Learn why meal planning is so important and the biggest mistakes people make when planning their meals from meal planning expert Melissa Lanz.
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Meal Planning for Kids
Lanz advocates making the same healthy meals for kids that you would make for adults. "I don't believe in dumbing down food for kids," explains Lanz. "Kids love to eat good, unprocessed foods. They can crave that just as much as they can crave manufactured food that is loaded with salt, sugar and fat."
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Have a Plan
Because so many parents work, if they don't have a plan, they may be too tired at night to figure out a healthy meal for their family and rely on bad food habits. "When I don't have a plan, I go to take out," admits Lanz. "If you don't have a plan, you just get too tired to actually be creative at the end of the day."
Planning relieves stress and answers one of the questions Lanz hates most, "What am I having for dinner?"
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The Importance of a Grocery List
Before her adventure in meal planning, Lanz used to aimlessly wander up and down every aisle in the store, as many do, and buy ingredients without a plan for what to make with them. "I would spend $200 on one grocery store trip, come home, put everything away and still not know what I was going to eat," she explains. Without a list, there are so many distractions in the middle grocery store aisles where food, claiming to be low-fat, low-carb or kid-friendly, live. It is best to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store where you find produce and dairy and avoid the center aisles altogether.
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Don't Let Time Be An Excuse
Having a plan and thinking about meals ahead of time actually saves you time, according to Lanz, who also believes nourishing ourselves and our families is one of the most important things we do in a day, so we should not rush it. "If you have good fuel and good nutrients in your body, everything else is easier: you have more energy and you have more pride in what you are eating," she explains. "It's not about getting it done in five minutes."
Lanz likes to ask people, "what are you rushing through dinner to get to? What is on the other side of dinner?" For many, it is heading back to the computer. You might want to ask yourself if that is worth serving a convenient but potentially unhealthy meal.
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Buy frozen, but Only Sometimes
Lanz recommends eating whole, single frozen fruits and vegetables when those items are out of season. "Frozen corn in winter is great," she explains. She also favors peas, artichoke hearts and shelled edamame. The meal planning-guru always avoids fruit or vegetable mixes because they typically have additives. She also avoids frozen veggies in a sauce because "all you are doing is adding that sugar, fat and salt that we are trying to avoid."
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Rinse Canned Foods
The only canned food Lanz recommends eating is canned beans (and in some instances canned tomatoes). "Even with beans, we rinse and drain [them] to get rid of excess sodium because, as much as possible, you want to be using whole ingredients that you control how much salt and added sugars are in," she offers.
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Don't Give In to Picky Eaters
"We have a picky eater epidemic in America," Lanz quips. "We are one of the only countries that has this phenomena of picky eaters." For families with picky eaters, she recommends serving deconstructed meals that everyone can put together themselves and select what ingredients they want to be included. Pastas, oatmeal, tacos or pizzas work well.
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Keep Nutrition in Mind When Meal Planning
The biggest mistakes people make when meal planning are buying too many ingredients and not considering nutrition. Often portion size falls by the wayside and people make and serve too much food. Additionally, balance is key. Meat, seafood and vegetables should all be a part of a healthy weekly diet.
"In my kitchen, tacos are like pasta: flexible," explains Lanz in her cookbook, The Fresh 20. "This recipe is just one of a hundred different ways you can fix them. Most families enjoy the ease and simplicity of a good taco night. Buy a thick piece of fish and cut it into uniform pieces that will cook evenly without drying out. You can make your own corn tortillas or use store-bought tortillas."
"Traditional tomato and cucumber gazpacho, which originated in Spain, is a great quencher on a hot day," writes Lanz. "Here strawberries add another layer of flavor. Some people like their gazpacho chunky, others like it smooth—adjust it to suit your taste. Don’t be tempted to add more red onion, as it can overpower the soup. I love the way the creamy feta cheese complements the sweet acidity of the gazpacho. For fun, serve in teacups and sit outside on the patio on a hot evening, sipping away."
Lanz had taught cooking classes in her early 20s and had been experimented with meal planning. From this and her desire to bring together her passions—family, cooking and business—The Fresh 20 was born. The service and cookbook offer week-night dinner meal plans, in which all five meals require only 20 ingredients.
As the name assures, all 20 weekly ingredients in Lanz's meal plans are fresh, a departure from the typical meal planning services in the market when she launched more than three years ago. She remembers, "there was so much processed food within the meal plans. They were still about getting [dinner] on the table no matter if it was healthy or not. It wasn't what I wanted for my family."
Beyond a desire to cut out processed foods, Lanz was sick of wasting food and spending hours at the grocery store. The Fresh 20 helped solve these common cooking dilemmas. "I thought, there has to be a more modern way of meal planning," says Lanz. "There are lots of programs where you can pick five ingredients and it'll pick recipes for you, but if you do that, it creates a shopping list of 80 ingredients and none of them are related to each other. At the end of the week, you have a lot of waste." To gather so many ingredients takes time in the store, and, even worse, with no plan at all, it is easy to get stuck in the alluring middle aisles of the grocery which are filled with unhealthy, processed foods.
Check out the slideshow above to learn how Lanz handles picky eaters, why having a plan is so important and the biggest mistakes people make when meal planning. Plus, find a couple of recipes from the cookbook!