What is Meal Planning?
To begin, ask yourself a simple question: what do I want for dinner? At the beginning of each week you sit down and decide a menu. By planning at the beginning of each week, you save yourself time later. So here’s the low down on Meal Planning Guides and How-To’s for Beginners. This is how it works:
Step 1: Choose your meals and find recipes for each one. This can include breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner.
Step2: Write a list of ingredients and do a grocery shop (you can do this yourself in the store or online, making it even more convenient)
Step 3: Prepare the ingredients so they are ready for cooking
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? You may ask when am I going to have time to do this if I’m working all day? This is a fair question. Firstly, don’t start meal planning on a Monday evening. This is the worst time to do it. Instead, do all your planning on the weekend before, when you have more free time. For example, take a moment on Friday evening to quickly put together a list of meals you need to cover over the coming seven days. Then on Saturday do your shopping either in the morning or even at night, when the stores are less busy. Finally, on Sunday, take an hour to prepare your ingredients leaving the rest of the day to do whatever you want.
What Meal Planning Isn’t
It’s not a diet –it doesn’t have to be prescriptive. Quite the opposite, modify it to fit into your life, not the other way around. It’s about finding a balance that works for you.
Not everything has to be made from fresh. Actually, you don’t have to cook everything from scratch – you can buy pre-made sauces and condiments, frozen foods and packet grains like rice that you can quickly open and add to a dish.
You don’t only have to eat healthy food. If you want to use meal planning to introduce a more nutritious diet, that is totally fine. But you can also still have treats like cake or pizza. This means you don’t have to sacrifice Sunday night Chinese take-out night and Pizza Fridays (we have this for years!). All of these can most definitely stay in the diary.
Will it cost me a fortune? The whole point of planning ahead means you can create a budget and make savings by using the same ingredient for more than one dish.
Will I end up with lots of tabbed binders crammed with annotated recipes gathering dust? Not if you don’t want to. You are not writing a cookbook – a weekly planner, a fridge magnet and an online folder will suffice for your weekly recipes. Now you know what it is and what it isn’t, let’s get started!
Meal Planning guides and How-To’s For Beginners
How many meals to plan for?
This will depend on what you have planned for the week ahead. Consider these for instance:
- Do you have guests invited one evening?
- Will the child-sitter need lunch?
- Will your kid’s have their friends over on the weekend?
The more information you gather at this stage, the better prepared you will be.
An example week might look like this:
- Three normal lunches for two
- One Sunday lunch with guests
- Seven dinners for four people
- 5 breakfasts for four people
How to pick the right recipe
The recipes you choose will depend on how much time you have available. Also, who are you cooking for? What do you like to eat? If you have late meetings scheduled, dinner dates or the kid’s ballet performance, incorporate these into your meal planning process and make sure you have dishes ready for those evenings.
Consider using a slow cooker for when you don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen. You can add the ingredients in the morning before you go to work, and the food will be hot and ready to eat when you get home in the evening. I myself love using my slow cooker during the Fall and Winter Season.
Keep it simple and easy, especially at the beginning. The last thing you want to do is start cooking elaborate complicated dishes and end up feeling overwhelmed. Meal planning is meant to make life easier not more stressful.
Think about what meals you need to pick recipes for- late night dinner, lunch next day, early dinner before you go out, something for the whole family. This will help you know what kind of things to look at cooking. What will the other people, who you are cooking for, want to eat or not eat? Does anyone have allergies that you need to be mindful of? Are there family favorites? Fussy eaters? Anyone with allergies or intolerances or on a special diet?
Check the serving size of each recipe. Some recipes are just for two people, others can be for six or more. Knowing how much a recipe is likely to produce will help you plan leftovers and write your grocery list.
Other things to consider when looking at recipes, consider things like the seasonality of different ingredients. For instance, using pumpkin is great in Fall, but less usual in summer. Recipes will often tell you how many calories they have and provide extra nutritional information. This is great if you are trying to eat more healthily, or if you want to lose weight or have a special diet for health reasons.
Another factor that is easily forgotten about is shelf-life. For instance, if you are going to be cooking with fresh fish, schedule it earlier in the week so you use it when it’s at its freshest. Frozen fish are not the best. Leave meals that use frozen ingredients or cupboard staples for later on.
Leftovers are the best. You’d be surprised how many dishes actually taste better the next day. Things like stews and curry benefit from an extra day for all the flavors to infuse together. My favourite next day dish too is spaghetti and meatballs! For busy households, leftovers mean an easy to prepare meal that still tastes of home.
Remember this is not a cookery course. Don’t choose lots of recipes that you don’t know how to cook, especially during a busy week. A great way to begin is to choose recipes your do know and one or two new ones. I like trying new ones on weekends only though. Pick family favorites. You can grow your culinary repertoire as you go.
