So I know I am going against the grain by saying this (especially as a dietitian)….but I don't like weekly meal plans or Sunday Meal Prep. There I said it. I see the appeal, and for some it may be helpful, but it may not be helping YOU. Meal planning principles take away from intuitive eating. It also reduces the potential to explore creative and seasonal cooking, which can make cooking so much fun in the first place! This is why I NEVER create week long meal plans for my patients. I provide them with recipes and put together a Sample Meal Plan based on their unique needs and preferences to be used as a template moving forward, including timing of supplements, portion sizes, etc. It is meant to be a guide, not the law. Meal plans can be a barrier to change and in my opinion do NOT support intuitive eating and food freedom.
I am a firm believer that if you listen, your body will guide you towards what you need nutritionally speaking. However unfortunately, there is a lot of nutrition confusion in the public due to generalized nutrition statements usually heightened by mass media, Instagram "influencers", propaganda, and well meaning friends/family members who are "into nutrition". So many times, people come to me with a variety of food rules (and anxiety around food) that they "read about", "heard about",etc. Most of the time, they have not been given individualized nutrition recommendations by a qualified nutrition practitioner. Consequentially, they are left with many nutrient gaps and possible nutrient deficiencies. However, if you are able to quiet the nutrition "noise" given by unqualified individuals and mass media, and simply focus on eating a whole foods diet limited in processed ingredients and rich in a variety of plants, slow starches, quality proteins, and fats, then the nutrient density of your diet will be more robust. Plus, if you eat a balanced whole foods diet, eating intuitively and listening to your body cues becomes a much easier practice. There is no need to follow a fancy meal plan using expensive superfood ingredients. With minimal mental power expended, you can create healthy meals that you CRAVE and WANT (and your body needs) in the moment using whole foods, no matter what kind of diet you may be following for therapeutic/religious/cultural reasons. How do you do that? Casual creative cooking!
The thing is, meal planning and Sunday Meal Prep can be helpful for some. They do expose you to different foods and methods of preparation, and also offer portion size control. For some people this rigid practice helps reduce stress around food. BUT, they totally disregard intuitive and mindful eating practices. Rather, you are eating food that you prepared on Sunday and may not actually want or desire to eat on Wednesday. What happens then? Either food waste, or lack of satisfaction, and food boredom. I know when I am not satisfied, I crave or want what WILL satisfy me. If I eat the pre-prepared bean/grain salad pictured above 3+ meals a week, I am not going to feel satisfied even if it is a healthy whole food based recipe. It may even cause me to desire choices that are not going to help me reach my health goals, especially if the meal I prepped is still leaving me hungry. Also, pre-made meal plans do not address what YOUR body needs. Eating the same meal over and over again can increase the likelihood of the development of nutrient deficiencies due to lack of variety. Nutrient needs fluctuate hourly, daily, and weekly depending on your activity levels, age, stress, menstrual cycle, etc. Food cravings are often signals that the body needs certain nutrients found in that food. By working with a skilled dietitian, they may be able to bring to light your cravings in relation to possible nutrient gaps in your diet.
Since meal plans and Sunday Meal Prep take away our innate ability to "listen to our bodies", I encourage casual creative cooking (CCC) as an alternative. With some tools, you can do this too and save mental power, save time, enjoy foods that you want here and now, and be more able to listen to your body cues. It also helps you be creative with what you have in the fridge instead of following a recipe to a “T”. Recipes are great to help you find new flavor profiles and cooking techniques, but cooking this way all the time, takes away flexibility. Buying foods that look good or sound good to you at the market or grocery store and preparing something on the whim is going to be so much more satisfying and fun! Plus, casual creative cooking can help you become more comfortable creating meals with "what's in the fridge", thereby reducing food waste, and naturally opening up a few days a month when "take out" or a dinner out can be a fun tasty way to fill the grocery gap.
