At the end of a long day, there are so many ways a hungry person can go wrong.
Maybe the fridge is empty or filled with wilted vegetables. Chopping something sounds exhausting. Or last-minute schedule changes make the drive-through irresistible.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Experts say that whether cooking for one, two or family, a little advance meal planning can ease the relentless pressure of life’s most enduring riddle: “What’s for dinner?”
With just a few tweaks to your shopping and cooking habits, it’s possible to create a meal plan flexible enough to withstand all kinds of workweek upheaval.
The secret is what behaviorists call “nudge thinking”—setting the kitchen up to make it easier to make the healthier choice than the unhealthy one.
“Our minds enjoy having a plan,” said Emily Redder, RDN, a clinical dietitian at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital. “Most people don’t like the feeling of desperately rummaging through the refrigerator, or ordering takeout just because you’re starved and tired.”
And it pays off. Food researchers have found that people who plan meals, even if they only do it occasionally, are more likely to have a varied diet and less likely to be overweight.
9 tips for working healthy eating into your week:
1. Get out the family calendar.
Redder suggests starting small, looking at just a few days at a time. “Planning a pot roast on the same night as a soccer game just isn’t going to work out,” she said.
Once you know which nights people are going to be home, decide what you want for three or four meals.
2. Do a quick inventory.
Check the pantry, fridge and freezer to see what’s already on hand.
Low on staples like rice, quinoa and pasta, the kinds of foods that mix-and-match with many proteins? How about eggs, milk and yogurt?
It’s also likely there is too much of some items, so concentrate on using them before restocking.
3. Plan for no plan.
On any given night, dinner can get derailed. Have some ideas for several “do it yourself” meals, like single servings of frozen leftovers, wraps or canned soup.
4. Make a list.
Armed with what you need, what you have and some DIY alternatives, resist the temptation to wing it.
Research has shown that people who routinely shop with a list have a better diet and maintain a healthier weight than those who don’t.
5. Get chopping.
Once you’ve shopped, Redder suggests taking time to prep all your produce. “We’re more likely to cook if we have already diced the onions, and eat salad if the peppers and the cucumbers are pre-sliced,” she said.
Remove lettuce and salad mixes from bags and store them in containers so they can breathe. And while it’s fine to buy the kinds of vegetables that last longer in the fridge—including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans—remember that most vegetables will only be good for several days.
“Once you’ve prepped veggies, store them so they are visible in the fridge so they don’t go to waste,” she said.
Crisper sadness isn’t just demoralizing. It’s expensive. One study found that Americans waste about a pound of food each day or about a third of our daily calorie allowance. And the more fresh food a family consumes, the higher the waste.
6. Start a tradition.
Whether it’s Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays or Friday Night Pizza, designating a day or two each week to the same kinds of meals makes planning easier.
“And you can vary the foods while sticking with the theme,” Redder said.
7. Cook in batches.
Redder relies on Tupperware, plastic bags and masking tape to label and date foods.
She often doubles up on full recipes like chili, soup, meatballs and casseroles.
“But I also always cook more simple recipe components, like plain chicken and ground meat. Then I can thaw it and add it to recipes later, making preparing that meal much easier.”
8. Think beyond dinners.
“I often make breakfast foods, like breakfast burritos or healthy muffins, in enough quantities to freeze.”
9. Go on. Be lazy.
Buy frozen vegetables that are recipe-ready, such as chopped onions, cubed squash or stir-fry medleys. “The more easily you can throw a recipe together,” she said, “the more likely you are to make it.”
The point, she said, “is to make the plan, and stick to it the best you can.”
Will there be plenty of meals that get derailed? “Probably. But in the long run, you’ll feel more control over what you eat, waste less food and make choices that support your health goals.”