Looking to make your day-to-day life simpler and to reduce mealtime-induced stress? Then try meal planning. Seriously. I've been meal planning for a good few years now and would recommend it to anyone. For me, the best thing about it is that it has totally eliminated that daily feeling of panic I used to experience (usually on the dash home from work) when I realised that I hadn't a clue what I was going to cook for dinner. Now I'm a mum, I'd say that meal planning is even more important because my time is restricted (revolving around school runs, nap times, household management and my kids' social activities) and I want to feed my children well without completely blowing the budget.
So what can meal planning do for you?
- Reduce stress
- Save money
- Minimise food waste
- Add variety to your diet
- Help you focus on eating healthily
MY TOP 10 MEAL-PLANNING TIPS
1. Decide on a durationBefore you start, you need to decide how far in advance you want to plan your meals. I tend to do a big weekly shop so I find it easiest to plan a week's worth of meals at a time. It's really up to you though - if you tend to pop to the shops regularly you might just want to plan a few meals at a time or, at the other end of the scale, you might prefer to devise a rolling four-week menu (like my daughter's school has for its school lunches).
2. Make a listIt really helps if you make a list of all the meals you currently make regularly, possibly divided up into categories like meat, fish, vegetarian etc, so that you have something to refer to when you're doing your meal plan.
3. Take stockBefore you start your meal plan, it's worth checking your cupboards and fridge to see if you have any perishable items that need using up - you can then work them into your meal plan and save them from being wasted. You'll also see what stocks are running low so you can add those items to your shopping list.
4. Give it some structure
I have a vague template for my weekday meal plan each week, which is as follows:
Monday - meat-freeTuesday - chicken
Wednesday - fish
Thursday - pasta
Friday - free-choice (this is the one day that both adults eat separately from the kids)
Another way to give your plan some structure would be to decide to eat a particular type of protein (whether meat, fish or vegetarian) for one dinner, then the next day choose a different protein (preferably combined with a different carbohydrate). Planning like this helps my family to get plenty of variety into our diet (otherwise we'd definitely end up eating pasta for dinner three days in a row!)
5. Check your diaryIt's worth consulting your diary so you can plan your menu around your family's schedule for the week. There might be an event that means you'll be home later than normal so will need a quick meal on that day or the kids might have friends over and you'll be cooking for a crowd.
6. Keep it simpleWhen you start meal planning it's easy to get carried away and plan elaborate meals but there's no point having it on the plan if you don't have time to cook it. I stick to quick and simple meals most weekdays and save the more complicated or time-consuming dishes for the weekends.
7. Eat the same foodI'll be honest, it's a pain to cater for people who don't eat at the same time as each other. I know it's difficult - with parents working long hours and kids doing extra-curricular activities, getting everyone to sit down at the dinner table together can be a rare event. So make life easy for yourself - if they can't eat together, at least get them eating the same food (with minimal variations in cases of special diets). I know (oh, trust me, I know!) kids can be fussy but I try not to sweat it too much if they don't clear their plates - I just try to provide meals that include at least one element that I know will please each child. If the meal can be prepared ahead of time and/or reheated as necessary so much the better.
8. Be flexibleI think some people get put off meal planning because they prefer to eat what they fancy on the day. But here's the thing - once you have a plan in place, you don't have to stick to it rigidly. So today is Monday and the meal planner says that you're having chicken but you don't feel like eating chicken? No problem! The chicken will keep until tomorrow and Friday's plan was fish so you can have that today instead. Don't be a slave to the plan - make it work for you.
9. Plan aheadOnce or twice a week, it's worth getting into the habit of cooking a double quantity of a recipe so you can pop a few helpings into the freezer for another day.
10. And if all else fails...Have some quick and easy fallback options on hand for those times when you simply don't have the time and/or energy to cook. If you don't have anything home-made in the freezer (see point 9), there's nothing wrong with giving the kids store-bought fish fingers or phoning the takeaway. However, once you've got into the swing of meal planning, I promise you that these occasions will become fewer and further between!