MEAL PLANNING MADE SIMPLE
Do you struggle when it comes to deciding what to feed your family for dinner and then having to cook it? When you’ve been busy all day making 101 decisions, one of the last things you probably feel like doing is deciding what to eat for dinner and cooking it. Check out this post on meal planning made simple to take the stress out of meal times!
I must admit that meal planning and meal prep is an area where I’ve struggled in the past. I can never seem to decide on what I feel like eating more than a day ahead. Our family’s lives have also been so busy that my approach has always been more of a ‘wing it on the day’ rather than a shining example of organised domesticity!
With my husband working long hours we were never sure, until towards the end of the day, whether he would be back in time for dinner. My two daughters were younger then and needed their dinner earlier than they do now. Every other weekend I would also have my step kids to feed, so the fridge needed to be fuller and I had to choose meals that all seven of us would eat and enjoy, despite different tastes, appetites and fussy eaters!
As a result, my meal planning was totally haphazard, often done on a whim (if at all) and didn’t make much difference to my stress levels in the run up to dinner time.
Fast forward to now and I’m much better at meal planning and being more organised in the kitchen. I still don’t particularly enjoy it, but I totally appreciate the benefits so much that I’ve forced myself to make weekly meal planning part of my regular routine.
THE BENEFITS OF MEAL-PLANNING
Some of the benefits that we’ve noticed are:
- Less waste – How many times have you bought ingredients because you thought you were going to use them, only to find that they’ve gone out of date because you forgot about them or ended up cooking something else? By planning your meals for the week and only buying what you need for these meals then you can reduce the amount of food that you waste each week.
- Less expensive – For the same reason above, all that food you wasted can equate to quite a lot of money thrown into the bin if you’re not eating some of the stuff that you buy. Also, ready meals and shop-prepared vegetables etc can be much more expensive than buying the raw ingredients you would need to cook and prepare a meal from scratch.
- Less stress and decision-making – When it comes to dinner time, do you often find yourself peering into the fridge or freezer to see what’s in there and hoping for inspiration? It’s just yet another decision you need to make (on top of the 1000 you’ve already made that day) at a time when you’re probably tired and hungry yourself. As a result, you may run the risk of going with the easy option (often a ready meal or unhealthy processed food) or reaching for the take away menu!
- Eating healthier – Planning your meals for the week and making sure you have all the ingredients you need will help you to choose healthier options. If you have members of your family with particular food allergies or sensitivities, you can cater for their needs more carefully. You can also prepare and cook your own food rather than relying on shop-made meals (which tend to be higher in sugar and salt) and you can deliberately choose healthier options for snacks instead of reaching for the nearest chocolate bar to boost your energy levels. Read more simple tips for healthy eating.
- The kids get involved – Maybe you could also think about getting your kids involved in choosing, preparing and cooking the food every now and then. You can talk to them about what foods they like, which foods are better for our body and get them interested in looking after their own bodies. They’re much more likely to want to help you in the kitchen and learn how to cook if you make it a fun and relaxed experience and something that they’ve grown up being part of.
HOW TO MEAL PLAN, STEP-BY-STEP
1. Create a simple chart
There are lots of resources on the internet about meal planning, often with templates and charts that you can download and fill out yourself.
All you really need is a basic calendar or table set out a bit like this:
Instead of one, you might want to have four so that you can plan for the month ahead, rather than just the week, but if that’s too much then try small, baby steps at first, one day or one week at a time.
There’s a free weekly meal-plan template you get at the bottom of this article too.
2. Assess your calendar for the week
Look at your calendar for the coming week so you can plan for what meals are needed, when and for how many people. (Here are some other things you could also do to plan for the week ahead).
- Include breakfast, lunch and dinner in your planning.
- Don’t forget to think about snacks or else you might find yourself grabbing or spending a fortune on unhealthy, high salt/high sugar options.
- See which days are the busiest and when you’ll be particularly tight on time.
- Think about if your children have any after school activities which don’t finish until late afternoon? You know that you’ll need a dinner that’s quick to make (or already made) on this day.
- Do your children take sandwiches into school for lunch every day or do they have school meals some days?
- Is Saturday night normally take away night so you don’t need to plan on making dinner that night?
3. Fill in your chart
Next, you need to choose which meals to cook when and fill in the spaces on your chart. Again, make sure you include breakfast, lunch, dinner and all snacks.
