Five p.m. found me dashing from my home-office to the car, fumbling with the ignition switch as I told Google to call my 12-year-old son and glanced at the rearview mirror in hopes that, please Lord, I hadn’t (yet again) forgotten to comb my hair.
By the time he answered some 15 rings later—“Yellllo?"—I’d rolled the cul-de-sac’s stop sign and was speeding across town to pick up my 8-year-old daughter from after-school. In my campaign to once, just once, allow none of today’s professional to-do list to bleed into tomorrow’s, I’d forgotten she had a make-up gymnastics lesson starting at 5:15.
“Hey dude,” I said to the phone, “when do I need to—” pick you up I was about to add, when suddenly my son cackled with malevolent glee and the voicemail beeped and my brain was boiling so bad I only just restrained myself from shrieking: “You think you’re hilarious, huh? Well, I’ve just sold you off to a Congolese diamond mine. Let’s see how funny you find that one young Ollie Twist!”
Instead, I heard myself say, in a voice like that of a marathoner that’s realized, just as he’s spotted the finish line, he’s too exhausted to make it: “Hey little man, I forgot your sis has a gymnastics thing tonight until 7. Any way you can catch a ride home [with your bestie’s pops] from the skatepark?”
Then I thought about dinner: No meats had been thawed. What vegetables did ‘we’ even have in the fridge? Wasn’t today supposed to be a grocery day? Was it last night we ate the frozen pizzas?
It was a straw-and-camel moment. With a sigh, I relinquished: “And what kind of takeout do you think we should do for dinner: Chinese, Japanese, tacos or what? … Okay, just please text and let me know.”
The above episode—and many like it—took place in the spring of 2018. By the end of that summer, though, I was making changes: While many Americans take their get-healthy, live-better oaths at New Year’s, for parents, the resumption of school is perfect timing.
High on my list was meal-planning.
“Faced with the strain of new or resumed schedules, when properly implemented, a disciplined meal-planning regimen can go a long way toward reducing anxiety,” says registered dietician and fitness guru Jim White, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Establishing the habit as part of your weekly routine, he says, can bring big benefits, including: “Added free time, reduced stress, happier and healthier dinners and substantial monetary savings.”
In my experience, the above proved an understatement. A year in, I count myself an apostle. The following tips and tricks can get you started on the path and/or up your game.
Start Strong—The most daunting part of adapting a new routine is getting started. The problem, says White, is uncertainty.
“It’s hard to dive into a new project and give it 100% when you’re unsure about the outcome,” he explains. “If you’re trying something new and unfamiliar, and you’re constantly questioning whether or not you’re going to be successful, you probably won’t see it through. Chances are, you’ll default to what you know.”
The key, then, is hedging your bets. That means taking small steps and making things as easy on yourself as possible.
“When people start with meal-planning, they sometimes try to tackle too many changes at once,” says White. An example would be attempting to implement creative menus filled with new flavors and untried recipes. When things go wrong, discouragement ensues. Instead, White recommends “starting with what you know and building from there.”
How do you do that?
Begin by sitting down as a family and making a master list of all the meals and sides you regularly eat and know how to cook. On a second page, add favorite takeout options. On a third, make a list of dishes you’ve enjoyed elsewhere and would like to try your hand at making.
This is your meal-planning bible. Use it as a starting point and you’re on the way to a successful venture.
Planning Meals—Now that you have your Master List, it’s time to plan some dinners. The goal is to tackle a week at a time, using ingredients purchased in a single visit to the grocery store.
First, designate days and times for planning weekly meals and buying groceries. For me, it’s Sunday after dinner and post work on Monday, respectively.
Second, create a document organizing the page into two columns: ‘Days of the Week’ on the left, ‘Ingredients’ on the right. Arrange entries in vertical order leaving room to accommodate a small paragraph for each.
Pro Tip: Ease the transition by allotting one night a week for takeout or something quick and easy like pizza or salad. Another two nights can be reserved for heating up leftovers. Two more could feature single-vessel or pour-over dishes like pot roasts, soups, spaghetti, miso variations, curries or the like. These can be made in advance and yield plenty of leftovers.
With your doc in hand, kickstart the process with another family meeting. Together, plan nightly dinners by choosing from your premade list. For variation, try selecting a main course like steak or fish and experimenting with different toppings and sides.
When you’re done, list ingredients beside each entry. Then check what’s available in your fridge and pantry, and make a grocery list.
Prepping— If you’ve spent time waiting tables or working in a commercial kitchen, you know the importance of prepping for the dinner rush. Adapting the approach for home-use can work miracles and help keep you on track.
To do it, pick a standard 30–45-minute window to prepare for the week ahead. Enlisting your family will minimize stress, get the task done more quickly and create a sense of teamwork. For example, since Monday is my evening to shop for groceries, it’s also our night for takeout. When I return from the store, my kids help me put things away. Afterwards, we do the prepping.
