HOW TO SIMPLIFY MEAL PLANNING TO SAVE TIME AND STRESS (+ FREE PRINTABLE)
Feeding ourselves is a basic necessity of life but it can be draining and stressful deciding what to eat and cooking it at the end of a busy day and week. Here are some tips on how to simplify meal planning and meal prep that will simplify and make life easier! There’s also a free meal plan printable you can get too!
MY EXPERIENCE OF MEAL PLANNING
I must admit that historically my meal planning and meal prep has been haphazard to say the least! I could never seem to decide what I felt like eating more than one day ahead. My life always felt so busy that I tended to ‘wing it on the day’ rather than be 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 dinner early in the evening so I was catering for multiple sittings. 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 all over the place, 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.
Nowadays 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 weekly routine.
The key has been to keep it simple and easy and I’m sharing a few tips here which I hope might help you too! If meal planning still feels to complicated and rigid, I also offer some other ways to my planning, shopping and cooking easier too!
THE BENEFITS OF MEAL PLANNING
We’ve noticed some great benefits to meal planning which have made a difference in many ways.
1. Less wasted food and money
How many times have you bought ingredients because you thought you were going to use them, only to later find that they’ve gone out of date because you forgot about them. Maybe you even ended up cooking something else completely? 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.
New estimates suggest that the average British family is wasting approximately £800 worth of edible food a year with staples including bread, bananas and milk topping the bill of most binned items, according to a nationwide study by Tesco. (Source)
2. Saves money and is less expensive
For the same reason above, all that food you wasted can equate to quite a lot of money also wasted if you’re not eating most, if not all, of the stuff that you buy. Also, ready meals and shop pre-prepared vegetables, fruit, stocks and sauces etc can be much more expensive than buying the raw ingredients you would need to cook and prepare a meal from scratch. By the way, I’m definitely not suggesting it’s practical to make everything from scratch but it is often cheaper if you’re mindful of your spending.
3. 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 35,000 estimated decisions an adult makes each 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!
4. Easier to eat healthier
Planning your meals for the week and making sure you have all the ingredients you need when you need them 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.
Often, how successful we are in eating healthy comes down to how easy or difficult it is to choose healthy over quick and easy unhealthy! We tend to go with what’s quickest, easiest and less complicated so make that healthy options as much as possible. Read more simple tips for healthy eating.
5. The kids can get involved
Maybe you could get 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, plan their meals and learn how to cook them if you make it a fun and relaxed experience and something that they’ve grown up being part of.
EASY MEAL PLANNING
Here are some tips for easy and simple meal planning.
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 or five 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 can get at the bottom of this article too.
If a chart feels too complicated, just grab a notebook and pen instead!
2. Assess your calendar for the week
Look at your calendar for the coming week so you can plan what meals are needed, when and for how many people.
- 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.
- Are you working late any evening so dinner will be late and a rush?
- Do 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 7-10 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. Get input from your family
One of the mistakes I made early on was to plan, prepare and cook what I liked or what I thought my family should eat. I do like to choose healthy options and wanted to include a wide variety of meals, food groups and different culinary cuisines. It was frustrating and disheartening when my family didn’t then enjoy what I was cooking. I now ask my kids and husband what they enjoy eating and they contribute ideas to my meal plan so we can compromise on a menu that everyone likes!
5. 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 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. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, I just have a sheet of paper stuck to my fridge door. It may not be the prettiest but my family all add to it so I’m happy to go with functionality over aesthetics! Check all these lists when it comes to making your main list for the week.
5. Placing your 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, as part of my Sunday planning for the week ahead, and it’s now become a ritual that I follow every week.
I also place my online grocery order 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 TIPS TO HELP SIMPLIFY MEAL PLANNING
Here are some other tips to help simplify meal planning.
- Make sure you’ve always got enough of the basic store cupboard ingredients including tinned food, 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.
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 PLANNING TO HELP DECLUTTER YOUR KITCHEN
Another useful benefit of regular meal planning is that it helps to keep your food cupboards, fridge and freezer clutter-free.
Every week, fortnight or month, go through your food stocks and see what needs eating up. Check the best before dates, rummage around in the bottom of the freezer, look for food and drink that you’ve randomly acquired, bought just because it was going cheap, or you’ve been given as a gift.
Pull these items out and think about how you can use them up in your next weekly meal plan. Not only could this add variety to your meals but it will help keep your cupboards regularly decluttered!
DON’T MAKE MEAL PLANNING COMPLICATED
I’ve mentioned lots of ideas here but do make your own meal planning as simple or as complicated as you like. If you love to cook then you might be in your element but if cooking is something you do just out of necessity, then keep it really simple. Here are some tips:
- Keep your choice of meals to a limited number of family favourites. Brainstorm 10-20 meals most of your family will eat without complaint.
- Before you decide on meals for the week, take a moment to assess what food you’ve already got. Does anything need eating up this week?
- Learn the recipes for your go-to meals off by heart so they’re quick and easy to make.
- Add the ingredients to your grocery order favourites to buy them on repeat.
- Go for tray bakes or one pot meals to limit washing up and keep it easy to manage the timings.
- Write the meals for the week on your noticeboard so your family can see it (instead of asking you a million times what’s for dinner!).
- Keep to a regular time for dinner (and other meals) so everyone knows what time they’re eating and when they shouldn’t be snacking beforehand.
- Allocate tasks to help around meal time so there’s no argument about who does what. Decide who’s laying the table, pouring out drinks, loading up the dishwasher, wiping the table, sweeping the floor.
- Save even more time by planning for the month ahead, not just the week ahead. Try creating 2 or 3 weekly plans and rotate them around to make up the whole month!
MEAL TIMES SHOULD BE FUN
Remember that meal times should be fun, enjoying good food as a family, chatting about your day and all being together (whenever possible).
Removing the stress in choosing and cooking your meals will also make it much more likely you can enjoy your food 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.
OTHER RESOURCES TO HELP SIMPLIFY MEAL PLANNING AND HEALTHY SELF-CARE HABITS
Here are some links to resources mentioned in this article plus a few more to help simplify meal planning, healthy eating and self-care.
- How to declutter your kitchen counter
- Things to do on Sunday for a productive week ahead
- Simple habits to make life easier
- 6 self-care habits for your daily routine
- Simple tips for healthy eating
- Batch cooking tips
GET YOUR FREE MEAL PLAN PRINTABLE
For ease, here’s a done-for-you printable meal plan template. Pop your details in the box below to receive your copy straight into your inbox.
You can print it out for a single weekly plan or print out multiple copies to meal plan for the next month. You could also print out one copy, laminate or frame and hang it on your kitchen wall. Use wipeable marker pens to fill it out and re-use it time and time again!
DON’T MISS OUT!
I’m Antonia and on this blog I share practical inspiration to simplify your home, time and life. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest! You can also subscribe to Balance Through Simplicity and receive regular simplicity tips straight to your inbox for free. Make sure you never miss an article plus you’ll get a copy of my free Declutter Starter Kit as a welcome gift!