Food is an important part of a balanced diet.
Eating out has become a staple in American culture. Who doesn’t enjoy a good meal cooked bysomeone else? But it has become all too common these days, and Americans are longing for a better way to handle meals. For a way out of overload and into simplicity.
As packaged, ultraprocessed foods have become mainstream, so have studies showing that these foods are not good for us. Combined with dining out, an overconsumption of processed foods is leading to an obesity epidemic (a recent study showed that 42 percent of Americans could be obese by 2030, which may increase health costs by up to $550 billion; Brown, 2012), not to mention an increase in diabetes and heart disease. Cancer may even be linked to our eating habits.
Changing the way we eat has never been more critical.
A slew of evidence indicates that it’s important to be aware of what and how we’re eating, but many of us don’t know how to make significant changes to our food habits. I’d like to throw an essential, and often overlooked, ingredient into the mix: meal planning. It sounds simple, but it may not feel easy. Without a plan, it’s far too tempting to reach for fast, less optimal choices. For example, we eat out too often or haphazardly throw together meals day by day with packaged products, which can lead to frustration or boredom and often drive us back to eating out.
A recent CNBC article stated that “90 percent of Americans don’t like to cook—and it’s costing them thousands each year” (Martin, 2017). I’m speculating here, but I’d venture to say that part of the problem for people is more a lack of planning than it is a pure hatred of cooking. And even if they truly despise cooking, it could be that the meals they’re attempting to make are tedious, time-consuming, bland, or not as enticing as eating out.
But what if cooking with real food was something you looked forward to as much as eating out? What if you looked at your menu for the week and couldn’t wait to actually cook those meals?
You’ve probably heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish a man and you feed him for a lifetime." Today’s equivalent might be, “Give someone a meal plan, and they eat healthier for a week. Teach someone how to meal-plan, and they eat healthier for a lifetime.”
I’m guessing that the majority of you have read other diet or meal-planning books, but the problem is, no one else knows your habits and lifestyle. Most meal-planning books are little more than cookbooks with a few planning tips thrown in. You’re given some recipes and maybe a few ideas for how to plan out a few days at a time, but then quickly you’re on your own again. This translates into making extra grocery-shopping trips or agonizing over which fast food restaurant to visit. Irritation sets in, and the endless cycle begins again the next week.
Dozens of websites are dedicated to providing you with weekly meal plans, for a fee of course. But I find that these books and websites are like a diet plan. They work for a short period of time, but, as is the case with dieting, the weight eventually comes back. In following someoneelse’s plan, you eventually lose interest, and because you don’t know how to do it yourself, you give up and your old eating habits kick in again. Though these resources can prove helpful, they are limited in their scope.
For years, I waded through cookbooks and other types of books, hoping to find the magic solution to the mystery that is meal planning. I never found one, so I slowly created my own system instead. It’s a method I’ve honed and used myself for over eighteen years. So while this is the first edition for you, it’s more like the tenth or fifteenth version for me. If you stop looking for shortcuts and put in a little time and effort, meal planning can be life changing. With the right tools, you can build the skills you need to fend for yourself in the kitchen. Together, we’ll also develop simple methods that can lead to a lifetime of healthier eating habits. But you bear sole responsibility for planning your meals. And, hopefully, that will feel empowering rather than intimidating by the end of our time together.
I spent years in the dieting and weight loss/weight gain trenches. And then I discovered and employed tools to dig myself out. Whether or not you’re currently, or have ever been, on the diet carousel, cooking at home more often with real, whole foods is the most important thing you can do for yourself if you want to have healthier eating habits. Start here, and you’re already on the right path. And meal planning is the first and biggest step toward putting you in control. Using resources you already have, The Meal Deal will simplify how you eat, and I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a little simplification in their life. How appetizing does it sound to be the boss of your food world?
Meal planning has been essential to my own personal quest to lose weight by eating healthier. Many years ago, I joined one of the most popular weight-loss programs with the goal of losing twenty-five pounds. I quickly found that the trick for me was to plan out everything I was going to eat each day, which turned into meal planning every week. In nine months, I was down to the size I wanted to be. But I’ve signed up for the same program twice in my lifetime and also tried the low-carb thing on several occasions, and even though I did lose about twenty- five pounds each time, I eventually ended up gaining at least ten to fifteen back. And that’s when I decided not to be a slave to yo-yo dieting for the rest of my life.
