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Plan once, eat well all week

Whether your goal is weight loss or nutrition, a meal plan can keep you on track - and save time and money

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Have you ever skipped breakfast in a rush out the door and ended up grabbing a 500-calorie muffin midmorning? Or come home from work, tired and hungry, to an empty fridge and picked up the phone to order in dinner - or grazed your way through the evening?

Chances are you've fallen into these traps at some point. But if your usual approach to eating is to play it by ear, your diet is probably less than stellar. When your stomach growls, it's too easy to grab whatever's fast and convenient - often at the expense of good nutrition.

The key to successful long-term healthy eating is getting organized: planning ahead to make sure you're fuelling your body with nutritious foods. And if you're trying to lose weight, having a meal plan can help ensure your success.

In a study of overweight women, researchers found that those given a meal plan and a grocery list lost as much weight as those given meals already prepared from the menu. What's more, menu plans were associated with better compliance, more regular meals and fewer snacks, increased nutrition knowledge and healthier foods in the home.

Nutrition aside, there are other benefits to meal planning. Knowing what you're going to eat takes the stress out of having to figure it out at the end of a hectic day. Planning your meals also saves money - you'll rely less on restaurant and take-out food.

I know what you're thinking: Who has the time for what seems like such an overwhelming chore when there's already so much to do juggling the demands of work and family? The truth is, the busier you are the more important meal planning becomes. And the more often you do it, the easier it gets.

A little advance planning goes a long way when it comes to nutrition and weight control. The following tips will help you think ahead and make your healthy eating efforts easier and more successful.

Plan for a week

Write down a week's worth of dinners. When planning, consider your family's schedule of extracurricular activities and social events, and make allowances for days you don't have a lot of time or get home late.

Establish a time and day of the week to plan your weekly menu when you won't be interrupted too much and will have time to flag recipes you'd like to try. Meal planning will seem less like a chore and will become part of your weekly routine.

Consider making a meal planner template on the computer with columns for each day of the week and boxes for meals. Develop two to four weeks worth of menus and then rotate them. If breakfast, lunch and snacks could use some improvement, plan these meals as well.

Get input

Engage your family in the meal planning process to get their buy-in. When everyone has a say about which meals they'd like to eat, they're more likely to be open to eating other people's selections.

Post your weekly meal plan in a visible spot (e.g. the kitchen fridge) to ward off complaints by reminding everyone what's been agreed upon for dinner.

You don't have to have a family to reap the benefits of meal planning. I have many clients who cook for one and rely on menu planning to stick to their diet.

Make a grocery list

Once you have your meals planned out, write a grocery list. Having a list means you'll buy only what you need and not extra food you won't use.

Grocery shopping once a week saves time and money. Although you may need to restock fresh produce midweek, try to buy all the essentials just once.

If you don't have time to grocery shop - or just don't enjoy it - consider using a grocery delivery service.

Think convenience

If you don't mind spending a little extra money, take advantage of time savers at the grocery store - prewashed salad, precut fresh vegetables and fruit, grated cheese and minced garlic.

Or, to save money, do it yourself in advance. Wash and spin a head of lettuce once you get it home and then store it in a vegetable bag in the fridge. On the weekend, spend 15 minutes chopping vegetables to have handy for snacks and salads during the week.

Plan for leftovers

As you plan your meals, think about how you can cook once and still take care of two or more meals. Cook soups, casseroles, pasta sauce or chili in batches on the weekend and freeze to serve on a busy weeknight. Cook an extra portion of dinner for a simple, no-prep lunch the next day.

Keep a food diary

If you can't see yourself mapping out a week's worth of meals, a daily food diary can keep you organized and on track. Instead of recording foods after you've eaten them - and then identifying trouble areas - write down what you're going to eat a day in advance. You'll have a one-day meal plan that will keep you focused on and committed to eating healthfully.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.

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