By failing to plan you are planning to fail – and this certainly holds true for healthy eating. Today we speak with Allison Schaaf for tips and techniques on how to meal plan.
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Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. I am here with Allison Schaaf. And today, we’re going to talk about meal planning and meal prep, which is probably one of the most important things regarding diet.
If we all had an infinite amount of time, we could do great stuff and plan the most delicious recipes and everything else. But I’m sure, like many other people and as I also struggle with, sometimes time is a limiting factor in being able to actually eat healthy.
So if we can have some good techniques, tips, and tricks for meal planning, meal prep, and strategies that are time saving and efficient, it can really make eating healthier much more achievable.
So Allison today is going to walk us through some of the best techniques that she has come across in focusing on this in her work. So Allison, welcome to the show.
Allison Schaaf: Hi. Thanks for having me.
DrMR: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Tell people a little bit about what you do because I have an idea. But explain to people how you help them get better with meal planning. And then we can kind of launch into some tricks.
Meal Planning & Prepping.
AS: Yeah, so I’ll do just a brief background. I am a dietitian. But I also attended culinary school. And I started out as a personal chef where I would go into people’s homes and spend a few hours once a week prepping their meals for the week. And I wanted to take that process online so I could reach more people and basically came up with meal plans that used that same process of, “Okay, what can I do for an hour or two once a week to set me up for success the rest of the week?”
And so essentially, I started Prep Dish which is an online meal planning service. And that’s really what I do. Each week, I give out a PDF that has an organized shopping list, very specific instructions for prep day which is the key. That’s the part of prepping things ahead of time.
And the third piece is just how do you put that into action throughout the week which is usually pretty easy because you’ve already bought the groceries. You’ve already chopped the vegetables. It’s just finishing off that night at dinner.
DrMR: And that aspect is crucially important. I’m sure everyone listening to this has had days or weeks where they have prepared, and they’ve eaten great. And they’ve felt great because of it. And they have also had times when they didn’t prepare. And then you’re like, “Oh, I’m hungry. And there’s nothing here. And I have to resort to whatever junk food is lying around or whatever I can get to quickly” which typically does not tend to be the healthiest foods.
So definitely, preparation is extremely important in being able to execute a healthy diet. So how do you start people with the process of prepping and making healthy food more efficiently?
Reaching Health Goals
AS: Well, with the plans, I give them the tools so it’s already there. The shopping list is done. The instructions are very specific. But it’s really a process that anyone can follow and kind of do on their own. That key piece is thinking about things ahead of time. I always say 6 o’clock is the worst time to try to figure out what’s for dinner. You really need to have that set up in advance so that you can make smart choices.
So really, I think the first step is making sure you have a plan in place, whether that’s you sitting down and doing that or using an outside resource like Prep Dish.
DrMR: And something that I used to do is I try to eat—I don’t want to say rotation diet because that sounds a little bit too rigid and confining. But I take all the foods that I like. I wrote them all down one day. And I said, “Let me try to partition these into different groups. And I’ll focus more on these foods on Monday, these foods on Tuesday, these foods on Wednesday, so I can build into my diet some planned, cycled variety.”
And then I organize how I shop and when I shop and when I food prep around that. And it really does help knowing, “Okay, for the next three days, this is predominantly what I’m going to be eating. And so I have to buy these things.” And then you’re preparing ahead of time so you have things that are ready to go and to be made quickly.
So certainly, mapping these things out ahead of time and planning ahead makes a huge difference in being able to have this stuff done because sometimes what makes the difference between eating healthy and not eating healthy is you have a thing of chopped vegetables in the refrigerator and all you have to do is toss those in a pot and steam them for 15 minutes, and then you’ve got your vegetables done. That, people can probably sneak in.
But if you have to drive all the way to the grocery store, buy stuff, bring it home. You can’t sneak that in 15 minutes.
AS: Exactly. If it’s already there, if you’ve already done the work, you’re not going to let it go to waste. If you’ve already chopped the sweet potatoes, you’re not going to say, “Oh, I think I’ll skip that tonight” because it’s already there. It’s so easy.
But like you said, if you have to start from the beginning and go to the store when you’re hungry and the decision-fatigue thing by the end of the day, making good decisions is not as easy.
DrMR: Something that I think people sometimes struggle with, and I think it may not be a fully founded struggle, but people may think that if I’m going to meal plan ahead of time, the food is going to be boring. It’s not going to be fun. It’s going to be chicken and broccoli at every meal, uniform and almost military-like. That hasn’t been my experience at all. But what would you say to someone who is struggling with that?
