For many people, meal planning is something done on the run, while you are in the middle of the supermarket thinking about the types of meals you might cook for the week. For others, it’s one meal at a time and for some, it doesn’t exist at all!
I have had many mums tell me that they wake up in the morning, dreading what to cook for dinner that night. They worry that the kids won’t eat it or they worry that they don’t have enough time to prepare a decent meal for their family or simply that they don’t know what to cook.
Meal planning will save you not only time and money, but your health will also benefit immensely. Reducing the amount of highly processed foods or take away foods your family eats will drastically cut down the amount of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, trans fats and additives you consume. It’s a win win!!
It takes time to transition to shopping and cooking and eating more Real Foods and not having to rely on fast food or quick, processed microwavable meals. So the first step in planning your meals is to actually set aside some time for planning. This may initially take 1-2 hours, but the more times you do it, the quicker it will take. Pick a time when you’re relaxed and ready to face the task at hand. I do most of my meal planning on a Saturday as we get a back of local produce delivered and I make my meal plan around that.
Everyone is different – some like to use apps, a simple spreadsheet or pop meals into your calendar or diary, or just write them down on a scrap of paper. I use a $3 Meal Planner from Kmart to write out meals for each night plus snacks, breakfast and lunch box ideas (more on that in the next step). I stick this on the fridge – this way, when someone asks “what’s for dinner” as they invariably do (2 or 3 times a day!) you can just point to the list!
When meal planning, don’t just plan for dinners. Plan for different breakfast ideas, lunch box recipes and snacks too. Not only will this make it easier to pack kids lunch boxes (and your own), but you are less likely to rely on having to buy canteen lunches and packet snacks to keep the kids satisfied – this can add up to a big dollar saving every week. You might also want to cook or bake a couple of things to add to lunch boxes each week and freeze them in portions (muffins or banana bread are great for this). This is a great time saver and one less thing to think about when packing lunch boxes – AND the kids can easily do this on their own.
Before you start choosing out recipes, do a quick audit of what you already have in your pantry, fridge and freezer. This can save you money by using up any fruits & veggies leftover from the week before and making use of frozen meat instead of purchasing more. I tend to use any old veggies when making bone broths or whizzing them up in a food processor and freezing to add to soups and stews for added nutrients and flavour. While checking your cupboards, make a note of any staples you may need to stock up on too.
Between work, kids after school activities and social commitments, your weekly schedule can appear to need a personal assistant of its own! When meal planning, take into account nights where you may be late home – so plan a quicker meal for those nights. Also write down on your planner any nights you won’t be home for dinner (dinner at Grandma’s or hubby not home) – yay a night off! Also make a note of any other cooking commitment you may have coming up that week – need to make a cake for the weekend cake stall or cupcakes for your daughter’s birthday? Add this in!
I love recipe books – and I have collected quite a few of them over the years. I love sitting down with a bunch and working through new recipes I want to try. I also love scouring the internet for new recipes and I also pick up the free magazines from Coles and Woolworths for some recipe inspiration.
Aim to vary your meals so you are getting a variety of nutrients throughout the week e.g. don’t cook pasta or rice with every meal – change it up with different veggies and side dishes. If you are just beginning your real food journey, then I would recommended starting slowly. Choose 1 new recipe to try each week until you and your family get a taste for new foods. Introduce them slowly… there’s nothing worse than spending hours planning and cooking a new meal only to have your kids refuse to eat it because they’ve never seen zucchini before (trust me, I know!). I also allow for a night or two each week of either leftovers (see step 7) or an easy dinner of scrambled eggs or sausages with mashed potato. There is no rule that says dinners have to be extravagant or even ‘dinner’ (nothing wrong with bacon and eggs for dinner).
Plan at least 1 meal each week to cook a double batch of so you can freeze a batch for a nourishing, ready made meal on a night when you just can’t be bothered cooking, or don’t have time. Curries, casseroles and meatballs all freeze beautifully and you can take them out to defrost the night before (set yourself a reminder!!). Leftovers are also great for quick breakfasts, lunch boxes and dinner again the next night. The same goes with snacks – make a double batch of muffins, banana bread etc and freeze them in portions for lunch boxes and snacks.
A lot of families don’t have time to bake every week (or at all!), so plan in some simple, nourishing snacks that don’t require a lot of preparation. Things like veggie sticks can be bought and chopped up once a week and stored in the fridge to be grabbed out quickly for a snack or to fill lunch boxes. Nuts and seeds can be mixed into small packs of trail mix as another grab and go snack and hard boiled eggs are the perfect snack for any time of the day.
When planning your meals and snacks, write your grocery list at the same time. Again, you can use an app, or a simple handwritten list – whatever works for you. Write down the ingredients you need for every meal or snack you have planned so that you will be sure to have everything you need at hand when you need it. Sticking to your list will also mean you will save money and avoid buying highly processed foods while shopping.
If you are new to cooking from scratch or just starting to introduce more Real Foods into your family’s diet, then try to take it one small step at a time. Introduce new foods slowly, but consistently and your family will (eventually) get a taste for these new foods. Be patient and kind (to yourself and them!). If you don’t stick to your meal plan each week, don’t stress about it! Just do the best you can with what you have going on at the time. Once you get the hang of regular meal planning, it will be quicker and easier to do each week. You will also develop a list of tried and true recipes that you can do each week and just add in a few new ones for something different.
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