I do not have enough time to meal plan and prepare meals.
Do you have money to pay for a personal chef? If no, then you need to make time to plan and prepare meals. There are a number of tools and strategies that you can employ to save yourself time. We can start by outlining a few things you can do to make your meal planning a little easier
Choose a Specific Time Each Week to Shop: choose a date and time each week to meal plan and grocery shop and put it on your calendar. For example, maybe you go grocery shopping every Wednesday after work. I find that going to the grocery store on a weekly schedule works best for me. If I get off my weekly groove, the rest of my week becomes more difficult.
Use a Recipe Manager: store all of your recipes on your smart phone and use them to help you organize and find your recipes, plan out the meals you are going to eat for the week, create a grocery list, and directions on how to make the meal. There are a number of great recipe managers out there, but we like to use Paprika. It is well worth the one-time cost.
Disconnect Preparing from Cooking: you do not have to prepare your ingredients and cook your meal at the same time. More often than not we cut our veggies and brown our meat during our cook time. There’s no rule against cutting veggies in the morning or evening when you have a few minutes of downtime. I personally, like prepping veggies when my brain is too tired to do anything else productive like in the evening just before I sit down to watch television.
Leftovers: plan to make double or even triple the amount you will eat at once. Put part of it in the fridge for lunch or dinner the next day and part in the freezer for next week (or next month). Depending on your family size, planning 3-4 dinner meals/week can usually get you by provided your family does not mind eating leftovers a few times per week
Utilize Weekends: try meal prepping for the whole week on your days off. When you have time, make a weekly menu, shop for what you will need, and pre-prep ingredients. This can feel like a real pain at the time you are doing it but your weekdays will thank you later.
Shop Smart: make a grocery list and do not shop when you are hungry. This will decrease distractions at the store and keep you from needing to make emergency trips later. No one likes having to make multiple impromptu trips to the store for one or two missing ingredients at a time. This can be a real time suck.
Rapid Grocery Pick-Up: many grocery stores allow you to purchase online and pick up at the front. Although creating your online grocery preferences takes a lot of time upfront, it should save you time in the long run and when you really need it.
Pre-Made Items: you do not have to make everything from scratch. Buy bread already made, sauces mixes, and pre-grated cheese. Read labels to make sure they align with your goals.
Meal Replacements, Kits, and Delivery: each of these minimizes the time that you will need to spend cooking. It’s okay to rely on these, whether you’re actively dieting or just trying to maintain your weight. There tends to be a stigma against meal replacements as being unhealthy and meal kits and delivery are relatively expensive. But don’t worry about that. You can’t put a price on your health. If these tools help you, use them.
Crockpot Meals: just dump the ingredients in the crockpot before you leave, let it sit on low all day, and it is ready when you get home. There is nothing like coming home from a long day at work and having dinner already prepared.
30 Minute Meals: utilize meals that take less than 30 minutes to prep (i.e. salmon, steamed broccoli, and sweet potato fries) to save time on cooking.
Ready to Eat Meals: pick up soups or a rotisserie chicken along with cottage cheese, baked beans, pickles, potato salad, and carrots or a pre-made lasagna to eliminate meal prep.
One Pot Meals: decrease the time you have to spend cleaning dishes after dinner. Your proteins, grains, and veggies can all go into one dish. Cooking a main dish and two sides can be overwhelming and I oftentimes find myself skipping the sides if this is the case.
Bridge Meals: also known as emergency meals. Keep a frozen lasagna, spaghetti, frozen fish and squash or even a box of macaroni and cheese around to prevent you from having to run out to the store when you have run out of food for the week.
Go To “Safe” Fast Food Meals: it is not a bad idea to identify a few fast-food meals that you know are low calorie that you can go to when you’re in a pinch. I used to eat one McDonald’s cheeseburger in-between my evening classes (right before I taught nutrition). I was always a little scared that one of my students would see me and I’d lose credibility with them – but I would have to explain to them that this one small burger (and not fries and a drink) fit within my calorie goals and therefore there should not be a stigma against it. The important thing is to figure out what these foods are ahead of time and stick to them. Do not deviate from your plan or the calories will pile up quickly.
Cereal: it is okay to eat breakfast for lunch or dinner. Cereal can also serve as a bridge meal to get you by until you have time to get to the store. Try to choose cereals with at least some fiber and/or mix a sugary cereal with a higher fiber cereal. One of my favorite options is Kracklin Oat Bran mixed with granola.
Precut or Pre-Organized Fruits and Veggies: if you are finding that you do not have the time or the motivation to cut up fruits and veggies, purchase the pre-cut variety. Another option is to come up with a defined system on how you go about prepping your ready to eat fruits and veggies (i.e. for example, incorporate cutting up fruits and veggies into your grocery shopping routine: after grocery shopping, keep a small cutting board out and visible, and have specific containers for the veggies to go into).
Eat the Skins: you do not need to waste time or nutrients peeling most produce.
Organize: make sure everything you need to cook is in a convenient spot. Store dishes near the dishwasher and frequently used foods near the prep area.
Canned and Frozen: produce are often precooked before they are packaged and do not require a lot of preparation time. Choose low sodium canned products.
Quality Tools: having good nonstick pans and sharp knives can really save you time and frustration.
Cooking Gadgets: food processors, dicers, mixers, and other gadgets reduce elbow grease time. You have no idea how many times people have laughed at me for bragging up my can Kitchen Aid can opener, it is so smooth compared to my old garage sale can opener from college! Some of the best money I have ever spent.