So how can you do this?? Of course a little prep is required…but not all at once, and not a ton. I like to compare this to cleaning. If you clean the toilet one day, vacuum the living room the next, water the plants on the third, etc, etc… they all only take a few minutes each. BUT if you do them all at once, it seems daunting, and it DOES take a lot of time…usually leaving you stressed and exhausted. It isn’t fun. But if it’s in the moment, you have good music playing, and it’s only a few minutes here and there, you do not even realize that you spent time doing it.
In order to be successful with casual creative cooking, think staples. A healthy balanced meal usually consists of four main parts; a slow starch (carbohydrate), a protein, a fat, and veggies (cooked or raw). Plus, a few other fun things as you have them available. See the Bastyr Healthy Plate for reference. The main thing that helps you succeed is preparing some starches or veggies casually throughout the week, just like you would causally clean your home. For example, steam a bag of Yukon gold potatoes (or any tuber). This can be done without any real effort. Once they are steamed, you can eat the potatoes cold in a salad, quickly chopped as part of a breakfast hash, added into soups, reheated and eaten as is (with butter of course), or mashed into potato pancakes. You can use them in any way that YOU WANT IN THE NOW. Another example is you can cook some lentil pasta, rice, or quinoa, or simply drain a couple cans of beans. Once they are prepared and ready, they are easy to add into stir-fries, salads, or reheated with leftovers. The possibilities are endless when they ARE in your fridge. If they are in the cupboard, out of sight, out of mind waiting for that “perfect” recipe, then they will not make it on to your plate. As simple as that.
For veggies, casual prep is also essential. When you decide to use some chard or kale for a meal, wash and chop the whole bunch at once. It only takes a couple more minutes, and then you have easily available prepped greens to throw into omelets, pasta, one skillet bakes, smoothies, anything! They are just waiting for you to grab a handful! Same goes for onions, cabbage, etc. Also, buy veggies that don't require any prep at all, like sugar snap peas, baby bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, avocados, or bagged broccoli/cauliflower florets for easy snacking. All you have to do is buy them, as you crave them!
When it comes to protein, this is the only ingredient that requires a little bit of forethought. I have a freezer full of different pasture-raised protein options. An hour or two before a meal (or earlier that day), I ask myself, what sounds good? Then I pull that out of the freezer to thaw in some cool water. I also usually keep a few “easier” staples around in case I come home too late and don't have the time to thaw a protein. These include extra firm tofu, eggs, liver pate or deli meats, and packaged chicken sausages. I also always have canned sardines and salmon in the pantry just in case. Naturally, cooking larger portions of protein, also allows me to have leftover protein for the following day or days, making life even easier moving forward. For example, if I want a burger, I thaw a whole pound and make 4-6 burgers to eat throughout the week, or freeze for later.
Fruit is usually easy because it doesn't require cooking or much preparation. Generally, as part of a anti-inflammatory lifestyle, aiming for 2-3 fruit per day is ideal. Buying a variety of different fruits once again offers you a variety of nutrients. Read my article on Fruitphobia if you are concerned about the carbohydrates in fruit.
Finally, thinking outside of the box is essential to causal creative cooking and food freedom. If you let go of the idea that a certain food needs to be prepared or served a certain way, then you have endless possibilities. Not everything has to be Instagram worthy. If it tastes good, and if it satisfies you, then you did it! Just aim to have all four components of a balanced meal: a slow starch, quality protein, quality fat, and veggies. For example, the burger can be so many things. It can be used in a traditional hamburger with a whole grain bun and side salad, it can be cut up into a veggie soup with some steamed potatoes and handful greens, it can be served like a steak with roasted squash and asparagus, or it can be crumbled into tacos, etc. You get my drift. Also, casual creative cooking allows you to utilize leftovers in a different way then they were originally prepared.
So, what do you think? Is meal planning a MUST for you? Or would you rather learn the way of casual creative cooking, listening to what YOU WANT AND NEED IN THE NOW?
