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It’s the eternal question for many home cooks: “What shall I make for dinner tonight?”
Maybe you find yourself browsing the supermarket aisles for inspiration, only to come home with the standard ingredients for your go-to pasta. But not only does eating spaghetti bolognese three days in a row get pretty boring, falling into a food rut also puts you at risk for an unbalanced diet. As I wrote in last week’s post, consuming a lot of different types of food helps you to get all the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients you desperately need to stay healthy.
But finding ways to ingest the entire range of necessary nutrients is probably not be the first thing on your mind when you have to come up with a meal that’s not only healthy, but also kid-friendly, quick to make after a tiring day at work and easy to digest before heading off to karate class.
For some strange reason, I actually enjoy planning a wholesome yet tasty weekly menu (but then again, I’m one of those crazy people who love making lists). Over many meal planning sessions, I found that using a personalized food template makes it a lot easier to come up with a week’s worth of delicious dinners that make up a balanced diet.
Today I’m sharing my secrets for stress-free meal planning, with two examples of varied and balanced weekly menus.
Template 1: Build a balanced menu around the stars of your meals
Whether you’re a diehard meat eater, a closet carb addict or a veggie lover, you probably unconsciously base your dinners around either a protein, a starch or your choice of veggies. Get creative and effortlessly mix up your dinners by rotating the stars of your meals.
a. Mix up your proteins
When thinking of a new recipe to try, many of us focus on meat or fish as the base ingredients of our dinners. If your mind works like this, why not alternate between your favourite choices of protein? Here’s an example for omnivores, but don’t overlook the plant-based options – this template also works for creating a balanced vegetarian meal plan.
- Eat (lean) cuts of meat twice a week, like a steak of beef, pork tenderloin, game meats or a leg of lamb. Try to limit your intake of processed meats such as sausages, bacon or breaded cuts to once a week or less, because the excess amount of additives, nitrates and salt won’t do you health any good.
- Choose poultry (chicken or turkey) on two other days of the week.
- Don’t forget to eat fish regularly. Especially oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines are known for their richness in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. But other sea food and non-oily fish like cod, sea bass and snapper are also excellent sources of protein.
- Go meatless at least once a week. Don’t limit yourself to funky looking meat substitutes from the supermarket, but experiment with legumes, sea vegetables, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds. You could try a simple meal with ‘a grain, a green and a bean‘ or indulge yourself with a sumptuous beet risotto with goats cheese.
b. Rotate your greens
Ideally, half of your plate should be filled with an abundance of veggies, but cooking up a different dish each night can be a challenge. However, there’s an easy trick to eat a wide range of greens every week: alternate between the various vegetable families. Each family group has its own nutritional benefits: cruciferous veggies are known for their cancer-fighting compounds, while beans and legumes contain lots of protein and fiber. Get the best of all worlds by picking from an other type of vegetable every day!
- Cruciferous vegetables: Famous members from this plant family are cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage (red, white, Chinese) and Brussels sprouts. Cruciferous veggies are usually packed with vitamin C and have been praised for their disease-fighting nutrients.
- ‘Fruit’ veggies: Colourful summer vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, corn, pumpkins are perfect for Mediterranean dishes. These squashes and nightshades also contain plenty of health-boosting antioxidants, like carotenes, lutein or lycopene.
- Mushrooms: Edible funghi like morels, portobellos, reishi, shiitake and maitake don’t just add flavour to your meals, but these mushrooms have been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine to keep the immune system healthy.
- Sprouts: Bean sprouts and alfafa are commonly seen at salad bars, but you can also blanch them for one minute to get rid of potentially harmful bacteria and give your Asian meals an extra boost.
- Leafy greens: From lettuce, watercress and arugula to spinach, kale, collards and chards, leafy green vegetables provide a rich supply of vitamins, minerals, fibers, plant-based protein and chlorophyl.
- Root vegetables: Nothing says healthy winter food more than carrots, beet roots, sweet potatoes, parsnip, horse radish and kohl rabi. Root veggies are loaded with beta-carotene and vitamin C, which contribute to the health of your eyes, skin and immune system.
- Alliums: Onions, garlic, leeks, scallions and shallots has been linked to a lower risk of cancer do more than flavour your meals: regularly eating allium vegetables has been linked to a lower risk of multiple types of cancer.
c. An Example Menu of Focusing on the Stars of Your Dinner
- Monday: Grilled steak ratatouille and saffron rice by Jamie Oliver.
- Tuesday: Poached salmon and a jacket potato, with a shaved cauliflower salad from Happyolks.
- Wednesday: Turkey breast with a superfood salad made from kale, wild rice, pomegranate, walnuts and feta by Pinch of Yum.
- Thursday: Pork tenderloin and oven-roasted potatoes, with ‘green beans deluxe’ from Food Loves Writing.
- Friday: Shiitake mushroom and lentil Asian taco by Sprouted Kitchen.
- Saturday: Shrimp pad thai with sprouts and scallions from Martha Stewart.
- Sunday: Oven-roasted chicken with root vegetables by The Chic Site.
Template 2: “Meatless Mondays” – Assign a theme to each day of the week
Are your dinner plans influenced by your regular routine of working out on Wednesday evening and socializing during the weekend? Or do you find yourself longing for a comforting pasta dish at least once a week? Then maybe assigning a culinary theme to each day helps you to come up with a varied week menu. Your personalised food template will obviously depend on your own schedule, but here are some ideas to get you started:
- Meatless Monday: Start your week off with a tasty plant-based dinner, like this Been Chili with Walnuts and Dark Chocolate from Green Kitchen Stories.
- Traditional Tuesday: Meat, potatoes and veggies are still a classic dinner in many Western households. Martha Stewart’s Sirloin Steak with Roasted Potatoes and Asparagus might soon become a new family favourite.
- Quick & Light Wednesday: Rushing your kids to their extracurricular activities? Or do you need an easily digestible meal before your yoga class? Then a classic salad nicoise, Asian stir fry or these Sexy Spring Rolls from My New Roots are just for you!
- One – Pot Dinner Thursday: Cooking and cleaning up gets a lot easier when you can throw all your ingredients into a single pan. A great example of a no-fuss meal is this Vegetable Pot Pie from Yummy Mummy Kitchen.
- ‘Fast food’ Friday: Celebrate the start of your weekend with a healthy version of your favourite comfort foods! Indulge yourself with Posh Pork Kebabs by Jamie Oliver or a Pan – Seared Salmon Burger from One Two Simple Cooking.
- Soup & Salad Saturdays: Not in the mood for complicated cooking? Try this comforting Tomato Soup or ‘the Best Chicken Salad Ever‘ according to Jamie Oliver.
- Slow – Cooking Sundays: Lazy Sunday afternoons were invented for slow-roasting meals from the oven, like this Lamb Pappadelle with Garden Peas and Mint from What Katie Ate.
Does the question “What’s for dinner?” stress you out? How do you come up with fresh meal ideas on a regular basis? I’d love to hear your meal planning secrets in the comments!
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