In university, I frequently ate nothing but granola bars and pizza pockets for days at a time.
I hit rock bottom when I ate cereal out of an old styrofoam coffee cup — and using a plastic spoon — for dinner (I was also out of clean dishes, of course). That’s when I realized I needed a meal plan.
- To have a list, taped to my fridge door, of what I’m supposed to eat each day.
- To buy groceries no more than once a week.
- To have a freezer stocked with healthy back-up meals.
These were surprisingly difficult to accomplish.
For each meal, you have to find a good recipe, buy the ingredients, and unwrap/peel/chop/cook them. Then you have to wait for it all to cool down, package it up in cute labeled containers, and put it away again.
Then you have to remember to actually eat it, instead of leaving it in the back of the fridge to rot while you eat your entire granola bar stash instead.
I spent several months just trying to find suitable recipes. (Why do so many involve 1-2 hours of labour and three or more types of spices? Why are so many of those “convenient home-made freezer meals” composed primarily of cheese and white carbs?)
Eventually, however, I learned to master ~10 minimum-effort meals. I still don’t have a perfect system; but at least I only need to do groceries once a week, and I usually have a healthy lunch to bring to work.
The following tips are for anyone* who wants to eat healthy home-made meals, yet hates cooking and grocery shopping.
*Well, any omnivorous adult who likes Western/American-style food and has a moderate budget.
Step 1: Have a rough idea of what to eat
Assuming you have no dietary restrictions and just want to eat “healthy,” I think this is a pretty good meal guide:
Just imagine dividing your plate into thirds and filling it with:
- High-protein food (meat, fish, eggs, or greek yogurt)
- Complex carbs or starchy vegetables (e.g. whole wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, carrots)
- Fibrous vegetables (e.g. mixed greens, bell peppers)
- Then add a spoonful or two of healthy fats (e.g. virgin coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, nuts).
Note that the “Healthy fats” circle is meant to represent a spoonful of oil (or perhaps a small bowl of avocado or nuts), not a drink (that would be disgusting).
Also, you can have fruit instead of fibrous vegetables sometimes (just not all the time).
If you’re confused about what a “complex carb” is, or wondering whether “healthy fat” is an oxymoron, I highly recommend the book Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle by Tom Venuto, which contains straightforward fitness and diet advice.
Step 2: Come up with 5-10 meals
This is where you mix and match all the foods that match your “meal guide” criteria into meals you’ll actually cook, eat, and enjoy.
It’s no good coming up with 25 healthy gourmet meals if you’re too lazy to cook them or despise how they taste, because you’ll give up immediately. So the prime objective here is to keep it simple.
If you’re a complete beginner, I recommend finding ONE breakfast that meets your needs, and eating that every day. Then find a few snacks – these mostly don’t involve cooking. When you’ve gotten used to your new breakfast-and-snacks routine, you can branch out into lunch and dinner recipes and slowly build up a repertoire.
My handwriting might be a bit hard to read. It says:
- Banana muffins
- Protein pancakes
- Protein bar + banana
- Chicken + quinoa + tomato x 3
- Chicken salad x 2
- Turkey-salsa wraps x 8 (4 portions)
- Turkey w/ rice, broccoli, corn x 2
- Tuna + spinach + grape tomatoes (I actually made a salad with bell peppers & cucumbers too)
- Veggie omelette
- Chicken breast + pasta + broccoli + tomato sauce
- Frozen fish + sweet potatoes + green beans
- Pizza (post-gym)
- Sole w/ quinoa & veggies (mixed frozen)
- Morning: fruit
- Grapes, kiwi
- Pear, apple
- Afternoon: veggies
- Bell pepper, cucumber
- Carrots, lettuce
Step 3: Adapt your meals to suit your calorie & macronutrient needs
Now, one thing to watch out for is your calorie intake. I thought I’d developed the perfect meal plan, but when I added up all the calories, it was 500 more than I was supposed to be eating!
(I will write a separate post on how to figure out your calorie/macro needs.)
Step 4: Make a grocery list
Try to plan your grocery shopping for set intervals like every Monday. Speaking of which, Wednesday after work is the absolute worst time to buy groceries (peak crowds), so avoid that.
I keep two magnetic whiteboards on my fridge door. On one I write down what I need to buy and what needs cooking. On the other, I write my weekly meal plan.
I also keep a note on my phone listing ALL the groceries I buy. I just check or uncheck the circle depending on whether or not I need to buy more of that item. (This way I don’t need to write something down, erase it, and then rewrite next time I need it – I simply write it down, check the box when I buy it, and uncheck the box when I’m out of it.)
Here’s what (part of) my list looks like:
As you can see, I already have enough broccoli, asparagus, etc. at home, but next time I’m at the store, I need to buy pears, grapes, raspberries, etc. (I don’t buy all the things on the list every time, just what I feel like.)
Step 5: Cook, eat, and repeat!
Looking for specific meal ideas? I’ve been tweaking my meal-plan strategy for the past 6 months, and I’m almost done perfecting it… But if I tried to include all that info here, this post would be the length of an encyclopedia 😛 So stay tuned for my next post: breakfast ideas.