If you get stuck, make a list of your family’s favourite top 5 or top 10 meals and rotate these. Meal planning is meant to make your life easier and simpler so if you really don’t like cooking then don’t force yourself to be creative. It’s ok to stick with the same meals and just swap them around. Or, of course, you can be totally adventurous but just make sure you’re realistic in who is going to eat what!
Just a quick note here – You don’t have to stick with the chart rigidly and you can do something different if and when you feel like it for a mealtime. But, allowing for every snack and meal will mean that you can rustle something up with minimum stress. If take-away or a meal out beckons one day and you prefer to do that at the time, go for it! Planning for every meal in advance means at least you have options to decide either way.
4. Make a shopping list
Once you know which meals you need to plan for and have decided what those meals are going to be, the next step is to make a shopping list of all the ingredients you’ll need for the week. Also keep an ongoing list of anything that you’ve run out of during the week and keep it on the notes in your phone or on a list on the fridge.
Get your family (even your kids) to write down on this list if they’ve used the last of something. Check all these lists when it comes to making your main list for the week.
5. Shopping/grocery order
I do my meal planning on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve got some quiet time to think and the kids are busy doing something. I’ve got into the habit of doing it then and it’s now become a ritual that I follow every week.
I also order my online food at the same time and arrange for it to be delivered on the Monday late afternoon. Again, I do this every week. This way I can calculate exactly how much of the basics I need to order to make sure we’ve got enough for the week and I know that if we’ve run out of something then we’ll have it by Monday. For us, Monday is the only day of the week when I know we’ll be home to wait for the delivery and not out at after school club, work or playing in the park!
Many of the companies offering online food delivery will allow you to keep a list of your favourites, the items you buy regularly, so this saves you time as you can just order the same items repeatedly rather than searching around. If you switch supplier, they will often let you import your favourites list from another supplier.
There are also delivery saver options and some companies are cheaper or more flexible than others when it comes to delivery slots. It’s very much up to you which you prefer.
OTHER MEAL-PLANNING TIPS
- Make sure you’ve always got enough of the basic store cupboard ingredients including tins, flour, pasta, rice. seasoning etc.
- Keep a stash of food for emergencies in the freezer. I always have frozen pizza, fish fingers and frozen veg!
- If you need to keep to a budget, know what it is and keep an eye on it as you place your online order. Shop around for best value – don’t necessarily go for the tempting offers the supermarkets give you and check special offers to make sure they really are good deals.
- Try to eat healthy and choose healthy options where possible. Try these simple tips for healthy eating.
- Maybe you would prefer quality over quantity? Organic and free range are a little more expensive and maybe you can’t afford to eat 100% like this, but you may feel it’s worth having two eggs for breakfast rather than three!
- For some meals, if you buy more than you need for just that meal, you might be able to cook extra and freeze the rest into individual portions to save you time another day. Batch cooking is a great way to save time whilst eating well.
- Encourage your kids to have rounded taste buds from an early age so you’re not having to cook multiple meals (not always possible I know!)
- If you get stuck, seek inspiration from other sources such as recipe books, magazines, the internet and social media.
- If you prefer to plan for the month ahead, not just the week ahead, go for it! If you find it a little daunting or run out of ideas, try just creating 2 or 3 weekly plans and rotate them around to make up the whole month!
MEAL PREP AS WELL AS MEAL PLAN
Another way you can make things simpler and save yourself some time, is to meal prep as well as meal plan.
When you’re unpacking the food you’ve bought, take some time to wash and prepare the fruit, for example, and divide it into individual pots or containers before you put it in the fridge.
They’re ready then to just grab when you or the kids need a snack and you’re much more likely to go for this healthy option if it’s ready to eat and go. You won’t be put off by having to wash it, remove the green bits/seeds, chop it up etc. when you’re hungry or in a rush.
The same idea works for vegetables, cutting down your preparation time in the evenings.
Here’s another example – I buy a whole chicken every other week, roast it in the oven, then slice it up and keep it in the fridge. This way we have chicken that’s prepared and ready to use in a variety of ways – sandwiches, stir fries etc without having to plan ahead for preparing and cooking it.
MEAL TIMES SHOULD BE FUN
Remember that meal time should be fun, enjoying good food as family, chatting about your day and all being together (whenever possible).
Removing the stress about choosing and cooking your dinner will also make it much more likely you can enjoy your dinner too, rather than it being just another chore that you have to get through, when you’re tired, hungry and want to unwind from the day.