This post is about meal planning, but a word of caution – there’s no magic answer at the end (even if you skim read and skip to the bottom, still no magic answer). Meal planning success is a concept, a philosophy, a habit I try to stick to because everything is better when I do it.
What works for me might not work for you, but there WILL be something that works for you. Unless you’re a wing it 100% of the time kind of person, in which case, why are you reading this? Go read about my super awesome flexible muffin recipe or salad concept post instead, that’s much more your style.
Note: The link to the free printable Meal Planning document is at the end of this article. But read below for useful tips to get you started.
What IS meal planning? It’s me taking ten minutes once a week to ask myself “what’s for dinner?” and answering that question once instead of seven times in a row. Thinking about what to have for supper (dinner? I use the two terms interchangeably) is often the worst part of meal making, so suffering it only once a week makes me less cranky. It also saves me time overall, in the kitchen and at the grocery store, saves money if I also shop the flyers, and results in less food waste.
What is meal planning for you? Maybe it’s using an app to stay organized, or subscribing to a meal ingredient delivery service, or sorting Pinterest boards in some meaningful way, or using a binder, or something else entirely. For me it’s a pen, a scrap of paper, my calendar on my phone to cross check any after school or evening engagements we might have, and a mental inventory of what’s in my fridge, freezer and pantry. There’s no one right way, but for you there will be an effective way. Find it and it will be magical!
My mantra (for most things in life) is maximum effect for minimum effort. So yes, I do aim to make delicious meals that everyone eats without bickering, that are nutritious and filling, and are full of seasonally appropriate produce, and that can be taken to work or school for lunch the next day. I also hope to find a unicorn that poops rainbows. On days when I can’t do either I just lower my expectations and do the best I can with what I have.
I do mostly enjoy cooking, and I don’t hate grocery shopping (unless my kids are with me and then SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL WHEN WILL IT END). But I also have a zillion other things to do other than cooking and food prep, and so minimum effort where I can manage it please.
Here’s my 10 tips for meal planning success.
1. Make things that most of your family likes to eat. There is nothing worse than putting your heart and soul, or really any amount of time and effort, into a meal only to hear “I don’t like this,” or even worse, “ewwww, gross!”
Jazz things up by trying variations on things your family likes, without going too wild with a fussy new recipe (I don’t do fussy recipes ever, so there’s that). For example I might try stuffed shells instead of lasagna, or deconstructed burrito bowls instead of an assembled burrito. Similar enough that I can convince them they’ll probably like it, but provides some flexibility in ingredients to avoid boredom. It’s all in the presentation, like that time my kids refused to eat kiwi fruit if I sliced it in coins, but if my sister served it in sticks it was suddenly the most fabulous thing they’d ever eaten.
If possible have family members contribute to the meal planning, and ask for requests. Try to accommodate as much as is reasonable. They’re more likely to eat things they’re more invested in.
2. Make things to use up food you have, both frozen and fresh. Periodically do a deep dive into your freezer and unearth the stuff that has been there the longest. Soup from your aunt? Roast you aren’t quite sure what to do with? Produce that you can’t remember why you bought it, but it is still edible? Once a week aim to try a newish recipe (but not too new! See point 1!) and/or use something from your fridge or freezer that needs to be eaten.
3. Cross reference your calendar with your meal plan. With after school activities and my spouse away from work we’ll eat differently from when we’re all home. Try to have those days be something quick and easy (leftovers, breakfast for dinner, what we call “snacky supper,” or eat out). No sense investing the time and effort to cook something you won’t have time to eat.
4. Use your resources. Do you have an Instant Pot? A slow cooker? A rice cooker? A microwave? A bread machine? Do you like the food that comes out those things? Put them to work. They can save you time if you incorporate their use into your meal planning.
5. Early in the week cook enough meat that can do double duty in a second recipe later in the week, plus a couple of lunches. If you don’t eat meat then do the same with beans or other protein. For example maybe you make pulled pork for Sunday dinner. Great – yum! Plan to use some of that meat in a meal later in the week, such as enchiladas or tacos.
I frequently BBQ chicken breasts and cook twice as much as we’ll eat in one meal, leaving the remainder for something like burrito bowls or curry two or three days later, or school lunches or sandwiches or salads. If this is my plan then I’m careful how I flavour or sauce the original meat.
I will also make a big batch of saucy black beans, and a batch of brown rice, and this could be my lunch all week long. If I get tired of it, then I freeze it in small portions and pull it out later as needed.
6. Try to have at least one meal be meatless. For you this might mean eggs, or beans, or tofu. But try. It will expand your palate and is good for you. From point 1 though, you don’t have to diverge too much from things you already eat. Try vegetarian chili instead of your usual chili, or try breakfast for dinner with eggs as the focus, or try stir fry with crispy tofu instead of chicken.
You can also try reducing meat by subbing some of it for beans or lentils. Sometimes I make lasagna with a can of brown lentils mixed in with the ground beef and sausage, and no one complains. Win! Extra fibre, cheap (canned lentils are less than a dollar), and I can portion off half of my meat-lentil mixture and freeze it for a meal a different day, effectively halving my meal prep and stretching the costlier meat into two meals.
7. Plan for leftovers. They’re inevitable. For us it’s usually Thursday when I aim for leftovers as the meal. I’ve been cooking all week, some things have gone to school or work for lunches, but there are bits and pieces still hanging about. Maybe everyone gets to pick what they want from the available options, or maybe they’re the kind of leftovers you can incorporate into an entirely new meal. Either way, clear it out! If you have to fill out the meal with a loaf of bread or a salad then do, but the food wastage will be reduced.
8. Take some time to food prep after you grocery shop. This could be separating meat into containers or bags to freeze or marinate, washing lettuce, or chopping veggies. You can knock off the prep on all sorts of recipes if you do all of the onion and garlic chopping at once, for example. You can also make school lunch prep quicker if you slice veggies or wash fruit all at once. The whole family can be involved in this, combining family time with “contributing to the household.” Make it a regular part of your weekend and make it fun. We play iPod roulette during family chores and have introduced our kids to a huge range of musical genres this way.
9. Choose convenience options that suit your style. I make my own meatballs, but dang IKEA ones are tasty. You know what you have time and interest in doing, no need to over-complicate things if a pre-made burger is more your speed than homemade. Other time-saving convenience options are cans of beans, frozen veggies, oven-ready pasta, salad in a bag, and pre-chopped broccoli florets. Your freezer is your friend here too – don’t let things die a moldy death in your fridge. Freeze them before they get to that point. There is very little that can’t be frozen and then used in something else later on.
10. Expect that everyone contributes to the meal prep and/or clean up. Assign jobs that suit each family member’s ability levels, and have reasonable expectations. Even toddlers can help, and you’ll set the standard long term that meal prep is everyone’s job. Meal planning – and meal prep – is a much easier job to manage if it’s not all on one person to deliver.
Are you new to meal planning? Or are you in a rut and need to shake things up? Try this simple template to get you going. Download and print the PDF worksheet here.