AS: Yeah, I think when you plan ahead, it gives you the chance to look up new recipes. And also, when you have it figured out in advance, you can figure out ways to maximize your use of time and use of ingredients. So if you want to try a new pesto recipe, you can do that and double it up and then one night have it on salmon and then two nights later have it on chicken. Or if you want to make a big roast or something, you could have it one night with some vegetables on the side. And the next night, you could have it in lettuce wraps sort of like a taco.
And it’s harder to do that when you don’t plan it out because if you don’t plan it out, you might have the roast. And then the next night, all you have is the same roast and vegetables. But if you take some time to think about it, “Oh, well, the next night, let me buy some romaine lettuce. And I can make little pork tacos or something.”
So the advantage of thinking it through in advance is you can figure out ways to make it more fun and mix it up without having to recreate a whole new meal each night.
DrMR: Yeah, that’s a good point because certainly meal planning is not going to work in the long term if you’re eating the same four things.
DrMR: This is what I did in college when I didn’t really know how to cook. And I think a lot of kids go through this where it’s your first time away from home. And you don’t really know how to cook. So you bake chicken. You grill steak. You steam some vegetables. And you’ve got five things that you can make. And you just eat those all the time.
But it becomes pretty old pretty quick. So it’s definitely helpful to have recipes that can be tasty. But also, as you’re saying, you’re planning these things dovetailing into one another. So the pesto that was used for this one day is used for that the other day. And I’m assuming that probably mitigates waste but also enhances the palatability or just the taste profile of the different dishes that one is going to consume during the week.
AS: Yeah, exactly. It’s good to think it through too to make sure you have the variety for both reasons. Health-wise, you want to have a variety. But then also taste-wise, you don’t want to get bored. So it really helps to mix it up.
Benefits of Family Meals
DrMR: Now, I know I’ve seen you write about another component of this, which is how meal planning can help with the family sit-down dinner and getting the family together, which I also think for some people might seem a little bit counterintuitive where, if it’s not mom and dad in the kitchen all together having a meal, it might detract from family time.
Sometimes, I think meal planning—and I don’t think this is a correct assumption, but sometimes people assume that meal planning is what the busy executive does just to buzz through had not even really have much time to sit down and eat and relax and talk and what-have-you.
So I’m curious to kind of hear your thoughts on how the meal planning helps with having more family time to maybe enjoy your meal with your family.
AS: Yeah, and I think in a lot of light, there are a few different aspects to that. One is if you already have the plan in place when you get to 5 o’clock it’s not that stress and rush of, “What are we going to eat?”
And if there are kids around or even other family members or a spouse and you’re like, “Huh, what should we have for dinner?” and you’re asking that out loud and everyone’s is putting their input, that’s where arguments can come up.
AS: But if there is already a pot of chili that’s ready to go, it’s like, “Hey, we’re having chili tonight.” And when people know they don’t have an input, it’s a little harder to put up a fight for. That’s not going to work perfectly with kids and stuff. But it’s not this big, general question of what’s for dinner. It’s already decided.
And it allows for you to go into the dinner a lot more relaxed and able to sit down and have a nice conversation and really enjoy your time and spend time focusing on the dinner instead of focusing on the, “What are we going to have for dinner?” It’s more like, “This is what we’re having. So let’s sit down and really enjoy it.”
DrMR: Yeah, that’s a good point.
Varied Taste Palettes
And you mentioned children. And I’m wondering how you get around the picky eater. I’m sure you’ve come across a lot of this in the consulting that you do. But someone wants to get on a healthy plan to lose weight, increase energy, whatever it is. But they’re concerned that, “Yeah, maybe I can get my husband on board, maybe one of my children. But the other one or two are really finicky. And so how do I make this something that works for the entire team of our family?”
AS: Yeah, “Do you have a meal plan for picky eaters?” is a common question that we receive. One hard part about that is one kid likes broccoli. The other loves carrot sticks. And the other will eat nothing but chicken. So it’s not like the picky eaters have all these foods in common.
So a few things there are figuring out ways—because really at the end of the day when it comes to picky eaters, it’s finding tools and tips to help the mom deal with them. It’s not necessarily like, “Hey, here are these magical recipes that are going to make everything better.”
It’s, “Here’s what you can do to ease stress and make them more open to trying things.” Things like letting them get involved with picking out the side vegetable or the fruit. Or figuring out different preparation methods so maybe they’ll like it better.
