Blog Behavioral/Mental Health

Go further with food by meal planning

Written by Rachel Tabak, PhD, research assistant professor at the Brown School

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has celebrated National Nutrition Month® since 1980. Themes have ranged from Food Fads Fool to Step Up to Get Your Plate in Shape. The goal each year includes increasing awareness of the importance of nutrition.

Even though National Nutrition Month® is coming to a close, the key points of this year’s theme: Go Further with Food can apply all year round. The focus this year, reducing food waste with an emphasis on menu planning brings together many important issues related to food and nutrition.

According to the USDA, about 90 billion pounds of edible food goes uneaten annually. Not only does this have an environmental impact, this waste costs $370 per person per year. While much of this happens outside of our control (for example: before food gets to the store, in restaurants), we can use practices such as menu planning to prevent wasting food at home.

What are the benefits of menu planning?

  • Preparing meals as part of a menu plan can be more efficient
  • Engaging the family in menu planning can make everyone more likely to try new foods and can prevent conflict around mealtimes
  • Having a plan makes it more likely you’ll eat meals prepared at home which is healthier and less expensive
  • Going to the store with a shopping list can prevent impulse purchases, which can help keep unhealthy foods out of your home so they are less tempting
  • Planning what to buy and what to do with leftovers prevents waste
  • Building a shopping list around a menu plan means fewer trips to the store

How can I get started planning meals?

  • Brainstorm a list of meals
  • Maximize efficiency by having a plan for leftovers
  • Include the whole family in the process
  • Get ideas flowing with themes like Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays
  • Use staples you already have and like, but also look for new recipes to try
  • Think about ways to make it fit with your lifestyle, for example cooking on the weekend when things may be less hectic
  • Plan for busy days with easier recipes or leftovers and for disruptions by having go-to options for days when things don’t go as planned
  • Complete small food prep steps like cutting up vegetables and storing them in the fridge when you have a little more time, so you have them ready on busy days
  • Use tools like pen and paper worksheets, websites, or apps
  • Be patient if the first few weeks don’t go perfectly; it might take a little adjusting to find the right balance
  • Think about myplate when planning your meals, and make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make your shopping more efficient by using your menu plan to make your shopping list and purchase non-perishable staple items for your favorite meals
  • Include snacks in your menu plan so when you’re hungry, you have something healthy to reach for
  • Look for coupons or your grocer’s ads to take advantage of sales
  • Plan around the season to take advantage of produce that is at its peak and often on sale

What tools are available to help me menu plan?

Meal planning not only makes eating healthy easier, it can help reduce food waste. When we think about our nutrition choices, the first thing that comes to mind is often how our behaviors impact our health and lifestyle, but the food we eat (or waste) can also impact the environment. Planning out meals, snacks, and shopping can have a range of benefits from helping us make healthier food choices to throwing away less food, to saving money at the store. As we end National Nutrition Month®, these are important reflections to bring into the rest of the year, perhaps as a goal to work toward between this March and next.