ways to eat veggies, for example.

Also, as a super practical tip – some kids have better appetite and adventurous energy earlier in the day. Try offering new foods more often at lunch and snack (leftover roasted asparagus with the PB and J) and see if this makes a difference.

The next tip goes hand in hand:

Think of nutrition in terms of the whole day (or even the whole week) instead of per meal

Some visual models we use to teach about balanced nutrition look like this:

So we picture that kids will eat like this:

sticky note showing pie charts of an evenly balanced diet at each meal

Kids actually often eat like this:

But their nutritional intake usually balances out if you look at the day as a whole, or especially if you look at the week as a whole.

This is why it’s so helpful to offer most food groups at most meals. You are providing a steady, predictable base, so kids’ seemingly random eating can balance itself out.

Sometimes kids can feel like little random number generators. They won’t always eat predictably. Sometimes they will eat a lot, other times a little. Sometimes they will try a new food, sometimes they won’t even touch a food they normally like. We can help them out by offering a variety of food groups, a variety of liked and unliked foods, making sure there’s always something they can feel full on, and just not making a big deal out of it.

Some final encouragement

That being said, it won’t be drama free all the time. This method really does help in the long term, but it’s sometimes difficult to start. How should you keep track of all the food groups and what your child (or children) likes and doesn’t? How do you think of the whole day or even the whole week when you feel overwhelmed by just one meal? It can be overwhelming!

I love helping families figure out this type of meal plan. I’m happy to take on the mental work of planning and juggling of food groups so you can just focus on doing it. If that sounds like it would help you, contact me here

There are also a LOT of great resources out there. Here are a few of my favorites!

Prefer to watch instead of read?

Top 4 tips for meal planning with picky kids in mind

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

How to stay more hydrated in the winter

I know for me (and for many people) it’s harder to stay hydrated in the winter. I don’t feel as thirsty. I’m not outside in the sun or getting as warm. Drinking cool or cold water doesn’t sound as refreshing as on a hot summer day.

Plus, the air is often drier due to the season and due to being inside with the heat on – so we might even need a little more hydrate than normal.

If that sounds like you, here are some ways to make winter hydration easier!

  • Drink decaf or noncaffeinated tea or coffee. The liquids in these hot drinks are still hydrating.
  • Drink herbal or other types of tea! Lemon, ginger, hibiscus, mint, chamomile, lavender – there are so many to choose from!
  • Drink hot or warm water – add a little lemon or other flavoring if you feel like the taste of hot water is weird
  • Regular coffee or tea – there is some thought that the caffeine in these drinks is actually dehydrating due to its diuretic effects, but research shows that in general the overall effect is hydrating, especially if you are drinking in moderate amounts and not more than you are used to. (Read about health benefits of coffee here)
  • Hot chocolate or other hot milk beverages like chai – these beverages can also provide extra nutrition like calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium, etc.
  • Eat more soup! The liquid in soup can still hydrate you even if it’s not a drink! You can also drink broth – just choose one with a lower sodium content if you can.
  • Make sure you are still eating your fruits and veggies! Fruits and veggies have a high water content and can take care of a good portion of our total fluid needs for the day!
  • Make time to hydrate. Having a little tea or coffee break can be a nice cozy part of a cold day and can be a welcome break from work or studying.
  • If it helps, count your fluid intake. Just doing this for a few days might help you realize what times of day you need to add in fluids.
  • If you still like cold drinks in winter, enjoy!

How do you know if you are hydrated enough? Read this post for more information

How do you stay hydrated when it’s cold outside?

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

How much water do I actually need to drink?

How much water do you actually need to drink? Recommendations vary widely. I’m sure you’ve heard 8 glasses of water per day. I’m sure you’ve also heard 1 gallon of water per day, although I feel like that is more promoted by influencers selling giant water bottles.

The reality is – the amount of water you need to drink varies.

The amount of water you will need to drink is different than someone else and will also probably change day to day

The amount of water you need to drink can depend on:

  • how old you are
  • what size you are
  • what your body composition is
  • how hot it is
  • how much salt you eat
  • how much water you are losing based on your activity level
  • how much you sweat
  • how much water you lose through the air, which depends on your climate (both geographically and based on climate control like A/C or heating)
  • how much water you get from other drinks or food
  • if you are breastfeeding or pregnant
  • if you have certain medical conditions

So, how do you tell if you are drinking enough??

The best way to tell if you are hydrated is that your urine is light-colored. If it’s dark, or even very yellow, drink more. This gauge is helpful because it will automatically adjust depending on the above factors.

It’s also important to hydrate consistently throughout the day because we can’t store water. We are not camels. If you drink your whole “recommended amount” of water at the beginning of the day and then nothing during the rest of the day, you will not be well hydrated. (And the color of your urine will reflect this)

Can you drink too much water? Yes, but it is difficult. Our bodies are pretty good about keeping fluid balance correct by getting rid of extra water.

