Several of you asked how I approach meal planning. I break this into nutrition, budget, time management, taste, and quantity. Getting your meal planning in order will help inform many other weak points in your life’s organizational structure.
Most finance sites recommend you spend no more than 14% of your budget on food. You can use this calculator to see how your food spending compares to people like you around the US. My philosophy is to spend as little as possible while eating food that is healthy and appealing to your palate. I don’t pinch pennies when it comes to food. I don’t have to. I buy the food I want at the lowest price I can find while also looking for discounts. I follow a hierarchy of purchasing criteria which I’ll get to at the end. This ends up being temporally staggered as I run out of things in the fridge. By shopping at ALDI first and filling out the weekly haul with the higher quality stuff from the bigger chain stores one saves significantly.
We all have nutrition goals. What we eat impacts how we feel, sleep, perform, and look. It can indirectly impact our self-image. Thinking about nutrition is a necessary piece in living consciously. To eat without choosing thoughtfully is to acknowledge that how you feel, sleep, perform, and look is not important to you. It’s denying that our food choices impact our mental and physical states in profound ways. If your mind and body are not important to you, do you think it will be important to anyone else?
That being said, consider your goals. They are extremely important in meal planning. Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to sleep better? Do you want to feel energized for exercise? Do you lag after lunch? Do you go to sleep distracted by hunger or being too full? I won’t answer these questions here, but think about them and think about ways you can address them. Food can be more than sustenance, it can be medicine. Use this web app to see what nutrients your diet is lacking. Get your levels lab-tested by a service like Spectracell or DirectLabs. Know about how many calories you want to eat and what your portions should look like. If you want to get it perfect, weigh your food with a simple scale. Your nutrition and health should set conscious parameters on what you buy and cook.
This one is all about trial and error. Using the insights you gain from your nutrition goals, what in your ideal nutritional diet actually tastes good? Identifying this will help you stick to your meal planning and help you get excited about meals and improving its structure. It is imperative that you keep an open mind during your initial meal planning stages. You may find that some things (like Kale for instance) suck in one form (raw) but are delicious in another (cooked and blended into a soup.) I eat a ton of blended vegetables because I find them much more pleasant like that. Try out restaurants and note how they prepare your favorite dishes. Do you understand salt/acid/fat and how they balance? Don’t even begin to add seasoning until you’ve got a handle on the balance of salt (e.g. table salt or Tony Chachere’s cajun seasoning), acid (e.g. lime juice or vinegar), and fat (e.g. olive oil, butter, avocado, ground beef). Learn the way seasonings complement certain meats. The Flavor Bible is an epic resource for this. There are some great cookbooks that focus on learning to cook. I love Ruhlman’s 12, 4-Hour Chef, and How to Cook Everything: The Basics. Each in their own respect will teach you to think like a chef. From there, with a basic understanding of ingredients and flavors, begin trying out recipes in one of the classic “everything” books: how to cook everything or the more classic and just as ubiquitous middle age-mom cookbooks, “joy of cooking”.
Nearly one-third of all food in the US is thrown away. This constitutes a major ethical and financial issue. Don’t expect to buy the proper amount of food right away. Buy what you think you need and be observant of what you’re throwing away and what you’re keeping. Have an understanding of food expiry dates. Understand what bad food looks and smells like. After a few weeks of shopping, note how much you threw away. Being conscious of this will impact your purchase behavior at the grocery store.
Fresh produce and meat is great. But, it spoils quickly. If you’re trashing fresh produce now, chances are you will continue to do so. Don’t keep doing the same thing. Convert your fresh supply grocery list items into frozen. Frozen vegetables can be as nutritious as their fresh counterparts. Tend to purchase frozen vs. freezing fresh items. The professional freezing process is less damaging to food than your fridge.
How you prepare your meals is up to you. Consider how much variety you think you need. Do you really need it? I’m happy eating 2 different meals for dinner during the week and often the same things for lunch every day. It sounds boring, but it really isn’t. Food is satisfying when you’re hungry as long as it’s tasty. I sometimes prep meals in bulk (4-5 lunches) but I find that I end up wasting 1-2 portions each week. Batch cooking dinners and eating leftovers for lunch. But, I know that leftovers lead to uncontrolled snacking. To prevent between-meal snacking I prefer to have very little prepared food in my fridge. This is a personal preference as with so much of what I’ve written (perhaps not just here, but on this entire blog!)
Know your nutrition. Purchase with your budgetary standards in mind. Note your tastes. Note which fresh food items you frequently trash. Meal planning is an exercise in conscious living. Consider it an act in cherishing life.
My Meal planning purchase hierarchy
Go to ALDI
- Is there something on deep discount that I’d enjoy? Buy that.
- Are there other items there I’d enjoy?
I usually end up getting a few deep discount items at ALDI, like
- Specialty yogurts
- Specialty drinks like Kombucha
I always buy there:
- Avocado (1)
- Onions (if needed)
- Sweet potatoes (if needed)
- Organic chicken
- Organic ground beef
- Staples like salt, oils, or flour
- Jasmine rice
- Hard cheese (Romano/Parmesan/Asiago)
Giant or regular nicer grocer
- Fresh herbs
- Nicer pasta sauces without high sugar/HFCS
- Wild caught fish
- Grass-fed butter
- Nicer salsas (I like Mrs. Renfro’s)
- Ground chicken
- Marinated organic chicken
- Frozen vegetable blends (cheaper than ALDI).
- I really like the Normandy blend
- Frozen Kale (for Fiber and Micronutrients)
- Strawberries to freeze
- Bananas for smoothies
- Better than Bouillon Chicken broth base
- Very good for flavoring soups and sauces. (ain’t no way I’m keep a running frozen stock at my place with a fridge shared by 4 guys).
- Ginger Kombucha
Think consciously about your meal planning choices. They impact you in lasting ways. Consider the impact your choices have on your budget, taste, and nutrition. Do your actions line up with your goals? Consider reflecting on the thoughts here to structure meal planning that caters to your overall tastes, health goals, and budget.