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Hmmm…meal planning. For some it sounds easy, right? Just plan some meals. For others it may appear daunting as they ask questions such as: What do I prepare? Will I have enough time? Doesn’t all that food cost more? How do I keep up? What foods can I store and how do I store them? What is the best way to re-heat? and so on.
The fact is that the individual tasks for meal planning are not difficult. However, baking the time (pun intended) into your schedule, and creating it as a lifestyle habit, takes commitment. Meal prep and Planning is an essential component of a healthy dietary plan. My goal is to help educate you so you are not held back by intimidation or lack of understanding, and you fully recognize the benefits.
So, what is meal planning? Simply, it is planning your meals ahead of time. The element that gets most into trouble isn’t not knowing what it is, but knowing how to do it and where to start. This 5-part series of articles will provide you the fundamentals of meal planning so you too can incorporate this essential element into your healthy lifestyle. You are in for a real treat and long ride in this series. It really is a “how to” series of articles filled with lots of juicy information.
Before we get started on the fundamentals, let’s discuss the benefits of meal planning:
- Results in eating healthier and sticking to your dietary plan
- Avoids decision paralysis (what do I make or what can I have?) & free up your brain space for other things
- Provides healthy “ready made” meals and snacks
- Saves money
- Reduces stress
- Improves dietary variety for greater nutrition consumption
- Reduces waste
- Aids in weight loss
This article series won’t get into explanation of all these benefits, yet once you go through the fundamentals, you will have an idea why it is so beneficial and essential to a healthy lifestyle. There is one topic I want to mention about benefits. Some indicate “saving time” as a benefit. Well, yes, it does save time from running out to get something because you don’t have something to eat, spending time making your way through the grocery store trying to come up with something for family dinner, etc. However, it takes “well worth it to you and your family” time to do meal planning. So, overall, I believe it is a net savings regarding actual time, yet the many benefits combined far outweigh not doing it.
This is an investment in your health and the health of your family. If you have the budget to hire a personal chef who does all the recipe collecting and special requests, all the grocery shopping, all the food preparation, handling all the food storage requirements, and advising you about the plan and where everything is, that is fantastic. If you are one of us who do not have that luxury or choose not to budget that in, then meal planning and the activities involved with it are an essential activity to investing in your good health.
Here are key 5 fundamentals that make up successful meal planning
- Supplies and Accessories
- Recipes and “On-The-Go” Ideas
- Calendar With Weekly Menu
- Grocery List and Shopping
- Batch Cooking
For this article, we will go through the first category.
SUPPLIES AND ACCESSORIES
Of course, the obvious items are cooking utensils, measuring spoons & cups, pots & pans, mixing bowls, baking dishes, muffin pans, etc. Here are some other items that can help your meal planning and batch cooking easier, take less time, and be healthier.
ITEMS FOR COOKING/BAKING
Many start out with a crockpot and end up transitioning to an electric pressure cooker. I haven’t done that yet, but it is in my future. Of course, you can always have bone broth cooking up in your crockpot while you are using your electric pressure cooker for other needs and do some serious batch cooking.
The crockpot has some similarities to an electric pressure cooker, but just as the name implies, it is a “slow” cooker. It cooks things at low heat over a longer timeframe. This can help tenderize less expensive, tough cuts of meat. It is also used for stews and soups (great for making bone broth), and even for potatoes without liquid. A similar benefit to the pressure cooker, it does not require constant watching over and you can even leave your house and/or cook things overnight.
Electric Pressure Cooker (Many Know By The Name – Instant Pot)
The Instant Pot is such a hit and so many rave about it. The Instant Pot is essentially an electric pressure cooker. We don’t have one (yet), but just reading about it and then using a friends sold me on it. Of course, there are other brands besides the Instant Pot. The name has just taken off and people use it to refer to the electric pressure cooker like we use Band Aid (the brand) to refer to bandages. Who doesn’t typically have bandages stored somewhere in their home? I’d say it is also wise to have an electric pressure cooker on hand for a highly beneficial food prep tool.
Electric pressure cookers come in various sizes. I recommend getting at least a 6-quart, if not an 8-quart. Not necessarily because you will be making a ton of food for one sitting, but because you want to be able to use it for batch/bulk cooking. This way you can make numerous servings so you have leftovers for other meals. An electric pressure cooker cooks foods evenly and in significantly less time, retains nutrients much better, and by way of the pressure-cooking effect, can even destroy bacteria and harmful substances better than other cooking methods. Oh, and unlike leaving something on the stove (soups, stews, etc.) that you have to watch over, an electric pressure cooker can be timed and you don’t have to worry about something spilling over or overcooking, and you can be doing other things without having to watch over it. It can be used for anything from soups, stews, making bone broth in less time (just as nutritious as a slow cooker/crockpot), animal proteins (meat, poultry, fish), potatoes and grains. It also has accessories to do things like steaming, making eggs, and more. It is so worth having.
