5 Tips for Sticking to a Healthy Meal Plan

fruits, vegetables, whole grains
A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. (Photo: Marilyn Barbone/Shutterstock)

I've had a long, but fun journey towards a healthy diet. I’m finding that each passing year makes it even more important to eat in a way that makes my body feel good. I used to be able to let down my guard a little here and there without any ill effect, but now I can tell the difference quickly. Here are the five lessons I’ve learned that help me keep on track.

1. Simplify life when possible

Is life with kids ever simple? I’m not sure, but I’ve found it helpful to keep things simple when I can. If I overextend myself, preparing food the way I want to can easily get off track. Sure, there are busy seasons – that’s part of life. But keeping the schedule from becoming overtaxed can help ensure that you have a chance of eating well. For me, that means I work out at home rather than going to a gym, I carefully choose which activities to involve my kids in, and attempt to schedule "down" time a couple times a week. What a simpler life looks like can be different for us all, but the point is to make your life sustainable and balanced.

2. Plan your meals

meal planning
You can make this step as simple or as complicated as you like. (Photo: Emily Carlin [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

If you get home at 5:30 tired from a long day of work, have no healthy food in the refrigerator, and no meal plan in place, it can be hard not to eat whatever's easiest. And what's easiest and available isn't always the healthiest. (Frozen pizza anyone?) Meal planning can be as simple as jotting down your meal ideas for the week on one piece of paper and a grocery list on another, or it can be as sophisticated as using a program that allows you to track recipes, grocery lists and nutritional values. Do what works for you.

3. Rotate your favorite meals

Going along with meal planning, I find it helpful to rotate favorite meals. When you find a healthy meal that you like, put it in a favorite pile and start rotating it through your meal plans. As you continue to make favorite dishes, they'll become like second nature and will become even therapeutic to make, in comparison to the tension you can feel when trying out a new recipe. Coming home to find the necessary ingredients in the refrigerator, a clear meal plan in place, and a well-loved, known-by-heart recipe at hand makes life so much easier.

4. Cook once, eat twice

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a new recipe, but if you have one of those favorite recipes in rotation coming up, why not double the recipe? Leftovers can be served for quick lunches or another dinner in a couple of days. If it's a favorite recipe, most of your family won't mind eating it again soon after. Or, just freeze the leftovers to defrost another week. If you keep up the habit, you can soon have a freezer full of favorite meals just waiting to be eaten.

5. Prep your vegetables

Planning a stir-fry meal during the week? Plan ahead and chop all your veggies on Sunday.
Planning a stir-fry meal during the week? Plan ahead and chop all your veggies on Sunday. (Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

This is one of my favorite tips, yet I know I don't do this often enough myself. I personally find that the thing holding me back the most when it comes to eating a lot of vegetables is prep time. Do you like stir-frys? Why not cut up all of your favorite vegetables for the stir-fry in bulk, and then use throughout the week? Do you like roasting vegetables for a full, sweet flavor? Do the same thing, and wash, stem, peel, and chop ahead of time, so that you can simply throw the vegetables into the oven with a 3-minute nightly prep time throughout the week. Really, anytime you can get the lengthy prep work out of the way in one big and swift kitchen chopping session is a bonus for the rest of the week. It really helps you feel in control of your kitchen.