Monday, 4 January 2016

Meal Planning Masterclass: How to Meal Plan

This post was first published last spring, but we have decided to reschedule the whole series, so look out for a new part of our Meal Planning Masterclass each week this new year.  I hope it saves you time, money, and gives you great food too!

I'm in shock.  There was a programme on Channel 4 last night where two families swapped meal plans, shopping and routines to see what they would learn.  One of the families spends a whopping £300 a week on food, no-one appears to cook, and they hardly ever sit down to eat a proper cooked-from-scratch meal together.  Their four children seemed to exist on a diet of junk and ready meals!

We are far from perfect in the eating and cooking stakes, but we do mostly cook from scratch, and the girls are definitely a baby-led weaning success story: mostly not fussy and prefer to eat real food*.  Thank goodness!  As I've been asked quite a few times in the past 6 months how we go about meal planning, I had been planning a series of posts on this very subject.  After last night's revelations, now seems as good a time as any to start sharing them.  So here's the first part of our 'Meal Planning Masterclass': how to meal plan.

We find meal planning a great way to save both time and money, and all for around 20-30 minutes a week planning.  Initially there is a bigger time investment, granted, but once you've got some basic principles set up, the weekly plan and process takes hardly any time at all.  Here's how we do it.

Outlining The Plan

The first step is to decide how many meals you need to plan, just dinners, or breakfasts, lunches and snacks as well?  And how many of each per week?  Once you've decided that, grab a sheet of A4 or a chalkboard, or you could even set up a spreadsheet.  Our basic WP blank planner looks like this:

Breakfasts
1.
2.
3. 
4.
Lunches





1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
Dinners






Puddings:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.

Snacks


Bake


Why only 4/5 options for each?  Firstly, breakfasts, which often repeat during the week, e.g. toast two mornings, and then one more 'special' breakfast on a quieter, relaxed day, say Eggs Florentine or a cooked breakfast.  Then for lunches and dinners, maybe our plans change, or we decide to go out, or there are leftovers to eat up, so planning 7 meals would usually result in wasted food.  If we are at home and have exhausted the list of 5 options, then there are always various meals that can be made from the stock list (coming soon).

This inbuilt flexibility is also the reason we don't assign meals to specific days.  We used to do that, but found it irksome to be 'told' to eat curry when we really didn't feel like it, and it meant we were still wasting food, not good.  For us, the flexibility of only 5 planned meals and no assigned days means we do cook everything on the list and, more importantly, use up all the food in the fridge.  We're not quite at zero waste yet, but not far off.

If you have to make packed lunches five days a week, plan those too, or if you always have takeaway on a Friday night, pencil that in.  If breakfast is always cereal, that may not need to be included.  It's your plan, for your home and its occupants, so do whatever you need to do.


Filling in the Plan

The next step is to decide what you actually want to eat.  Not the specific dishes, but what types of food.  Sit down with your housemates, be they friends or family, and ask what everyone wants to eat.  Maybe a weekly roast dinner is a must for all of you, or a weekly curry or pasta dish, and what about those family nights making pizza, or do you want to ring the changes more and get out of your food rut?  Is someone more keen on meat than salad, or vice versa?  How do you accommodate everyone?

At this stage you could plan out a fortnightly or 3/4 weekly rota which includes everyone's preferences.  Our list is on a 3 weekly basis, with the girls' weekly choices being either a lunch or a dinner, dependent on what they have asked for:

Week 1
Pasta
Indian food
1 new dish
Lara’s choice
Sophia’s choice

Week 2
Pizza
Mexican food
1 new dish
Lara’s choice
Sophia’s choice

Week 3
Pasta
2 new dishes
Lara’s choice
Sophia’s choice


With these bare bones decided, we can start filling in the weekly plan above.  I tend to do this basic planning every three weeks, and then fill in the gaps dependent on what gems we have unearthed at the farm shop.

Next week's plan currently looks like this:

Breakfasts
(all served with fruit)
Bagels
Pancakes 
Granola and yogurt with berry compote
Cooked breakfast
Croissants

Lunches





Puddings:
Vegetable soup
Jacket potatoes with sour cream & chives (Lara's choice) & salad
Paninis with salad
Burritos with salad
?

Yogurt; fruit; banana custard

Dinners
(*French style)




Puddings:
Make your own pizza (Sophia's choice)
Vegetable lasagne with garlic bread & salad
Tomato & basil risotto
?
?

Ice cream; banana splits; pineapple (current fave!); cherry pie

Snacks
Crackers, cheese & grapes; banana bread; bagels; fruit; raspberry muffins; breadsticks, crudites & hummus.

Bake
 Banana bread; raspberry muffins


As you can see, there are a few gaps to be filled in when I see what wonderful vegetables are in, but otherwise we know what to put on the shopping list and can see what the week's meals will involve.  Plus, everyone's happy: the girls get their choices; Steve gets pasta; and I get a bit of TexMex, plus two opportunities to play with my new Panini Press.

A word to the wise, write your shopping list as you fill in your menu plan.  Once you've mastered your stock list (see Part 2), you will know what you have in, so only need to write down what you actually have to buy.  Doing this as you add each meal to the planner takes seconds, and saves you valuable time later.

Incidentally, I find Nigel Slater's wonderful Tender: Volume I, A cook and his vegetable patch invaluable for deciding what to make with the weekly farm shop gems.  Arranged by ingredient, you can just turn to the cabbage section, say, and a plethora of delightful ideas awaits.  Perfect.

We also try to use a different cookery book or other resource each week to choose some new dishes, they might even become regulars in our repertoire.  Try Pinterest too, lots of fab ideas.

What about you, do you meal plan, or wish you did?  How do you do it?  What kinds of food do you like to cook, and eat?

In the next posts, I will tell you about our master lists for recipes and cupboard stock, as well as our thoughts on French-style eating.  Look out for more Meal Planning Masterclass next week!


* To see what our girls actually eat on an average day, see here.


And don't forget to enter our competitions!


4 comments :

  1. We meal plan too, have done for years and have hardly any food waste as a result. Now we're moving around, we have only a tiny freezer and a small fridge but do have a two-tiered veg rack kept in the shower - where else! Planning for the next 3-4 days and main shopping twice a week means we can take advantage of local produce and impulse buys if we want. There are lots of people selling asparagus, strawberries and potatoes from tables outside their houses in our current base of North Norfolk and our campsite owner keeps chickens. I'd never bought eggs from somewhere I could actually see the chickens before! Sounds silly, I know, but felt quite privileged and they're very tasty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love those little tables with their honesty boxes, the perfect way to buy your groceries, and so fresh too. Your storage provision made me smile, and drew me to your blog - love it! Meal planning definitely means zero waste, we swear by it to save money too.

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  2. We loosely follow this type of planner. We shop online so we make sure we have enough to last the week with a local fresh food top up. We can swap nights etc... My kids love cereal and fruit for breakfast - we have several cereal packs on the go as they tend to last ages. It takes time to get into a routine but when you do you forget you are actually planning as it becomes second nature.

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely. I think a lot of people resist it because they think it is too time-consuming or restrictive, but done this way it's neither. Thanks for commenting Anne.

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