In This Family, Meal-Planning Is Crucial for Keeping Health on Track

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©. Tiffany M. (used with permission)

It has also become a thriving side business.

Welcome to the latest post in TreeHugger's series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly.

Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules. It's a feat worthy of more praise than it commonly gets, which is why we want to highlight it – and hopefully learn from it in the process. This week features Tiffany and Mike, a couple from Vancouver Island that takes their meal-planning very seriously and even teaches others how to do it effectively. Responses are written by Tiffany.

Names: Tiffany (31), Mike (44), Max (4)

Location: Victoria, British Columbia

Employment: Two busy professionals and a successful online health & fitness business on the side

Weekly food budget: CAD$200 (US$150)

grocery haul

© Tiffany M. (used with permission)

1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

Clean eating has become a very big part of our life, so you will typically find healthier staples in our house. On Sundays we make one big pot meal with lots of leftovers that can be quickly taken for lunch or served on the fly at dinner. Three of the most common big pot meals for us are spaghetti sauce, tortilla soup, and a casserole of some kind. For lunches we tend to keep it simple with sandwiches, wraps, and salads.

2. How would you describe your diet?

Our diet would be described as healthy and portion controlled. Our family is omnivore, although some days I wonder if Max is going to be a vegetarian. We tend to eat more seasonal meals; however, we splurge on things like berries and fruits when they are not in season because we like to eat well. Our meat selection is typically Free Run or from local Vancouver Island farms. Over the past few years our meat consumption has decreased to more lean choices like extra lean ground beef, chicken breast, roaster chickens or pork. We are very lucky to have no allergies or restrictions in our home.

3. How often do you shop for groceries? Is there anything you absolutely have to buy every week?

We shop on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, depending on the weekend. This trip to the store is always planned out in advance, as we make our meal plan for the week on Friday evening. Both Mike and I sit down and choose the dinner options and plan them out in our shared Google Drive. Once we have planned the menu, I sit and write out all the things we need to purchase. At any point we can both look at the plan so that we can switch things around if need be, or pick up the slack if one of us is working late.

Once the dinner items are taken are taken care of, I map out my lunches based on the specific meal plan I am following, and then write out what is needed for those meals. I tend to plan my lunches around what we are having for dinner so that we mitigate overbuying certain ingredients. We then plan out the key things Max likes to eat – yogurt, berries, rice cakes, seeds/nuts, etc.

Our every week items include: berries, melon, apples, organic juicing carrots, organic celery, beets, avocados, bagged salads (I love the sunflower mix!!!), spring mix, spinach, sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, zucchini, lemons/limes, parsley/cilantro, onions, cucumbers, chicken breast, extra lean ground beef/chicken/turkey, coffee, soda water, black beans, almond milk, Greek yogurt cups, coconut whipped cream (for my shakes), free run eggs, whole wheat bread & bagels, nitrate-free deli meat, chia, cashews, trail mix, steel-cut oats.

I stay far, far away from the kids’ school snack aisle. The sugar in the granola bars and “snacks” make Max go absolutely loopy, so I buy a special granola bar that is low in sugar and high in protein for him. Otherwise he gets clean choices like fruits, veggies, rice snacks, etc.

salad for lunch

© Tiffany M. (used with permission)

4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

Shopping usually happens after swimming lessons on Sundays, which works well for us. Once we finish our activities, we shop and then head home to prep.

At the store we always stick to the outside aisles. We buy a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat and tend to stay away from the inside. The only things we buy are all-natural peanut butter, beans, canned veggies, some Annie’s noodles for Max, coffee, soda water, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, things like that.

Our bill typically ranges from CAD$160-$200 (US$120-$150) depending on the sales. We also tend to buy everything we need in one big shop, so if we run out of staples our bill increases.

The larger purchases like dried organic mangoes, quinoa, oil, nut butters, etc. are typically done at Costco where you can get good quality and lots of it for cheaper than at the store! Our Costco run tends to be once every 2 months as the nearest store is a 45 minute drive for us.

