Meal planning is one of the simplest things you can do when it comes to sticking to a healthy way of life. It’s quick and easy to grab some takeaway when you are leading busy lives (and this is perfectly fine every now and then), however with just a little planning you can have a healthy and nutritious meal most nights of the week.
Last week we covered the benefits of meal planning, however there are a few tricks which can make this process super easy. I’m a meal planner from way back, so it’s my absolute pleasure to share with you what I’ve picked up over the years.
1. Think About The Week Ahead
I know it sounds obvious, but it is really important to think about how many nights you will actually be home for dinner – there is no point shopping and cooking up a storm ahead of time if you aren’t home to enjoy it! To get the best out of meal planning, it’s firstly important to ask yourself the following questions:
- How many meals will you need for the week? Are you home every night of the week, or are there some nights when you will have catered functions or events, or planned dinners with family or friends?
- Who else in the family will be home (or not) on these nights? It’s helpful to know exactly how many servings you need to prepare for and how much mileage you can extract from each meal.
- How much time will you have at the end of each day? If you have late meetings, children’s sport or an exercise class to work around think about make ahead dishes or pulling that slow cooker out of the cupboard.
- What is the weather going to be in the week ahead? Do you really want to be cooking a roast in 40 degree heat or, conversely, sitting down to a salad on a cold and rainy evening?
- What is your budget for the week? Do you have unexpected bills to pay or are you saving for a holiday? If so, look out for seasonal produce, sales and cheaper cuts of protein.
2. Have a Repertoire of Favourite Recipes
One of my favourite things to do when I was growing up was to pull recipes out of magazines – something I still do today. I just love poring over beautiful food magazines, looking at the gorgeously styled images and thinking about how I can make or adapt the delicious dishes in front of me.
I have three (somewhat tatty but lovingly cherished) recipe journals which hold my “go to”, tried and tested, stand by recipes perfected over the years. When times are busy, it is these recipes I continually fall back – a healthy and quick chicken curry, a vegetable laden shepherd’s pie and a lighter version of beef stroganoff (all of which provide plenty of leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day).
As you discover recipes your family enjoys, write them down or save them in a folder. By building up a repertoire of favourite recipes which can be recycled every few weeks you won’t get bored with your meals – simply revisit these recipes as you are thinking about your weekly meal plan to save you time and brain power.
Also, don’t forget to add new favourite recipes to the list as you go along. Increasingly I’m finding new “go to” recipes on line. Check out websites such as www.taste.com, www.foodnetwork.com and of course www.ironicwellbeing.com for inspiration.
3. Check What You Already Have on Hand
Before hitting the shops, check your pantry, fridge and freezer to confirm what you already have handy, and preferably think of meals which will use those items first. Not only will this save you money but also over flowing shelves of forgotten ingredients.
4. Create a Shopping List AND Stick to It
Keep a pad and pen handy in the kitchen (or better still a magnetic fridge notepad) on which you can easily jot down meal ideas and ingredients, especially as you run out of key items. When you are thinking about your meal plan for the week, write down all the ingredients you need, then check what you already have on hand as described above – any missing items go on the shopping list.
Having a shopping list will not only save you time and money at the supermarket, but importantly keep you focused on getting exactly what you need for the week ahead. Never leave home without “the list”!
I go one step further and divide my list into various categories – what I need from the butcher, fish monger, green grocer, bakery and finally the supermarket. This makes it easier for me to pop into each retailer and only focus on the specific items I need at that time. You can buy some great notepads these days which separate out a shopping list into various categories, although generally I just recycle the back of junk mail and envelopes which have arrived during the week!
5. Divide and Conquer
Once you get home with your shopping, separate your items into portions. Divide chicken, meat and fish into portion sizes and place into freezer bags (you can even marinade meat and chicken in the bag if you wish and then freeze). Pre-prepare the vegetables if you have time and store them in containers for the week ahead to seal in freshness.
6. Get Creative
You may have noticed that one of my favourite tricks is to switch up a classic recipe by changing up the herbs and spices. In this way, a chicken breast can go from being a Moroccan feast to a Mexican fiesta, or an Indian curry to a Thai laksa. Get creative with herbs and spices to add a new twist to one of your family’s favourite meals.
7. Plan Your Time
For those times you do want to venture a little further abroad and stretch your culinary prowess, plan to make more complicated meals on the weekend or other days when you have more time. You don’t want to be eating a delicious but new dish at 10pm at night because it had 10 steps or required pre-preparation which wasn’t anticipated.
8. Batch Cooking
Batch cooking is exactly as it sounds – spending time to cook meals ahead of time on a single day. Have you ever wondered why most of Ironic- Wellbeing’s blog posts come out on a weekend? Well, it is because I prefer to batch cook on a Saturday or Sunday after I’ve done the grocery haul and have a few hours to spare (and for me spending time in the kitchen is absolute bliss or what some might call “therapy”). I’m a big fan of preparing meals ahead of time, particularly casseroles, tagines and bakes, including this Chicken ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ with Polenta.
Whilst your kitchen might end up looking like a disaster zone for a few hours with chopping boards, ingredients and appliances covering every single surface, spending 1-2 hours on a single day is a great way to get ahead of a busy week, and ensure you have homemade, healthy food on hand. When it comes time to eat the meal, simply reheat and “refresh” with herbs and other fresh seasonings and sides.
I definitely recommend giving meal planning a try. Got some tips and tricks of your own? I’d love to hear them? Let me know in the comment section below.
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 carrots, diced
- 3 sticks celery, diced
- 8 mushrooms, chopped
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 kg chicken mince
- 1 x 400g tinned diced tomatoes
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ cup vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup frozen baby peas
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 200g instant polenta
- 800 ml low salt vegetable stock
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil (or other oil of choice)
- 1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
- 2. In a large saucepan, heat oil and add the onion, carrot and celery. Fry gently for 10 minutes or until the onion is translucent. Add the mushroom and thyme and fry for a further 5 minutes.
- 3. Add chicken mince and fry until browned.
- 4. Add stock, tinned tomatoes, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and peas. Stir until combined and cook for 2 minutes.
- 5. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat while you make the polenta.
- 6. Place the vegetable stock in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. When boiling, add the fresh herbs followed by the polenta, ensuring only a little is added at a time. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens.
- 7. Stir in the oil and remove from the heat. Taste and season with salt and pepper as required.
- 8. Ladle the chicken mixture into a baking dish. Spread over the polenta and use a fork to mark the top (the rougher the surface, the crispier the top will be once cooked).
- 9. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the top is nice and crispy.