By blog team member, Kelly. To learn more about Kelly, check out our team page!
If I could give only one tip for sticking to a mostly real food diet it would be this: plan ahead.
Weekly meal planning is key to avoiding highly processed foods or the drive-thru. As the primary cook in our house, not a day goes by that I’m not asked “what’s for dinner?” I love being able to easily answer this question!
Meal planning does take some time up front, especially when you’re just getting started with it. But in the long run it actually saves time, money and stress! As the saying goes… “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
So, don’t despair, prepare! Consider these tips for planning healthy real food meals for your family:
- Start with what you have. Clean out your refrigerator and pantry and make a list of the foods you already have on hand. Especially take note of the items that you need to use up before they go bad, such as fresh vegetables.
- Temper your enthusiasm. Don’t try to cook dinner every night, and don’t try more than one new recipe a week. When I first transitioned to real food, I was cooking (and my husband was washing dishes) all. the. time. I love cooking, but I quickly realized that approach wasn’t sustainable. And if you’re new to real food and/or cooking, don’t be afraid to take some shortcuts. The occasional purchase of a prepared meal that uses real ingredients, or even better, real food leftovers heated up and eaten together still counts as a “family dinner.” So look at your week and decide how many and which nights you will actually have time to cook. Cooking four nights a week is usually realistic for our family. On the nights you do cook, always make extra for leftovers. And because it usually takes more time to cook something for the very first time, plan accordingly and maybe save a new recipe for the weekend.
- Categorize your dinners. Starting with a completely blank slate can be overwhelming. By categorizing your dinners you will have a framework for choosing what to make, and it can help ensure a good variety too. You can categorize your dinners around the type of protein you’ll be having or by the type of vegetables that are in season. Or maybe you’d like to categorize by “themes” (Slow Cooker Sunday, Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc.) or cuisine type. Whatever categories you choose, remember to incorporate the foods that you already have on hand and need to use up.
- Develop a recipe system. Organizing your recipes or meal ideas by these same categories will make it easy to choose what’s for dinner each week. You can store your recipes electronically or keep it old school with recipe cards. Yes, people still use recipe cards!
- Keep it simple. You certainly don’t need to plan what you’ll be eating for every meal, every day of the week. I plan our dinners each week, but for breakfast and lunch I keep it simple by rotating between two or three of the same meals and eating leftovers. For snacks we mostly stick with veggies or fruit paired with protein, like nut butter.
- Write it down. Write or type out your weekly meal plan and grocery list. Again, this could be paper to pen or online. If you’d like to try my system, download my Free Meal Planning Tool. I’ve found it works well to plan, shop, and prep on Sunday (for the week), and again on Thursday (for the weekend). My meal planning tool also includes a place to note what needs to be prepped ahead of time, things like defrosting meat or chopping fresh veggies. Finally, the shopping list is organized by how I walk through the co-op, which may seem over-the-top organized to some, but it definitely saves time at the store, which is key when shopping with a toddler in tow.
- And… go! Follow your plan, reap the benefits, and enjoy feeding your family real food.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that there are also a number of online meal planning services to choose from these days. I personally have found it easier to develop and use my own, free system. But whatever helps you to easily plan and prepare meals will help you stick to real, healthy food, so use what works for you.
How does your busy family stick to a diet of mostly real food? Please share your tips in the comments below.
Kelly Harjes is a Certified Holistic Health Coach and founder of Appetite for Healthy Change™. Her mission is to inspire others to look and feel their best, feed their families well, and help improve our food system.