You are committed to eating well and preparing nourishing meals for your family, but pulling together healthy dinners after long work days can be easier said than done. Here are a few meal planning tips to help you serve nutritious and delicious dinners throughout the week despite your hectic schedule.
- Consult your calendar and plan 5-7 dinners for the week ahead.
It may seem daunting at first, but I promise you the few minutes you spend planning each week will save you time and angst in the long run. Please don’t avoid this step – the more you do it, the easier it gets. As I lay out my plan for the week, I have a few favorite cookbooks and recipes nearby for ideas, inspiration, and to create a detailed shopping list.
Planning will make it more likely that your dinners are varied and nutritionally balanced. You’ll know what ingredients you need before shopping and be able to match meals to your schedule. A quick stir fry might work on a night when you don’t have much time, while a crock pot meal is great on evenings when schedules prevent the whole family from eating together.
- Develop a go-to list of simple recipes for particularly busy nights.
Healthy eating doesn’t need to be complicated. Have a go-to list of meals you can prepare in 30-40 minutes. You can quickly broil meat, poultry or fish, or scramble some eggs (my family always enjoyed “breakfast for dinner”). Steaming or roasting vegetables is quick and easy, especially if you wash and chop them in the morning before work. After steaming vegetables, I freeze the water the vegetables cooked in for stock instead of tossing those nutrients down the sink.
It takes no time at all to microwave cooked brown rice or quinoa, or mash and heat the sweet potatoes you cooked ahead. Salads and slaws can be pulled together quickly. Toss in nuts and seeds (walnuts, pecans, sesame seeds, pine nuts) to add protein, healthy fats and fiber.
- Be an efficient shopper.
As you decide on your weekly menus, write out a shopping list for the items you need. I know the layout of my favorite grocery stores, so the order of items on my list flows through the store. It may sound a little obsessive, but I move through the store quickly with very little backtracking and wasted time. We shop once a week for most of what we need, with quick stops during the week as needed for fresh or specialty items.
We have a chalk board in our kitchen. When I use the last of an item while cooking, I quickly note it on the chalk board and it goes on my next shopping list. My family has gotten into the habit of using the chalkboard when they finish something they’d like me to buy again.
- Buy and cook for the season.
Buy fruits and vegetables in season. They will taste better and have higher nutritional value than produce that has been shipped from far away. Here are some examples: in spring, look for lettuces, watercress, spinach, asparagus, chard, rhubarb, and berries. Summer brings corn, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, beets, summer squash, cauliflower, apricots, and peaches. You’ll see kale, butternut and acorn squash, broccoli rabe, artichokes, sweet potatoes, apples, and pears in the fall. In winter, choose brussel sprouts, cabbage, lemons, oranges and grapefruits.
Shopping at a farmers’ market is a great way to get fresh, local foods. Another option is to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The program we chose dropped our weekly box just a short walk from my home. My son was always curious to see what we got!
If you have a sunny window, grow your own herbs and you’ll be ready anytime to boost the flavor of whatever you prepare. You can grind herbs on the spot with a mortar and pestle (great job for the kids) and most herbs freeze well in an airtight container after washing and drying thoroughly.
- Cook over the weekend and do some prep work before leaving home in the morning.
Get at least one meal done in advance by cooking on the weekend. It will make your week easier by cooking a big batch of brown rice, tomato or pesto sauce, beans, soups and stews. You can bake extra potatoes and winter squashes, or hard-boil eggs for salads and sandwiches. Sauces, soups and stews store well in the freezer, saving you time down the road.
You will also save time by doing a little prep work in the morning. Wash and perhaps cut the produce and set out pots, pans, and other cooking utensils. Marinate if called for in the recipe.
- Enjoy leftovers.
Leftovers often get a bad rap, but they can make for an easy and fun meal. We usually have one night a week when we “eat out of the refrigerator.” We avoid wasting food and it’s fun for everyone to choose the things they like best. A quick side salad can round out the meal.
- Stock up on essentials.
As you settle on some favorite recipes, you’ll know what to have on hand. Here is a starter list:
Garlic, onions, ginger, shallots, lemon, lime, parmesan cheese, parsley, eggs, plain yogurt, almond butter
Oils & Vinegars
Olive oil (cold-pressed extra virgin and regular), peanut oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, white vinegar, rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar
Beans, lentils, broths, tomatoes & paste, olives, salmon, sardines, anchovies, quinoa, brown and jasmine rice, bulgur, pasta, nuts, seeds, coconut milk, oatmeal
Spices & dried herbs, honey, hot-pepper sauce, capers, soy sauce, fish sauce
Baking powder, baking soda, brown sugar, whole-wheat flour, buckwheat flour
Once you sit down to your dinner, pause for moment, breathe deeply and give thanks for your food, creating a transition from what might have been a mad dash to get dinner on the table to a space to savor and enjoy your meal.
This article is for informational and educational purposes only and does not substitute for medical advice.