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.
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 🙂 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
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.
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:
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!
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?
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
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
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!
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.
Knowing how you want your meal plan to serve you will help you decide what it needs to include and what it doesn’t.
Anyway. Enough theory. Let’s talk about some examples – that always helps 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 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
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.).
Let’s move on to Dietetic Internship Cami
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. 🙂
Make an “emergency meal” list – this is like brainless crowd pleasers, but eaaaaassy (e.g. hot dogs and mac and cheese, PBJ, scrambled eggs and toast, Chicken Caesar salad from a bag), something you can cook at home when you don’t have time or energy. It’s ok if most of your meals are like this. They don’t have to be fancy.
Consider using a snacky meal on a day when you just can’t even
Have a different family member plan or prepare on different days of the week (Age-appropriately of course – your toddler cannot make dinner by themselves). This can be a great way to get kids involved and more excited about food.
Don’t plan to make involved or new recipes on days you know you will be busy! (These are great days for an “emergency meal”. Or for going out, if that fits with your goals)
Pick one new recipe to try per month
Use convenience items if you can afford it and they are available. What parts of cooking at home do you hate? Can buy a product to eliminate that? I hate washing lettuce – I’m much more likely to eat salad if I have pre-washed greens. We eat a ton of frozen veggies. Hate cooking raw meat? Buy it frozen and pre-cooked, or choose meals that don’t involve meat
Don’t mind leftovers? Making a big pot of soup or chili to eat throughout the week works well
Do mind leftovers? Freeze any leftovers for a few weeks from now (this doesn’t work for things like salad obviously)
Don’t get stuck on needing to cook at dinner – maybe cooking lunch or breakfast is a better fit for you
Do half and half – do a takeout entree and homemade salad or veggie. Or reverse – make some baked fish and get some fries from MacDonalds.