If you notice, “Hey, whenever they dip something in a ranch dressing, they’ll eat that vegetable.” So maybe it’s just knowing, “Hey, if I have a homemade ranch dressing on hand, then whatever vegetable I serve, the kid will dip their vegetable in it.”
So there’s unfortunately not just one magical thing that works for all kids. But it’s more, “Here are some tools and tips to make it easier.”
And another big one is just for the parents to watch their language around the kids. If you say, “Well, little Johnny never eats broccoli,” he’s going to hear you say that. And he’s going to be like, “Yeah, I never eat broccoli.” But if they’re enjoying it and modeling it, then that can go pretty far in things.
Just really be careful of the language of, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to like this.” But if you just put it on the plate and everyone is eating it and enjoying it and you don’t make a big deal about it, they’re going to be more likely to give it a try.
So the thing that I enjoy most about the feedback from families with the meals plans is, “Oh, I never thought my kid would eat salmon. And they gobbled this up tonight.” Or, “I never thought my kid would eat this, and they loved it.” And so I love when there are sort of those surprises. They just assume the kid isn’t going to eat this. But then they find that they really do.
DrMR: Yeah, and I like the point you made earlier about if you have this whole expectation of, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to eat tonight,” and there’s not a lot of debate or deliberation, you don’t invite—sometimes, I find if you give someone an inch, they take a mile. So you ask for a little bit of feedback, you get way more than you wanted.
DrMR: It creates a snowball. So I could totally see that being one of the ways in which this plays out.
DrMR: Now, what are some typical types of people that you consult with? Because I’m sure there are some people—and I’m just reflecting on some of the patients that I see in the clinic all the way through surgeons that we work with who are really busy down through young, working professionals who are on the grind constantly and trying to figure out how to implement this to the mom planning for a whole family.
Is there a typical type of person that you see or certain goals that are common in the people that you consult with?
Common Goals of Clients
AS: Yeah, so with the meal plans, they’re all gluten free. And there are a few different versions of them. So there is a paleo version. And then we also have an AIP, so for autoimmune. And then a Whole 30 compliant or reset type plan.
And a lot of the people that use them are sort of the busy mom. But we certainly have anyone that’s busy and wants to eat healthier really finds use out of them because it can help just figure out that plan.
And I think the thing that has been nice is they’re pretty flexible in terms of figuring out how to make substitutions. And it’s a different process and a different approach, the fact that you’re really doing it in advance.
But once you get that system down, it’s much easier to then go and make it your own. And once you get comfortable with it, you could be like, “Oh, well, I love this. But then I can make this swap. Or I want to do this. But then in addition, I also want to make this soup that everyone loves and add that on.” So people figure out ways to really make the meal plans their own, as well.
DrMR: And do you have to—because I’m sure there are also some people listening, probably not so much the mom because I think the mom probably has some culinary skill, but let’s say you’re a young, single guy.
Prerequisites for Involvement
Do you have to have some culinary aptitude to be able to get involved with this? Or what does that look like?
AS: We have a lot of beginner chefs that use the meal plans. There is chopping required. So I do think you don’t have to be a skilled chopper. But I do say you need a nice, quality knife. If you want to try to chop a week’s worth of vegetables using a paring knife, it’s going to take you a little while.
But that’s one skill that I really think—there are knife skills courses at every grocery store. So a few basic knife skills would be helpful.
But beyond that, we have all levels. And we try to really spell out exactly the instructions. And we’ve gotten all sorts of questions over the years. So we’ve really learned where we need to be very specific on how to do X, Y, or Z to really hold people’s hands as they walk through the process. But no, it’s definitely all levels of cooking.
Creating Recipe Plans
DrMR: Okay. And you have a paleo, an AIP, a Whole 30 sort of plan that people can plug into. And within those, do you choose the recipes and the planning that goes into those recipes depending on your palate? Or is it more a standardized, “Here’s the plan for this; here’s the plan for that”? What does that look like?
AS: So it’s a standard, “This is what’s on the menu this week.” So each week, it’s a different menu. So there are 52 weeks of different menus. And each week, they have that. It’s all seasonal. There’s a nice variety, mix of new dishes every week. And there is no thinking involved. It’s all kind of pre-done for you.
DrMR: Okay, so the variety is planned in on a week-to-week basis.
AS: Yep, exactly.
DrMR: So that would probably help with people from not burning out on just feeling like, “Okay, I’ve got these same three weeks of food that I just keep rotating.”