Group recipes with common ingredients. If you want to save money, try to look at recipes that share similar ingredients. This will reduce your grocery list and save you a few dollars too.
Keep your favorite recipes together. This can be your principle recipe list. By saving all your family favorites in one place, is the best way to speed up the planning process, particularly during busy weeks. These are your go-to recipes that you know and love to cook. I have compiled a simple binder of our favourite recipes using cheap 3 ring binders from the dollar store and just printed a nice cover to make it look appealing!
Most importantly, have fun and make food that you really want to eat. If you fancy mac & cheese for dinner one night or a burger, go for it and make it! Extra plus, both these dishes make great leftovers too. When preparing the burger patties, make extra and leave in the fridge for another meal. Likewise, make extra mac which can be then easily heated up for lunch the next day.
How to write a grocery list
Meals have been counted, recipes chosen, ingredients identified; it’s time to write the grocery list. Straightforward, yes. However, there are few things to keep in mind that will help you when doing this task.
Firstly, take a good look inside the fridge, the freezer, and your cupboards. Make a note of what you already have and what you don’t. The last thing you want to do is run out of main staples like cooking oil or salt and pepper. Make sure you’re stocked up on all your basics by writing an inventory of what you have and what you are missing and add it to your grocery list. This is also a good time to clean the fridge and get rid of out of date food items.
If you want to stretch your food budget, shop for seasonal produce and don’t forget to check the sales and discount aisles. Often there are really good bargains there that will help make your food go further for less.
Another great trick is to create a master grocery list. This can include food items you need to buy every week like milk, butter, cereal, bread etc.… This way you will never forget them, and you can focus on new items needed each week.
Don’t forget to stock up on fridge containers and freezer bags to store leftovers in.
Before you head out to the grocery store, make sure you eat. Shopping when hungry leads to impulse buying and impatience. Don’t forget to bring reusable grocery bags too.
Preparing all your food ahead of time is a massive time-saver. The preparation itself does not need to take you longer than an hour.
Here are some ideas of things you can do beforehand:
- chop up vegetables
- prepare sauces
- make a spice mix
- have things gently marinating
- parboil root vegetables like potatoes
- roast vegetables like peppers to store in oil
If you are batch cooking, split up the dish into portion sizes of your choosing and store them away in the freezer. This is a great emergency option during the week or a back-up plan if another dish doesn’t work.
Although meal Planning is easy, sometimes trying something new can be a little daunting as you first find your feet. Making a few mistakes is all part of the process. Don’t let it discourage you. If somethings don’t go according to plan first time, learn from the process and you’ll know to do it differently next time.
Here are some common mistakes to watch out for:
- Not enough planning time. This is the most important step. Don’t try to rush it or short-cut it or make it up. This might mean not just checking your own schedule, but also everyone else’s in the family.
- Over ambition. Don’t pick complicated recipes that you’ve never tried before. Be practical and realistic.
- An under-stocked pantry. This can be the undoing of even the simplest of meals.
- Unused food. As you are perusing online recipes, check first to see what food you already have at home that needs to be eaten. Find recipes to use it for.
- Not saving recipes. When you find a great recipe, write it down or save it to a folder. Do not try to remember it from sight and miss out a key ingredient in your grocery list.
- Going grocery shopping without checking first what you have in the house already. This is a waste of food and money. You just end up with a fridge full of some things that you can’t possibly eat in one week. First use what you have to avoid pointless food wastage and money.
- Missing out on upfront ingredient preparation. This is a big mistake. Taking some time to pre-chop vegetables, combine spices or make sauces or pastes, saves an enormous amount of time during the week. Don’t skip the preparation.
- Cooking something new for every meal. This is just crazy unless you have ridiculous amounts of time. At the beginning cook familiar recipes and include leftovers. Make it as easy as possible for yourself. You don’t want to burn out after one week.
- No back-up idea. Things don’t always go to plan. Suddenly you have an unexpected evening meeting and the dish we were planning to make, you won’t have time to do anymore. In such a situation having a plan B is great. This is when leftovers and pre-frozen dishes come in very handy.
Try it first
Why not do a trial run first? Plan for just a weekend to start with. This will give you a chance to try out a few recipes and work out how much time you need for all the steps. A practice run will also show your spouse or family how meal planning works and give them an opportunity to contribute to the process. If you’re going to be cooking for more than just yourself, it’s important that those who will be recipients of the meal planning are involved, and if necessary reassured that their favorite food is not suddenly off the menu.
Hopefully, things will be different the next time you find yourself in the office at 6 pm and you wonder to yourself what am I going to have for dinner tonight? Rather than reaching for the nearest takeaway menu, you can check your calendar and remember that dinner is already prepared, waiting to be dished up when you get home!