Welcome to Part 2 of my Meal Planning 101 Guide! Last week I focused on the big why, the benefits of meal planning and today I am going to talk all about how to meal plan. I’m going to share with you some of my top tips, ideas and suggestions to really make meal planning work for you even if you don’t fancy yourself as much of a cook!
The nuts and bolts of meal planning are pretty basic – it’s just about sitting down and writing out what you’re going to cook for the meals ahead. Theoretically that’s all there is to it, so what I want to talk about today is what you can do to make meal planning and cooking in general more fun and more achievable for everyone. Next week in the final instalment to this little series I will share some of my favourite resources for meal planning, so keep an eye out for that as well!
Don’t forget that at the end of this little series I’m going to have some bonus meal planning goodies for my lovely newsletter subscribers so make sure you’re on the list! You can signup by clicking right here, or through the box at the end of this post and you’ll get a copy of my Healthy Drinks Guide ebook as well!
If you’re new to planning ahead and cooking at home most nights it’s important to be realistic about what you are going to want to cook when you get home from work. It’s easy to get swept up when flicking through recipes and decide you want to try and make something that looks delicious but involves a whole lot of preparation and a long cooking time. In all likelihood even if you have all the ingredients ready to go by the time you get home a complicated meal will be the last thing you want to make. Save the involved recipes for weekends and build yourself a repertoire of delicious meals that are quick and easy to prepare for weeknights to avoid the temptation of falling back on takeaway too often.
This also extends to being realistic about different days of the week. Depending on the kind of work you do, some days may be busier than others, or you may have a regular Tuesday night class after work that means you’ll be even shorter on time so factor that in to your meal decisions. It’s always good to check your diary beforehand as well – no need planning a meal for a night that you won’t be home!
Be Creative with Leftovers
Lots of people take their leftover dinner for lunch the next day, and whilst that can be a great way to use up leftover food sometimes it can also be unpredictable as to how much food will be left and you can find yourself scrambling for something for lunch, or else resorting to buying food at work. I prefer to make a large batch, generally a salad or soup, on a Sunday that I then portion out for lunch during the week and use any dinner leftovers for another dinner during the week.
A great way to use your leftovers is to turn them into a different meal the next night. A bolognaise sauce can become a pie filling, a Sunday roast can become sandwiches for a few days and the leftover roast veggies make a great, easy Monday night frittata. Be willing to get creative and who knows what delicious meals you might come up with!
Reinvent Some Old Favourites
Most people have at least a few recipes they are comfortable with and can whip up in a flash, but no matter how great it might be you probably don’t want to eat the same thing every week. An easy way to get around this without having to completely throw out all the food you’re used to making is to find ways to tweak the meals and make them feel completely new. For example, you might make a mean stir fry but instead of always making it with chicken, try a different protein like tofu, beef or even fish. Or instead of always using a honey-soy marinade, try a simple lemongrass and chilli sauce, throw in some cashew nuts and it will taste like a whole different meal, without the stress of having to learn a whole new recipe.
There are lots of benefits of eating seasonally which means it should be an important element of your meal planning. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are normally cheaper, more abundant and are at their peak with regards to flavour which means your food will be extra delicious. Fruits and veggies that are grown in the same season generally complement each other really well, so combining them in dishes will result in great flavours. There are also sustainability benefits as the produce has not needed to travel as far, nor be stored in large refrigerators and you get to show support for local farmers in the process.
This may sound obvious given the whole point of meal planning is that you are, well, planning! However, even within meal planning there is more you can do to make things easier! Try and find ways to streamline the preparation of your meals to make everything that little bit easier. For example, if you know you will be extra short on time on a Wednesday night, then prep the veggies for that meal while you are cooking Tuesday nights meal. It won’t add much time to your cooking on the Tuesday, but will leave you a step ahead the following night. You could also occasionally make additional serves of a meal that you can then freeze so you have a small stockpile for nights when cooking is the last thing you want to do. It generally doesn’t take much additional time to increase the quantity of food you’re making but it can save you a lot of time in the long run! Curries, soups, lasagnas and pies freeze particularly well.
Have some Backups
No matter how well you have planned your meals sometimes things just happen that mean you can’t cook what you had planned. You might get stuck in a late meeting, or your train gets cancelled or all of a sudden you have to be home and out the door again in half an hour. These times call for having some backup plans – meals that you can whip up in no time, using ingredients you keep on standby in your pantry/fridge/freezer. This is also the ideal time to pull out one of those meals you froze and stockpiled!
There are lots of simple, quick and tasty recipes that you can pull together on little notice, as long as you keep your pantry stocked with a few basics! Dishes like pasta with sundried tomatoes, lemon juice & chilli, or rice with a can of tuna and whatever veggies you have on hand and can steam, or even some quick and easy Mexican using canned black beans and diced tomatoes.
Make it Work for You
The main thing to remember is that you need to make meal planning work for you – so everyone will do it differently. It will definitely take some getting used to, and will probably feel slow and laborious when you start out but it will get faster and easier over time. Figure out what works for you through trial and error and eventually you won’t remember how you functioned beforehand!
Some people only plan for 6 meals – figuring that it’s likely something will crop up during the week, or they will end up with more leftovers than expected. Others don’t plan breakfasts or snacks – limiting it to lunch and dinner only. I don’t always include breakfast as I often just make the same thing for the working week, but in summer when I have smoothies for breakfast I do plan as I like to make sure I have enough fruit and veggies to provide a range of flavour combos for the week. I also don’t plan a daily snack but instead make a batch of something healthy (dip, bliss balls etc) that I then eat during the week. Whatever works for you though!
Plan as far ahead as works for you as well – when I used to get an organic veggie box delivered fortnightly I would plan based on that, but you might be more comfortable planning each week or even as far out as a month ahead. There’s no wrong way – just make it suit you and your life!