01/09/2014 08:56 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

Interview With a Meal Planner

Let me start by saying, I hate meal planning. Sure, I'm a dietitian/nutritionist and the common perception is that I "should" love planning healthy meals, shopping and stocking my house with all the right stuff. But I truthfully hate it.

When I analyze why I am so against planning, it's really two main reasons, 1) It feels like a time-sucking chore, and 2) Whenever I plan in advance for the week I never actually feel like eating what I planned and purchased. I feel locked in and stuck.

Because of my personal struggles with planning, I teach clients what I call delicious monotony. Learn a few healthy meals that you really, really love and just keep repeating them. They are tasty, so you won't mind repeating them. Delicious monotony.

It's less overwhelming for me to only have a few delicious recipes over and over. Plus research suggests that repeating meals often may naturally help us eat fewer calories!

So delicious monotony is the meal-planning style I developed and follow. I have about five meals in my head (never on an organized grocery list) that my husband and I like, but I never shop ahead for any of it. This usually means I'm at the grocery store almost every day because I don't plan in advance. I like running through the store with a little hand basket instead of a jumbo cart.

But when I reason with myself, it's obvious that not planning ahead and shopping is a much bigger waste of time and stress than if I was to do some preplanning. Think about it, I'm usually in the store at 6:00 p.m., fighting the big crowds and lines of Chicago's other non-planners! Now that's a real stress and time suck!

So, when I found out a friend and fellow dietitian Sarah-Jane Bedwell, R.D., just wrote a book all about planning, I jumped at the chance to interview her. Her new book is called: Schedule Me Skinny: Plan to Lose Weight and Keep It Off in Just 30 Minutes a Week.

The whole book is based around this idea: The secret to being skinny and healthy is planning. The planning system takes 30 minutes each week:
Ten minutes of meal planning +
Five minutes of creating a strategic grocery list +
Fifteen minutes of food prep for the week

Below is my interview with Sarah-Jane. She has lots of useful advice and tips for meal-plan haters! My personal takeaways from the interview:

-- I will make an organized list with my usual delicious monotony recipes. I'll use a timer while making the list, so I don't spend too much time doing it. This strategic list will help me keep my shopping trip to less than 45 minutes. Less time in the store for me equals better mental health.
-- I agree with and love this advice Sarah-Jane gave me: "If you are a non-planner (like I used to be), start by planning out just three dinners for the week and double the recipes. That way, you'll have leftovers that can be used for lunches as well as the other evenings."
-- Finally, I will also start using this mindset shift Sarah-Jane uses. I tell myself, "Just plan for one week and if doesn't make the week easier, you don't have to plan again." But I always realize it does make things easier and I don't have time to not plan!

Interview with a meal planner, Sarah-Jane Bedwell, R.D.

Me: I (like so many other people) really, really, really hate planning and I do everything possible to not have to plan. Why do you think people fight planning? Any tips or mental tricks to help ease the pain?

Sarah-Jane: I think people fight planning because they think it will feel like a chore or take more time from their already busy schedules. I totally know this feeling. That's why I tell myself, 'Just plan for one week and if doesn't make the week easier, you don't have to plan again.' But I always realize it does make things easier and I don't have time to not plan! Also, it helps me to break the planning up into easy, individual steps as I have done in the book. That way it seems less daunting. I can spend 10 minutes meal planning and then take a break and do something else before I spend the next five minutes making the grocery list. Sometimes it even helps to set a timer -- not only will it keep me on track, it also helps to know I only have to plan for a short amount of time.

Me: Ten minutes of meal planning. I really hate planning, so how should I start? Planning a whole week of meals or just a couple of dinners? What's honestly the right start for the non-planner in your opinion? (I know your book has great plans already laid out, too.)

Sarah-Jane: If you are a non-planner (like I used to be), start by planning out just three dinners for the week and double the recipes. That way, you'll have leftovers that can be used for lunches as well as the other evenings. For breakfasts, I like to keep easy options (that really don't require planning) on hand, like nonfat Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and whole-grain cereal.

Me: Five minutes to make a strategic grocery list. That means putting things on the list in order of how you'll see them in the store, right? What categories do you use? Do you personally like paper and pen, or iPhone app or typed paper? How do I know what's best for me?

