Meal Planning Tips for Easy and Healthy Meals

There are sixteen days until my kids start school! Along with school starting, my kids will also be starting football, dance, and piano so our schedule is going to get busy. One thing that helps me feel less stressed when life gets busy is meal planning. By spending 30 minutes on the weekend planning meals for the week, I spend less time worrying about what we will eat for supper each night. I know my family isn’t the only one looking ahead to a busy fall, so today I wanted to share three tips I use when meal planning that you might find helpful.

  1. Pick a theme for each night. Some common themes I’ve heard before are Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, or Pizza on Friday. When you have a theme, it’s one less decision you have to make. On Tuesday, you know you are going to have tacos so you just have to decide what kind of tacos you want. The ‘themes’ I use are a little different. I have a different protein food for each night. And one night is always leftovers or make your own. I stock up on meat, fish and chicken when it is on sale and put it in my freezer. Here are some Spend Smart. Eat Smart. recipes for each kind of protein you might like to try. Not only does this make planning easy for me, but it also helps us vary our proteins which is important for good nutrition.
Beef/PorkFishChickenVegetarianLeftovers
Slow Cooker RoastBroiled SalmonQuick Pad ThaiStuffed Pasta ShellsWraps “Your” Way
Beef and Vegetable Stir-FryBaked Fish and ChipsChicken FajitasVegetable Frittata
Sweet Pork Stir-FryFish and Noodle SkilletCheesy Chicken CasseroleVegetable Quesadillas
  1. Make one dish meals. I make a lot of one dish meals because it makes my life easier. There are fewer dishes to do afterward and the only other thing I have to add to the meal is some fruit and something to drink, like milk or water. My kids don’t eat a lot of vegetables so I always include a fruit I know they will eat.
  1. Keep side dishes simple. Even though I like to cook, after a busy day when everyone is hungry I need to get supper done quickly. So in addition to making a lot of one dish meals, I always keep my side dishes simple. We eat a lot of cut up fruits and vegetables as sides. Some of our favorites are apples, carrots, and pepper strips. I also use a lot of frozen vegetables that I can heat quickly in the microwave. In the colder months, I like to make roasted vegetables.

For more ideas and resources on meal planning, check out the menu planning section of our Spend Smart. Eat Smart. website.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Preventing Food Waste at Jody’s House

Over the past few weeks you have heard lots of great ideas from Christine, Justine, and Katy on how they prevent food waste in their homes. As we wrap up our series today, I will share a few things we do at my house to prevent food waste.

Leftovers: In my house, we love leftovers. So each week when I do my menu planning, I include a day for leftovers. That means I don’t have to cook and we use up food before it spoils. We also like leftovers for breakfast and lunch. Leftover soup for breakfast, why not! Taking leftovers for lunch also means we save money because my husband and I aren’t going out to lunch.

Flexible Recipes: Christine mentioned using flexible recipes as one way she uses up leftover vegetables. I also like to use flexible recipes at my house. However, I like to use flexible recipes that allow my 11 year old son and 7 year old daughter to personalize the meal to their preferred taste. That way I know they are more likely to eat it and less food will be thrown away. These recipes allow children to help out in the kitchen and turn leftovers into something new:

*Instead of a large cookie crust, we like to make individual cookies. That way we each get to put on our favorite toppings. This works well to use up leftover canned, fresh, or frozen fruit.

Freezer: I use my freezer to extend how long I can keep food so that I can use it up before throwing it out. Right now my freezer has a number of ripe bananas in it that will soon be turned into bread or muffins! I also freeze leftovers if we aren’t able to eat them up within 2-3 days. Watch our video on freezing leftovers for tips on how to preserve the flavor, texture, and color of food.

I hope the tips we’ve shared during the past few weeks will be helpful for you in preventing food waste at your house.


Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Preventing Food Waste at Christine’s House

I live on my own and I LOVE to cook! People often ask me if I make homemade food for just myself and if I end up with a lot of leftovers going to waste. I do cook for myself all the time and I very rarely throw out leftovers. I am excited to share some of the strategies I use and I hope some will work for you too.

Meal Planning: The most important strategy that I use is meal planning. I sit down each week and decide what I would most like to cook. I decide based on the weather, the season and how much time I will have that week. The plan helps me choose what perishable foods I need to buy and helps me feel confident that they will get used without going to waste. The plan also lays out which days I am going to cook. I do not cook dinner every night; I often cook 3 times per week.