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

We are big meal planners! Without a plan, we legitimately wouldn’t be eating good food on a regular basis because Mike and I are so busy. I have also lost a significant amount of weight and completely changed our way of life over the past 6 years, so it has become a huge part of our life. It has been a process learning how to eat well, as both Mike and I used to eat a lot of processed junk food and takeout.

Our side business is actually health and fitness with a focus on nutrition, so I lead by example and meal plan/prep consistently every single week and share it with my clients. Not only does this hold me accountable, but over the years I’ve helped other women learn how to meal plan and prep effectively.

Mike isn’t as strict with the actual food and portions like I am, but we always eat the same things – same with Max. Our dinner is always a protein and veg which is easy, and if Mike wants a carb he can add it.

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

On Sunday I spend 2 hours prepping one big meal that will typically last a few days. During this time I also prepare my lunches and breakfasts for the entire week, as well as Max’s lunch for the following day. We ensure our veggies and fruits are cut and washed so that it saves some prep time as we rush in the door after work. When I cook dinner, I get Max’s lunch ready for the next day and anything else I am missing from my prepared food, like a snack or veggies. On a daily basis I only spend an hour getting dinner ready and preparing for the following day.

Our meals are usually pretty simple because of our lack of time. I get home with Max at 5 p.m. (and by then he is usually starving and ready to eat), so I make a quick vegetable and protein for him – and I tend to have some form of protein pre-prepared like chicken breast or a spaghetti sauce. Our meals must be ready within 30 minutes, otherwise we lose the opportunity to feed Max something healthy. After-school snacks I swear will be the death of me!

Max's lunch

© Tiffany M. (used with permission) – Max's lunch, all ready for school

7. How do you handle leftovers?

Leftovers are a godsend in our house, and get eaten or put in the freezer. Spaghetti sauce is a big winner for us as we not only can do zucchini noodles and sauce but lasagna, which is easily frozen if it doesn’t get eaten. Typically leftovers get put into one of our lunches or eaten the following night by Max.

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

Take-out is expensive, and we avoid it. We do not eat out during the week at all as we spend $200 on groceries, so it kills us not to eat that food. Friday is the only night where we tend to get sushi or pizza – but that is the extent of our eating out.

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and/or your family?

The biggest challenge for us is preparing a healthy meal quickly and having it on the table by 5:30 p.m. at the latest. That and we have a 4 year old who sometimes likes certain foods and then the next day doesn’t. It’s frustrating putting a good meal on the table which is then turned away because in that moment he doesn’t like cauliflower. I am confident every mother can relate to this, but it’s for sure our biggest frustration.

pot of soup

© Tiffany M. (used with permission)

10. Any other information you’d like to add?

Learning how to plan and prep takes time. When we first started living healthier, I eliminated certain foods from our diet like soda, chips, and processed foods. Over time our diet became more and more clean, with no desire to purchase certain foods that we used to love. I also had to learn how to cook as I was not that talented! Once I got into the rhythm of it, I learned the meals my family liked, what they cost, and how much I would need in order to have leftovers.

With learning how to prep food and plan you also start to learn how much to buy of each item so that you reduce food waste. Nothing bugs me more than wasted food and when I first started eating healthy I wasted a lot because I always made too much! My biggest tips for successfully feeding your family:

  • Make a plan in advance, and share it with your family so that everyone buys in to the plan.
  • Make a list of all the items you need before you go to the store.
  • Stick to the outside aisles.
  • Stick with it! Even though your kids might not eat the meals at first, they will start to fall in love with them the more you do it. I promise it does get easier!
  • Shop once a week to reduce overbuying and overspending.
  • Stick to your budget and buy foods that are in season or on sale.
  • Make one big pot meal a week and load up your freezer!

To read all the fascinating stories in this series, check out How to feed a family