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For The Week: What's harder than making a meal plan? Sticking to it!

Lindsay Guentzel says you shouldn't give up on your meal planning routines.
Lindsay Guentzel

Welcome back to For The Week, my weekly column that comes out every Sunday and focuses on all things food for the seven days ahead.

If you're new here, hello! My name is Lindsay Guentzel and I'm the food writer for Bring Me The News. I'm also a self-proclaimed meal prep expert and a #CrockpotInfluencer.

For years, I struggled to get into a good rhythm with my meals. I would be doing really well for a couple of weeks, prepping my meals on the weekend and spending time chopping up my produce for easier cooking sessions.

Then vacation would come. Or I would get sick or busy at work. And instead of picking back up where I left off, I would fall so far off the wagon that everything I had learned or been improving on would be wiped away.

I expected things to be perfect, a real "all or nothing" mentality. The problem with that – in all areas of life and not just with meal prepping and planning – is that it is completely unattainable. You can read study after study that will tell you the same thing; setting goals that are unattainable or unrealistic is the quickest way to set yourself up for failure. We just have a harder time making them work in our lifestyles and we're less likely to stick to them if we feel like we aren't making the progress we want. 

I've heard over and over again from people who feel overwhelmed by meal prepping and planning. They don't know where to start or they get so excited about it that they go overboard and end up wasting a ton of food because they weren't totally aware of their family's needs. The best way to start is to do just that – start. But start small. Don't jump right into planning every meal the weekend before and buying all the ingredients, especially if you've never done it before. That's not to say you won't ever be that type of meal planner. But in order to adopt real strategies to help you, you have to start where you are and accept the fact that this is going to be a big old growth process. 

How can you start where you are when it comes to meal prepping? It might be beneficial for you to keep a food journal for a week. Write down everything you eat, especially the things you make. Then look over the list and see if there are any items you could make on the weekend to take some stress out of the equation.

This is not meant to be a shaming exercise or to make you question the food decisions you make. This is simply to help you start seeing patterns and routines that you fall into during the week. Once you know what those are, you can use that information to help you put an actual plan for meal prepping into place. Your family eats a lot of chicken during the week? Awesome. Roast a bird or two on Sunday and have it ready to go in the fridge for building a meal. 

Knowing your meal routines will also help you break any behaviors you don't like. Perhaps your family likes to eat out or get takeout on Friday to celebrate the start of the weekend. But after keeping a food journal, you notice that you are also eating out on Thursday nights because everyone is stressed and it just seems easier. Knowing ahead of time that you need to have a plan in place for Thursday night will help you break the habit of resorting to takeout. 

Here's a secret – there's no weekly dinner plan in my house. No chalkboard with meals laid out for the whole week or an itemized shopping list to complete all of them. Why? It doesn't work for us. I tried over and over again to get that type of planning to stick. On Sunday I'd ask my boyfriend, what do you want for dinner on Thursday? And he looked at me like I was crazy. He does not want to commit to a meal for Thursday five days ahead of time. Unlike me, he is not a creature of habit. He likes to have choices. So instead of setting a calendar in permanent marker with no allowances for change, I make a list of meal concepts for the week

A meal concept is simply an idea for a meal. Using meal concepts gives you more freedom during the week and can help satisfy the family members who always want to have options. Your meal concepts could be built around different types of cuisine you like (let's do Mexican food on Thursday this week) or could straight up be a list of prepared foods you enjoy that get mixed and matched until you have a complete meal (think a steak with roasted veggies and mash potatoes).

This works well for us because I can present my boyfriend with a few different options for dinner which is a great way of compromising our different eating preferences. If I were cooking for more people or had to deal with kids who were picky eaters, it might not be the best option because sometimes too much freedom or flexibility just adds more work. But right now it is working. 

Establishing meal concepts that work for your family is a great way to look at tackling dinner time because it embraces the idea of Fridge Foraging.

Fridge Foraging is how my Grandmother cooked. It is building meals around what you have in your fridge that will go bad if you don't use it. This past week, I made a few meals using this technique. One night for dinner, I made way too many mashed potatoes. A couple days later, the container of leftover mashed potatoes was still sitting in our fridge just waiting to either be used or thrown away. So I built a meal around it. Why not?

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I had delicious mashed potatoes that only needed to be reheated. So I thought, what would go well with this? I pulled out some ground beef for my Refrigerator Plate (the plate I keep in our fridge to remind me to always be defrosting something) and that night I whipped up a savory beef and veggie stir fry with a little au jus gravy to go over the mashed potatoes. It was a hit and it took me about 20 minutes to make. The added benefit? I made too much of the beef and veggie stir-fry which was a great addition to my lunch salad the next day. 

I've thrown a lot at you this week so before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's do a quick recap of ways you can meal prep a tool that works for you.

  • 1. Don't take on too much. Start small with the goal of building upon your successes.
  • 2. Keep a food journal to identify meals or specific foods you could be making on the weekend to alleviate stress during the week.
  • 3. Build up your arsenal of meal concepts that work for your family.
  • 4. Give Fridge Foraging a try.

The last thing I'll leave you with this week is this -- if I'm making a mess in my kitchen, it better be worth it. Whether that means meal prepping a bunch of different things at one time or doubling up a recipe for lunch or freezer leftovers. Your time is valuable and getting better at utilizing it when you're in the kitchen can be a total game changer in how your week unfolds around meal time.

Like Lindsay’s work? Follow her recipes, blogs and videos here on Bring Me The News or on her website Or follow her on social media @LindsayGuentzel on Twitter and Facebook.

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