Drinking too much water can be dangerous, but in healthy people without kidney problems this is rare and usually only will happen if you drink extremely large amounts of water in a very short amount of time or if you have lost a LOT of fluid and electrolytes recently – like during a marathon or if someone is rehydrating after severe dehydration.

Most of the time, erring on the side of more water (unless you have a fluid restriction from your doctor) is the way to go. Especially if you are drinking gradually as you go through the day.

The bottom line: drink enough water and other fluids throughout the day so that your urine is light colored, most of the time

Obviously, if you have more specific instructions from your doctor, dietitian, or other health professional, follow those, but if you are just looking for general guidance, that’s the way to go!

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Why I write about nutrition basics

I write posts about Nutrition Basics because nutrition terms get thrown around a lot. That can make words like calories, fat, protein, etc. seem familiar. It also means we can say the same words but be thinking of different concepts!

I write posts about Nutrition Basics because it’s important to me that my audience and I are thinking of the same things when I say protein, or carbs, etc.

I also write these posts because I want them in my voice. I want you to hear what I think and believe about carbs, or protein, or sugar, for example, and just to explain in simple terms what those things mean, with a little bit of basic background.

That way when I say, add some healthy carbs, or make sure you have enough calories! you know what that means.

Here are some nutrition basics I’ve written so far:

Protein

What is protein?

A list of protein foods
How much protein should you eat?

Plant-based protein

Hydration

How much water do I actually need to drink?

More to come!

Carbohydrates

Carbs, what are they good for?

What nutrition basics do you want me to write about? Add your suggestion to the comments or send me a message!

Want your kids to try foods? Just be cool 😎

Listen, I see this mistake all the time and if you want your child to be an adventurous eater, it’s just self sabotage.

Stop telling your kids they won’t like a food! Stop saying in front of them that they’re a picky eater!

“You probably won’t like this”

“She won’t eat that”

“Kids don’t like this”

“Oh, this? It has [fill in the blank food], you don’t like [fill in the blank food]”

(This post is not about telling your child that they won’t like your favorite candy so you don’t have to share – that is a different issue altogether)

Why? Your kids will believe you!

You are totally allowed to think that your child probably won’t eat or like a food that is served and most of the time you will probably be right because you know your kid.

However, when you tell them they won’t like it, you’re saying “It’s not worth trying something you think you won’t like”. I mean, you might mean that, but most of the parents I work with do NOT want their kids to believe this. They want them to believe the exact opposite! (Which is “It’s good to try new foods and you shouldn’t say you don’t like it before you’ve tried it“)

It’s also totally possible to go too hard the other way and turn kids off trying a new food because you’re pushing it so much, but that’s not what this post is about.

So even if you think your child won’t eat something, just be cool and they might surprise you!

How to be cool, when you don’t feel cool?

  • Serve them a tiny portion without saying anything
  • You eat it, enjoy it and don’t make a big deal out of it
  • If they ask for some, give them some
  • If you feel like you have to talk about it, say something objective: “It’s crunchy” “Tastes like lemon” “It’s spicy”
  • It’s fine to express that you like a food! Just be genuine. Don’t exaggerate to get them to want some.
  • Ask them what they think (if they’ve already tried it) in a way that encourages them to describe it neutrally. “What flavor is it?” “Does it remind you of anything?”

What should you say to other people about your child’s eating? Feeding Littles shared this great post with some examples a while back:

If you’d rather watch or listen than read:

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Some reasons your meal plan might fail and ways to fix it

Like you, your meal plan is unique, and the reasons it fails are also unique. However, here are some common reasons it might not work out and some tips to make it more successful.

1 ) You are trying to make it do too much because you haven’t decided what you really want it to accomplish.

If you’re not sure what is important to you, you may try to do too many things at once and not really succeed at all of them. Read the Lazy Genius’s When Your Meal Plan Has House Hunter’s Syndrome (very quick read) for a great discussion of why this doesn’t work. This is why it is so important to know what you want your meal plan to do for you and why I wrote a whole post about it last week!

How to fix it: Decide the most important things (1-3) you want your meal plan to do for you and don’t worry about the rest

Narrowing down what you really need (e.g. time efficiency, variety, stability, nutrition, cost savings, comfort, ease of preparation) will help you prioritize and eliminate the effort of trying to accomplish what you don’t need (e.g. time efficiency, variety, stability, nutrition, cost savings, comfort, ease of preparation) See how what you need could be the same as what someone doesn’t need?

See What you need for your meal plan to be successful for some good examples of what this might look like in different situations, including what my meal plan was like in college.

2) You don’t take your real life into account

Sometimes when we plan meals, I think we imagine this separate time and place where we will have a clean kitchen and lots of workspace, plenty of energy, and enough time to leisurely and lovingly prepare new and delicious recipes maybe with some nice music to sing and dance around to.

