When it comes to meal planning or better, healthy menu planning, most people get lost in a sea of websites, recipes, cookbooks and a general sense of being completely overwhelmed trying to figure out how to put it all together.
It can be especially daunting when you’re trying to turn over a new leaf and get your nutritional act together at the dinner table night after night. Making a shift like this isn’t as easy as you think it might be, or should be.
I get it–it’s a lot. And menu planning is exactly what I have based my career on. I’ve been planning menus, writing recipes, cookbooks, and creating healthy meal plans professionally for 19 years!
The All-Important Step One for Successful Menu Planning
To get from the place of being completely overwhelmed to menu planning nirvana when it all comes together for you with a clean eating meal plan you can live with, you have to start with your own definition of what constitutes healthy.
It’s a critical component to menu planning. If you skip that step, you will most certainly be sucked into the menu planning abyss of being lost and confused and totally overwhelmed.
That is a big differentiator that I think gets forgotten about. You have to do your own research to determine the right path for you and your family and not become a lemming of some nutritional guru out there (or well meaning friend) who is promising you the world when you know in your heart of hearts, that your family is going to hate it.
For example, I have a Dinner Answers customer who wrote me about the following scenario–I’m distilling her email to me (probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever received) and rewriting it to capture the essence, not quoting directly and not mentioning the diet she felt pressured to try. See if you can relate–
“I was a Dinner Answers subscriber a few years ago and it was because of Dinner Answers that I learned to cook so I want to thank you for that first and foremost. Second, will you take me back? I’ve strayed from the flock and need you now more than ever.
Let me explain–I had a friend who recently started eating ____________ and told me it would change my life. I checked out the (multitude) of articles she sent me but still didn’t feel like it was for me. Plus I knew my family would hate it and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was cook two different meals night after night.
But she was insistent that I needed to try this. She swore this new way of eating is what she served her family and everyone loooooved it, no complaints, it was a gift from heaven above.
Hesitancy and going all in are not good bedfellows but here I was, saying I was going to do this even though I knew it wouldn’t work. Why do we do that to ourselves?
Still, I did it and I regretted it and here I am asking you to take me back!”
My answer to her was of course was I’ll “take you back” (LOL) and wow, that’s an accurate assessment of what happens in that great big world out there.
There is pressure; this is what so and so is doing and even though you don’t feel that it’s a good fit. All your friends say this is what you should be doing and they’re all getting great results; losing weight, kids think it’s terrific, they all feel GREAT. They pass you articles from the internet touting the guru, the diet, this new way of life.
You feel the pressure to comply. Just like the woman who wrote the email, you make the jump and go all in. You buy the food, spend the time cooking it and feed it to your family who rebel and turn on you; a mutinous bunch of pirates threatening to make you walk the plank.
It’s usually an expensive mistake–food ends up not getting eaten and thrown out. Feelings are hurt, a lot of effort went into a whole lot of nothing.
And I know this happens more than with just my penpal above. She’s not the only one I’ve helped pick up the pieces from an ill advised diet. A lot of these poor people who’ve all but thrown in the towel on menu planning out of sheer frustration, end up going right back to where they were before–feeling like they’re missing out, hating that they’re stuck in a rut and wanting a new way, but one that works for them.
To define your own style of healthy meal planning, it’s a good idea to look at the different styles of eating to see if you can find a fit, one that works for you, not one your neighbor insists is the “right way”.
Paleo vs Auto Immune Meal Planning
For some that might mean paleo meal planning because they’re looking for an anti-inflammatory plan without all the grains and dairy because of known food sensitivities or allergies with a family member. Other folks are looking for more specific plans, like AIP meal planning (Auto Immune Protocol) to help with health issues they’ve had including autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s and more. An AIP approach can be a real game changer for people faced with health challenges.
Keto vs Paleo Menu Planning
Keto meal planning is still hot and a huge topic with a variety of ways to reaching keto heaven. As you can imagine, there are experts galore out there that will have you peeing on sticks to see if you’re in ketosis or doing blood sticks on your tender little fingers to test your blood for ketosis, have you mapping out your macros and such on a phone app and essentially, giving yourself a part time job to manage this new state of ketosis.
