Meal planning might just be the simplest way to win back some extra time in your week and even some extra pennies in your purse. The ultimate time management hack. And highly recommended for busy families, especially those new and not-so-new to home-education 🙂
Yet for something so simple, it’s not always easy.
The rocky rollercoaster of meal planning
Meal planning’s a bit like a rocky rollercoaster ride. When the track’s secure and the foundations are solid, we’re riding high. Wind in our hair, gliding along in a seamlessly-efficient meal planning groove. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?
It all seems so simple. Flying through the magical land of preparing food ahead. With time to stop off and bathe in the beautiful bay of batch cooking, the track’s laid out before us. And we’re free to get on with the journey – aka life 🙂
But sometimes we hit a bump in the track and we’re stuck, lodged in a murky chasm.
Maybe opening and closing the fridge door again, and again, and AGAIN… will do the trick. Generating just enough light for the track to magically rebuild itself.
Or maybe you’d prefer some more solid and reliable resources to get this show back on the
With a bit of regular track maintenance, we need never fear those rocky rollercoasters again. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy the view. Well, apart from a few few teeny-tiny ongoing tasks, a bit of chopping here, and peeling there, you know the drill.
But once a plan’s in place, that stuff’s a piece of cake, sometimes literally. Though maybe not for every meal 🙂
Getting started with meal planning
If you’re new to meal planning, write a list of your favourite meals, the ones you cook regularly. Aim for at least ten and there you have it, the basis of next week’s meal plan. Easy peasy.
Short on ideas? Ask around the house and get everyone to chip in their favourite dinner.
And if you’re here because the menu at your house feels a little tired and you want new suggestions? Look out for a few tasty morsels to spark your meal planning creativity sprinkled generously throughout these tips 🙂
Stuck for what to cook tonight? Grab whatever needs eating up first and base your meal around that. And if you’re not sure what to do with what you’ve got? Try a quick internet search, ‘recipes containing …’ and you’re bound to find some inspiration.
For the rest of the week, plan to use fresh produce first. Salads and meals using fresh veg go early in the week. Leave curry and soup for later, they’ll taste just as good with frozen, tinned or a little-less-than-fresh veg.
Keeping it super-simple
Check the calendar and consider your schedule. Planning elaborate dishes, or trying out new ideas when there’s not enough time is a recipe for disaster. A little forward planning can keep quicker meals for busy days, and those requiring more effort for the quieter times in our week.
Keep the shopping list on show. That way everyone can add items they’ve used up or want to buy, as soon as they come to mind. Place your list somewhere your family are primed to look.
Create a list of quick and easy meals to use as back-ups to the main plan. Simple salads, freezer meals and quick pasta sauces require minimal effort and brainpower, perfect when the day runs away from us.
What could be simpler than a one-pot meal? One of our faves is one-pot pasta, inspired by this video (3.25 onwards). Our version’s vegan and uses canned tomatoes when we’re out of fresh. Search one-pot meals on Pinterest and YouTube for tons of yummy suggestions.
Don’t be a slave to the plan. If we’re soooo attached to our plan we make life more difficult for ourselves, that’s no fun. It’s okay to change our minds and mix it up. And remember, going off plan and adding an extra meal puts us a day ahead. Now that’s efficient 🙂
It’s all in the preparation
Place meals with common ingredients close together on the meal plan and cut the prep time. Double the mash for sausages and mash one day, and shepherds pie the next. Or make potato layer bake with white sauce one day and lasagne the next, you get the idea 🙂
Batch cook and prep foods ahead of time wherever possible. Each time you prepare a family staple, take a moment to consider if it’s worth making double and freezing some. For us, pastry, white sauce, and a basic tomato sauce are good to have on hand. What works for you?
And while we’re talking staples… A good supply of basic ingredients like baked beans, lentils, pasta, herbs and spices, leaves us ready to whip up one of those quick and easy meals whenever the day demands it.
Combining meal prep with a favourite podcast or some banging tunes can lift our energy, make time pass far quicker and even have us looking forward to making dinner.
Along the same lines, inviting willing helpers to the kitchen while we’re making dinner can turn meal prep into valuable family time. Maybe you like to cook together, or have someone who’s willing to clean up as you cook, or hang out in the kitchen while you work. Any of these will brighten up this sometimes lonely time.
