Healthy Meal Planning for a Busy Week

Our Health Nut and Registered Dietitian Molly Morgan has some great advice for mapping out a healthy meal plan! To learn Molly’s tips and tricks, watch the Google+ Hangout on Air, Healthy Meal Planning for a Busy Week, or read on below. She offers helpful suggestions to stock your pantry, reduce meal prep time, find cooking inspiration, accommodate special diets, and much more!

What advice do you have for putting together a meal plan for the week?

Having a plan is key to making sure healthy eating happens, especially with a busy schedule. Take a few minutes of your free time on the weekend to map out a plan for the week. Ask yourself which nights of the week you’ll have time to cook, which nights you’ll be eating out, and then make your game plan. Prepare meals that require more prep work on those nights that you have a little extra time, and make some extra food to plan ahead for especially busy days. Be sure to do your food shopping in advance so that you’ll have everything you need.

What are some of your pantry/kitchen staples?

Nuts and grains always come in handy because they’re extremely versatile and nutritious. Nuts are packed with protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Try cashews in a stir-fry, or almonds and pistachios tossed over a salad. Keep a variety of grains on-hand (like organic farro, millet, quinoa, and brown rice). For example, you can make a big batch of farro and enjoy it as a side dish with your meal one night, then turn it into a Mediterranean salad the next, by adding chopped cucumber, tomatoes, and lemon juice. Grains can be used to create a whole bunch of dishes when combined with fresh veggies, nuts, and other ingredients. A combination of various nuts and grains is a great idea for healthy meal planning.

Where do you find inspiration for your recipes?

I love reading food blogs, and looking at different cookbooks and magazines. If you haven’t checked out Skinny Size-It – there are some great recipes in there, as well! Going out to eat can also inspire new recipes. If I see a dish that looks good, I’ll take a picture of it so that I can try to re-create it at home. Remember that recipes are a foundation for how to prepare something, so feel free to be creative, even if you don’t have an ingredient that the recipe calls for. Most often, you can substitute something that you already have on-hand. Feel free to use recipes as a starting point.


Do you have any time-saving cooking tips for reducing meal prep time?

One of the best time-savers is making big batches of certain ingredients so that you have a stockpile to get you through the week. It’s great to do this with grains because many of them don’t take too long to cook and are incredibly versatile. For example, you can make quinoa with stir-fry one night, then with tacos the next, and after that, you can try something like a quinoa salad. When it comes to healthy meal planning, cook in bulk to reduce time spent cooking later on.

Another great time-saver is frozen vegetables, which can be ready in minutes. Steaming them on the stove or preparing them in the microwave is a quick and convenient way that you can add extra veggies to your meals. And finally, planning ahead is key. If you’re chopping up peppers one night for dinner, and you know you’ll need them again for a later meal, you can just go ahead and chop up that whole batch of peppers. These kinds of ingredients can be stored in bags or containers in the fridge, and save you time down the road. 

Do you have any tips for families looking to accommodate special diets for more than one member?

Special diets can be an area that families struggle with but a little healthy meal planning can make things easier. For example, I eat vegetarian, however the rest of my family does eat some meat, so if I’m grilling chicken, I’ll also grill some tempeh, which is a vegetarian-type protein. Fruits and vegetables are a great staple because they’re suitable for most special diets and can be a part of almost anyone’s eating plan. Focus on foods that go with any type of eating style – this is key so that you’re not stuck making 5 different meals any night of the week. Adjust certain parts of your meals to tailor to special eating routines in your household, and try to bulk up on those foods that you can all eat by making more of them.

What are some whole-grain options for people following a gluten-free diet?

Two of my personal go-to recommendations for gluten-free whole grain options are quinoa and brown rice. Quinoa is great because, although it’s technically a seed, it cooks up much like a grain. I also love brown rice and brown rice pasta. Brown rice has the whole kernel of the grain intact so it’s considered to be a whole grain, yet it’s gluten-free.

Quinoa Salad Featured Photo

How can vegans and vegetarians incorporate more protein into meals?

