Meal planning might seem a little intimidating and time consuming at first, but it’s a great tool to help you get through a busy week without giving in to take-out and processed foods/ready meals. I’ve always been a spirit of the moment kind of gal, but have found that doing a little bit of prep goes a long way and takes the stress out of the workweek madness.
I have found veg boxes to be an absolute gem, especially over the last few months. The company that we use here in the UK, Riverford is organic and seems to be cheaper than supermarket veg. Many meal planning articles suggest that you work from the endpoint backwards i.e. start with the meals and then work out your shopping list. However, if you’ve subscribed to a veg box delivery you’ll have to approach it a little differently.
The content of our boxes are usually available a week prior and confirmed with a handy email to your inbox. So that is when you can start to prep for the week ahead. This is also when you can work out your accompanying meat order unless you are subscribed to a meat and veg box, have a stocked freezer already or is planning for vegetarian or vegan meals of course.
The Benefits of Meal Planning
1. Eat homecooked real food
Even if you’re subscribed to a veg box delivery, it’s still so easy to succumb to a takeaway or ready meal if you’re super tired mid-week or lazy on a Friday. This is my personal weakness as life can get a little crazy at times right? But, it also means that you’re submitting to eating processed or low-quality foods that aren’t good for effective weight management and your health, as processed food are directly linked to the rise in obesity.
Learn more about eating a non-processed real food diet here.
2. Save money
Cooking real food at home is definitely a great way to save money. Take-away and ready meals are expensive in the long run. I find staying away from the supermarket entirely is great for the family finances as you always end up buying something “nice” that you don’t really need and will just linger on your hips anyway. Sweets and crisps are great examples of this, I try to avoid keeping any processed snacks in the house as it removes the temptation entirely and means you need to go to the shop to get a packet of x snack, which you’ll only do if it’s really necessary right?
3. Reduce food waste
Generating less food waste is an absolute must in today’s world, we are in the middle of a climate crises so using everything wisely is vitally important in preserving resources. Meal planning will definitely help you to reduce waste and stretch every ingredient as far as possible.
4. Save time
This is a big one, especially if you’re a working parent or even if you’re career-driven without kids. Being prepared for the week’s cooking means that you won’t need to stop at the store all the time and that you don’t need to sit around and wonder what to eat every day.
5. Get creative, expand your repertoire
Planning meals around ingredients are a great way to expand the types of recipes that you make regularly. It also means that you can build variety into your meals to avoid boredom as this can help to reduce eating out. In our house, it has become a little bit of a competition between hubby and me as we’re always challenging each other to make interesting meals at home. So it can be a fun friendly game if your other half or older kids enjoy cooking as well.
Tips for Effective Meal Planning
Before you sit down to meal plan, get a pen and paper (or the laptop, whichever is easiest for you) out as it will be easier to write it all down. Don’t forget to list any pre-prep steps such as thawing meats, soaking beans overnight and letting a quiche crust rest in the fridge. This will help to avoid any surprises and will mean that you can make meals such as pies and quiches mid-week as you will be fully prepared, and the fillings are super quick to make so can be a real time saver.
1. Use a basic weekly template
Having a basic weekly template means that you won’t need to start from scratch every week. This template can be quite generic for e.g:
- 1 or 2 pasta or Italian dishes
- 1 or 2 stir-fries
- 1 curry
- 1 salad
- 1 slow cooker meal
- 2 meat meals
- 1-2 oven roasted meals
We try to minimise meat as much as possible, but this might vary depending on your dietary goals.
2. Rotate staple recipes
My mom used to have a 7-day meal rotation growing up, it’s something we tease her about till this day, we knew Monday night was fish and chips, Sunday is roast chicken and Saturday Sausages. This can get quite tedious so I’d recommend having a slightly bigger recipe base than 7. Having around 20 trusted staple recipes for each season that you know your family loves is a great start to effective meal planning, especially for fussy eaters. Couple this with a new “wildcard” recipe once a weak and you can be sure that dinner time will never be boring.
3. Work to reduce carbon intense foods
As you may be aware meat is a carbon-intense food, especially beef and lamb with beef-producing more than double the greenhouse gasses within its supply chain than lamb. There are also a few other surprising carbon-heavy crops such as coffee, cheese and chocolate. Given our current climate situation and animal welfare issues in food production, reducing overall meat consumption for your family will help ensure we can leave a habitable planet for the next generation. This will not only help the planet and animals but will also mean that you increase vegetable intake, which will be a win-win for your health.
I’m not saying you have to become a vegetarian or a vegan, as that’s not always a realistic goal for everyone – if you can move to a plant-based diet then that’s amazing! However, you can reduce your current levels of meat consumption and still make a positive impact on the environment. If you for e.g. are eating meat products for almost every meal, reducing that to once a day is a great start and will help with meal budgeting as vegetables are less costly than meat anyway.
Our family has minimised meat-eating to treat meals on weekends and even then we try to deprioritise beef and lamb. But we do still eat some cheese and eggs during the week. If you reduce from your current levels and revise regularly then you will definitely make a difference.
Another great tip for reducing impact is to avoid supermarket meat and source directly from regenerative and organic farms. It will be more costly per kg, but will even out if you eat less and it is better for your health and the environment.
4. Cook flavours from around the world
Working different cuisines into your weekly meal plan will help to build an appreciation for a variety of foods with your children and it provides a great talking point over dinner. There are so many wonderful flavours and spices to experiment with, and it can make your meals extra special.