Besides all the work that goes into achieving ketosis, I’ve got a few reservations on the way the diet itself is approached (too much dairy which can be really inflammatory and slow weight loss). It’s because of that that we created our own clean eating version called the Hot Melt Diet.
Paleo vs keto for example is a huge topic–and there are purists on both sides. I look at it from a different perspective, and ask the question, what feels best to you? For example, you can be paleo and eat keto and you can be keto and eat paleo–it’s simply a matter of adjusting how much protein you eat (you eat a little less with keto) and how much healthy fat you eat (keto will have more fat than paleo) and both ways of eating can merge–simply dump the dairy and the grains and you can play in both “food camps”.
If you’re trying to get into ketosis however, you’re going to want to stay strictly keto and restrict the carbs from all sources (including the healthy sources of carbs like winter squashes, fruits and sweet potatoes, all permissible in a paleo diet).
Just recently, the U.S. News and World Report ranked the tried-and-true Mediterranean Diet as the top diet to pursue for this year.
The Mediterranean Diet Is Popular Again
The Mediterranean Diet comes from native diets in the region (Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain) in the 1940’s and 1950’s before fast food and a lot of other cultures invaded the area. It’s a traditional, old-ways style of eating that according many, defines heart healthy and clean eating.
There’s no distinct plan per se for the Mediterranean Diet–just google it and you’ll find a lot of interpretations.
It’s easy to understand why it’s been given such a high honor–the Mediterranean Diet is based on lots of veggies of all kinds, olive oil, nuts, beans, legumes, avocados, fish and chicken, beef on occasion and yes, a little bit of wine.
The American Heart Association (AHA) talks about the diet on it’s website, acknowledging the Mediterranean Diet’s statistics for lower rates of heart disease and deaths in the region for those following the diet. However, on their website, they’re reluctant to put their seal of approval on it. “We need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for the lower deaths from heart disease.”
Healthy Eating is Healthy Menu Planning
Most people however, are just looking for for healthy menu planning; food that offers family-friendly recipes and food the whole family will eat. And while that term, family-friendly, is always going to be subjective (I mean, what really constitutes “family-friendly” anyway?), the keyword is always going to be customization.
When you have the ability to customize your meal plan according to what your family will eat AND you are able to put it into a framework of “healthy”, you’re on your way to making it all work.
Meal planning or menu planning as I prefer to call it–meals imply one meal at a time while menus imply a plan, so much different–is a journey in wellness that we all need to pursue on purpose. We cannot menu plan on default, it doesn’t work.
And while there’s a question for everyone on what constitutes a “healthy diet” as we discussed here, there’s a lot of room to find out for yourself.
Remember this, it’s not about what some guru deems as “healthy” that should determine your menu planning path; it’s about deciding for yourself what defines a healthy menu plan for you and your family.
True confession: I’ve been caught cheating on my crockpot and now I have to come clean. Bear with me, will you?
Oh Crockpot–how long have we been together? 30 years? Longer?
Do you remember the early years when your crock stubbornly wouldn’t budge out of your heating element?
Or those colors–avocado green and that strange gold color.
I remember you sitting on my mother’s countertop in the kitchen–and then mine as I left home and became my own cook.
You were given a place of honor in my house–sitting proudly on the countertop unlike any other appliance in my house; except the coffeemaker of course, there’s always the coffeemaker…
At first we created an awful lot of split pea soup, you and me together.
Then I graduated to beef stew and other thick, warming foods. I tried all your recipes in that little booklet you gave me.
There were things that worked and things that didn’t work, but I never once blamed you for any of it. I took full responsibility and promised that I would never leave you.
Until that one day when the Instant Pot people sent me one and it made it’s way to my house.
Oh sure, I thought, I’ve tried pressure cookers before–the Fagor people sent me one back in 2001. I apologized to those nice people and said it was great, but it would NEVER replace my crockpot!
So the Instant Pot didn’t make me want to open it–meh, another pressure cooker.
Till one day, 3 months after receiving it, I opened the box and actually used it.
I sautéed in it at first–then I added meat and vegetables and had stew in mere minutes.
I thought about my 3 day cooking fest to make bone broth–could it be I could do my beneficial bone broth in the Instant Pot in way less time as well?
Oh yes I could!
Not only that, but it came out better than 3 days it takes you to make it, crockpot! TRUE CONFESSION!!
