I stood at the checkout, nervously watching as the total climbed, hoping it would match the tally in my head. I handed over the precious bills from a dog-eared envelope marked “Groceries”, the steadily reducing amount scrawled on the front read $140, $120, $100, $80. We were down to our last dollars. We’d been paid everything we were owed and there was no new work in the pipeline. We had a nine-month-old at home and a mortgage to pay. Times were stressful, very stressful.
The one relief was that, as I left the supermarket to take the groceries home, I knew I had enough to feed my family for the week. Come what may, I had that comfort. I had that comfort because I had a plan. I’d meticulously planned our meals for the week to match our diminished budget. From there, I’d made a list of exactly what we needed, no more, no less.
While I started meal planning out of financial necessity, five years later, with our cashflow woes long behind us, it continues to be a weekly ritual. Why do I still bother? These days, it’s less about peace of mind and more about taking a load off my mind.
Meal planning saves me time and money, but most of all it saves me from that dreaded task of trying to think up something to cook for dinner every night. If you are looking for an easy win to simplify your life, it’s meal planning. It’s not rocket science, but there are definitely some traps you want to avoid and some tricks to make it easier.
The golden rule – keep it simple
The biggest trap for beginners is that they go overboard. It seems when you commit something to writing there’s a natural temptation to reflect your best self rather than your authentic self. As you go into meal planning, remember you’re creating a list of the meals your family is going to prepare and eat, not menu planning for the Ritz. Don’t get me wrong, meal planning is a excellent way to get yourself eating better, but baby steps first.
A great trick to stop yourself getting carried away is to jot down a list of the meals you ate last week (or what you can remember of them), then revise that list with meals of a similar nature.
Give yourself some guidelines
The great thing with meal planning is that you don’t need to start completely from scratch each week. The trick to simple meal planning to set out a few rules of thumb.
- Timeframe– this one is essential. How long are you planning for – a week, two weeks, a month? I find it works best to match how often you shop. I’d suggest weekly to start with.
- Scope– are you just going to plan dinners or other meals as well? I only plan for dinners, as we eat much the same for breakfasts and lunches. I also plan for lunchbox baking (most weeks) and a batch of soup (most weeks in winter).
- Other boundaries– I love to experiment, but I limit myself to no more than one new recipe per week. Are there any rules you want to apply to yourself – a meatless meal, using left-overs night, or kids cook night?
- Themes or standing meals– to further simplify things, try set meals on some nights or themes for each night e.g Monday – soup, Tuesday – tacos, Wednesday – stir fry. In our house, we make pizzas on Friday nights and have sausages and chips on Wednesday nights. Pizza is my husband’s favourite, sausages are my son’s favourite. It’s a little thing, but it’s become a weekly highlight. It also means I only need to think up meals for five nights.
- Rotation of recipes– it’s easier to pick from a list than start from a blank page. Most of us have go-to meals we cook regularly, so brainstorm your list. As a guide, if you’re doing weekly meal planning, it’s helpful to have around 10 go-to meals to choose from.
Plan for living
For me, meal planning went from a handy budgeting tool to a sanity saver when I fell into the art of syncing meals to our schedules. Sausages on Wednesdays and pizza on Fridays isn’t random, it’s a hangover from when those were the days my son was at kindy. He’d come home exhausted from running around outside with his friends and these were two meals a tired boy would always eat. I apply this principle every week – if I know we’re out on Sunday afternoon, I’ll plan something quick and easy or use a meal from the freezer. If we’re having a quiet day at home, it’s a good time to try a new recipe.
Planning is all good and well, but life happens. That’s why it’s handy to incorporate some flexibility into your meal planning. My meal plan includes pasta on Mondays (shopping night). This is a proxy for eating whatever is left-over or needs to be eaten, usually in some form of pasta dish. I always have some pasta and canned tomatoes in the pantry, if plans change, all the meals can get bumped along a night and the pasta can stay in the pantry until next week.
How I meal plan
- I start with last week’s list. I keep my list as a note on my phone. If it’s your first week, I recommend you jot down what you ate last week. It will help you create a realistic plan for the week ahead.
- Then I delete everything but my standing meals.
3. Next I look at my schedule and put in anything I need to work around. This week I’m going to be late home one night and we’re celebrating a birthday on another.
4. Then, I think up what meals we are going to eat and write them down.
5. I also like to make a note of any baking or meal prep I need to do, like making a batch of soup or roasting veggies for salad.
6. Next, I write a shopping list. Then I don’t have to think about meals again for the rest of the week. All done.
Have you tried meal planning? What works for you?