My Friend the Freezer: I rarely cook a meal that I will only eat once. When I cook, I normally plan to eat one or two servings within four days of making the dish and I freeze the rest in small containers. I often hear people say that this strategy would not work for them because their freezer is too full. My approach to that problem is that I add prepared dishes to my freezer every week, but I also eat dishes from it every week. I view it like a pantry with a constant stream of food in and out. I use about half of my freezer this way and the other half has frozen meat and vegetables that I keep on hand for longer term storage. As I plan my meals for the week, I always plan at least a few meals that are going to involve taking a prepared dish out of the freezer. That way, I know there will be space freed up for the things I cook fresh that week. The big bonus is that my freezer almost always has a wide variety of tasty things in it that just involve a quick zap in the microwave.

Flexible Recipes: I build a meal into my plan every week or two that is a good ‘use-up’ meal. By that, I mean that the recipe is a good way to use up whatever fresh vegetables that are left in the bottom of the produce drawer before they spoil. Many soups, stews, pastas and stir-fry dishes work well for this. Vegetable Frittata and Sausage Vegetable Skillet from the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. recipe collection are flexible to work with whatever vegetables you have.

I hope these strategies help you see how you can enjoy cooking whatever dishes you like even if you live on your own. Watch our blog for the next few weeks to hear from Jody, Justine and Katy on how they reduce food waste in their own homes. Happy cooking!

Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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Meal Planning at Christine’s House

Like many others, my routine is a bit upside down right now. I am working from home rather than making the trip to Iowa State’s campus each day. I am sticking close to home and avoiding unnecessary trips out of the house. My days look different, but I still want to make healthy choices and enjoy tasty food. I enjoy cooking and I am using this opportunity to do it a lot. For me, planning has helped me eat well and minimize trips out for groceries.

Because I am only cooking for myself, my planning is a bit different from Jody’s, Justine’s and Katy’s. I try to keep it flexible and focus on making good use of what I have. The strategy that works best for me is to keep a running list of what I have on hand from various food groups. From that list, I can spot what recipes I have ingredients to prepare. I can also compose meals by pulling items from different food groups and improvising a bit. The list also serves as a guide for me when it is time to shop. As I use the last of any food, I cross it off and I know I need to add it to my online grocery order. 

Take a look at the picture below for my current list. 

In addition to keeping this ‘foods on hand’ list, I am also trying to maintain some of the habits I had when I was leaving the house every day for work. For example, I keep a container of cut up vegetables in the refrigerator, so that they are easy to grab and throw into recipes or eat as a snack. I also use my water bottle that I used to take to work to keep up with drinking enough each day. 

What strategies work best for you with meal planning right now? Do you keep it flexible or prefer to have more details pinned down in advance? We would love to hear from you, so please share in the comments or on our social media. 


Take care!
Christine

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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What’s Cooking in Jody’s Kitchen? Part 2

On Monday I shared that my family’s list of favorite meals has been helpful for meal planning while we are spending our days at home. Today I’ll share some of our favorites that I’m planning to make. Normally, we are on the go and I plan meals for specific days based on how much time I will have to cook. Now that we are just home, I have a list of recipes that I can make and I choose in the afternoon what we will have for supper. If I am cooking then I get to pick! Mom’s prerogative! For breakfast and lunch, we are keeping it simple. If you would like some snack ideas, check out my blog on snacking

Here are some of our favorite meals:

Lentil Tacos

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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What’s Cooking in Jody’s Kitchen?

Last week Katy kicked off our series of sharing how the members of our Spend Smart. Eat Smart. Team are meal planning and cooking during the current pandemic. This week I’ll share what I’m cooking in my kitchen!

I’m currently working from home while also trying to do a little homeschooling with my 10 year old son and 6 year old daughter. Never a dull moment! My husband is in law enforcement so he is still going to work during the day.

When I first learned that I was going to be working from home and my kids would be home with me, I started working on a schedule and thinking about my meal plan. I have to admit though, we didn’t even follow the schedule on the first day. I quickly realized we were going to need to be flexible based on my work commitments. The one part of that schedule that has stuck is when we eat. This helps my kids know when the next meal or snack is coming so I’m not constantly asked if they can have a snack or when we are going to eat. This is also a nice sense of normalcy for them as meals and snacks at school happened on a schedule.

Something that has been helpful for meal planning during this time is a list I keep of my family’s favorit meals. I created this a while ago and have it hanging on a board in my kitchen. I look through it to see what meals use items that I can keep on hand or are easy to adapt. For example, tacos is one of our favorite meals. And I like that they are simple to make! I have a few packets of taco seasoning on hand (and I know I can make some homemade taco seasoning as well)). I’ve bought some extra hamburger and shredded cheese to put in the freezer and I have a couple packets of taco shells in my pantry. I almost always have salsa and sour cream in the refrigerator because we use them frequently. We also like to have spinach leaves with our tacos but if we haven’t been to the store recently and don’t have any, we just go without.

