How I plan healthy meals without losing my mind

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Changing your diet can be a lot. I had fallen into some unhealthy eating habits in my forties, like stopping for cocktails and burgers on my way home from work, bingeing on chocotinis at the chocolate martini bar near my apartment, or just picking up greasy Thai food when I didn’t feel like cooking.

I usually didn’t feel like cooking. I was single and it seemed like a lot of effort for one person. Plus, I hated spending time in the cramped, galley kitchen of my small apartment.

I used food for comfort and stress modulation through some tumultuous times. I had never thought of myself as having an unhealthy relationship with food, but I can now see how I was using comfort foods alongside alcohol to numb myself. And yes, I got fat.

By the beginning of 2020 I was at my heaviest, which was about 205 pounds. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2020, I qualified as obese—a word I had never hoped to be associated with. I know 200-ish pounds is not extreme in the realm of obesity, and my weight loss is nothing compared to what some people are dealing with. Still, losing 50 pounds is no small feat.

I had already started a shift toward healthier food when I was diagnosed with cancer, and after a month of elimination and detoxing, I cut gluten from my diet permanently. Giving up pasta, bread, pizza, and burgers automatically improved my diet, and I started losing weight right away.

Home cooking evolution

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There was no way around it. If I wanted to overhaul my diet I had to get used to cooking at home. To reduce the thinking and planning required, I signed up for Sunbasket, a meal kit delivery service that would account for about three dinners per week.

I had tried Blue Apron before, but I had found their meals too carb-heavy even before I cut out gluten and started watching my carbohydrate intake. Sunbasket seemed to have more healthy options on their menu, and focused on seasonal, organic ingredients. I didn’t love having my food shipped from California, but the quick, pre-prepped recipes helped get me into the habit of cooking without too much planning or decision-making.

Pre-pandemic, I signed up for MealPal to reduce my effort for weekday lunches. Through the daily selections I could usually find a fairly healthy option near work, like sushi, poke, salad, or a protein bowl from Juicy Cafe. It was affordable, but I still knew it would be better to make and bring homemade lunches.

And then I was sent home in March, 2020 for a few days? A few weeks? Oh, wait, forever. It took about six months for me to stop “skipping” my MealPal payments and cancel my account. I got a new, permanently remote job in 2021, and my lunchtime options became leftovers, salad with canned salmon, a smoothie, or bone broth soup. Limiting myself to a few simple options prevents decision fatigue.

Pandemic meal planning

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When eating out is not an option, you need a plan. My weekly Sunbasket box covered a few dinners, but I no longer had the option of dining out a couple of times per week once lockdown kicked in. At the same time, I was adapting to living gluten free and exploring a ketogenic diet while I handled the whole breast cancer situation. Even restaurant delivery didn’t offer many options for me. So I cooked. Every day.

Without my go-to, carb-focused dishes, I started spending a lot of time finding keto recipes on the internet and ordering ingredients from PCC using the Instacart app. Having never been much of a meal planner or home cook, trying to sort out a whole week of meals was a big challenge. It was hard for me to believe that people actually do this.

I googled “meal planning app,” because I figured there must be an app for that. I found a couple that helped me a lot with my planning conundrum. eMeals offers meal plans for a variety of diets, with a new selection of recipes each week. After selecting recipes, you can send your shopping list to Instacart to save some shopping time.

Real Plans is a bit more of a robust platform, with a database of recipes and add-on collections from popular blogs and chefs covering a wide range of diets and preferences. You can also add any recipe from the internet with just a URL. Real Plans also connects to Instacart as well as Amazon Fresh, though I’ve found sometimes the selections are not very accurate and I have to edit my cart quite heavily.

Both platforms cost a bit of money, but it is definitely worth it for the ability to browse recipes according to your diet and add the ingredients directly to your shopping cart. I personally prefer Real Plans because of the robust database of recipes and options to buy add-on meal plans from food bloggers and nutritionists.

If you don’t want to pay for a meal planning tool, you can also use Google Calendar to schedule recipes and even make recurring “events” for meals you like. And of course there are plenty of low-tech options, like Bullet Journal spreads or white boards. The tool you use is less important than building the habits of planning and preparing your own meals.

Make a plan

My Real Plans dinner plan for the week

At the beginning of 2022, I canceled my Sunbasket subscription. I wanted to focus on more locally sourced ingredients and play with a broader range of recipes. I knew this would be more work, but I had the tools and habits in place after nearly two years of cooking every day at home.

I signed up for Milk Run, which offers delivery of curated produce, meat, and seafood from local producers. We get a box every Monday with a varying selection of ingredients, and then I begin the fun puzzle of putting them together in coherent recipes.

After I receive my Milk Run box, I open Real Plans and start browsing recipes that fit my diet and use the ingredients I have. I sometimes end up searching the internet and importing a new recipe. I add recipes to my plan through the following Tuesday, and place my grocery order to arrive Wednesday morning.

I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t take time and mental energy. It still feels like a second job, on top of my existing full-time day job. But I’ve got a routine of planning on Monday after work, and ordering groceries on Tuesday. I’ve found that having weekly tasks always fall on the same day helps me to remember and stay on track.

When it is time to cook, I open the recipe on the Real Plans app on my phone. It has the neat (if battery-draining) feature of keeping the phone awake while the recipe is open, so I don’t have to constantly wake up and unlock my phone.

I try to finagle a two-night recipe at least twice a week, so that I can just reheat leftovers rather than cook from scratch every single day.

Sometimes I get sick of cooking, and we order something through Door Dash or get a gluten-free pizza from Pagliacci. Sometimes I get excited to try a new recipe and enjoy the creative time in the kitchen. I wouldn’t say I love home cooking just yet, but I am starting to enjoy it.

The basics

Once you determine which foods are part of your diet, it’s just a matter of mixing and matching them. With some basic cooking skills you can even (gasp) make up recipes! Here are the basics that I recommend if you feel a bit overwhelmed.

  1. Do your planning on the same day each week
  2. Do your grocery shopping the following day
  3. Make at least one recipe that will leave leftovers
  4. Choose 2-3 healthy, simple breakfast and lunch options and repeat them
  5. Pick a planning tool that fits your style, even if that’s a post-it note
  6. Set limits on dining out and convenience foods
  7. Consider meal kit delivery to limit decision-making
  8. Experiment to find (or invent!) recipes you like to cook and eat

Food is such a fundamental part of life that we sometimes forget that it can be one of the most deeply nourishing and satisfying parts, if we’re willing to put in the work.

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