For this new year I encourage you to try something different. Your success as a human is not based on how many perfectly prepared work lunches you have stacked in your fridge. Instead of spending money on pre-made meal plans that don't address your unique needs and preferences, or spending hours planning out meals for the entire week, instead use the money and time to take a cooking class with a friend or buy an ethnic cookbook for recipe inspiration. THIS will help increase your kitchen skills and allow you to cook more creatively and intuitively. Just like anything, causal creative cooking is a skill that is honed over time. But it is a skill that will support you (and your family) forever. Your children will learn from you, and their children will learn from them. And yes, cooking from recipes is a great way to learn and experiment, but don’t let recipes and meal plans define you. Cooking should be fun, tasty, and nourishing. Try not to make it so complicated, and you (and your family) will reap the benefits of casual creative cooking, intuitive eating, and food freedom! You can follow me on Instagram to see how I incorporate casual creative cooking (or CCC) into my meals everyday. Please share with me how you incorporate CCC at home. And if its not for you, and you thrive on meal plans, please share your thoughts. Once again this is just an alternative to support food freedom and intuitive eating.
Some Staples I like to Have in My Kitchen to make Casual Creative Cooking Easy
(I don't usually have all of these at once, but a variety from each category depending on what I crave, what looks good at the farmers market/grocery store, what is in season, etc. Frozen foods are always great to have on hand when I am in a pinch. Also, this does not include all of my pantry staples.)
Protein (fridge): organic deli meats, liver pate, extra-firm tofu, organic chicken sausages, grass-fed jersey/guernsey yogurt, cooked protein leftovers
Protein (freezer) wild caught fish, different cuts of pastured-raised chicken, beef, or pork (including ground).
Protein (pantry): wild caught skipjack light tuna, canned salmon, or sardines in olive oil or water
Starch (fridge): steamed rice, quinoa, or potatoes/sweet potatoes, cooked lentil pasta, rinsed/drained beans, corn tortillas, GF bread.
Starch (freezer): cauliflower gnocchi, GF bread, corn tortillas
Starch (pantry): canned beans, rolled oats, pastas, whole grains, winter squash, potatoes
Veggies (fridge): broccoli sprouts, chopped hearty greens, zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli/cauliflower, fennel, Brussel sprouts, baby bell peppers, pre-trimmed green beans, cucumber, sugar snap peas, leafy greens (washed and stored), fresh herbs (usually cilantro and parsley), onions (green or red/yellow usually), leeks, garlic, whatever is on sale and in season
Veggies (freezer): riced cauliflower, frozen spinach/butternut squash
Fruit: whatever is fresh and in season and frozen berries.
Fats/Oils: Grass-fed butter/ghee, extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nut/seeds and their butters, coconut oil, canned full fat organic coconut milk
Dried Herbs/Spices (always) – TJ’s Taco Seasoning, TJ’s Everything But Bagel Seasoning, TJ’s Chili Lime Seasoning - see below for some common flavor profiles.
Toppings/sauces: goat & sheep cheeses, capers, garlic, pesto, a couple different dips (hummus/tzatziki/pesto), hot sauce, mustard
DIFFERENT SPICE PROFILES
Italian: fennel seed, chili flakes, oregano, thyme, basil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil
Mediterranean: Rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil
German: parsley, caraway, green onions, chives, apple cider vinegar, butter
Spanish: Smoked paprika, capers, garlic, parsley, red wine vinegar, olive oil/avocado
Mexican: cumin, paprika, chili, cinnamon, garlic, cilantro, lime/lemon, olive oil
Indian: curry, cardamom, star anise, cumin, parsley, lemon/lime, butter/ghee
Moroccan: ras el hanout, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, cloves, olive oil/butter
Some Local Bellingham Cooking Classes:
Bellingham Food Co-op Community Classes
In the Kitchen Class by Ciao Thyme
Tiny Onion Cooking School (for kids)
Cookbooks For Cooking Inspiration:
Orange Blossom & Honey
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Grandma’s German Cookbook
Like to read? Then get your evidence based nutrition information here! All posts written by Selva Wohlgemuth, MS, RDN Functional Nutritionist & Clinical Dietitian