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How to successfully plan nutritious, budget-friendly meals for you and your family

(March is National Nutrition Month and to commemorate the occasion, Hillcrest Hospital South Lead Dietitian Jennifer Watkins shares her expertise on the topic of nutrition in a pandemic through a series of weekly blogs. This week, Watkins shares an article from Kerri Rusher, RD, LD, who wrote “Three strategies for successful meal planning” on eatright.org)

Let's face it, life's hectic. Planning ahead can relieve mealtime stress. Follow these three steps and to plan and prep nutritious and delicious meals that fit a family’s preferences and lifestyle.

Step 1: Make a menu

Think about how meal planning is approached: is there a weekly or monthly plan? Prefer to prepare meals ahead of time, just before the meal or a combination of both? Want to pick a day to cook meals for the week or a month that can be stored in the freezer? Need to consider any special nutrition needs for an individual or the family?

Next, either on a sheet of paper, in your phone or on or the computer, create your menu:

  1. Take a minute to read about how to put together a healthy meal and make sure to get the right amount of each food group.
  2. Flip through cookbooks or online sites and find recipes that look good.
  3. Check in with the family about their schedules and meal preferences.
  4. Think about the weather. Hearty soups and stews are ideal for a cold winter’s night. A salad with lean protein can make a perfect entrée on a hot summer day.
  5. Find out what ingredients are already on hand. It is best to continually rotate foodstuffs rather than store them for long periods of time.
  6. Check out the sales at local supermarkets.
  7. Aim for variety in meals; but, don’t feel like every day must be different.
  8. Think about how to handle leftovers.
  9. Run the menu by others in the household.
  10. During the week, keep notes about how well the menu worked.

Step 2: Stock your pantry and freezer with the five food groups

To help get started with meal planning, take time to stock up on the basics: vegetables, fruits, milk and dairy products, protein foods and grains. Also, stock up on condiments, oil and vinegar, stock, herbs and spices and flax and other seeds.

Step 3: Keep a running grocery list

In a convenient place, keep a pad and pen and, as you use up grocery items, write them down on the list. This helps to remember everything on the shopping list when going to the supermarket. Or use an app for that.

On a list — be it paper or app-based — compile the needed ingredients for the meals for the week. Also, think about how often to shop. Plus, think about plans for meals and check to see what ingredients are on hand and what are needed. Remember to check the cabinets, pantry, fridge and freezer. Ideally, continue to use what is on hand so meals are made with fresh ingredients. This helps reduce food waste.