A food processor can reduce the amount of time chopping, shredding, and blending. It can also be used to make sauces, dips, spreads, and your own nut/seed butters. Depending on how many you are preparing for, you may not need one of those large food processors. I use a mini all the time and it works perfectly for the amount of food I am preparing. It is a 4-Cup KitchenAid, although there are several brands for less than $50.
A strong blender isn’t just for making great smoothies. It is wonderful for puréeing and blending for some of the same purposes of a food processor: sauces, purées for soups and casseroles, and the like. Most have heard of, and even have the Ninja, which is what we have. We only have the blender portion though. It also comes with a food processor attachment, so it’s great for an all-in-one.
Unbleached parchment paper is a staple in our home. I use it to layer any pan or dish when cooking and re-heating. We don’t want to put our food directly on aluminum, Teflon non-stick, and sometimes not even directly on stainless steel. So, we line it with parchment paper and our food doesn’t come in contact with surfaces that may leach undesirable elements into our food. It also provides a safe non-stick surface and works well in the oven, toaster oven, and microwave. Another factor is that even lining glass or stoneware baking dishes makes for a much easier cleanup, and who doesn’t want that?
Regarding the type of parchment paper, always use unbleached or untreated, which is typically brown. The white parchment paper is bleached, so the chlorine from that gets into our food, and then we ingest it. Yuck and unhealthy!
ITEMS FOR STORAGE
Before we get started on the details of the actual containers, let me throw out some important ideas to keep in mind:
- Always have various sizes of containers available for your storage. Sometimes you will be storing 2 servings at a time, sometimes 4 or more.
- Save your glass containers from packaged foods to use for storage. Items like glass jars from nut butters, ghee, pickles, relish, sauces, etc. I have a ton of these and they come in so handy, and it reduces the amount of containers needing to be purchased.
- For pre-cooked dry items such as rice and quinoa, you may even use baggies. Though I try to use non-plastic as much as possible and even use glass jars for dry items, I still use BPA free baggies for some things to save on space in the freezer. When using any plastic, ensure food is always cooled before putting it in plastic.
The best storage options are glass and ceramic, or stainless steel when what you are storing is non-acidic such as not being tomato based.
Glass and Stainless Steel Storage
These are great for storing foods in the fridge or freezer to take out for future meals
- 16oz Mason Jars
- 32oz Mason Jars
- Various Glass Containers & Sizes: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=glass+storage+containers&ref=nb_sb_noss_1
- Various Stainless Steel Containers & Sizes: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=stainless+steel+storage+containers+with+lids&ref=nb_sb_noss_1
Meal organizers are great so you can bring a variety of items in specific serving sizes for lunch and on-the-go needs
If plastic or aluminum foil is your choice, there are ways to use it to make it safer and healthier for you.
Most think of plastic containers and bags for use when saving leftovers. The benefits of plastic are they are light, and storage bags are great for not taking up as much space in the fridge and freezer. The downside is that they are plastic. Though most plastics indicate they are microwave and dishwasher safe, that just means they won’t melt or blow up when using them in those heated conditions. Also, although many are made BPA free, there are still many other harmful substances in plastic. If you insist on using plastic, and I even use small amounts, here are tips to make it as healthy as possible:
- Never heat plastic or enable it to have contact with heat. This means not using any form of plastic (includes Styrofoam) in the microwave, in the dishwasher, cleaning with hot water, or even leaving in a hot car. The heat degrades the plastic and harmful elements get that much more into our food.
- When storing food in plastic, always wait until it has cooled completely before putting it into the plastic container or storage bag.
- Discard plastic that looks worn, warped, or has cut marks in it.
- If using plastic wrap to cover foods, ensure it is not touching the food. If covering or wrapping food with plastic, always layer the food first with unbleached parchment paper to protect it from the plastic.
Here are plastic meal prep containers for use when taking leftovers for lunch and when on-the-go. Again, they are plastic. So even though they highlight they are microwave and dishwasher safe, they really, and truly are not safe for your health to use in those conditions. If using things like this, please put food in them when it is cold and do not use for re-heating.
Some use aluminum foil for wrapping foods they are saving in the fridge or freezer. I used to do this. However, after learning how toxic the aluminum is to our bodies, if using aluminum, use a protective layer of unbleached parchment paper around the food so the food is not in direct contact with the aluminum. This also means it is best not to cook or re-heat food directly on aluminum.
In summary for storage, the best containers for food are glass and stoneware. Pure stainless steel can be ok when not using with acidic foods. Using plastic and aluminum equates to you consuming hormone disrupters and other harmful chemicals that cause your body harm. If you are going to use them, please do so wisely and take the necessary steps to protect your exposure. Toxin exposure accumulates, so just because you don’t notice an immediate reaction doesn’t mean you are not doing harm to your body.
The next article will include the second fundamental, “Recipes and “On-The-Go” Ideas.”
To YOU Being Confidently Healthy and Having Joy Filled Living,