I don’t know what happened next, but my head was spinning…
What was happening?
Where was my loyalty?
How is it that now my crockpot is in the cupboard and I have thoughts of…breaking up and sending my loyal slow cooker to the thrift store?
Well, that’s how it ended my friends.
Not a pretty ending to such a long relationship, but that’s what happens when a young, sexy appliance worms it’s way into your heart with such features as sautéing RIGHT in the insert pan itself, being able to go fast OR slow and never burning or sticking, easy clean up and so much more…
It’s over between me and the old crock.
Done. Finished. Kaput.
My new, highly favored appliance, the Instant Pot?
Well it can only be described as TRUE LOVE.
And that my friends, is my story. The truth is out…finally.
I feel better–thanks for listening. 😉
PS–At Saving Dinner, we love cooking in ALL of our one pot appliances–have you seen our One Pot Recipe Collection? It’s amazing!
Why is it the last thing to get cleaned in a kitchen is the inside of the refrigerator? I know that’s true for a lot of people; it certainly was for me!
The fridge was the last frontier for me in the kitchen. I could keep the kitchen clean, unload the dishwasher regularly, keep the floors up, the pantry reasonably organized. But the fridge? I would let it go. And then it would be a bear to deal with. I had a perfectionist attitude with my fridge—it was an all or nothing proposition. I would spend an hour or more cleaning every last nook and cranny. Tossing stuff left, right and center, cleaning the rubber gasket with a toothbrush, pulling everything out, disinfecting it and making the whole thing gleam. Honest, I could see that thing shine from my bedroom!
One day it dawned on me that I did not have to clean my fridge like that. I could do it one shelf at a time! I could keep things rotated and wiped down in as little as 2 minutes at a time. But the secret for making that happen was what I like to call Refrigerator Awareness. Cleaning the fridge does NOT need to be a project!
All that means is adding Refrigerator Awareness to your radar screen and don’t let that big, old appliance turn into that nasty, dreaded cleaning project! It truly does NOT have to be that way!
Oh and lest I forget. There is a TREMENDOUS bonus that comes from picking up the RA skill (Refrigerator Awareness). You save money. Gobs of it. Your food gets eaten, not shuttled to the back to develop into a science experiment. Your produce doesn’t develop slime, wilt or become fossilized. And, you may just find something in there you didn’t know you had that needs to be used up! Isn’t that just the coolest thing ever? (pardon the obvious pun!)
To recap: 2 minutes a day. That’s all. Let’s put an end to Project Refrigerator Clean-ups. I don’t know about you, but I’ve HAD it with those big jobs!
The same awareness goes for the freezer! Is yours cleaned up enough to handle some handy freezer meals?
Hands up if you ever questioned your parents when they told you not to waste your food because there are people starving in Africa.
As a child this really doesn’t make a lick of sense. How can the food I don’t eat help a starving person? Are we actually going to ship our leftovers to them?
We all know as adults that this was our parents’ way of trying to encourage us not to waste our food. But the truth is, if our ancestors could see how much food we’re wasting day in and day out, they would be absolutely appalled. And you know what? It really, really makes me mad; it doesn’t have to be this way!
1.3 BILLION tons of food gets wasted per year by people from all over the world. That’s billion, with a B.
To put this all into perspective, that is roughly one third of the food this planet produces. ONE THIRD. Wasted. And this is happening while 925 million people on the planet are suffering from hunger.
This is just not right and it’s not doing our planet any good. Food disposal is hard on the environment and it costs money. Not only is good money wasted by throwing out food we paid for, but roughly a billion dollars is spent on getting rid of wasted food in the United States each year.
And while we can’t stop the world from being wasteful, we can put an end to wastefulness in our own homes. Here are a few ideas:
1. Make meal plan each and every week (all of our Dinner Answers menus come with a categorized shopping list) before you go grocery shopping. You’ll only buy what you need.
2. Avoid buying in bulk unless you know you will eat the food you buy, or unless you plan to donate some of that food to a food bank or soup kitchen
3. Serve smaller portions to your family so food isn’t scraped into the garbage
4. Plan leftovers from today’s dinner for tomorrow’s meals (I do this all the time!)
5. Check expiration dates of everything you buy, so you’re not putting your groceries directly in the garbage when you get home
6. Take a cue from the grocery stores and rotate the food in your fridge. Put newer produce towards the back and bring older food to the front so it doesn’t rot back there
7. Use your crisper drawers for items you eat a lot, like carrots and apples. It’s not called a crisper, not a rotter, so don’t put easier-to-forget-about items down there to languish where it will just turn to a nasty mess.
