During the month of February I kept a meal diary of every dinner I ate. It was quite a valuable experience – so much so that I think you should try it too.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t about journaling your meals in order to make sure you’re sticking to a specific dietary regime. Not that I’m knocking that – keeping a diet journal has an appropriate time and place and can be a very effective tool. It’s just not what this is about.
I’m talking about an easier way to meal plan. It’s often easier to make meals at home when we’ve planned ahead, gone grocery shopping for everything we need, and worked up our appetite as we look forward to a specific meal at the end of the day. However, sitting down to make the initial plan is a hard thing to do.
Enter reverse meal planning.
Reverse meal planning is simply writing down what you’re already doing and using this diary as a meal plan in the future. This means that it won’t be ready to use for a few weeks, but it won’t take any extra thought from you in the meantime.
Now, without an intentional weekly plan, your meal diary may not reflect quite the diet you aspire to, but don’t let that stop you. Use your diary to assess (without judgment) patterns around how often you actually eat at home, how many times you eat leftovers of a certain dish, or if you consistently can’t make it home to cook on a certain night due to a busy schedule. Also, it’s helpful to take notes on any ideas that come to mind that could improve the experience of a certain dish or how to use leftovers in the future. After doing this regularly, you will build up a nice collection of meal plans without doing much extra work.
HOW TO REVERSE MEAL PLAN:
- Keep a record in one place. This may seem obvious, but keeping notes on your phone, a spiral-bound notebook, AND scribbled on the back of your child’s homework is not the type of organization that will make meal planning easier for you in the long run. Choose one place to keep your diary and resolve to record your meals each night before bed. I used a yearly journal with a built-in calendar, but you should feel free to use whatever would be most comfortable for you.
- Choose which meals you’re going to record. In my case, I only recorded dinners because I don’t need a lot of variety at breakfast and I tend to eat leftovers for lunch. If your breakfasts, lunches, and snacks require more planning, you might want to include those in your diary as well.
- Write it down. It’s surprisingly easy to forget what you’ve eaten recently, so be sure to write down your meals ASAP. Include everything from leftovers to eating out and even skipped meals so you have an accurate picture of your schedule. It may provide insight into why you’re always over-buying or under-buying food, and how realistic your meal planning goals really are.
- Take notes for next time. Did you try a new recipe that you might adjust next time? Would you double the amount you make so you can have leftovers? Take notes so you can improve upon new recipes and make a more efficient plan. Think of creative ways to use leftovers from each meal and take notes so you can be prepared and have everything on hand next time.
- Store up 1-2 months worth of entries. Once you have 4-8 weeks of entries, you should have plenty of meals to choose from as you begin to look ahead. The simplest way to use your meal diary is to copy exactly what you did one or two months ago. If you’ve taken good notes about any changes you would make in the future, this should require no extra time on your part. If you want to shake things up a bit more, you can mix and match the weeks to create some variety.
- Aim to keep up with your meal diary for 1 year. Available foods and our preferences change with the weather, so keeping a meal diary across all 12 months will ensure that you take advantage of everything each season has to offer – think fresh fruit and salads in the summer, and soups and stews in the winter. How amazing would it be if you had a meal plan for each month from now until forever? Trust me, repeating the same monthly meal plan each year won’t be too much. Most people have a rotation of only 10-15 meals that they cook on a regular basis.
Ultimately, keeping a meal diary for one month ended up being an enlightening experience for me that should help me make better plans in the future. My obsessive nature showed through and I found that if I made a meal I enjoyed I would eat it multiple times. Even the leftovers I stored in the freezer for later got eaten within a week or two. I was confronted with how often I eat with friends, either out at a restaurant or in their homes, which encouraged me to aim for more home-cooked meals when it’s just my husband and I.
Have you ever kept a meal diary? What stands out most to you when you track your meal habits?