If you’re a vegetarian like myself, you can certainly incorporate cheese into your diet since it’s a great quality source of protein. If you’re vegan on the other hand, you can look for meat alternatives like tempeh, which is made of fermented grains. For 3 ounces of tempeh, there’s about 20 grams of protein, so it’s super rich in protein, and it grills up and sautées beautifully. Also challenge yourself around other protein alternatives, like tofu. I also love having a dish of some sort of beans ready to go, like a three bean salad or vegetarian baked beans seasoned with a little barbecue sauce, chopped tomatoes, and onions. Beans are another really high-quality source of protein.

I also like to remind vegetarians and vegans that you get tons of protein from foods we don’t even think about like nuts, nut butters, and even grains like oatmeal and breads. So keep in mind that you can get protein from a variety of foods. If you’re concerned about how much protein you’re taking in, you can always talk with a Registered Dietitian and have them analyze what you’re eating so they can help you understand how much protein you should be eating and give healthy meal planning guidance depending on your situation. But generally, you can get plenty of protein from those meat alternatives and the foods you’re already eating.

What are some shopping essentials for a paleo diet?

The one thing I love about the paleo diet is the emphasis on minimally-processed foods. When it comes to healthy meal planning for paleo diets, you’ll be focusing on the produce section of the grocery store and the meats like chicken, fish, etc. The bottom line of the paleo diet is that if a caveman ate it – it’s part of the diet. It’s also good to mention that it’s a phenomenal time to go to your farmers’ market and stock up on vegetables and fruits, which are certainly essential parts of the paleo diet. You can go ahead and freeze them so when they’re no longer in season, you’ll have a good stockpile of fruits & veggies. Another option for some paleo diets is potatoes. They’re a great source of quality carbs and nutrients like potassium.

What are some of your favorite products?

I absolutely love pistachios so one of my very favorite products is the garlic onion pistachios. They’re phenomenal and I get them almost every time I place an order. Another favorite that I love to use is organic cacao powder, which adds chocolate flavor and contains no sugar. It’s wonderful to add chocolate flavor to smoothies. Our little guys love this rich chocolate-y looking smoothie that tastes like a milkshake – it’s just whipped up bananas, yogurt, and cacao powder. The other items that I love are all these flour alternatives. I try to switch it up from time-to-time so I might use coconut flour in my quick breads as I’m baking over the next month and then I’ll try something different, like almond flour. Another pantry staple that I always keep on-hand is chia seeds. They’re high in fiber, healthy fats, and they fill you up.

garlic onion pistachios

What is the most popular 30 minute meal in your repertoire?

One of my absolute favorite quick meals is tacos. Everyone can customize them, and they’re great for tailoring to different eating styles. Paleo dieters can skip the shell, the vegans and vegetarians can skip the cheese or use a meat alternative, and everyone can be happy when it comes to tacos. I’ll often use either tofu crumbles or tempeh as a protein source in my tacos and then load them up with plenty of vegetables. I’ll also cook up some grains like either brown rice or quinoa to go with that meal. It’s ready in minutes – definitely 30 minutes or less.

What are some ways we can include flaxseeds into meals?

With flaxseeds, the one thing to remember is that you have to grind them up in order for your body to absorb and digest the healthy fats in them. Flaxseeds can be ground with a coffee grinder or you can purchase ground flaxseed meal. They go great in muffins, baked goods, oatmeal, and even on top of salads or in your salad dressing. Ground flaxseeds mix well with many foods.

What are some kinds of meals that keep well in the fridge for a few days?

From a food safety standpoint, anything you make can stay in the refrigerator at least 3-4 days and still be of good quality. That’s a general time frame to keep in mind. If you have a really busy week coming up, making something like a polenta or vegetable lasagna can be prepared on Sunday and kept throughout the week as late as Thursday. I have a black bean & quinoa enchilada casserole dish that I like to make. It’s basically quinoa, black beans, tons of chopped veggies, and a little melted cheese on top. That holds up beautifully. You can have it for dinner one night and it will last a good 3-4 days later. And I know it’s kind of warm out to mention the word chili, but soups and chili hold up wonderfully. Make a big batch and you can either freeze it for a later date or keep some in your fridge, but never make a small batch of soup. Be sure to make a nice, hearty batch. It makes a great addition to meals!

What are some of your own healthy meal planning tips? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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