AS: Yeah, and then we have each month a bonus week menu that I call the Super Fast menu. And this is one for those weeks when it’s really tight. And I don’t have that much time to prep, but if I could, do this. And it’s kind of more the bare bones, really simple dishes that require under an hour of time spent in the kitchen on Sunday to get you set up for the week.
So that’s kind of a bonus one that’s provided each month. So there’s some flexibility to switch out the weeks if you want to switch out the meals and stuff.
DrMR: And so people take one day a week. And they prep for the rest of the week, it sounds like.
Food That Has Been Sitting for Too Long
I’m wondering within that statement, are there some people who come to you who notice that they don’t do well with food that has been sitting for too long?
I’m not sure if you’ve heard much about histamine tolerance. And if people cook something and it sits in the fridge for too long, they may have an issue with that.
So have you heard that? And if so, do you have any work arounds for those people?
AS: No, I know there are some people that what they’ll do is, if we mix up a marinade or something like that, they’ll put their proteins in the freezer when they buy them. And then they’ll pull them out the night before.
So that’s sort of the work around we have there. If you have some of the proteins, you can always put those in the freezer and then use those because you already have the marinade and such done. So you could just pull that out the night before.
DrMR: Gotcha. Gotcha. Okay.
Tricks and Tips
So are there any other tips or tricks or things that you’ve learned in consulting with people that you’d like to provide the listener with as we bring things a little bit more to a close?
AS: Yeah, I guess just a few quick tips. So like I said, there are the three pieces to the meal plans. The first one is the shopping list. And one thing to keep in mind there is I organize it by grocery store department.
And so this is a tip that anyone can use when making a grocery store list. Think how you go through the store. If you start with produce and then go to seafood and go to meat, have your list organized in that way so you’re not running all around.
Or if you want to save even more time, there’s grocery delivery all over the country, most major cities now. So really take advantage of that because if you have the groceries delivered, then you really don’t have an excuse not to follow through and make the meals.
DrMR: On that point, I caught wind recently that I think Whole Foods has some sort of service. And I think it’s anything over $50, or they deliver for free or something like that. But tell people who are listening more about how they can plug into that if that’s something that they wanted to take advantage of.
AS: Yeah, so it really depends on the area of the country that you live in. There’s a service called Instacart. And we actually have Instacart. And we actually have Instacart grocery lists. So if someone wants to do one of the Prep Dish meal plans, they can just click on a link. And it will autofill your grocery cart. And you can just check out online.
DrMR: Oh, that’s slick.
AS: Yeah, so that’s nice. But what we’ve found is really throughout the country there’s not one major player. It really depends on location. Hello Envoy is a big one in Southern California. Amazon has started delivering in some areas.
AS: There are a few in Texas. One is called Burpy that’s really good. So it depends on where you’re at. And on the east coast, a lot of the grocery stores deliver. Shop and Stop, they’ll either have delivery or where you can order your groceries and just pick them up at the curbside. I think a few of the Texas grocery stores have started doing that as well.
So really the best advice is to check into your area to see what’s available. I know in Austin, Whole Foods used to do delivery. And I’m not sure. I think they might have stopped now that all the grocery delivery services are there. But a lot of grocery stores have some sort of delivery now. So it’s just researching your area because it does vary.
DrMR: Cool. Okay, so you talked about breaking down the shopping cart based upon section of the store and then potentially a delivery service. And what else? I cut you off there. So please continue with your—
AS: Oh, that’s okay. Yeah, but the delivery is a good one. So then on the actual prep day, have a plan for that. But then figure out how to really batch that as much as possible. So chop vegetables in advance. Do one big marinade for the week or crock pot meal. Or figure out what your breakfasts are going to be.
Just really think that through because there’s a lot that can be done ahead of time that can make it easier for you at 5 o’clock. That’s really the key there. When you head into dinner, you want to have things be as easy and simple as possible because most people by the end of the day are pretty exhausted. And if you have to come up with something from scratch, it’s going to be an uphill climb.
DrMR: Definitely. And just a couple of things that I have found helpful—and I think I’ve probably shared these on the show in different respects. But certainly plan a head in terms of shopping ahead. And also look at your diet and trying to break that down.
Dr. Ruscio’s Personal Shopping and Preparation Plan
I do it in chunks where I do it in two to three day chunks in terms of some of my preparation and some of my shopping. And like I said, I organize it into a plan that has some rotation built in kind of like your diet plan does. Admittedly, your diet plan sounds much more varied than mine is because mine is just kind of the same things every week that rotate on a few-day cycle.
