Producing food for the family day in, day out sux balls. There’s no easier way to say it. It’s relentless, time-consuming and it can be boring. Easy meal planning is a way to make it a whole lot easier and more bearable, I promise. See, preparing food each day doesn’t have to be a massive stress.
The rise of meal delivery services like Hello Fresh and Marley Spoon shows how much we’ve complicated providing food for the family. These kinds of companies want us to believe that putting dinner on the table is far more difficult than it actually is. Even if you’ve got two working parents in the house, with a bit of easy meal planning, you can provide a decent meal seven nights a week (or, hopefully, six nights with a meal out somewhere on the other night because everyone needs a break from cooking!).
Once you get settled into easy meal planning, you’ll realise that it’s a great way to spend less, stress less, cook less and waste less. Older kids should be able to prepare a meal each week since the ingredients are going to be there and they can put their hand up for a meal they are happy to make.
I promise you, easy meal planning is the #1 way to free up your time and control your stress levels. I know because it did exactly that for me when I started a couple of years ago. We’ve never looked back.
Step-by-step easy meal planning
First, you need to decide if you’re going to do meal planning for the entire week’s worth of meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, treats), or whether you’re just going to do dinner. FYI, I do dinner and lunch, including lunch boxes.
You’ll know what day it’s best to start your meal plan from – whatever day you find it easiest to go shopping on (see below). Start your meal plan from the day after you shop – that way you’re not in a panic if you can’t make it to the shops at a certain time.
Work out what you’ve got on each night and plan your meals accordingly. Take into consideration late nights, work nights, if you’re entertaining, nights the kids can cook, and nights you won’t be home at all.
Strategies for quick and easy meals for busy nights:
• Slow cooker (Osso bucco)
• Pressure cooker (Chicken risotto)
• Simple food like sausages and vegetables
• Prepare in bulk and freeze (Chilli)
• Make two and serve one the next day
• Make two and swap one with a friend
• Prepare in the morning and cook at night (Pasta bake)
You need to know what you want to cook, what you can cook and what you can be bothered to cook. No point coming out of the gates thinking you’ll just whip up a Galette Bretonne for Tuesday night dinner. Actually, you might want to make one: it’s just a fancy French name for ham and eggs crepes.
Make a list of all the dinners your family likes to eat and that you like to cook. Remember, not every meal needs a ‘recipe’. Hopefully your list has at least 10 different ideas listed, more is better, less is okay too. This has got to be achievable for you and this is the no stress approach to meal planning. Just write down what you know. Here are some of the dinner recipes on my own meal planning list:
• Tomates Farcies
• Steak, salad and sweet potato wedges
• Spaghetti bolognese
• Sticky chicken tray bake
• BBQ chicken, homemade coleslaw and potato wedges
• Eggy fried rice
• Hoisin beef stir fry and noodles
• Quiche made with leftover roasted vegetables
• Baked fish, mash and roasted vegetables
• Meatballs and potato salad
• Veggie and lentil cottage pie
Loads of ideas here: 25 family dinner recipes we make again and again
You can see from the above that not everything is a ‘recipe’. In fact, most of the meals we eat at night are your standard ‘meat and veg’ option. A little bit of meat, lots of veg, done. I marinate the steak from time to time. I marinate and skewer the steak other times. I might make a recipe salad that’s more exciting than a garden salad. But, generally, I don’t cook fancy most of the time.
Once a week we have a vegetarian dinner. Every other weekend I will make something fancy (especially if we are having people to dinner). A couple of times a month I will make something completely new and sometimes it’s a success and a new recipe goes on my list. Once a week I bake muffins, slices, scrolls, balls, etc to see us through the week.
Once you’ve got your list of recipes and a note of where to find them (perhaps in a cook book, perhaps online, perhaps in your head), you are ready to plot out your menu.