Here’s the gist of our approach:
- First, assess the week’s list of ingredients. Look for items like onions, bell peppers, garlic, fresh-chopped cilantro, jalapenos, shredded cheese, wild rice, barley and so on.
- From there, have your kids retrieve and wash the vegetables while you ready two cutting boards and knives.
- Begin dicing and chopping the necessary amounts of each ingredient. While you handle the knife work, have your helper(s) gather, open and arrange Tupperware containers on a nearby countertop or table.
- Finished with the week’s supply of garlic? Pass a cutting board to your children or spouse and have them sweep the garlic into a container. (For safety, kids can use a butter-knife.) Meanwhile, continue prepping on the other cutting board.
- When you’re done, arrange containers in the refrigerator for easy access—as having to work a puzzle to retrieve ingredients will be demoralizing and frustrating.
Using these tips and process, you’re ready to start your meal-planning journey. Think of them as a template that can be added to and modified to suit your family’s specific needs. Trust me, if you invest in getting organized—and persevere through the admittedly bumpy transition—you’ll find big rewards waiting on the other side.
Smart Grocery Shopping
Acquiring groceries can be frustrating and time consuming. Organizing your list according to shopping venue will help maximize efficiency and minimize time you spend in the store. Here’s how to do it.
Know your venue—While it may sound obvious, patronizing the same store each week is the easiest way to boost shopping efficiency. When you’re trying to save time, knowing the lay of the land can get you in and out quick. Creating a routine for visits augments the effect. For instance, I start in the produce section and proceed counterclockwise around the store’s circumference, dipping into center aisles as necessary and shopping for meat, dairy and frozen items last.
Synch your list to the store—Arranging your shopping list to match store layout and your personal routine will streamline the shopping process and defend against impulse buying. For example, try organizing needed fruits and vegetables in the order they appear in the produce section. In my store, tofu is found in a refrigeration unit by salad mixes. Thus, I list it alongside staples like living lettuce and power greens.
E-shopping and online apps—With most franchises having loyalty programs, shopping in the same place each week offers perks beyond in-store sales. Synching your shopper’s card with a smartphone app can bring access to digital coupons, customized bonus offers, e-shopping, an auto-inventory of frequently purchased items and more. Taking 5 minutes to scroll through coupons before I shop saves me $5–$20 per visit. When expecting a busy week, I load my shopping list into the app—excluding produce—and select the in-store pickup option. I shop for fruits and veggies by hand, but everything else is ready and waiting upon arrival.
Planning Nutritious Meals (For Those that Can’t be Bothered to Do It)
Planning nutritious meals doesn’t have to be rocket science. While less than comprehensive, the following tips and tricks will help you cut through the jargon and rely on common sense to implement a healthier diet. If you like the results, continue onward down the path.
Eat whole foods made from scratch—Cut out as many processed and premade foods as possible. Instead of Stouffer’s frozen lasagna, learn to make it yourself. Ditto for Kraft macaroni and cheese. Rather than rely on seasoning packets—which almost invariably contain artificial ingredients and preservatives—utilize recipes and spice meals yourself.
Lose deep-fried foods—Period. If you have to have fried foods, reserve the tactic for vegetables or as a once-in-a-blue-moon treat. High in calories, trans and saturated fats, it’s some of the unhealthiest stuff you can put in your body.
Opt for lean proteins—Steer away from fatty meats like hotdogs, bratwurst and hamburgers. Instead, shoot for lean cuts of steak, chicken, turkey, fish or tofu. Tip: Topping salads helps with portion control and makes for easy meals. Looking for leafy inspiration? Check out menus at your favorite restaurants online and mine them for ideas. Making a list of three to five interesting salad combos can work wonders.
Veggies and grains—If you’re a meat with sides type of family, a good rule of thumb is to fill about half the plate with vegetables and plan to serve meats over grains. Tip: When planning meals, make a habit of asking yourself: ‘How can I make this healthier?’ A lot of times, it’s as simple as adding a layer of spinach to a lasagna or chopping up fresh tomatoes and blending them with a little tomato paste in lieu of prefab spaghetti sauce.
Strategic stacking—In my experience, adapting a stacking strategy makes planning healthy, interesting meals much easier. For instance, say I want to enjoy a beef tenderloin. If I’m in a hurry, I may cook it in a sauté pan and serve it alongside an ear of corn, sweet potato and green beans. But that’s pretty boring. Using stacking, I’ll start with a bed of grains—depending on the mood and vegetable options it could be quinoa, couscous, bulgur, barley, farro, millet, wild rice or whatever. Then I add wilted greens like kale, swiss chard or spinach. I may top those with fried green tomatoes or eggplant, or thin-sliced squash or zucchini. Then comes the meat, which is itself topped with a medley of sautéed garlic, red onions and shiitake mushrooms. For a sauce, swish a dash of vegetable stock around the steak pan and combine with juices from the mushrooms and vegetables.