Do you do meal planning? What are you having for dinner tonight? Do you know? Will it be some random food you manage to pull together after a long day at work, or have you planned it out? Will you just stop at a drive-thru on the way home, or is there a method to your madness?
For some, meal planning is nonexistent. For others, they have designated days for different food items (Monday is pot roast, Tuesday is pizza, Wednesday is spaghetti, etc.). Some may feel their life is too busy to plan out meals. Others methodically plan fun, nutritious meals that have a wow factor and help to create memorable experiences with food.
There is plenty of information accessible about meal planning in general these days. However, this article focuses on meal planning from a food experience perspective. All of The Six Principles of Positive Food Experiences (Food, People, Environment, Knowledge Base, Interaction, and Motivation) come into play to improve meal planning and to help create positive food experiences.
Benefits of Meal Planning
There are many benefits to meal planning:
· Meal planning promotes excitement and interest in meals.
Meal planning creates anticipation. While planning the meal, the fact that it is something new and different creates that level of excitement for you and your family. The question, “Hmmm, I wonder what we’re having tonight…” fills the air and your thoughts.
· Meal planning improves your attitude about food.
Meal planning empowers you with information you can use to make food decisions. That information can in turn determine how you feel about food, assist you in understanding the benefits of different foods, etc.
· Meal planning helps you gain some degree of control over what you eat.
If you are getting takeout from a local restaurant, for example, you don’t necessarily have a lot of visibility or control over what ingredients are in that meal. While many food establishments have nutrition information for various menu items, you don’t have as much control over what and how you eat as you would if you make the food items yourself.
· Meal planning saves time.
Instead of deciding on the fly what you are going to have for dinner tonight, for example, you can save time by deciding beforehand. I plan meals a week in advance, for example. That way I don’t have to spend time each day deciding what to eat – I can execute the plan.
· Meal planning decreases your stress level.
Stress affects everyone with whom you eat, so decreasing stress helps everyone to breathe a sigh of relief. When you plan in advance, you don’t have to add that task to your already busy day. It’s already done!
· Meal planning helps you save money.
Let’s face it: eating out is expensive. Whether eating in a sit-down restaurant or grabbing a packaged meal at the grocery store, the food industry wants to capitalize on your desire for food. As you save money and become more efficient about your food purchases, you foster good memories about the food experience.
Tips for Meal Planning
So how do you do meal planning? Here are 6 tips to consider:
Tip #1: Review background information.
When I do meal planning, for example, I take many factors into account:
· Special requests from family members for different foods
· Past recipes we have not eaten in while (I try to mix it up a bit)
· New recipes that would be fun to try
· Different cuisines or types of food (fish and seafood, pasta, soup, Asian, Greek, etc.)
· Different meat dishes (beef, chicken, fish, seafood)
· Vegetarian meals
· The intensity of food preparation required for a meal (this varies depending on the week’s activities)
· Recipes that call for new techniques (e.g., soufflé, julienne-cut)
· Using new ingredients
· Cooking fresh, healthy meals. We are trying to move away from the high fat and cholesterol meals (or we at least eat them less often or modify the recipe to reduce the fat content)
· Ingredients I currently have on hand
· A balance of foods (quantity and quality)
· Food budget
Tip #2: Do some meal preparation steps in advance.
Meal parts can be diced, sliced, chopped, bagged, and ready for you to put together for the actual meal. Some steps can be done a day in advance. Other steps can be done the morning of the meal. For example, we had Greek Kabobs several weeks back. To save time, I cut up and seasoned the meat and vegetables the night before. I prepared the Tzatziki sauce and hummus early in the day. That way, I just needed to put the meat and veggies on skewers and cook them up on the night of our meal.
Tip #3: Invest in kitchen gadgets.
This parallels with growing your knowledge base, in that you are learning different culinary skills. As you become more adept at cooking, the time needed for the meal planning and preparation may decrease (depending on the recipe level of intensity, and other factors, of course). Once you are well versed in a particular skill (dicing onions, for example), that skill will take less time, and you won’t have to learn it on the fly.
