Top tips for meal planning
Whether you’re trying to spend less money, eat healthier, get more organised, or just make better use of your time, meal planning can help you get there.
Benefits of meal planning
The benefits of meal planning far outweigh the initial time investment in taking the time to plan. Here’s why meal planning is so great:
- You’ll eat healthier meals and snacks. Meal planning allows you to think about what you like to eat and how those foods help nourish your body. You can look at how you’re eating overall, rather than one meal at a time. This gives you a better sense of whether you’re meeting your healthy eating goals.
- You’ll save time. Meal planning makes shopping for groceries more efficient by reducing or eliminating those last-minute trips to the store. You can also plan ahead by cooking meals that can be stored in the freezer for the future.
- You’ll save money. Meal planning can help ensure that foods and leftovers are used before they go to waste. Also, if you go grocery shopping with a plan and a list, you’re less likely to make spontaneous purchases of foods you don’t need.
Let’s break it down into 5 getting started tips.
- If you have never created a meal plan or are getting back into it after a long break, it can feel a bit daunting. Developing a meal planning habit is no different from making any other positive change in your life. Start small and slowly build your confidence. This is a great way to make sure your new habit is sustainable.
- To start, you need to figure out when you will cook. Look at your schedule and determine not only when you’ll have the time to cook but also when you’ll have the energy to cook. Whether you only have one day per week or you have time every night, you can make a meal plan that fits. Remember to check the whole families schedule before planning your meals for the week. If you know you’re going to be home late 3 nights this week because of after school activities, plan ahead for fast meal options.
- Find a few openings in your schedule, block off those times, and make an appointment with yourself to cook. Take the time to enter it into your calendar. If it’s scheduled, you’re more likely to get it done!
- Don’t forget to organise your meal prep spaces too. An organised kitchen, pantry, and refrigerator will make everything from menu plan, grocery shopping, and meal prep so much easier. You’ll know what you have on hand and where your tools and ingredients are. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, just whatever works for you!
- Invest in some suitable quality food storage containers as these are some of the most essential meal-prep tools. It’s handy to have a variety of sizes on hand. Before you go out and purchase, think about each container’s intended use. Will they be used for freezing, microwaving, or cleaning with a dishwasher? Make sure you’re choosing containers that are safe for doing so.
TOP TIP – Start by planning out just a few meals or snacks for the week ahead. As time goes on, you’ll figure out what works best for you, and you can slowly build upon your plan by adding in more meals as you see fit.
Choose your Recipes
With so many recipes out there to choose from – where do you even begin? Think about your lifestyle. This may help you determine which recipes to put in your meal plan.
- Time. Based on your schedule, you may want/need a specific type of recipe. Is it quick weeknight dinners? Or a slow cooker recipe that can be simmering away as you do other things with your time? Do you want something that makes a lot of great leftovers, so you cook once and eat for the rest of the week?
- Shop your kitchen. Check all your food storage areas, including freezer, pantry and fridge and make a note of specific ingredients you already have that can be used, or you need to use up. Doing this will help you use the food you already have, reduce waste, and stop you from repeatedly buying the same things.
- Sales and Seasons. Check the weekly specials from your grocery stores to see what’s on sale or in season to maximise your grocery budget.
- Designate a place for saving and storing recipes. Avoid the unnecessary frustration of remembering recipes by saving them in a location that you can easily reference anytime. This could be in a digital format or a physical location in your house. Keeping a space set aside for your recipes saves time and helps reduce any potential stress associated with meal planning.
- The more you meal plan, the more favourite recipes you’ll discover. These are recipes that you always look forward to eating, are easy to prepare, and are a good fit for your budget and lifestyle. Keep a running list of these go-to recipes. Once you have 10-15 favourite recipes, meal planning becomes a quick task that only takes minutes.
TOP TIP – Start thinking about your meal plan at least three days before you want to give it a go, so you have a few days to go through the whole process of making a shopping list, shopping, and then prepping.
This is probably the step where most people get stuck. BUT this is where the magic happens and where you’ll save the most money. Going to the grocery store without a shopping list is an excellent way to waste time and end up buying a lot of things you don’t need. Having a list helps you stay focused and fight the temptation to buy food you don’t have a plan to use just because it’s on sale.
- Keep a well-stocked pantry. Maintaining a stock of pantry staples is a great way to streamline your meal prep process. By keeping some essentials on hand, you only need to worry about picking up fresh items in your shop. This can help reduce stress and improve the efficiency of your meal planning efforts. (Some examples of basics are: rice, quinoa, oats, pasta, legumes, canned tomatoes, broth, tuna, chicken, oils, baking essentials etc.) Also, keep a good variety of spices on hand as these are always needed.
- Go through each recipe in your meal plan and write down every ingredient and the quantity needed. Take the list to your kitchen and cross-check with what’s in your pantry and fridge. This is the most crucial step! – Go through item by item and cross off everything you already have on hand. Cross-checking will prevent you from making unnecessary purchases and make you aware of staples that need to be restocked.
- Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry! This can increase the risk of impulse buys that you’re likely to regret later. If you feel a slight twinge of hunger before you’re heading to the store, don’t hesitate to have a snack first, even if it’s outside of your typical meal and snack routine.
TOP TIP – If you’re only making one or two recipes, making your shopping list only takes a few minutes, and it gets faster every time. If you have a larger meal plan, there are plenty of tools to make this process easier. You can find them online or use a template like the one attached.
Prep smart, not hard. Don’t be afraid to cut corners. Remember, not everyone’s meal planning and preparation processes look the same. Having the wisdom to know when you need to scale back and improve efficiency can help you stick to your long-term goals.
- Plan for and repurpose leftovers. If you don’t want to spend time cooking every day of the week, plan to make enough to have leftovers. Making a few extra servings of whatever you’re cooking for dinner is a great way to have lunch for tomorrow without any extra effort. If you’re not a fan of leftovers, think about how you can repurpose them, so they don’t feel like leftovers. If you roast a whole chicken for dinner, you could shred the leftover chicken and use it for tacos, soup, or as a salad topping for lunch the next day.
- Batch Cook. This is when you prepare large quantities of individual foods to use them differently throughout the week. This method is beneficial if you don’t have much time to spend cooking during the week. Try cooking a big batch of rice and roasting a large tray of vegetables or meat at the start of the week to use for salads or stir-fries.
- Use your freezer. Cooking certain foods or meals in large batches and freezing them for later is a great way to save time, reduce waste, and stretch your food budget — all at the same time. You could use this method for simple staples like broth, fresh bread, tomato sauce, or entire meals, such as lasagna, soup, curries, or schnitzel.
- Wash and prep fruits and vegetables right away. If one of your goals is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, try washing and preparing them as soon as you get home from the store. Suppose you open your refrigerator to find a pre-prepared salad, fruit or vegetable sticks ready for snacking. In that case, you’re more likely to reach for those items when you’re hungry.
- Pre-portion your meals. Pre-portioning your meals into individual containers is an excellent meal prep strategy, especially if you’re trying to consume a specific amount of food. To get the most advantage out of this method, prepare a large meal that contains at least 4–6 servings. Portion each serving into an individual container and store them in the refrigerator or freezer. When you’re ready, simply reheat and eat.
- Use your slow or pressure cooker. Slow and pressure cookers can be lifesavers for meal prep, especially if you don’t have time to stand over a stove. These tools allow for more freedom and hands-off cooking, so you can meal prep while simultaneously finishing other chores or running errands.
- Don’t forget – it’s ok to cut corners! If you are not great at chopping vegetables or don’t have time to batch cook and pre-portion your meals, there are likely some healthy, prepared options at your favourite grocery store. Precut fruits and vegetables or prepared meals are usually a little more expensive, but if the convenience factor is what it takes to reduce stress in your life or get you to eat more vegetables, it’s well worth it.
TOP TIP – Remember, not everyone’s meal planning and preparation processes look the same. Having the wisdom to know when you need to scale back and improve efficiency can help you stick to your long-term goals.
Make it Enjoyable!
You’re more likely to stick to your new meal planning habit if it’s something you enjoy doing. Instead of thinking of it as something you have to do, try to mentally reframe it as a form of self-care.
If you’re the chef of the house, consider making meal prep a family affair. Have your family help you wash or chop vegetables, so these activities become quality time spent together instead of just another chore.
If you prefer to meal prep solo, throw on your favourite music, a podcast, or an audiobook while you do it. Before long, it may be something you look forward to.
- Vary your menu. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and eat the same foods day after day. Your meals can quickly become tedious and lead to a loss of culinary inspiration. To avoid this, make it a point to try cooking new foods or meals at regular intervals.
- Take a night off. Cooking is time-consuming, and everyone needs a break. Nights off are a great time to use some of those batch-cooked meals you froze, serve some breakfast for dinner, use up leftovers, or even splurge on take-out.
- Get the kids involved. Kids may be more likely to try new foods if they have some involvement in any part of the meal process, whether it’s the shopping, cooking, or helping you plan the menu. Get the kids involved in the meal planning by giving them choices and making a couple of nights a week “kid’s choice dinner.” Older children may be more vocal about what they want on the menu based on their favourites you’ve made in the past. Beyond planning the menu, let the kids help you pick out ingredients at the supermarket and prep meals for dinnertime.
- Plan theme nights. Theme nights are a lot of fun, especially for the kids. And it makes planning the menu easier because you know exactly what kind of recipe you need for every night. Some ideas for theme nights: Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wacky Wednesday (e.g. Breakfast for Dinner Night), Pasta Thursday, Fish Friday.
- Stay flexible. The meal plan is there to serve you, not the other way around. Don’t be a slave to the meal plan. Be flexible. Make adjustments if you need to!
Remember! Meal planning and preparation is a great way to make healthier food choices and save time and money.
Though it may seem overwhelming at first, there are a variety of strategies you can employ to develop a sustainable meal planning habit that works for your lifestyle. Meal planning for busy families doesn’t need to be complicated or time-consuming. It just requires some forethought and the motivation to do it.