There’s no denying it: preparation is key when it comes to consistent healthy eating. But that doesn’t have to mean preparing the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week like the #inspo shots you see on the ‘gram.
Instead of the monotony, I think the secret lies in the ability to plan a delicious weeks’ worth of meals – and then write a thorough accompanying grocery list to avoid the many trips to the supermarket for all of the last-minute things you forgot the first time you were there. To give you a helping hand, here’s my two-step guide to meal planning like a dietitian.
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Step one: plan your meals
At the start of my week, I draw up a simple table with each day of the week along the top and breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks down the side. Then, I start to think about the dinners I’d like to have each day. A healthy meal contains a balance of lean protein, quality carbs and lots of veggies – and I find it’s easiest to get the ideas flowing by planning around the protein.
A lot of people think protein means some type of meat, but that’s not always the case. In fact, in my household, we only eat meat once or twice a week. Instead, I like to eat lots of seafood and vegetarian options made with eggs or legumes. Cheese can pack a surprising protein punch, too, so I often have a meal where light ricotta cheese is my protein of choice (in a pasta dish, for example).
Once I’ve got my protein down-pat, it’s time to start thinking about the carbohydrate portion of the meal – and before you ask, no, carbs are not bad for you. Quality carbs are an essential (yes, *essential*) component of a balanced diet because they provide your body with plenty of energy, important micronutrients and gut-loving fibre. My go-to quality carbs include sweet potato, corn cobs, long grain brown rice, wholegrain bread and legume-based pasta.
To bulk up the meal, I include at least three different veggies every night of the week. Along with the quantity of veg, what’s really important is the variety of colour in the veggies I buy, because different colours equals different types of nutrients. So, instead of opting for the same old broccoli, peas and carrots, I take note of what’s in season (read: what’s cheap) every week and brainstorm ways of including it come my next shopping list.
Once I’ve got my basic dinner ideas written down, I think about what will make for good leftovers for lunch the next day (usually at least two or three meals a week). Then, I fill in the gaps on the lunchtime row of my table with a few go-to lunch options that can be whipped up in no time like avocado and tomato on toast, baked beans on toast or a tuna and cheese toastie with veggie sticks and dip. (Note all the bread. Again, carbs are not bad for you).
While I usually have the same thing for breakfast (yoghurt, muesli, fruit and seeds), I still go to the effort of filling it in on my table as it helps when writing the shopping list.
Last but not least, I add a few basic snacks to each day’s column, usually fresh fruit, a cup of milk (in a homemade coffee) and/or veggie sticks and hummus or sweet potato dip. Every now and then, I’ll throw in a hard-boiled egg or two if I’m not getting enough protein in my main meals. When I fill in the blanks with my snacks, I’m looking to round out each day by hitting a certain number of serves from each food group – that’s five daily serves of veg, two serves of fruit, six serves of grains and two and a half serves each of proteins and dairy or alternatives (that’s the recommendations for a female under the age of 50).
Step two: write your list
Now that my week of meals is planned, the next step is to write it all out in one clear list. As a general rule of thumb, I split my shopping list into four sections: one for fresh produce, one for proteins, one for other refrigerated or frozen items and one for pantry ingredients (that makes it easier when you’re actually in the supermarket, because it helps you to avoid annoying second, third and fourth trips to the same aisle). Then, I meticulously work through my table, one meal at a time, writing down all the ingredients I need to pull the meal together in the corresponding sections of my shopping list.
The whole process takes about 20 minutes – and while that might seem like a significant time investment, it means I’ve got everything I need from the shops for an entire week in one fell swoop, ultimately saving time in the long run by avoiding a supermarket trip every night after work. Not to mention, it means I can steer clear of convenient takeaway meals when I’ve run out of time at the end of the day and avoid trips to the food court for lunch, so it saves some coin, too. What’s not to love about my version of meal prep?
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.