Just taking curry alone, there are curries from China, Japan, India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and even South Africa each bringing their own unique flavour to the table. Turning mealtimes into an around the world experience where kids can learn about different cultures and foods are great for learning and family time. It will also help to ensure that your kids don’t grow up as fussy eaters, which is always a plus.
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5. Get creative with leftovers
Leftovers are your friend when it comes to meal planning. You can either double cook dinners to eat as an entire meal for lunch the next day or you can use it as a sandwich/wrap filler or even salad topper. In our house, we tend to double cook and eat the rest for lunch the next day.
I am not a fan of a sandwich for lunch as it’s not nutritionally very rich and given that we’re a little sensitive to gluten skipping on the sandwiches makes sense for us. But this might be a little harder for kids as a sandwich is often easier to eat as a packed lunch so you might need to divert to using your leftovers as a sandwich filler instead.
6. Ask for input from your diners
If you are cooking for your family, a great idea is to get them involved in generating meal ideas. This might not be an option if your kids are still really small, but will definitely help as they get older and you’ll have fewer complaints from grumpy diners. It’s a great way to teach kids healthy eating habits as it’s a skill that both boys and girls will benefit from as adults.
7. Do a stocktake of your pantry and fridge
Before you rush out to buy ingredients, make sure that you’ve used everything in the fridge or plan whatever is left from the previous week into your next meal plan. This will greatly help to reduce food waste and is a good money saver in the long run.
8. Consider portion size
Having leftovers are great, but even then applying logic around portion size is a must as it’s very easy to overcook especially for things like rice or pasta. When it comes to starches I generally allow around 60g and 70g of pasta and rice per adult. If you’re cooking for 4 250g of pasta is a good option as most packs are 500g so it means you can get another meal out of the pack and it’s just enough to fill you up.
For meat allowing roughly 80g-100g per person is plenty and leaves plenty of room for vegetables on the plate. Saying that sometimes the pack size will determine portion size as a 500g pack of frozen mince for four is fine otherwise you’ll be left with an odd 100g that can’t be re-frozen.
If you have growing boys or very young children in the house you will need to adjust up and down, but measuring portions on a scale will help you find a natural sweet spot for your family, allowing you to cook just the right amount. It’s also a great tool for weight control as it will limit potential overeating.
9. Factor in special occasions and eating out
Weekends can be a bit tricky as friends can drop in for tea or you might want to go out for dinner every now and again. So leaving one meal a week open for interpretation can be helpful. Also, consider nights where kids aren’t home as this will influence your meal plan. Building a bit of flexibility into your overall plan can be a helpful trick.
10. Always have a backup
Having one or two backup meals in your pocket when something unexpected happens is always a good idea. The best options for this is usually a pre-prepped freezer meal, I find pre-made bolognese sauce to be a great emergency option as you can make a quick lasagne or spaghetti. Other ideas are to have extra staple canned foods in the pantry such as chopped tomato or beans as you can turn those into a pasta sauce, chilli or veggie burger quite easily.
Creating a Meal Plan for Veg Box Subscriptions
The way to approach meal planning for veg box subscriptions, as mentioned, is to start with the ingredients and your core recipe list. Once you get a feel for the types of veggies they send in your box regularly – this will vary between suppliers – it becomes a little easier as you’ll build up a repertoire of recipes around those key ingredients.
For e.g., if you have a list of recipes that contain butternut squash you can work that into your week’s meal plan if squash is in your box content for the week. We also tend to rotate the type of boxes ordered as potatoes every week is too much for us so we alternate boxes between potato containing options and the fewer roots box option with fruits. Some companies also allow you to swap ingredients out which can be handy.
Creating a Shopping List for Weekly Meals
If you don’t opt for a veg box subscription that’s absolutely fine, you can then start with your chosen recipes for the week and build up your shopping list from there. Choosing seasonal recipes so that you can match that with seasonal vegetables will help you save your money and the planet as there will be less chance of food being flown in from abroad.
Look for recipes that share ingredients for e.g. if you’ve got one recipe with carrots for the week, add a few others that contain carrots as well as you can’t normally buy a single carrot. The same will apply to larger veggies such as cauliflower. Using similar ingredient variations for a specific week will help you reduce food waste.
Another option is to swap common recipe ingredients in a week, leeks are a perfect example of this as onion and leeks can be swapped out in most cases. So if you are using leeks for a key recipe but don’t want to waste any additional ones in the pack you can use the leftover leek as an onion substitute in another recipe. Most vegetables can be substituted in recipes, just work back from the basic flavour e.g. carrots provide a bit of sweetness and can be swapped for parsnips. Here are a few additional ideas for swapping ingredients.
Don’t forget to visit our recipe page for great meal ideas, most of these contain a foolproof instructional video as well. New recipes are added once a week, so you’ll never run out of ideas for your weekly wildcard recipe!
How to Create a Meal Plan
Action steps: Meal planning for beginners
- Get your calendar or planner, a pen and paper or laptop out
- Jot down any special events or things you need to consider for the next week. Including busy nights where you’ll need quick meals
- If you’re a veg box subscriber look at what’s coming in your box
- Fill in all your meal options that will be needed for the week, use your staple recipe list and don’t forget to add a wildcard as well
- Create your shopping list if you’re not using a veg box subscription
- Don’t forget to fill your menu into a calendar so you don’t forget what goes where (yes I forget to do this sometimes)
- Add your emergency options as a side note
- Note any pre-prep that must be done for meals e.g. soaking beans etc.
- Stick it on the fridge, or sharable calendar and refer back to it as required
- Start ticking your recipes off. Happy cooking!