Is that just me?

Anyway, we are realists here at Nutrition for Real Humans and I don’t know about you but that only sometimes happens. When it does, it’s great, but most of the time, at least one of the following is true.

  • It’s after a long day of work and I’m tired
  • I have very little time between work and another commitment so there’s no time to cook
  • There are enough dirty dishes from the day that I have to work around them
  • We don’t have that much counter space
  • I don’t feel like chopping vegetables
  • I’m really hungry and would rather just eat now
  • I don’t feel like eating what I’ve planned
  • I watch YouTube videos while cooking instead of dancing to nice music

Surely there are other things that make following a meal plan more challenging for you: kids are upset, there’s after dinner activities, an appointment unexpectedly went late, the ingredients you thought you had you don’t or they’ve gone bad . . .etc.

How to fix it: Look at your calendar and really imagine your day while you’re picking the meals to plan

Choose meals that will fit the day.

Don’t plan to try an involved new recipe on the day you have to leave early for choir practice – plan a slow cooker meal, sandwiches, or plan to get something to go

Don’t plan a meal that nobody really likes that much on a stressful day – choose a comforting, easy-to-make meal

Want to try a new involved recipe? Pick a day when you’ll have time and energy to enjoy the process!

Of course this doesn’t help for the unexpected. Another reason your meal plan might fail:

3) Your meal plan isn’t flexible enough

This one’s tricky because for some people, the whole reason they need a meal plan is for stability and predictability. Different people will need different amounts of flex, you might not want very much and that’s ok.

But I think more meal plans would succeed if they included a little flexibility for days when you are unexpectedly busy, or you’re missing a crucial ingredient, or just don’t feel like making what you planned because let’s be honest, it happens.

How to fix it: Plan 1-2 meals that can flex, or can easily be moved around

Flexible meals:

  • use ingredients you always have on hand (nothing special, they’ll get used even if you don’t use them for this meal) or won’t go bad (frozen stuff is GREAT for this)
  • are generally easy and quick to make
  • are generally always acceptable to eat
  • (This can also be planning to get takeout or go out to a restaurant)

Some of our go-to flexible meals are bean burritos made with canned beans, macaroni and cheese, eggs and toast, frozen fish and oven fries and frozen peas, pasta made with jarred or frozen sauce.

You can use a flexible meal to fill in for a planned meal that doesn’t work out

AND/OR

These meals can be skipped like no big deal because those ingredients will definitely get eaten eventually. This is useful for

  • unexpected spontaneous dinner plans (hey! meet us for Taco Tuesday!)
  • unexpectedly abundant leftovers that need to get used up

And if everything goes to plan and you make all your other planned meals, then great, your flex meals give you an easy and appealing meal to look forward to making!

4) You have picky kids (or picky adults ) πŸ™ƒ

This is a whole other blog post. Stay tuned.

Watch below if you’d rather listen than read:

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

What you need for your meal plan to be successful

The short answer: you need to know what you want it to do for you.

Sound familiar? This is the same way to make snacks work for you

It would be nice if it was just something you could buy, like a neat meal planner, or a cute chalkboard to write your menu on, or even buying a pre-made meal plan from a service or the right meal prep containers. But it’s rarely that easy or one size fits all. That’s why this is key to success – because it’s not trying to make one solution work for everybody. It’s helping YOU know what YOU need.

Now, this isn’t a guaranteed success tool. It’s not like you will automatically succeed just because you know what you want to accomplish.

BUT, if you’re not sure what the point of your meal plan is, how will you know it’s working? How will you make it work?

You need to know what difference you want your meal plan to make so you know when it’s successful.

AND

Knowing how you want your meal plan to serve you will help you decide what it needs to include and what it doesn’t.

(The Lazy Genius talks a lot about this very eloquently, and I promise I didn’t steal this idea from her, it is just true. If you want to read what she has to say, start here: When your meal plan has house hunters syndrome and here: Create a meal plan that will save your life and make you pretty)

Anyway. Enough theory. Let’s talk about some examples – that always helps me.

College Cami

(That’s me)

I did not have a lot of money, but I did have time, and I was willing to eat some weird stuff. I was mainly cooking just for myself and, as I was studying nutrition, trying to follow nutrition guidelines. I also lived in an apartment with 3 roommates and 1 fridge. So what did I want my meal plan to do for me?

  • Be cheap
  • Be efficient with ingredients (not use a lot of variety, both for cost savings and for space savings – 4 roommates one fridge, remember?)
  • Meet certain nutrition goals, like eat fish 2x/wk, have enough calcium, etc.

What did I not need my meal plan to do for me ?