However, the meal-planning techniques I developed through my dieting experience proved invaluable, because my “new normal” has allowed me to remain at a weight I’ve learned to be comfortable with for quite some time. Along with learning to love and appreciate my body for what it can do, having meal-planning strategies in place has made my new normal somethingI’m proud to have in daily life. I may always tweak things here and there and play with new ideas, but there’s absolutely nothing as reassuring as knowing I can be in control and trust myself around food. Even more than that, I have come to love, and rely on, knowing I have the ingredients on hand to make a delicious, healthy dinner every night. This approach has helped me not only feed my body, but feed my soul.
In fact, as infrequent as it is, I feel lost when I don’t know what’s for dinner. Sure, I slip every now and then. But because I rely on engrained meal-planning techniques, I don’t beat myself up when I do occasionally stumble. I just start over. I am not a trained chef and have no background in the food industry (other than working in a few restaurants as a teenager). I’m just someone who likes food—a lot. And though I’m no longer as scrupulous about planning everything I’m going to eat all day, I know that my meal-planning skills will keep me on track. I have become a tremendous foodie and decent cook because I’ve enjoyed the learning process in the kitchen. I haven’t seen it as a chore in years. It’s just pure fun for me, and quite frankly, I find it very relaxing and cathartic.
Now, I’m not promising you will feel the same way about cooking. But I have a feeling that once you master meal planning, you might not look at it as such an undesirable thing to do, especially when you see the tremendous benefits. And you may discover a joy for cooking you never knew you had, or rediscover one that has fallen by the wayside.
Another reason I turned to meal planning occurred in 1999 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss, severe abdominal pain, and malnutrition—all of which I experienced. The disease ended up having a profound impact on my eating habits. Once my symptoms were managed, I talked to several people who said they had used nutrition to control their flare-ups. I was determined to do anything in my power to wean myself off the heavy-duty drugs I had to take, so I did a ton of research and learned that ultraprocessed foods were to blame for a lot of intestinal issues, and, in general, they were just not as nutritious as whole foods. So I started cooking more with less-processed ingredients.
To my astonishment, after a while, I was able to come off all the drugs I was on and (knock on wood) have been in remission for almost twenty years. This is remarkable because Crohn’s is usually chronic, and dealing with flare-ups is a lifelong endeavor. I have no scientific evidence that eating more whole foods and cutting back on the ultraprocessed options placed me into remission. But I decided there was absolutely no harm in giving this way of eating a try to see if it made a difference. And what a difference I’ve noticed, indeed!
The Meal Deal is a culmination of my many years of meal-planning experience and is intended to be a guide to changing your eating habits through meal planning. This is not the only way to do it; it is how I do it. So, I will also provide alternate suggestions to get your own creativity flowing. You don’t have to do this all at once either. Start slowly, and you will quickly build momentum because you’ll see such benefits. But I do believe that meal planning is a significant tool that can lead you toward control over your food life.
Most other books and diets tell you exactly what to eat. But here you get to be in charge. You’ll be the one picking the recipes because you know what you and your family like, but I’ll give you a framework, guide you, and cheer you on.
This book is for people who want to gain control over their food lives but feel overwhelmed and stuck. After reading The Meal Deal, you’ll be able to simplify how you eat on a daily basis and have solid action steps to keep you from feeling paralyzed by the insane amount of conflicting information thrown at you. And you’ll learn to develop habits to make this new informationstick.
What’s Your Why?
During my Precision Nutrition (PN) experience, I was given the task of listing Five Whys to get to the core of why I wanted to do something. When I apply this to healthier eating, here’s my response:
Why do I want to eat healthier? Because I want to age well, stay at a healthy weight, and possibly stave off diseases.
Why are those things important to me? Because it makes movement easier and day-to-day life more enjoyable.
Why does it matter if my day-to-day movement is better? Because it helps me feel better physically and mentally and allows me to carry out day-to-day tasks with less effort.
Why does it matter if I feel better physically and mentally? Because when I feel well, I spend more time realizing my potential and making a contribution to the world.
Why does it matter if it helps me give back to the world? Because feeling like I have a purpose is what keeps me going every day.
So when things start to feel tough, I refer back to my Fifth Why, and it reminds me why it’s important for me to eat healthier overall, and this reminder keeps me going.
Have you ever thought about “why” you do something? Even though the “why” or purpose of it all is too big of a topic to take on in one tiny book about meal planning, applying your “why” to things can help you keep going when you feel like giving up or you stray off track. I try not to assume, but because you bought this book, I assume one of your big “whys” is to eat healthier for a lifetime. Within that, you probably have hundreds of even bigger “whys.” For example:
Because I want to feel good physically and mentally for as long as possible.
Because I want to prevent diseases.
Because I want to be around to play with my grandkids.
Because I want to age well and be able to take care of myself for as long as possible.
So when you’re learning new knife skills or organizing your pantry, remember your deeper motivations for eating healthy at home.