How do you try to prevent wasted food in your home?
I get asked all the time for ways to make dinner faster. I get that; we’re a microwave society. We want it quick, dirty and hassle-free. This is why convenience foods are so popular (and expensive and 99% of the time, full of chemicals and lacking nutrients).
Here are a couple of things that I do that helps me get dinner done quickly and efficiently:
1) Shear Strength. I use my kitchen shears as much as I use my knives. From snipping fresh herbs, to opening bags of frozen berries, to cutting up chicken, I have two pairs and one in always in the dishwasher!
2) Foiled Again. To prevent my celery from going limp and nasty (and listen, having to run out to the store to buy fresh celery in the middle of cooking is total buzz kill) I wrap it foil. It stays fresh for weeks this way!
3) Garlic Getaway. I use these little garlic ice cubes (Dorot is the brand) that I buy from Trader Joe’s to shortcut the fresh garlic pressing stuff. The garlic is better (in my opinion) than that of the jarred variety and it’s so easy and convenient, love them!
4) Spin on Spinach. I buy triple washed tubs of organic spinach at the warehouse store. I saute it for a side dish, add it to salads, make it the salad, stir it into soups, eggs and quiches. It’s amazing and versatile and cuts my prep work way down.
5) More Spin. I use a salad spinner for my lettuce to get it nice and dry. Wash it, throw it in the spinner, take it for a quick spin and voila, lettuce that’s washed, dried and ready to go for your salad!
These are just a few of my shortcuts. What about you? Do you have some tried and true ones you’d like to share?
Have you ever removed a tray of meat from the freezer only to find discoloration and ice crystals? If you’ve forgotten about a carton of ice cream in the freezer for any length of time, you may have opened it to find its surface covered in ice. Freezer burn, we tend to call it.
Freezing food is a great way to extend the life of our perishable items, but when you freeze foods, you stand the chance of having your food become freezer burnt.
Freezer burn presents itself as discoloration on the surface of frozen foods such as bread and meat. Ice crystals are another sign of freezer burn, which we can find in frozen produce and ice cream.
To understand freezer burn a bit better, it helps to know more about how the freezing process works. When food is frozen, most of the water content of that food is converted to ice. Some of the water, though, is converted directly to water vapor and is released from the food all together. This process is called sublimation.
This water loss causes food to become dehydrated over time, like ice cubes that eventually shrink when they’re left in the freezer. So, in essence, this process freeze dries parts of foods, resulting in freezer burn.
In air-tight containers (like ice cream), that water vapor forms frost on the insides of the container and/or on the surface of the food. In open containers or containers that aren’t perfectly sealed, the vapor that escapes actually leads to that build up of ice on the inside of non-frost-free freezers.
And what we’re left with is food with strange flavors that’s difficult to chew.
When you have freezer-burnt food on your hands, you should do your best to discard the areas that have been affected. But you know I just hate food waste, so let’s talk about how to prevent freezer burn all together.
Tips to prevent freezer burn
- Remove as much air as you can from packages you freeze food in. The closer your food is to its packaging, the less chance there is of it losing water.
- Don’t leave your food in the freezer longer than you have to. The longer your food is frozen, the greater the chance of it becoming freezer burnt.
- Set your freezer at the lowest setting that you can in order to help avoid sublimation from occurring, as it’s less likely at lower temperatures.
- Always use high quality zipper-style bags to freeze food, and try to wrap foods in a bag that fits just right.
- Don’t place hot food in the freezer. You risk increasing the temperature of your freezer, and some of your frozen foods may even start to thaw.
- Avoid opening the freezer door more than it needs to be opened. This will help keep the freezer temperature from fluctuating, which can lead to freezer burn.
Making meals out of the meat/poultry/fish and produce you buy as soon as you get them home from the grocery store is another way to ensure that your food doesn’t get wasted and forgotten about at the back of the freezer.
We have just the thing to keep your freezer full of great healthy meals so you never have to wonder “what’s for dinner”. Click here to learn more!