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Meal planning is a great way to maximize your time and budget. It also gives you greater control over your diet and helps you make healthy choices more consistently.
It’s a smart strategy any time of year, but for the holidays a meal plan can be a lifesaver. It will prevent you from going too far off your healthy eating plan. Meal planning also reduces the inevitable stress of this busy time of year by giving you one less thing to think about at mealtime.
While it may seem like another chore to add to your list, meal planning can actually save you time, stress, and worry. Here’s how.
This is a busy time of year. Your calendar is packed with events like Christmas concerts, Thanksgiving dinners, office parties, and more. Staying busy with festive events can be fun, but it can also be really stressful. “Dieting during the holidays is a tricky balance. Staying on track is not as easy when you have added pressure from your family and an endless amount of treats right in front of you. Oftentimes as well, we hold emotional attachments to these holiday foods and associate some of our favorite memories of the holidays, with food,” notes Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD at Trifecta.
By planning for how, when, and what you’ll eat, you take the guesswork out of mealtime. Instead of trying to come up with a healthy meal or snack at the last minute, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Creating a holiday meal plan takes an investment of time initially, but it saves you time when it really matters. When you’re in the thick of the holiday season, you won’t have to spend extra time deciding what to eat and making additional trips to the store. This gives you more time to spend with family and go to fun holiday events.
“You can also enlist support from friends, family, or co-workers during the holidays to help keep you on track. Whether they are following the same health and diet plan as you, or just acting as an advocate for your success, having someone on your side might be just what you need to resist giving up on your health goals,” states Sky Hanka, Functional Nutritionist and Integrative Chef at Trifecta.
Perhaps most importantly, meal planning helps you maintain healthy habits. It’s so easy to go off the rails when faced with holiday parties, dinners, and cookie swaps.
With a plan in place, it will be easier to resist the urge to eat too much and to eat unhealthy foods. Meal planning keeps you on track at the simplest of times, but during the busy, stressful holiday season, it’s more important than ever.
The first step in meal planning is to take a look at the big picture. From approximately Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, where will you be when? Which meals will be at home? When will you be eating out or at someone else’s house?
Outline your calendar for the season, so you know which meals to plan for at home and how to strategize for eating out. Include all holiday and food-related events, like parties, Christmas dinner, cookie swaps, school activities, and more.
“If you know you’re going to be attending multiple parties or spending time at your family home, bring an appetizer or dish, as well as a healthier dessert option to the party. Knowing you have food you can rely on will help you moderate your overall intake,” notes Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD at Trifecta.
This is not the time to try a new, complicated recipe. Load your meal plan with tried-and-true recipes and those that are simplest to make. You’ll notice that some of these recipes are also the most nutrient dense!
For instance, a salad is an easy meal that you can change up daily without too much effort. Have lettuce on hand and you can build a salad with various toppings: fresh veggies, leftover roasted veggies and meat, nuts and seeds, and a few cheese cubes left on a charcuterie board. You can also get creative with your salad dressings and experiment with an herbaceous green goddess recipe or tangy recipe.
A slow cooker is another great tool to enlist for holiday meal plans. You can make big batches of stew, soup, or other dishes and eat them for a few meals in a row. The slow cooker minimizes dirty pots and pans, so you have less washing to do.
You’ll have enough opportunities outside of your own kitchen to be tempted by indulgent, rich foods. Make sure home is stocked only with healthy snacks and ingredients for meals.
Snacks are especially important to have on hand for when you get hungry between meals or want to fill up on something healthy before a party. Here are some ideas for your shopping list:
Pre-cut carrot and celery sticks
Whole wheat bread
Natural nut butter
Individual bagged servings of nuts
Low-fat string cheese
“Having healthy snacks on hand can also help curb cravings and be more mindful about your snacking. Mindless snacking can quickly cause a lot of frustration when your expectations for results are not met,” states Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD at Trifecta.
For meals, stock up on things like pre-cooked whole grains, canned beans, frozen vegetables, and broth. You can use these healthy ingredients to throw together easy, healthy meals.
Make use of holiday dinner leftovers too. Here’s how to turn your leftovers into healthy meals.
Prepping meals before things get really busy will save time later. Of course, prepping early means you may let ingredients of food go to waste. To avoid this, make good use of the freezer.
Prepare batches of freezer-friendly recipes, like a healthy casserole or soup. Freeze in serving-sized amounts. When you’re ready to eat, you can simply reheat. And, if your schedule changes and you find you don’t need to eat at home, the frozen meal will keep for later.
To save time during a busy week, spend an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon or evening prepping ingredients. For example, make a batch of cooked lentils or rice for upcoming meals. Make your breakfasts before bed each night, so you’re not tempted to skip or grab something easy and unhealthy when you feel rushed in the morning.
Never meal prepped before? Here’s a guide to get you started with meal prepping.
You want to stick with your diet and health goals, but if there is any time of year to let go a little bit, this is it. Allow yourself certain days or meals to go off-plan. For instance, Christmas Day or Thanksgiving dinner should be enjoyable, so don’t think too hard about what you’re eating.
When enjoying holiday meals with family, bring a healthy dish to pass but don’t guilt others about what they’re eating. Eat smaller portions of rich dishes and save room for one slice of pumpkin pie.
“Remember that your health isn’t determined by a single choice. Cut yourself some slack during the holidays; it’s a stressful time and your wellness is a culmination of all your choices throughout the year–not just during the holidays. You can find a balance between your dietary intake and your body composition goals, even during the holidays. Show yourself some compassion instead of beating yourself up,” states Sky Hanka, Functional Nutritionist and Integrative Chef at Trifecta.
If you’re off on vacation for the holidays, meal planning gets more complicated. Vacation meals tend to be restaurant meals and quick junk food. But, if you’re staying at someone’s house or getting a rental with a kitchen, you have more control.
Make a meal plan that includes healthy breakfasts, lunches you can take on the go, and dinners for the nights you choose to stay in. Simple meals are best, of course: spaghetti and other pasta dishes, tacos, salads, and sandwiches. Whether you have a kitchen or not, a supply of healthy snacks will help you stay full on the right foods and indulge less in restaurants.
Holiday meal planning is a smart strategy for taking control of holiday eating. It’s easy to simply let go and eat and drink whatever you feel like, but after two months of this, you’ll see weight and health setbacks. Start planning early and enjoy a less stressful, healthier holiday season.
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