I’m not telling you exactly what to eat or setting limits for you. I know this is really different than the books you’ve read or things you’ve heard on food and health. So it may feel scary or you may question, why bother? Maybe you think the more complicated it is, the better it must work. But what have you got to lose by letting go of those restraints and giving something new a try?
I hope your biggest takeaway from this book will be newfound clarity about your food lifestyle so healthier eating becomes a way of life instead of a short-term endeavor. But if you try something from the book and find it doesn’t work for you or resonate with you, don’t waste your time trying to make it fit into your lifestyle. But do ask yourself why it doesn’t work for you (and be honest and nonjudgmental about the answer) and consider whether something else might work instead.
My grand vision is to have you cooking at home using mostly whole foods at least 80 percent of the time. Why 80 percent? Because life is way too short to miss out on tasty foods we grew up loving—at least some of the time. Trust me, no one enjoys pizza, hamburgers, or any icy-cold fountain Coke more than I do. And chocolate? Fuggedaboutit! I am only human after all. But because my normal day consists of eating mainly foods I’ve cooked at home using quality ingredients, I don’t feel bad—or really even think about—the other 20 percent of the time. I know that I’m at least filling my body and soul with nourishing foods the majority of the time.
Because of meal planning, my husband and I sit down together almost every night for a home-cooked meal. We look forward to the time together. I’ve planned our meals and done the grocery shopping, and my dry-erase board has a list of meals we’re sharing for the week. Similar to the daily specials you might see in front of a restaurant, writing them out on the dry- erase board makes me feel like they are something special and a treat to look forward to. It also gives my husband a look at his choices for the week, which he absolutely loves.
Even if you are on a diet plan or have specific weight-loss goals, these cooking-at-home fundamentals can set up your home environment for success.
Along with offering meal-prep tips, I’m also going to ask you to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. I say practice because these attributes don’t come naturally to a lot of us and can often be a root cause of many of our eating challenges. If these skills come naturally to you, I genuinely say kudos to you and keep doing what you’re doing (and maybe you can pass along some of that confidence to the rest of us).
I will never be perfect at any of this, and I have spent many years striving to accept my food struggles and my body. I have come a long way in finding peace, knowing that doing the best I can is enough sometimes—and when I don’t do the best I can, that’s okay too. So let’s all keeppracticing the self-love thing, because it’s fundamental to this framework.
What to Expect on The Meal Deal Journey
Learn Healthier Eating Habits
“Healthier” doesn’t mean increasing your consumption of diet crap or cutting out many of the foods you love. It simply means incorporating more whole foods into your life. Healthier eating will automatically occur as soon as you start planning meals that don’t rely on overly processed foods. A reduction in sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats will naturally occur from this type of eating, which can lead to weight loss or maintenance, more consistent energy levels, and an overall feeling of well-being. Though I’m not advocating that you never eat out again, I am saying that focusing on overall healthier eating habits (at least most of the time) will go a long way.
You’ll also learn that how you eat is as important as what you put in your body. So, we’ll discuss awareness techniques you can use whether eating at home or having a meal out.
I’ll show you how to create balanced meals that fill your body with the nutrients it needs to survive. No need to count macros or calories. If you create balanced meals, you’re likely to get what you need because you have a variety of food on your plate.
Knowing what’s for dinner also enables you to make more sensible lunch choices. If, for instance, sandwiches are on the dinner menu, you may opt for a salad or protein-packed option with fewer carbs or white flour (such as another sandwich) for lunch. In contrast, if dinner will be a steak and a salad, a sandwich is a good lunch choice. Then you’ll give your body more of a chance to burn the carbs off because you ate them earlier in the day. Meal planning also generates delicious leftovers that can easily be used for lunches. One dish could be used for at least two—maybe three—meals. How about that? Think about the money and calories you’ll be saving by not eating lunch out every day.
Develop a Habit-Based Approach
You’ll practice making healthier eating a daily habit, but I present this new approach in a simplified way so that you don’t feel overwhelmed and give up.
Taking super simple steps every day and practicing those steps for weeks makes meal planning and cooking at home a habit. And this is important because making something a habit means it becomes an automatic behavior. I call this your “new normal.” For me, after years of developing habits, my “new normal” behaviors include cooking at home with real food most of the time and eating out or preparing ultraprocessed foods much less frequently.
At first, you may have to jump back on the “new normal” wagon often, but once you’ve established a new way of eating, it feels strange when you’re not doing it. For example, if I’m on vacation and eating out every night, I go back to my “new normal” as soon as I get home. Consistent and repeated actions create change and growth.