  • Be quick and easy to make – I had plenty of time to cook
  • Please anybody else – I could just make what I wanted and/or was willing to eat
  • Be mentally easy – I had mental space and enthusiasm to try a lot of new recipes, so I could make weird stuff with the ingredients I had because I had time to think about it
Glass bowl with pasta and carrots and peas and broccoli
Roasted veggie pasta

Practically this meant I ate a lot of beans, cheap vegetables like cabbage, some cheap meats like whole chicken and sardines, and I did a lot of cooking from scratch and a lot of new recipes. (Made my own bread, tortillas, broth, etc.).

Purple smoothie in a jar on a windowsill
This is a smoothie with actual red cabbage in it. I have never had a smoothie with cabbage in it after college, but I liked the color so much that I have 3 or 4 pictures of this smoothie.

Let’s move on to Dietetic Internship Cami

Woman stands in front of national nutrition month poster board
I have almost no pictures from this time and certainly no pictures of what we were eating. But here’s a picture of me with a poster I made for my internship haha.

At this point I had a little more money because I had married a rich engineer – haha, just kidding, we weren’t rich, because dietetic internships DON’T PAY YOU, but we had a little more money. We were also very tired. Both of us were working full time and commuting at least an hour each way (usually more). I didn’t need to pack lunch because one of the perks of dietetic internships despite being unpaid is that they sometimes/often feed you. But my husband did, so some leftovers or lunch ingredients he could pack were helpful. So what did I need my meal plan to do for me then?

  • Be convenient! We needed meals that required almost ZERO effort when we got home at night. I seriously still don’t know how we made it though that year; when I think back most of what I remember is exhaustion.
  • Save some sanity. In addition to not having much time, we were both pretty burned out and so didn’t have a lot of motivation or mental energy to cook or plan meals
  • Still save some money (again, we weren’t really rich, just no longer poor college students)
  • Be acceptable for both me and my husband – thankfully he’s not picky so this wasn’t a big deal, and provide some leftovers he could take for lunch.

What did I not have to worry about for this meal plan?

  • Cost (as much)
  • Efficiency (a little more money to spend on a variety of ingredients, and a whole apartment kitchen to store our stuff!)
  • I didn’t worry as much about nutrition, mainly because convenience was a priority

We ate a lot of slow cooker meals that I would prep ahead on the weekends, a lot of quick meals like quesadillas or grilled PBJ. We ate a lot of the same meals on repeat because we didn’t have to think of new ones, and we went out to eat more often* (but still not a lot), because we could afford it, and it was sometimes a bright spot after a long day.

*Remember this: Planning to go to a restaurant or planning to get takeout counts as meal planning. Many times the reasons we meal plan (cost, nutrition, dietary restrictions) limit eating out but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of a successful meal plan.

Now a family (based on many real life families I’ve worked with)

They are tired of eating the same 5 meals over and over again and they want to spend less money on going out to eat. They get overwhelmed at dinner time so it would be helpful to have a dinner decision made BEFORE the kids get tired and crazy and they get super hungry and they end up just picking up sandwiches or making chicken nuggets again. They’d like to eat healthy, but don’t have any specific nutrition-related health conditions or dietary restrictions. Their meal plan needs to:

  • reduce decision fatigue by just having the decision made ahead of time
  • be convenient enough that they will follow their plan and not just go out to eat anyway because what they’ve planned has too many steps
  • include enough variety to help them and their kids not be bored and/or learn to eat new foods
  • but also be familiar and appealing enough that they will follow through with the plan

What they don’t need to include:

  • any particular nutrition goals or dietary restrictions (I always think trying to get all the food groups in is good, but this is not their priority right now)
  • cost savings on food because they’ve determined going out to eat less will save them money
  • a lot of new recipes or meals. Too many new things at once is overwhelming even if the actual dish/recipe is easy. They might be adding in 1-2 new things per week. (like a new salad dressing or a new side dish to a favorite main)

Their meal plan would probably include a lot of familiar, easy to make favorites, with small variations each week and maybe as they get in the habit of cooking at home, they start to add in new recipes more frequently. They will probably be most successful if they use convenience products (pre-cut veggies, pre-made sauces, frozen sides or mains) so the effort at dinner time is easy. Shooting for generally balanced meals is good, but if trying to eat lots of vegetables or low salt for example, will make them less likely to eat at home or try new things (their priority), then it does not serve the meal plan and should be set aside to make room for their priority.

My college meal plan would not work for this imaginary family. Probably way too many weird things for their comfort level (molasses on bread for dessert anyone?) and a lot of unnecessary stress about cost savings when paying for some convenience is within their budget and will help them accomplish their goal of being less overwhelmed at dinner time.

You need to decide what success looks and feels like for YOUR meal plan.

Questions? Comments? Tips? Share in the comments. Or talk to me if you need help figuring out what a successful meal plan looks like for you. That’s my specialty. πŸ™‚