Do you hate meal planning? I do.
I hear the word meal plan and my brain turns to jelly. I look at a weekly meal plan that is supposed to make my life “easier” and I already feel like a failure because I know there’s no way I’m actually going to eat exactly that. No matter how good the combinations sound, the rebel in me knows that:
- I almost never follow recipes to a “T.”
- Since I eat in-season (and since that varies regionally), unless the meal plan comes with my farm box for the week, I won’t have the ingredients for all those recipes.
- I probably won’t want what the meal plan says I’m supposed to eat (I can’t force myself to eat salad when my body wants chili.)
- I will likely have leftovers and then leftovers will become another meal and then the whole “plan” will get screwed up. OR, hubby and toddler will scarf down more food than expected and I’ll have NO leftovers, in which case a plan that accounts for leftovers will also be screwed up.
Am I the only person who feels this way?! Is there a Failed Meal Planners Anonymous group I’m supposed to join?
People are shocked to hear that I’m both a dietitian and a non-meal planner. Now, this doesn’t mean all of my meals are completely UNplanned. It’s just that most of ‘em aren’t some polished, pre-planned, cooked-all-on-Sunday sort of thing.
This is why lazy meal planning is my M.O. I much prefer to follow a loose meal template than a strict meal plan (which I lovingly refer to as “lazy meal planning”).
Enter Meal Templates (aka Lazy Meal Planning)
Now, before I jump in, I want to acknowledge that everyone has their own individual nutrient needs. What I’m sharing in this post is MY EXPERIENCE and what works for ME, which may be different than what works for YOU.
Yes, a certain amount of protein is required to keep you alive, same goes for a certain level of micronutrients (like fat-soluble vitamins and whatnot), but the biggest variation (from a practical standpoint) for folks is their need for carbohydrates.
In my practice (and frankly from watching the epidemiological data on diet and disease), most people are consuming way too many carbohydrates. This is not exactly a good thing given that 49-52% of Americans having diabetes or prediabetes (most undiagnosed) and that 60-70% of Americans are overweight/obese. (JAMA, 2015; CDC, 2017) Both of these health situations are addressed rather effectively with a diet that is lower in carbohydrates versus our current low-fat, high-carb dietary guidelines.
Does it mean I include no carbs or suggest everyone eats very low carb? NO!
My approach to lazy meal planning takes the above into account and is naturally on the lower carb side of the coin. IF you are someone who thrives on a higher carbohydrate diet, particularly if you’re someone who works out A LOT, please take this into consideration and consult a real food dietitian/nutritionist to come up with a personalized plan.
I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but I do not believe or suggest that a low carb or very low carb diet is right for everyone. I personally thrive on, what most experts would consider a “moderately low carb diet” (somewhere between 75-120g of total carbs per day; net carbs put me below 100g/day most of the time). As a child-bearing, still-breastfeeding-a-toddler female (at the time of writing), this is my sweet spot. Your sweet spot may be somewhere very different from me.
With that lengthy disclaimer out of the way, let’s dig into my lazy meal planning template.
Lily’s lazy meal planning template:
- Protein + Fat – Where’s it coming from?
- Vegetables – What’s in the fridge? What’s in season?
- Flavor – What spices, herbs, and sauces will make 1 & 2 taste delicious?
- Carbs – Yes, no, maybe so?
These are the questions that run through my head when deciding what to eat for a meal (and often, this happens no more than 2 days in advance of said meal (sometimes right before, if I’m 100% transparent).
Here’s why these are in this order.
1. Protein and fat are some of the most nutrient-dense and satiating parts of a meal, but they are easy to leave out.
From the protein standpoint, most sources are highly perishable, so if I’m going to have fish, for example, I’ll need to either buy that today or plan ahead and defrost a salmon fillet from my freezer (unless I totally forget and opt for a can of salmon or sardines).
For most people, and definitely for me, if I fail to plan what my protein option is, my meal will inevitably not have enough, I won’t be satiated, and the physiologic response to feeling like you haven’t had enough food is cravings for more food (usually not the healthiest fare). ← For more on this, see my classic post, The Healthy Breakfast Mistake.
I prevent this from being an issue by deciding what my protein option will be ahead of time, whether it’s meat (usually grass-fed beef or pasture raised pork or game meat), eggs, fish (fresh, frozen, canned), chicken/turkey, cheese (rare, as I feel best having dairy as a “condiment” not a mainstay in my diet), or beans (also rare for many reasons, but I DO enjoy an occasional lentil stew, bean burger, or split pea soup).
Now that your protein is chosen, what’s next?
2. Vegetables are good for you. Need I say more?
Yes? Ok. Well, aside from being DELICIOUS, vegetables pack vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. I feel best when my meals have a hearty serving of vegetables (in an ideal world, half my plate). That said, I don’t beat myself up if that doesn’t happen. Some veggies are better than no veggies.
