What does meal planning mean to you?
Does it conjure up images of being stooped over your kitchen table, surrounded by post-its and recipe books, feeling pretty stressed?
Is the closest you’ve come to it, thinking about what ready-meal to pick up at your Sainsbury’s Local on your commute home? And that’s on days when you’re feeling organised.
But this counterpart to food prep is, if your goal is to eat a balanced diet, reduce food waste and have extra ££ in the bank, your secret weapon.
According to WRAP, an estimated 10 million tonnes of food is wasted every year – 70% of which could have been eaten. That’s the equivalent of throwing away £20 billion, which is a whole lot of Lululemons.
The environmental issues associated with the above are obvious – food production equals greenhouse gas emissions so wastage is essentially damaging the environment in vain. And if you’re still not convinced, WRAP also states that preventing avoidable food waste would be equivalent to taking one in four cars off the road.
Add to that the fact that 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford to eat and you’ve got real food for thought as you turf that unopened bag of wilted spinach in the bin.
So, meal planning is worth much more than just your consideration. Like you’re doing your bit to end plastic pollution, minimising food wastage should be top of your eco- and wellness-goals to-do list.
Disclaimer: your first meal planning attempt will require patience and time, but once you’ve got a week or two of meal plans under your belt, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. We like to plan on a Friday, shop on a Saturday and food prep on a Sunday; it helps keep life simple – but find what works for you and you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.
To help you get off to a good start, we’ve collated 18 meal planning tips covering everything from how to write the perfect shopping list to what you really need to have in your kitchen cupboard.
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Do Your Meal Planning Around your Lifestyle
Back-to-back meetings in the diary? After-school clubs to juggle with food prep? Social evenings planned with friends? Design your weekly meal plan around that week’s needs. On busy days, for example, you might want to throw some ingredients into a slow-cooker first thing so you’ve a stew ready when you get home; you might need to plan for fewer meals if you’ve dinners out booked in; if you’ve a stressful meeting lined up, an evening spent trying a new recipe might be the relaxation you need – or not. Find your sweet spot.
Start in the Fridge
Don’t pick recipes at random and hope for the best; choose recipes that have common ingredients. What do you already have in your fridge, freezer and cupboards that could form the basis of a dish? What is the weather going to be like for the week head? How many meals will you need (or want) to make? If you’re new to meal planning, begin gradually: plan breakfasts one week, then add in lunches, then dinners.
Have your Go-to Recipes
“My most versatile sauce has got to be salsa verde,” says Lang. “This green sauce is vibrant in colour and flavour and will liven up everything from scrambled eggs to roast chicken. Buy a bunch of soft herbs such as parsley, basil or mint, and chop the leaves together with a clove of garlic, some capers and a couple of anchovy fillets. Add a teaspoon of mustard, a glug of olive oil and a splash of vinegar. Tweak the flavours until you find the combination you like.”
Write a Shopping List
Okay, so this may seem laborious at first but, once you’ve got it done, it will make the whole shopping experience much more enjoyable. Begin by listing every ingredient you need to make the recipes you’ve picked out. Next, cross off the items you already have. Lastly, for gold star meal planning, rewrite your shopping list, grouping food items in the order they appear in your supermarket.
Cook with Leftovers in Mind
It may sound counter-intuitive but think of leftovers as a free meal (and extra time in your hands. Include recipes that easily produce leftovers in your weekly meal planning: pasta or stir-fry, for example, can be repackaged as lunch the following day.
Find your “Hero” Ingredients
Think of ingredients that can bring life to leftovers. For registered nutritionist Kym Lang, that’s:
Miso paste. “Miso is packed with umami flavour. Choose an unpasteurised version for probiotic benefits. You’ll need to store it in the fridge, but it lasts for ages. Think beyond soup – mix miso into a salad dressing, drizzle over vegetables before roasting or use in a marinade for fish or chicken.”
Tahini. “Spread it on sourdough, blend it into hummus or a smoothie for extra protein, or mix with natural yoghurt as a sauce for falafel.”
Keep a Well-Stocked Pantry
Maker like Ella Mills and fill your cupboards with dry ingredients for fuss-free mid-week dinners. Her staples?