To help with meal planning during this time, I’d recommend making a list of your family’s favorite meals. I find it helps meal planning go quicker and I’m not spending as much time trying to think about what we should have. Sometimes we have to adapt the recipe based on what’s available but are still getting to enjoy foods we like. 

Family Favorite Meals

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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A Glimpse into Katy’s Kitchen – Part 2

On Monday, I shared a few tips on how to better organize your kitchen space. I spent some time using those tips to organize my kitchen and now that it is back to being user-friendly, I want to share what meal planning looks like for my family. With my husband working from home, I find that I need to be a little bit more creative when it comes to planning our weekly meals. 

One of my top goals when meal planning is to ensure that we have a variety of options to choose from each day. Now that we are eating all our meals at home and limiting takeout and restaurant visits, I don’t want to get burned out eating the same meals too often. To help with this, I choose 2-3 new recipes to make each week with the hope that they will become new family favorites to rotate into my weekly plans. Three new recipes that we tried this week (and loved!) included: Stuffed Peppers, Vegetable Quesadillas, and Spicy Tuna Salad.

My next priority when writing down my plan is to limit food waste by using the ingredients I already have in the house. Luckily, the steps I take to limit food waste also help me shop less frequently. I use the Five Day Meal Planner as a guide to creating my weekly meal planning sheet. I look for recipes that use the ingredients I have and some that use similar ingredients for the week to simplify my shopping list. I also plan how we will incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into meals and snacks so I am certain they will be used before they spoil.  

Below is an example of what my meal planning typically looks like each week. Instead of committing to making recipes on specific days, I like giving my family the option to choose from a variety of meals and snacks. Once that meal has been made for the week, we simply cross it off and continue choosing from the other options throughout the week. Doing this keeps me organized and makes it easier to decide what to make each day. 

There is no right or wrong way to make your family’s meal plan- find what works for you! We hope that over the course of this series you will learn some new meal planning tips and find new recipes to try at home. 

Cheers to planning out your meals this week!

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso is a Program Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. As a new mom she is always on the lookout for easy, healthy recipes to prepare for her family.

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Meatballs

Meatballs

Happy New Year!  Our January recipe of the month is Meatballs.  This recipe is on the menu plan regularly at my home because everyone in my family likes it and because it is versatile.

I have heard a lot of family members and friends complaining recently about being in a meal rut.  If you are feeling the same way, this meatball recipe may be for you. Last week I made a double batch of these and was able to use them for several different meals:

  • Meatballs work well on their own with a fruit and a vegetable on the side.
  • Serve meatballs with noodles and a favorite sauce to make your own version of spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Leftover meatballs make tasty sandwiches topped with cheese and veggies.

These meatballs freeze well, so you can freeze them in individual servings for future meals.  Use this recipe your way and let us know how you like it.

Enjoy!

meatballs

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Meal Planning at My House – Jody

This past month we have been sharing how we each like to do meal planning. To see how Christine and Justine like to do meal planning, check out their blogs here and here.


In addition to the ideas Christine and Justine have shared, I also like to make and freeze main dishes ahead of time. On occasion, I like to spend a Saturday morning making 4-5 main dishes to put in the freezer. Then when I’m making my meal plans for the next few weeks, I can include a meal from the freezer.


Since my kids went back to school this past week, now is a good time for me to get some meals in the freezer.


Here are some of our Spend Smart. Eat Smart. recipes that freeze well.

For more recipes, check out the Freezes Well section of Spend Smart. Eat Smart.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Meal Planning at My House – Justine

Meal planning can look different in every home. In my home, meal planning is flexible. I like to keep it flexible because, with a family of five, things can change very quickly. Today I will share the process I use to plan supper meals at my home.

The first thing I do is choose our main dishes for one week. I usually choose four or five main dishes because I like to double recipes and serve leftovers two or three times per week. Next, I choose side dishes. I usually do not want to cook both main dishes and side dishes, so I keep it simple with sides. I buy a variety of canned, fresh, and frozen fruits and vegetables for sides. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are especially important for our family because they store well and they are quick and easy to prepare.

I do not assign specific meals to days of the week. I just post the list of meals I have available on the refrigerator and then make the meal that will be best for my family on a particular day. For example, I tend to go grocery shopping on Friday or Saturday, so I will cook larger meals over the weekend that can be saved for leftovers on a busy night later in the week.

This past weekend, I cooked a pork roast in the slow cooker. So far, we have had two meals from the pork and I think we can get two more. Even though our main dishes will be similar for these meals, I can use the fruits and vegetables I have on hand to change things up a little. This flexible approach to meal planning works well for my family. Stay tuned next week for the approach that works best for Jody and her family.

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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