Perform a Kitchen Makeover
A kitchen makeover gives you a clean slate and sets you up with more nutritious items in your pantry and fridge. Whatever surrounds you is what you’ll likely reach for. So if you keep healthier options in close proximity, you have a better chance of consuming more nutritionally dense foods. By deciding in advance what foods will stay, which will go, and what needs to be added, you will make conscious decisions about your food environment. And by keeping ultraprocessed foods out of your kitchen, you’ll have to make a special effort if you want them, which makes it harder to binge on them.
Stock Your Kitchen Well
Keeping essential items in your kitchen at all times will ensure that you never have to make a last-minute run to the store for missing ingredients. It also makes it a lot easier to prepare a backup meal if your first attempt at a recipe falls apart like a sunken soufflé. I’ll suggest items to keep on hand, and you will discover many of your own as you go along. I’ll also recommend important cooking utensils to keep in the kitchen and offer good storage methods to promote proficient use of those items. This will allow you to swiftly move through your kitchen and prepare meals efficiently. When you feel confident that you have everything you need to cook and you know exactly where it is, you’ll feel less overwhelmed about making meals.
Find Recipes and Know What to Look For
These healthier eating skills will give you a new a lens for evaluating recipes—one that filters out recipes with a lot of ultraprocessed ingredients.
Finding recipes and putting together weekly menus will be your sole responsibility, so I will not offer many recipes (and the ones I will offer are incredibly simple and aimed at helping you get vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains into your diet more easily). As much as I’d like to get to know all of you, I don’t know what you like. But I will give you tips on where to look for recipes and what to look for. My tools are a road map to help you find the best options among the plentiful recipe ideas that already exist. This new eye for healthy recipes makes you self- sufficient in the kitchen and eventually a meal-planning guru.
The internet, along with the cookbooks you already own and maybe a subscription to a great cooking magazine, offers an endless supply of free recipes and is pretty much everything you need to take control of your weekly meal planning. I’ll provide you with keys to using magazine and website resources to their best advantage so you can more easily synthesize weekly menu plans from easily available sources.
Create Your Own “Cookbook”
You’ll never again forget where you put that delicious recipe you made for dinner last week when you create your own “cookbook” in which to store it. This resource proves invaluable when searching for recipes to put together your weekly menus and will ensure that quick meal planning is always at your fingertips. You’ll learn how to set up your “cookbook,” as well as how to store recipes you want to try in the future. It will become your go-to first source for including more nutritious recipes in your weekly menu plans.
Design Weekly Balanced Menus
Do you ever watch cooking shows or read magazines and think a dish looks great but sense it’snot very practical in terms of a balanced meal? Many times, cooking show dishes don’t complement each other. Maybe they’re too heavy on the starches, or the entire show is dedicated to desserts. And while magazines give you recipes, they rarely help you make a complete menu. It’s up to you to figure out how best to piece together an entire menu plan, a task that can seem daunting.
Taking your new knowledge of what balanced meals look like, you will eliminate the guesswork, consistently pick dishes that work together, and get more nutritional bang for your buck. Knowing how to create your own plan decreases dependence on any one source. Plus, having your menus spelled out can get you excited about what’s for dinner.
Planning out your weekly menus also reduces stress by preventing the “what’s for dinner tonight” panic, which often leads to choosing less healthy meals. No more drumming your fingers on your desk in desperation or running to the grocery store or drive-thru last minute because you weren’t prepared.
Create a Grocery List to Shop Efficiently
Who wants to spend a lot of time at the grocery store? Spreadsheets and phone apps are a terrific way to itemize your grocery store products, which helps get you in and out faster. And having a list will keep you from wasting money on items you don’t need (a.k.a. highly processed packaged foods) or ingredients you thought you’d use but end up throwing away.
Beware, other shoppers might stop you and tell you they’re envious of your beautiful, typed list and the way you breeze through the store.
Prepare Meals Like a Pro
You’ll learn methods to help you organize the cooking process and reduce your time in the kitchen, which takes the complexity out of your efforts and makes it more likely that you’ll keep showing up.
Precook Foods in Your Spare Time
Did you know you can utilize spare time to precook foods to use for quick dinners, backup meals, lunches, and/or snacks? It’s so satisfying to open your fridge and see these healthy prepared foods; better choices meet convenience when you think ahead.
Create Backup Meals
Mishaps occur. That’s life. But that doesn’t mean you must run to the store or order takeout. Your newly stocked kitchen will save the day as you learn to create backup meals with what you have on hand. I’ll help you conjure up magic by offering basic backup ideas using ingredients already in your pantry and fridge. This will make you more comfortable with experimenting when things don’t go exactly as planned and keep you on track to eat at home instead of instantly choosing a less healthy option.