*Herbs and spices
*peanut butter and chilli flakes with olive oil for dressing roasted vegetables
*quinoa, brown rice, and buckwheat to bulk up salads and veggie
*chickpeas for homemade hummus
Work to a Cycle or Theme
Design a week or two’s worth of meals that work for you and repeat those recipes in a cycle. To make your meal planning even more straightforward, give each day a theme. For example, Monday could be salad night, Tuesday fish night, Wednesday stew night, Thursday pasta night and Friday takeaway night.
Pick One Dish; Serve it Two (or More) Ways
This is where it pays to perfect a handful of “Go to Recipes” and staples. Like a rich Bolognese sauce that could be served over pasta, turned into a lasagne or made into a chilli con carne. Or a pack of tortilla wraps that could serve as lunch one day, be toasted into tortilla chips another, and even topped with cinnamon, peanut butter, chocolate chips and honey for a cheeky dessert. Or the most versatile of all: the humble egg; scramble it, boil it, make a frittata or omelette. Job done.
Have a Back-up Plan
“I always have creamed coconut to hand,” says author of Dirty Dishes: 100 Fast and Delicious Recipes, Isaac Carew. “If you run out of milk, a spoonful can be mixed with water to make coconut milk (for breakfast porridge, for example) or, if you add more, a coconut cream, which can thicken smoothies, desserts and curry sauces.”
Make Dishes you Want to Eat
Obvious, yes; but hands up whose spent time making dinner, only to sit down and really not fancy what’s on your plate? Set up a board on Pinterest specifically for meal planning (so separate to all those Insta-worthy recipes that look great but, deep down, you know you’re never going to make). Be realistic – how many ingredients does the dish contain? How long does it take to make?
Make Friends with the Freezer Aisle
“I love keeping my freezer stocked with frozen berries so that I always have them to hand when I want to make a smoothie,” says Mills. “Plus, it’s so much cheaper than buying fresh berries.”
The same is true for certain vegetables and, according to studies, frozen contain just as many (if not more) nutrients. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, which have a shorter shelf life, early in the week, then use frozen for meals towards the end of the week.
Don’t Overlook the Benefits of Food Prep
Set aside one hour a week to chop up veggies and make staples such as hummus and tomato sauce. Consider the best way of storing your ingredients – some can be frozen, for example; others might wilt more quickly if chilled. If you’ve got a busy week ahead, you might also want to meal plan a la Mills – cooking up batches of grains and roasted vegetables to make “rainbow bowls” throughout the week.
Design a Balanced Plate
“The easiest way to balance your meals is to think in thirds,” says Lang:
1/3 lean protein and good fats – just limit red meat to twice a week 1/3 healthy carbs, with a focus on gut-friendly grains and pulses 1/3 vegetables and fruit – eat the rainbow
“To hit your five a day, add one portion to your breakfast and snacks, and two portions to your dinner.”
Fill Up on Leafy Greens
“Keep a bag of salad and other leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach, chard and spring/summer greens, washed and ready to be used, in the fridge,” says health coach Caroline Lamont. “When washed, if you keep the leaves in a plastic bag with a bit of moisture on them (think of them as cut flowers that need water to stay alive), they will keep for five days to a full week. Add a handful to your breakfast smoothie; have a side salad with every meal; add to a stew/curry/stir fry.”
Reduce Food Waste when Cooking
“Use every part of the vegetable,” says Lamont. “Cauliflower leaves and/or broccoli stems are great in soups or even roasted; peel your butternut squash with a peeler and roast the skins with olive oil, salt and pepper for a delicious snack; when making carrot soup, don’t peel the vegetables (if they’re organic); add beetroot / carrot / turnip tops to soups. When it comes to meat, buy a whole chicken and make it last for 3-4 meals: one could be a roast; add shredded cold chicken to a salad; make a chicken curry; and boil the bones into a stock/broth for soup.”
Don’t Let Foods Go Off in your Fridge
“Cooking larger quantities is an effective way of saving money, especially when it comes to using fresh food,” says Mills. “If a recipe calls for half a bag of carrots but you know you won’t use the rest of the carrots in another recipe, then make double the recipe and freeze the other half. I do this all the time and it’s amazing – you save time, food and money, plus you have a freezer full of goodness to enjoy when you don’t feel like cooking.”
Give yourself a Night (or Two) Off
Avoid food prep fatigue kicking in or meal planning overload by factoring in a night or two off from the kitchen. Eat out, grab a takeaway or, if you’ve been following these tips to the letter, pull one of your leftover meals out of the freezer and toast yourself with a glass of vino, while you wait for it to cook.
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