Sarah-Jane: Yes, a strategic grocery list is one that is organized by area of the store. This is really important for shortening your grocery trip and saving money, since the Food Marketing Institute reports that for every one minute we spend in the store, we spend $2! I use these categories:

1) produce
2) deli/bakery
3) meats/fish
4) canned/bottled items/special sauces/seasonings
5) frozen
6) dairy/eggs
7) grains/breads
8) nuts/seeds/dried fruit/misc.

I personally like writing my list out with pen and paper, because I love the feeling of productivity when I cross items off my list as I go. However, there are also some great apps that allow you to not only organize your grocery list but also store coupons, etc. To know which is best for you, consider how you do other tasks. For example, do you like to keep your calendar on your phone or on paper? If you like using a phone calendar, you're more likely to work well with a grocery list on a phone app and vice-versa.

Me: Fifteen minutes of prep. What can you really get done in just 15 minutes that will make your week easier? How can I figure out what to prep for the week in just 15 minutes?

Sarah-Jane: Part of the "Schedule Me Skinny 30 Minute Power-Planning Session" is to spend 15 minutes at the beginning of the week prepping food so that meals can be put together in just minutes all throughout the week.

To prep, first I recommend cooking one large batch of whole grain or starchy vegetable (such as quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, potatoes). Next, I recommend washing and chopping hearty veggies like peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, carrots, etc. Finally, I recommend measuring added fats (cheeses, nuts, salad dressings, etc.) and portioning them into baggies or small containers.

Then on a week night you can throw together these elements you've already prepped along with an easy protein source such as canned salmon or tuna or beans to make a quick, healthy dinner, like my Mediterranean quinoa bowl recipe (which is baby spinach, cooked quinoa, canned salmon, crumbled feta, artichoke hearts, diced tomatoes, diced cucumbers and kalamata olives tossed together with a vinaigrette) and it can also be used for lunch the next day!

Me: Shopping. I notice the 30 minutes doesn't take into account shopping time. How much time do you personally spend shopping each week? How much time should the average person expect to be in the store?

Sarah-Jane: I didn't include shopping time in the planning session as people live different distances from the grocery store and some people prefer getting some items at a discount club store and other items at a favorite grocery store, so total shopping time can vary. Personally, I spend 30 to 45 minutes grocery shopping per week, and I think that with a meal plan and a strategic grocery list, the average person can expect to spend no more than this amount of time shopping for groceries.

Me: When it comes to meal planning -- where do you get your inspiration recipes?

Sarah-Jane: I like to subscribe to health- and food-related magazines like Self and Cooking Light, which often have recipe ideas that take 30 minutes or less to make, which are great inspiration. I also pin recipes to one of my Pinterest boards whenever I see them and go take a look at it when I'm trying to think of ideas while planning. I also try to recreate healthier versions of favorites by adding more veggies, like making pizza on portobello caps instead of crusts.

Me: What if you plan all these meals and when the day comes you don't feel like eating what you planned?

Sarah-Jane: This definitely happens to me! That's why I keep "Plan B" options always on hand in my freezer and pantry. This includes items like frozen fish and veggie burgers, canned beans and tuna/salmon, whole-grain pasta or quinoa, and frozen or canned veggies. Then I can have one of my favorites, like a veggie burger with sweet-potato fries or my black-bean soup, for example, whipped up in minutes when nothing else sounds good (I have a whole group of a Plan B recipes in the book)!

Me: Do you believe in eating something different every meal every day? Twenty-one different meals each week? How much monotony/repetition do you believe in?

Sarah-Jane: I personally like lots of variety and get bored with healthy eating if I eat the same thing all the time. Plus, with variety of foods comes a great variety of all the nutrients we need. That being said, I think it's important to have some great-tasting and healthy go-to meals for days when you just don't feel like thinking twice. For example, I usually have my peanut-butter banana flax oatmeal several times a week for breakfast and my tuna, lettuce and tomato sandwich a couple times a week for lunch, because I really enjoy those meals and the ingredients are very easy to keep on hand and throw together (both recipes are in the book).

Me: Any last advice to pump me up to make 2014 the year of meal planning -- for someone who is so reluctant to test it out?

Sarah-Jane: All of my clients who share their testimonials in the book point back to meal planning as their key to success in meeting their weight-loss/health/fitness goals. Their stories will inspire you to give meal planning a try. Even if you give it just one week, I guarantee, you'll be surprised what a positive difference it can make!