• Take two pieces of paper. At the top of one write “Meals”, at the top of the other write “Shopping List”
• On the Meals list, write the days of the week
• Allocate your recipes to each day – breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever you are planning
• As you go, write down on your Shopping List what you need for each meal
Because I do dinner and lunch planning, I like to work it so dinner can become lunch the next day. So if I’m making spag bol on Tuesday, I’ll wrap some of the bolognese in puff pastry to cook that night to put into Wednesday’s lunch boxes. Same goes for leftover meatballs, quiche, etc. I will often double a dinner recipe and serve up the same recipe in the kids’ thermos for lunch the next day.
Put your Meals list up on the fridge or somewhere you won’t lose it.
When you’re ready to do the grocery shopping, shop your pantry first. You might already have many of the ingredients you need to make your meals. Cross those ingredients off your Shopping List. Add any other items you will need for the week (especially important if you are not planning all of your meals).
Go shopping. Don’t forget to take your Shopping List!
I always do my butcher and produce shopping on Mondays (I freelance at home Monday and Tuesdays and work outside the home on Wednesdays, Thursdays and every second Friday). I generally phone ahead my order to my butcher in the morning and collect in the afternoon. I go to our local Harris Farm for fruit and vegetables.
I try to go to the supermarket as little as possible.
I’ll either shop online for supermarket essentials, or I’ll head into Woolies every few weeks. I can get away with this because my husband nips into the supermarket he passes on his way home from work if we need milk or anything we ever run out of.
Incidentally, I’ve found online shopping to be really frustrating because half the time they forget things in your order (so you have to go into the supermarket anyway) and other times they either don’t show up at all or they are late. Really not worth the delivery fee or “convenience”. If you’ve had a better experience, please let us know!
I basically cook most days, but some meal planners like to bulk cook one day so they don’t have to cook every day. It’s up to you. You know what you’ll be eating all week, so you can decide when the best time to prepare that meal might be.
Mincey meals seem to taste better a day or two after cooking (think chilli con carne, bolognese, stews, marinated meats, etc). Slow cooker meals are great for busy evenings. Lots of meals can be half-prepped in the morning and finished off at night. Sometimes you can prepare tomorrow’s dinner at the same time as today’s: prepping vegetables works well this way.
Sometimes you might find that you don’t want to eat what you’ve planned on your Meals list. I totally get it. It’s one of the reasons I took so long to come around to meal planning. There are plenty of options that make meal planning more flexible than you think:
• Don’t make what’s on your list – the food can stay in the freezer and you can potentially waste a few veggies, etc. No worse off than if you didn’t meal plan in the first place
• Swap some meals around – just because you wrote ‘tacos’ on Tuesday, doesn’t mean you can’t roast Saturday’s chicken instead. Have the tacos on Saturday.
• Just make the meal anyway – you don’t “feel like” tacos because you don’t want to cook. Just cook anyway. That’s what we have to do sometimes.
• Make something different using the same ingredients – the options are endless. Punch your ingredients into Google Search along with ‘recipe’ and see what comes back.
Once you’ve mastered the weekly meal plan, you might want to plan your meals further ahead. There are several benefits to this:
1. You can shop in bulk
2. You can do your easy meal planning for two weeks, a month, etc in one afternoon instead of having a weekly chore
3. You can shop at the supermarket once a fortnight / month instead of weekly (you will still need to shop for meat and green groceries)
4. It won’t cost you more to shop online (because you’ll be buying more and this generally means your delivery free is waived)
But don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Doing a meal plan for dinners for the week will make a big difference in your life to start off with, so stick with that if that’s working for you.
Helpful trick: Meal plan week by week for a month, keep your plans then just start again at week one.
That’s it. Three lists are all you need to get your easy meal planning up and running. In summary:
- Recipe list – things you know you can make or want to make
- Meals list for the week – what you’re going to eat when
- Shopping list – what you need to make it
Enjoy the process. Once you get into the swing of it, easy meal planning will be such a game-changer.
What’s on your menu this week?
Image by Estée Janssens