And the delivery 🙂
Mixing up different herbs and spices can transform tried and trusted meals that are getting a little tired. Spicing up our favourite homity pie recipe has given us a gorgeous take on bombay potatoes in pastry, what’s not to love?
Simply swapping out side dishes offers a whole heap more variety for our plan. Chilli doesn’t have to be served with jackets or rice. Turn it into a one-pot meal with couscous. Add salads and breads. Or switch up the usual seasonings and cooking styles for those trusty potatoes and rice.
Remember those quick and easy meals from earlier? Why not add in some breakfast and lunch options for dinner? And don’t forget the trusty ‘picky-dinner’ – buffet-style, letting everyone assemble their own dinner from the bits and pieces we have on hand. ‘Muffin-platters’, or monkey-platters are another favourite in our house.
Themed days help reduce decision fatigue and offer boundaries for new recipe-hunting. Themes can include styles of cuisine, main ingredients, cooking styles, or a particular family member’s choice. They don’t have to be super-fancy, but if you’re up for some adventure, why not travel the world? Continental style over a week, or long-haul, with geographically themed meals spread across months or seasons.
Easy meal planning wins
Rotate and recycle meal plans. Use them on a rotating loop or mix and match depending on the season or the commitments of the week.
Just like the shopping list, keep meal plans on display. No-one need wonder what’s for tea again. And not only that, it also serves as a good reminder to peel and chop ahead.
Add new recipes to the meal plan sparingly. And be sure to read them thoroughly before preparing. Best to be sure all ingredients and gadgets vital to the success of the meal are on hand.
About those gadgets – take full advantage of any tech at your disposal. The slow-cooker, freezer and oven timers all make life easier. And if you have tech you don’t use, consider whether it’s worth keeping. Simplifying and decluttering the kitchen might just offer the boost of enthusiasm and energy needed to make meal prep manageable.
Use the power of five. If meal prep seems too daunting, chunk it down into five minute tasks early in the day. Get five potatoes peeled while making a cuppa. Rinse the rice or set-up ingredients needed for later.
Give the fridge a quick clean just before a big shop, so much easier than taking everything in and out in-between times.
Keeping up the meal planning momentum
Set time aside for each stage of the meal planning and prep process. Consider when you’ll write your plan and where you might be able to slip in a bit of prepping ahead, either just for the day or for the whole week. A little time upfront is likely to save lots down the line.
But beware of procrastination. It can be easy to put off meal planning convinced it’ll take hours. Yet that doesn’t have to be the case. Don’t wait for the perfect printable, or a free afternoon. Take 5 minutes to check your kitchen stock, choose 5 meal ideas for the next 5 days and write this list on the back of an envelope.
Once you have a working plan you can always come back and refine it. As the momentum of meal planning builds, and you begin to save more time then you can start sourcing beautiful printables, or make your own.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be just for dinner. Expand your planning to cover lunch and snacks. And if you’re more than a cereals and toast person, or aspire to be, you can even plan out breakfast. Reduce decision fatigue wherever you can.
Never go to bed without knowing what’s for lunch and dinner tomorrow, and making sure all the ingredients are on hand 🙂
Meal planning pro-tips
Keep a reference list of recipes. Copy out or photocopy recipes you love and cull those cookery books you rarely or never use. Bookmark online recipes or note down your favourite websites.
Start a kitchen notebook. Rather than writing on random bits of paper we struggle to find again, a dedicated notebook keeps all our kitchen-related reminders safe and easy to find. Record favourite recipes or ways to cook rice or quinoa. Keep track of when food was frozen or leftovers need using up. No need to waste precious brain-space trying to remember this stuff, write it down 🙂
Compiling a reference list of all ingredients we regularly buy helps ensure we never forget those family favourites again.
We’ve even taken this a step further and made a shopping list crib sheet. Over recent lock-downs we’ve got into the habit of shopping for about 10 days at a time. Our crib-sheet includes reminders to check certain staples that might run out in that period, the quantities we’re likely to need of various items and notes on particular brands family members prefer. It’s been super-helpful 🙂
And now it’s over to you… What are your favourite meal planning tips? Please share in the comments, we’d love to hear them. Look out for another post on meal planning coming soon, where I’ll be sharing my favourite sources of meal planning motivation and inspiration. Subscribe to the blog if you’d like to be notified when all posts go live and you can also follow us on Instagram and Pinterest.
Happy meal planning all 🙂