"What should I eat for dinner tonight?"
This was a question I used to ask myself all the time after I finished college, started my first full-time job, and had my own apartment. I would work all day, go to the gym, and arrive home late, tired, and hungry... and have NO idea what I should eat.
If I had leftovers, I would have those. If I had cheese, eggs, or tortillas, I would make myself cheesy scrambled eggs or a plain cheese quesadilla. Often I resorted to eating frozen convenience items (like burritos or pizzas), cereal, or I would hodge-podge a meal together out of granola bars, fruit, and baby carrots. If I wanted to cook something, I usually didn't have all the ingredients I needed... so I didn't make it. Very rarely did I actually make a real meal. If I did, I made so much that I ate it for days and got sick of it.
As you can imagine, this was boring and unsustainable. It was not serving me in any way, and it wasn't fueling my body in a way that was helpful either. Even though I wasn't running a lot of miles at the time, I was either riding my bicycle or in the gym every day, and my performance and my energy level suffered.
Eventually, I learned the importance of meal planning. I looked at my schedule, I planned my meals, I made a grocery list. And guess what? I had less food waste. I enjoyed my meals more. I had leftovers of things I wanted to have leftovers of. I had more energy because I ate balanced meals. And I had more time!
If meal planning sounds scary or daunting, rest assured it is not. However, it does take practice and repetition in order to get the hang of it.
If meal planning sounds time consuming, then I ask you what takes more time - taking an hour to plan your meals for the week, or dilly-dallying over what to have for dinner (and breakfast and lunch and snacks) day after day after day?
If meal planning sounds boring, then I ask you - what is more boring than eating a frozen burrito again because you have nothing else in the house?
So how the heck do you actually meal plan???
Step 1: Look at your schedule for the week ahead. What meals will you be home for? What meals will you be out of the house for? When do you have some time to prepare a meal from scratch, and when will you need to rely on leftovers or carry-out (because you have to be in three different places at once)?
Once you have that figured out, you know what types of meals you can have on those days and times. For example, maybe you get home early on Tuesday and have time to prepare a meal, so you make that plus enough that you can eat it again on Thursday night, when you only have half an hour at home before needing to get out the door again for an evening meeting (or your kid's cross-country meet, or everyone has piano lessons, or something). Then maybe you plan on a meal that takes 20 minutes to throw together on Wednesday, and you plan on going out for sushi with a friend on Friday.
You might find it helpful to use a meal-planner template to help you with this step.
Step 2a: Now that you know where you'll be eating (at home, carry out, at a work meeting, etc.) and how much time you'll have to put that meal together, start planning what meal you'd like to make.
Obviously you don't need to plan to cook if work is providing lunch on Monday, but you'll need to plan a meal that makes enough for leftovers (and that you enjoy eating enough to eat it twice in one week!) when you think about what you'd make on Tuesday in the example above.
Step 2b: Think about what runs you have coming up this week and where they fall in relation to your meals. Make sure the meals leading up to those runs will provide you with the fuel you need to run well and run hard. Then make sure the meals after those runs are able to help you recover properly!
Step 3: Start your grocery list. You'll need to assess what you have in your pantry and what you'll need to purchase in order to make the meals that you've planned for.
Don't forget to add any of your staple foods - those things you and/or your family eat often and go through quickly. For me, those include peanut butter, whole-wheat English muffins, plain Greek yogurt, and eggs. These are items that just stay on my grocery list from week to week; I don't bother taking them off the list!
Step 4a: Stick to your plan! If you have the time and the ingredients to make tacos on Tuesday, then do it!
Step 4b: Forgive yourself if life gets in the way. Your meal plan is not set in stone, and sometimes things that are unavoidable get in the way of your plans. That's okay.
Do you meal plan? Do you like it or hate it? I have a love-hate relationship with it, but I wouldn't ever stop now that I'm in the hang of it. If you struggle with it, you're not alone. This is a "basic" (not easy) skill that I teach runners in my one-on-one nutrition coaching business. I can help you implement this skill into your life too!