Simple Swaps for Success – Dinner

We’ve all been there – it’s 7pm, we’re exhausted, everyone in the family is hungry and we didn’t plan dinner. There a few random things in the refrigerator and pantry. So what do we do? Take out. Eat Out. Pizza. Fast forward an hour later and we feel like crap and are beating ourselves up for not being able to adult very well. 

It doesn’t need to be this way! Today’s post is all about how to plan ahead and ensure we have nutritious options on the table. And if eating out is in the plan, go for it! You do you. But don’t let the stress and overwhelm of the week prevent you from staying on track and reaching your goals.

In the last 2 months you’ve:

  • Uupleveled your breakfast from a granola bar to something totally nutritious and filling to fuel you for the day
  • Radically changed what your lunch looks like, eating a balanced meal, at a table, without distraction

Now it’s time for dinner. The ever exhausting dinner.

We do not live in a world where the default decision is something that is healthy and nutritious and affordable and easy. If you want something that meets those criteria, you’ll end up with something that’s just affordable and easy and not be so satisfied with the outcome of that. Dinner, as with the other meals, take prep work. I’m going to do a meal planning workshop soon (stay tuned!) and I’ll give you a fool-proof strategy to make a meal plan to have you covered for months – or the entire year if you’re a little crazy like me.

This week’s post is a little different than the others. I’ll include some recipes, but the main swaps are behaviors not food. Ready to jump in?

Here are 3 reasons meal planning can radically improve your dinner:

  1. Plan for Success
  2. Save Money
  3. Boost Nutrition

Plan For Success

Meal planning is the bane of one’s existence. Am I right?

Most of us know we should. We even start off doing it and meticulous write out the meals for the week each Sunday afternoon. But fast-forward 2 months and most of us have fallen off the bandwagon. Me included. Until I found a method that worked and did not require me to plan every week.

The key is to keep trying, but if it doesn’t work, take 10 minutes to reflect about WHY it didn’t work. Write this down. And then the next time you try, take a different approach. I promise there is an approach out there that will work for you. I’ll tell you all about my approach another day.

Planning ahead saves time, money, energy and stress. Who doesn’t want that? I’ll take more time, more money, more energy and less stress anyday!  How does this work?

  • You know what you need from the grocery store and can buy it all in one stop. Less trips to the store = more time. And more money if you shop like me and have some issues with impulse control.
  • You can bulk meals with like items. No more wasting ½ a red pepper because you didn’t need it all. 
  • You add nutrition because you buy and use ingredients you otherwise might not make. I don’t know about you, but no matter how easy lentils are to make, I’m probably not making them on a whim.
  • You can bulk prepare items to save time. For example, if you’re making barley for one dish you can make a large batch and use it for another dish or lunch during the week. If I don’t have it prepared mid-week I probably won’t make it and choose a more convenient option.
  • You can choose a meal you have time to prepare so you’re more likely to stick to it. If it’s a weeknight, that amazing butternut squash lasagna would be great, but do you really have 90 minutes to make a meal? No. Save that for the weekend or day off. Instead, make a crockpot or 30 min meal. Or better yet – batch cooking (more on that below)

Meal prep can take 3 different forms

Prepping all of the items you will later cook in the week
This is literally just prepping. When you’re putting items from the grocery store away you leave out all the items that need to be prepped for the week. Clean, chop and prep everything at that moment. You bought a bunch of kale? Don’t just put it in the refrigerator to go bad. Wash (massage if you really like tender kale – for real, check it out here) and chop it right now so you can just take it out of the container when it’s time to eat. The largest obstacle to eating well has just been overcome. High fives all around.

Prep and portion
This takes it to the next level. Do #1 above but then portion out the amounts you need for each recipe. Portion out snacks. Portion out items for other meals. This way, when it comes time to make your son’s lunch you just need to grab the 4 items already portioned and make a sandwich. This cuts the prep time on the day you’re cooking or preparing the foods WAY down. Now everything is basically grab and go. Fist bumps all around. 

Full Meal Prep (Batch Cooking)
Now this is the mother load and it’s not for everyone. This takes about 4 hours a week and you need to be OK eating reheated food. This approach is to prepare almost all of your food for the week on one day. It actually does save time overall as you prepare in a way to streamline what you’re doing. You can prep all the vegetables first. You can cook bulk amounts of grain for multiple dishes. You can stack cooked items so while one cooks you are preparing the other.

My favorite place for examples of this type of prep is The Lean Green Bean. I’ve mentioned her before and will likely do it many times again. She does weekly meal prep and blogs about it here. She occasionally does videos to show you what it looks like (and does it with her littles “helping”). If you do this pull meal prep one week, be sure to take a picture and email her at the link above. You could be featured!

5 Meal Prep Resources

  1. The Lean Green Bean
  2. My Body My Kitchen
  3. Joann Eats Well With Others (individual posts but on the bottom you can find others)
  4. The Kitchn and bonus one here
  5. The Girl on Bloor

Save Money

We all could use a little more money, right? One place to start is your food budget. Most people eat out multiple days a week. Now and then won’t break the bank, but multiple times a week sure adds up. Here’s an example

Take this Ravioli with Sage and Brown Butter by Budget Bytes.
If you make it at home, it is $2.44 a serving.
If you buy it at a restaurant is at least $12/serving. Plus the restaurant requires a tip of 20% (because I used to be a server…) so now it is $14.40

That is an extra $12

Let’s do another.

Take this Vegetable Barley Soup by Budget Bytes
If you make it at home it is $1.11 a serving
If you buy it at a cafe it is $6 a serving. This is assuming you don’t need to tip at the cafe.

That’s an extra $5.

Let’s say you eat out 4 times per week (quite common in the US). I will assume half are restaurants and half are grab-and-go or cafe.
That’s an extra $34 a week
And an extra $1768 a year.

Now do I have your attention?

I’m not sure about you but I’ll take an extra $1748 any day.

Boost Nutrition

I’ve blogged about this before so I won’t beat a dead horse. Meal planning and prep will definitely improve the quality of your diet. Just think about how much easier it will be to choose vegetables for a snack if you have little bags portioned with carrots and peppers. I don’t know about you, but I’m unlikely to cut up carrots and peppers midday. If nothing is prepped I’ll grab what is easy to get back to my date.

Furthermore, if you prep in advance you can maximize your vegetables so nothing is wasted. Have a bunch of random vegetables left over? No worries – just throw them in a pot and make soup. It’s a great way to maximize nutrition, save money, minimize waste, and of course, stay warm this winter. Here are a few soup galleries to consider for inspiration.

See how I said “inspiration” and “for you to try out” above? It’s because soup is fool-proof (for the most part). If you don’t have everything listed, mix it up. Don’t like one spice, swap it for one you love. Soups are a great way to get your feet wet with experimenting. Plus your kids can help too!

What do you think? Are you sold on meal planning? Are you ready to take your dinners to the next level? 

If you loved all this talk about meal planning, stay tuned! I have more posts and I just might have a workshop coming up that will streamline your planning. 

What is your biggest barrier to meal planning? What one thing do you think would take you from “I wish I could meal plan” to “meal planning is stress-free and simple?”  I want to get you there!

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