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.
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.
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
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. 🙂