Meal Planning Made Easy: Advice From a Pediatric Dietitian

By Haley Duscha, RDN, CD-N

A lot has changed about everyday life since the coronavirus pandemic began, including how we get our groceries. Some simple meal planning can help you stretch the items you already have in your kitchen, and keep your family healthy too. (And during stressful times, it’s more important than ever to practice healthy habits.)

Haley Duscha, a pediatric dietitian in the Division of Obesity & Weight Management, joins the blog with advice.

Step 1: Decide how you would like to plan your meals.

  • When will you prepare meals – ahead of time or right before you eat?
  • Will you menu plan for a few days, a week, or a month?
  • If cooking in advance, will it be for the week or need to be stored in the freezer for the month?
  • Do you or anyone in your family have any special nutrition needs? Take into account allergies, dislikes and special diets.

Step 2: Plan out your menu on a piece of paper, computer or even your phone.

  • Use online sites and cookbooks to find new recipe ideas. Consider the prep-time and cooking skills required for each recipe, and only pick the ones you’re able and willing to make.
  • Healthy tip: Include all five food groups in your meal plan: vegetables, fruits, protein foods, grains, and milk and dairy products. (See below for recommended portions, or download the free Start Simple with MyPlate app.)
  • To stretch meal planning further, incorporate staple dishes along with new recipes, and rotate dishes throughout the week. Variety is great, but don’t feel like every day has to be different.
  • Consider the weather. It may sound strange, but some foods really are more enjoyable at certain times of year, like soups and stews during the cold winter months.
  • Pick recipes with ingredients you normally have on hand – it’ll save you money, and prevent you from wasting food.
  • Check sales at your local grocery store to save even more money, especially when you want to treat your family to a special meal. Remember that in-season produce often has a lower price tag.

Step 3: Stock up and plan your shopping.

  • Stock up on basics such as frozen fruits and vegetables, canned goods, condiments and spices. Look through your meal ideas and determine which go-to ingredients you’ll always keep on hand, and what new ingredients you’ll need.
  • Keep a running grocery list. Add each ingredient as it’s used, so you never need to worry about forgetting something.
  • Think about how often you are able or want to grocery shop. The more often you shop, the less you’ll usually need to buy each time. If you choose to shop less frequently, you may want to stock up on “shelf-stable” food (food can be safely stored at room temperature in a sealed container) or frozen options, rather than fresh produce.

Step 4: Involve your family.

  • Ask for your family’s meal ideas and opinions, and check out 8 Tips to Get Kids Involved in the Kitchen for age-appropriate ways to jumpstart your child’s cooking skills. They may be more interested in helping to prepare or even eat certain meals if they were part of the decision!
  • Post the menu somewhere for the whole family to see, such as on the fridge. Ask for feedback and note which meals and recipes were crowd pleasers (and which weren’t).
  • You can always prep ingredients ahead of time. Chopping vegetables or pre-portioning snacks can be great time-saver throughout the week.
  • Cooking together is a great way to get your child interested in healthy eating, and teach them important skills.

Step 5: Stay balanced.

For a nutritious, balanced diet, do your best to follow these food group guidelines:

  • Fruits and vegetables: Fill half your plate with these.
  • Protein: Fill about one-quarter of your plate. Choose lean or low-fat proteins, and try to avoid processed meats like hot dogs, lunch meat and breaded/fried options. For protein like chicken, pick boneless skinless options. Choose cooking methods such as baking, grilling and roasting.
  • Grains: Again, limit to just one-quarter of the plate (or about a half-cup of rice or pasta or one slice of bread). For correct portion sizes, measure grains after they’re cooked. Make some of your grains whole grains to increase fiber intake.
  • Milk and dairy products: Choose low-fat dairy products, like 1% or fat-free milk, for an optional add-on to any meal.

One last healthy tip: To prevent excess leftovers or overindulging, make only what you and your family need at mealtime. If you plan for leftovers, it can be helpful to package up the extra before mealtime.

Want more information about eating healthy as a family? Check out 8 Tips to Get Kids Involved in the Kitchen – Plus 3 Healthy Recipes to Start!

Learn more about the Division of Obesity & Weight Management >>

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