But some of the things that have been the most helpful just for me personally—albeit I am not a picky eater and so I’m fairly satisfied with simple eating—methods of cooking that don’t really require me to oversee the cooking.
So baking and steaming have been hugely helpful for me. And it may sound a little bit boring. But you can take chicken. And you can bake chicken with oregano and thyme and olive oil. Or you can bake it with sea salt, black pepper, and turmeric and have two very different tasting dishes.
You can steam certain vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower. And those just steamed can be great. But I’ve also found that baking something like asparagus drizzled with olive oil and salt and pepper is a really tasty way of preparing asparagus.
So for me, it’s nice not to have to be able to watch pan sautéing or cooking because you have to watch it. So I tend to gravitate toward a lot of these things like baking and steaming and just finding ways to make baking and steaming as flavorful and as varied as I can.
But it’s nice to be able to put something in the oven, have the timer set, and then go wash dishes, vacuum, maybe run some errands, and know I just have to be back within an hour. And I’ll be fine.
And the other way I sometimes use that if I’m looking to have a meal that’s more fresh is I use the delay start function on my stove so that something may go on at 7 o’clock in the morning so it’s ready to go for 8 o’clock. And I have something fresh cooked then.
So those are a few of the things that I use that have been helpful.
Episode Wrap Up
And Allison, tell people a little bit more about where they can learn more about your service. And if you want to answer any other common questions that people may have, feel free to do so because I think for people who are looking for a method of taking a diet like AIP and making it easier to do, I think this could really help them. So please, go ahead.
AS: Yeah, great. So the website is PrepDish.com. But I set up a special page for your listeners, PrepDish.com/DrRuscio. So PrepDish.com/D-R-R-U-S-C-I-O. And on there, I have a two-week free trial. So if anyone is interested in trying out the meal plans, they can do that for free for two weeks. It’s really the best way to see if it’s a fit, just to be able to try it out for free.
And I’m @PrepDish on social media. So you can connect with me there on Instagram and Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter. That’s all I have.
DrMR: And your website is very nicely laid out, by the way. It looks really great.
AS: Thank you. Yeah, and on there, it’s a subscription. So you either pay per month, or you can buy a year-long subscription to the meal plan. So that’s sort of the set up. But then I have the two-week trial. And I know we talked a lot about the AIP one. And that one is actually a special four-week plan. So the paleo/gluten free you get every week. But the AIP is just a shorter version.
DrMR: Gotcha. Cool.
DrMR: Well, I’m glad that we were able to have you on to have this conversation because in the clinic we give dietary recommendations. And we have some helpful handouts and books that we refer people to.
But sometimes, it’s not the actual food. People get what they should eat. But they have a hard time fitting it into their schedule. So I think something like this that helps them with the planning part can definitely be helpful.
So I’m sure some of the listeners will hopefully find a lot of help with your service.
AS: Great. Yeah, I know the implementation—it’s like everyone knows. They, after awhile, figure out what they need to do. It’s just how to do that.
DrMR: Exactly. Exactly. The one final thing I’d like to ask you, Allison—and typically, I forewarn people about this. I forgot to forewarn you about this before we started the recording. I like to ask people what the least healthy but most fun thing that they’ve done lately is just so that the audience can get a chance to see that different health people, using that term loosely—nutritionists, researchers, whatever—aren’t health nuts. And they do unhealthy stuff sometimes that might be fun. So is there anything that you’d like to share in that vein?
AS: Oh, gosh. Whatever it was, it probably involved some wine. I really like my wine.
DrMR: Alright. Fair enough. So maybe so much wine that you even forgot what you were doing.
DrMR: We’ll leave it at that. So definitely, I’m on board with you. I think people have heard me say maybe too many times that I enjoy a good bottle of wine. So totally. So alright.
This was a great conversation, Allison. Thank you again for coming on. For the people listening, check out Allison’s service if you’ve been floundering with how to plan. Planning, again, is a massively important part of eating healthy.
It’s something I have been reminded of numerous times in my life. Whenever I don’t plan, I don’t eat well. I don’t feel well. And it’s this self-feeding, downward cycle. So planning is really important. I think Allison has put together a really nice tool.
And so, Allison, thank you so much again for coming on the show.
AS: Thanks for having me.
DrMR: You got it. We’ll talk to you soon.
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