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Meal Plan: Save Time, Save Money, and Improve Nutrition

How many times have you been driving home after work, exhausted, fretting about what you are going to cook for your family? The thought alone is enough to amplify the feeling of exhaustion! This often opens the door for temptation to take the easy road – ie, pull into the local fast food restaurant, place an order, and head for home. The problem with doing this is that it can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

So, what’s the solution? Make a meal plan! I know what you are thinking – it takes too much time. Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated, it does take time upfront but it will pay off in the long run. Setting aside one hour on the weekend to plan the next week’s meals will really pay off. Allow me to show you how meal planning can save you time, save you money, and improve your nutrition. Sound alluring now?

Start Small
Most people have the intention of making a meal plan, but sit down with a recipe book and start to feel overwhelmed. Just focus on one week at a time. You don’t have to plan your meals until the year 2012. Five to seven meals – it’s not that many!

Two Choices: Handwritten or Electronic
You can either use a paper calendar to make your meal plan or an electronic calendar. With either method, always record the recipe book and the page number of the recipe along with the name of the recipe. This eliminates the frustrating game of ‘Where’s the recipe” when it comes time to cook.

If you are technologically inclined, I highly recommend using the electronic version. Download a calendar into a word processor (ie, Microsoft word). You can find many templates online. Then, search for recipes online or in recipe books. If you use a recipe book, remember to record the name of the book and page number. You can either print the recipe out so that it’s ready when you need it or, if you have a laptop or iPad, insert the hyperlink into the document so all you have to do is open up the webpage and cook.

Search for Ingredients
The best part about meal planning is that you can use ingredients that you already have on hand. Prior to meal planning, I would walk through the aisles, grab things, and go. I would often end up with 10 cans of black beans and nothing to go with them. Use a website like KraftFoods.com which allows you to enter up to 3 ingredients and search for recipes based on those ingredients. You can also use a search engine to enter ingredients. Simply type in Ingredient A + Ingredient B + Ingredient C. You will have thousands of recipes at your demand. This really comes in handy if you see an item on sale in the weekly sales ad.

Grocery Lists
As you compile your recipes, make a grocery list as you go. Write all ingredients, whether you have them or not, on your list (explanation in ‘recycle meal plans’ below). My best advice is to take a little time and make an isle by isle map of your grocery store. Next time you are there, make a note of the large signs hanging above each aisle. This allows you to make your list based on location in the store and zip right through. Many stores have a store layout, so check with their customer service desk. If you do not wish to organize it by aisle, make a master list of categories (breakfast foods, breads, dairy, baking, etc). The worst idea is to make a running list of ingredients without categorizing it. You will find yourself darting back and forth over the entire store.

Recycle Meal Plans
Coordinate your meal plans and shopping lists. Make a few weeks worth of menus and start over – no thinking required! The reason for writing down all ingredients, whether you need them or not, is so that you’ll have the list ready if you use the meal plan again.

Ready, Set, Go!
Don’t give up – the first time I sat down to plan my meals, it took 2 hours. Now, it generally takes about 45 minutes for 1 week. Prior to meal planning, I would spend at least that long standing in front of the refrigerator trying to figure out what ingredients I had. My husband is very grateful now that I’m meal planning. It eliminated the monotony of having the same 4-5 meals over and over. If you are still not convinced that you can do it on your own, visit meal planning websites. MealTimeMakover.com is a great site that bases meal plans on grocery store sale cycles. It provides you with a menu, recipes, shopping list broken down by category, and includes the price of the item for each grocery store. There is a charge for subscribing to the site ($5 per month), but my friends/family that use it say it is well worth it.

Krystal Cameron, RD, LDN

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