By: Bessie O'Connor, RDN
There are many benefits to meal planning, and using simple, practical strategies can be key to making meal planning a regular routine. The truth is, eating out is expensive. Meal planning can help make eating at home easier, which can save time and money and improve the overall nutrition and quality of meals—a triple win!
Studies show meal planning improves diet quality by increasing the variety of foods and the number of fruits and vegetables consumed. Diet quality refers to eating patterns that contain a variety of whole, minimally processed foods that provide energy and essential nutrients needed for growth and development and build the foundation for an active and healthy life.
The following tips can help the whole family eat more high-quality foods while saving time and money.
Keeping a supply of foods that are shelf stable is a useful meal planning strategy because these foods can be stored at room temperature for many months and still maintain quality, while helping prevent food waste and saving money. Look for these healthy, shelf-stable foods to add to the pantry:
• Dry goods: beans, oats, rice, pasta, ready-to-eat low-sugar cereals
• Vegetables: low-sodium canned green beans, corn, peas, tomatoes, pasta sauce
• Fruit: canned (packed in water or juice) peaches, pears, fruit cocktail, mandarin oranges
• Protein: canned tuna and chicken, all varieties of canned low-sodium beans.
• Other: low-sodium broth for soups and stews
Frozen fruits and vegetables are nutrient rich because they’re picked at peak ripeness and immediately frozen, which locks in vitamins and minerals and maintains quality for many months. Frozen produce is available year-round and is usually less expensive than fresh. It requires little or no preparation, saving time when making meals and saving money by avoiding food waste. Try adding frozen fruit to cereal or other breakfast choices and frozen vegetables to favorite family recipes.
For example, choose yogurt topped with whole-grain cereal at breakfast, add cheese to a sandwich or salad at lunch and serve a glass of milk with dinner. Preparing meals that include milk, yogurt and cheese can improve diet quality by providing key nutrients—calcium, vitamin D and potassium—that are often missing in the diets of adults and children. Improving diet quality can reduce the risk of chronic diseases (obesity, heart disease and diabetes) in adults and support the growth, development and academic success of children.
Make a soup, stew or casserole by combining foods that are different colors and from at least three different food groups. For example, make a soup with whole-grain pasta, low-sodium canned beans and vegetables, plus low-sodium broth; create a casserole with frozen broccoli, cheese and rice; or stir up a pot of bean chili made with canned low-sodium tomatoes, tomato sauce, beans and corn. One-pot meals can be quick to prepare, nutrient rich, tasty and quick to clean up.
If a soup, stew or casserole makes enough servings for another meal, freeze in small batches to reheat later for a healthy lunch or dinner. Another option is to repurpose leftovers by creating a different meal later in the week. For example, spaghetti with meatballs could be made into meatball sandwiches, or leftover bean chili could be served as a topping for baked potatoes.
Order just the entrée portion, then boost nutrition by adding a no-prep vegetable like baby carrots or canned green beans, plus fresh or canned fruit (packed in water or juice) and a glass of milk to create a heathy, balanced meal in minutes.
Healthier meals are possible when planning and preparing wholesome, nutritious foods becomes part of the weekly routine. Start small this week, trying one of the six meal planning tips such as stocking up on frozen fruits and vegetables or healthy pantry staples that require little preparation and have a long shelf life. As you prepare meals, remember to add in fruits and vegetables from your freezer or pantry. As one tip becomes routine, try adding another tip. Small changes over time can lead to big impacts, and it is never too late to improve eating habits.
Learn more about food preparation and meal planning strategies at HealthyEating.org, and check out this free Let’s Eat Healthy nutrition resource for families and educators to help make healthy eating easier for everyone.
Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Bessie O'Connor, RDN
Bessie is a practicing Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the Community Nutrition Adviser for California’s Central Coast region.
Watch the latest episode of Ask A Nutritionist and discover how to plan healthy and nutritious meals for your family.
Try practicing these seven tips in everyday life to help make healthy eating easier, more enjoyable and part of the daily routine.