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Monday, October 31, 2016

Time Saving Meal Planning Tips

Ever asked yourself, “What am I going to make for dinner?” at 5pm when you’re already starving? Or come home from a training session really hungry with no desire to cook? It’s common, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Meal planning can make such a difference to the quality and types of foods that you eat. By investing a few hours of time to plan and prep, it is possible for nutritious food to be just as convenient as takeout. In my experience, this is something many people want to do but are unsure where to start, or are worried it will take a lot of time. It definitely becomes easier once you find a system that works for you. Read on for some tips to help you get started.

A few of my keys to a healthy diet for active individuals include:
  • Try to make the majority of your eating whole, minimally processed foods
  • Make your meals and snacks colourful – this means lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Eat every 3-4 hours to maintain your energy and meet your nutrient needs. This means no skipping meals and including balanced meals and snacks during the day. You’ll have a constant supply of energy, minimize those “hangry” feelings and be more productive. 
In order to do all of these, I have found you need to be mindful about what groceries you are bringing into your house and how you will use them.

I’ve put together a quick guide to help you get started on meal planning. This will mainly focus on planning dinners, but planning other meals and snacks can be very beneficial as well.  

Before we dive in, what makes a good dinner?

The Healthy Plate Model below is a general guideline for portioning your meals. This is great for the offseason or when trying to manage your weight, but for heavier training days you may need 1/3 or ½ plate coming from carbs. To do this, keep protein at ¼ of the plate and replace some of the veggies with more carb rich foods.

What to include in the meal:

Vegetables - At least two types of vegetables
Protein – lean meats, beans and legumes, fish, tofu, etc.
Healthy Carbs/Grains – whole grains like rice, quinoa, farro, whole wheat pasta and wraps or starchy vegetables like potatoes, squash and corn
Healthy Fat – oils, avocado, nuts and seeds

Meal Planning in 3 Steps – Plan, Shop and Prep

Have a list of go-to meals and recipes
Create a Master List of tried and true meals that will make the bulk of your weekly eating. Include as many as you can, and use it as your starting point when planning meals for the week. To prevent getting stuck in a food rut, try to make it a goal to cook at least one new meal each week. If you come across a recipe you like, at it to the Master List. Pinterest, magazines, and cookbooks can be great sources. A few website I like for new inspiration are: (Vegan and vegetarian recipes)

Note all the events and activities you have going on during the week

Make note of your training, work schedule and after work commitments throughout the week. Identify which nights you don’t have much time and would need leftovers, crockpot meals or something quick. Identify any nights you may have extra time to cook a meal. You can create your own weekly template that may work for you, but below is an example of one I use.

Having a general idea of what you can make on various types of days can be helpful. For example:

Busy days – Leftovers, salads, stirfrys, omellettes, and crockpot meals work well
Extra time in the evening – Try out a new recipe, make a casserole or dish that takes time to cook

Choose your meals and start to fill in the sheet. Things to keep in mind:

What do you already have in the pantry or need to use up?
Try to overlap ingredients in recipes so you can “Cook Once, Eat Twice.” For example, if you are cooking chicken fajitas one night, cook up extra chicken breast at the same time for salads in your lunch the next day. If having a spinach side salad one night, plan to add the spinach to a pasta sauce another.

Are there any recipes where you can double the recipe and freeze leftovers?  

Create your shopping list
Create your list as you are planning the meals for the week so you don’t miss anything. You can write it out on paper or type it up in the notes section of your phone. Some of my clients will create a list on a document in Google Drive and share it with other family members so they can update it as well. When at the store, you can access it there. Break up your list in sections such as Produce, Meat, Cans, Frozen, etc. to make it easier to use.

I know that not many people enjoy grocery shopping, but having a game plan and knowing exactly what you will get and how you are going to use makes the process much better.  Try picking a time when it’s not busy, if you can and make sure you don’t arrive to the store hungry.

Planning and shopping are not as effective without some prep work ahead of time. Try prepping right when you get home from the grocery store since you are already in ‘work’ mode. You don’t have to make ahead all of your meals, but even prepping components of meals, such as chopping vegetables, cooking grains and proteins makes a huge difference. Play some music or use it as a time to listen to some podcasts.

Here are some foods that you can prep ahead of time.

  • Bake or grill chicken breast or cook ground meat
  • Make hardboiled eggs – store in their shell
  • Have cans of tuna, salmon, sardines on hand
  • Keep cans of beans in the pantry – you take it a step further and drain and rinse beans from the can and keep them in containers in the fridge
  • Pre-chop all your vegetables. This really helps to reduce waste and helps you eat more of them.
  • Stock the freezer with frozen vegetables
  • Roast veggies or chop veggies you would like to roast later in the week and store in freezer ziplock bags
  • Make a big salad and leave out the dressing

  • Make large batches of brown rice and quinoa
  • Roast a squash or bake some sweet potatoes
You can also make whole recipes and portion those out! It really depends on your schedule and what will help make your week easier. Also note that many components of dinner meals can become salads or wraps for lunch, or actual leftovers can be lunches the rest of the week.

Lastly, here are some extra supplies that you may need:

Crock pot/slow cooker – The number of recipes you can make is endless
Rice cooker – You can do without this, but it’s an easy way to cook grains so you can multitask and have more room to cook other foods on the stove
Tupperware containers of various sizes – For storing leftovers and packing to work
Clean fridge – An organized fridge is helpful so you have a place to store everything!
Spices – These can make a big difference in in terms of adding unique flavours to some common staples in your meal prep like rice and roasted vegetables

Give it a try and figure out what works for you! Try to carve out some time in your schedule to do this planning. If its new for you, it may take longer in the beginning, but soon enough you will be meal planning with ease.  

Andrea Docherty is a Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist in Windsor, Ontario with a private practice nutrition counselling business, Andrea Docherty Nutrition. For more information or questions, visit