My choice in vegetables at any given meal should jive with the protein option. So if I’m opting for a slow-cooker beef (and I want it to be a one-pot meal), I’ll probably opt for onions, carrots, and celery. Plus, this might be a good served over cauliflower rice (which, #lazycooktip, is often available in the frozen foods section of many grocery stores.) These days, I’d probably do this entire meal in the Instant Pot (an electric pressure cooker) roughly an hour before dinner time, sometimes starting with a fully frozen roast.
Psst → My general Instant Pot method is described here.
If I’m opting for roasted salmon, I’ll probably choose something that goes in the oven, like roasted curried cauliflower. If I’m going the lazy route and using leftover protein, the easiest option may be a big salad or bowl of tangy coleslaw topped with the chicken from the night before.
See my logic? Most often #1 informs #2.
3. Now that the main events have been picked out, flavor is the name of the game.
What will I add to this to make it taste good? Years ago, when I lived in a remote area of Alaska and there weren’t enough restaurants to make eating out/take out a regular thing, I cooked almost every meal we ate. (For what it’s worth, I still do, but we eat out more than once a month now.)
After months of getting stuck in a run (this soup, A-GAIN?), I realized I needed a game plan for spices. So, we started rotating through different cuisines. I had a plan for Italian seasoning, Korean BBQ-inspired meals, Indian curries (I keep 4-5 curry powders/spice blends on hand at all times), Morrocan, Mexican, and on and on.
From that point forward, we never got sick of my cooking (ok, maybe not NEVER, but it wasn’t a weekly annoyance).
If you’re new to flavor combinations and using real spices (no flavor packets or chemical seasonings, please), I highly recommend reading The Flavor Bible.
4. Last, but not least, I consider if the meal will have a starchy carb to go with it.
For all intents and purposes, I treat carbs like a condiment. I can take it or leave it and the meal will still be complete. There are, of course, some meals/days where including more carbs is what my body needs.
For example, if the day has been filled with movement (tons of yard work, a lengthy hike, etc.) or frankly, if that’s what my body is asking for, I’ll opt for a carb-dense option, like potatoes, sweet potato, winter squash, rice, organic corn (taco night?), or even pasta (lentil pasta is pretty good!).
[As stated in my lengthy disclaimer, some people thrive with more carbs at their meal and, for them, including one of these options at all meals should be their M.O.]
If my protein option is beans/lentils, I usually skip an additional carb (½ cup of beans is already 20 or so grams of carbs).
And, if I leave out the carb option entirely, I know I have more wiggle room for dessert. Berries with homemade whipped cream or some dark chocolate are personal faves. If I’m really getting fancy, dark chocolate cashew tart or maple pots de creme are absolutely divine (but, alas, those take some planning ahead).
Lazy Meal Planning Book
The whole point of meal planning is to make your life easier. If the standard approach with complex recipes makes your head spin, consider lazy meal planning.
Fellow dietitian Adele Hite and her coauthor, Jenni Calihan from Eat The Butter, have put together the most amazing resource to bring lazy meal planning to life (they don’t call it lazy meal planning; that’s my nickname for it).
It’s called Vintage Dinner Plans and the book is so ingenious, I’m a little irritated that I didn’t come up with the idea first.
Without bogging you down with complicated recipes or tons of nutrition science, they guide you through the basics of putting together meals with the bare necessities: a solid protein option and two veggies (one of which may be a starchier vegetable, if you’re the type who does well with more carbs in your diet).
The main part of the book is a set up flip-book style, for lack of a better description. Each page is a plate split into 3 sections that you can thumb through and choose a protein option, followed by two vegetable options.
I’m terrible at putting the ease of this resource into words, so check out the picture. It’s so easy, my toddler can meal plan now!
I’m also head over heels for the friendly reminder featured on every plate: “if in doubt, add butter and salt.”
It’s not a lie. If your vegetables taste awful, butter and salt will fix it. It’s what grandma did and it’s what all the fancy restaurant chefs do.
Lazy Meal Planning Website
Don’t want another physical book? They have their handy vintage meal plans tool on the Eat The Butter website. That meals you can mix and match all 20,000 ingredient combinations as often as you like and do it 100% for free. It even has a function to only show “keto friendly” meal ideas for those of you who thrive on a lower carb diet.
I do encourage you to get the print copy, though. There’s something so nice about being able to bookmark favorites and flip through the book in real time.
Are you a lazy meal planner?
Tell me in the comments below how you manage to get dinner on the table without elaborate meal plans.
Until next week,
PS – Struggle to understand how in the world you can make vegetables taste good? I cover all my tips and tricks in my free ebook “Veggies: Eat them because you want to, not because you have to.” Grab your free copy HERE.