For example, our food processor is priceless. It’s not just a basic food processor. It blends, grates, slices, and shreds a variety of different foods. I can grate cheese, slice a variety of different vegetables, and blend sauces. We also plan to get additional slicing blades for different cut thicknesses. We love it! It saves a lot of time throughout the meal preparation.
Tip #4: Look at the order of preparation.
Think about the sequence of steps and how you can be more efficient with the time you have for meal preparation. For example, I usually cut up vegetables first, and then do meat. Depending on what type of starch or grain we are having that night (pasta, rice, quinoa, etc.), that food item can be cooking while I am preparing the vegetables and meat.
Tip #5: Think food safety.
Food safety is a huge part of meal planning. If you eat bad food, you are certainly not going to have a positive food experience. Plan your grocery purchases strategically. Purchase non-perishable items first. Perishables should not be out at room temperature for more than two hours. If necessity dictates, place perishables in a cooler with ice or some other bag designed to keep the food cold if you will be out running errands for awhile.
Tip #6: Take inventory as you prepare your grocery list.
There have been times when I thought I had certain ingredients, only to realize I did not. Also, sometimes ingredients go bad before you have a chance to use them. Take a full inventory of what you have and what you need to buy before you leave home.
Meal Planning Example
Let’s walk through an example of meal planning from a positive food experience perspective. This level of detail has been done for illustrative purposes. You may or may not need to get into the minutia of detail as we have done here. There are also many technology apps and other things to assist in the process. We will cover those in a future article.
As the pictures below illustrate, there are several steps to meal planning that can help you be more organized, creative, and timesaving. For example, for us as a two-person family, I usually cook about 2-3 times a week, and then we have leftovers during the rest of the week. We often have leftovers from the previous week (that are still good) that I rotate into the mix so we don’t waste food. I alternate leftovers to ensure we have variety.
Let’s take a closer look at each step.
Step 1: List all meals and snacks for the week.
This is a complete inventory of what ingredients are needed for each meal and snack. I like to include everything so that I know what I have on hand and what needs to be purchased. I can also get a feel for when during the week those meals need to be prepared based on schedule of work and other activities.
Step 2: List all the ingredients needed for each of those meals and snacks.
You may want to also include the quantities so you know how much you need of each food item.
Step 3: Note which ingredients you already have on hand.
Here you are essentially taking inventory of what you already have and what needs to be purchased. That saves you having to buy something you already have at home. It’s also helpful for food rotation so you use fresh ingredients. Of course, if you find that a food item has gone bad, you will need to buy more. I find that when I write things down (as opposed to just making a mental note), I tend to forget an ingredient less often. That saves having to run to the store during the week to pick up a forgotten item.
Step 4: Make a grocery list of the ingredients you need to buy.
You can either mark it on your main list (to see it in context), or make a separate grocery list (which may eliminate confusion with other items).
Step 5: Decide where you will buy those ingredients.
Are those ingredients items that you use often? Buying in bulk may be a cost effective solution. For example, we eat Greek yogurt as a snack almost every day during the week, so I buy that in bulk. Are you using specialized ingredients? You may need to call ahead to see what grocery stores carry that ingredient. If ingredients are unavailable or too expensive, you many need to substitute other ingredients, or just omit that ingredient altogether.
Although the process illustrated above may seem a little detailed, it can be helpful for visibility of information. Going through the steps helps you to see what you plan to eat. It helps you to take inventory of what ingredients (and quantities) you do have, what ingredients (and quantities) you need to buy. More importantly, meal planning helps you to focus on the whole experience.
I invite you to spend time each week doing meal planning. You don’t necessarily need to write everything out on a piece of paper. You can be as high-level or as detailed as you would like. Planning out your meals can help you create your own positive food experiences.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: How has meal planning helped you create positive food experiences? Do you have any tips, tricks, or lessons learned? Share them with us, and we can all learn together!