Meal planning is an integral part of my weekly routine. I have always planned my meals, I think it must be something that I picked up from my mum. Meal planning is a wonderful thing as it saves time, saves money, and, most importantly, ensures that we bless our bodies with nutritious food.
I have trialled lots of systems and templates for menu planning over the years. Currently, I am using this template, which you can download here.
There are also little notebooks that you can pick up $2 shops, which are great to use as a weekly meal plan. This is one I bought a few years back...
It really doesn't matter what system you use, so long as you are recording what you plan to eat, you are on the right track!
My meal plans include both lunch and dinner. We both work full time, and if lunches aren't planned, we would either skip lunch altogether or buy something unhealthy from a fast food place, which wouldn't only hurt our bellies, but our pockets too ;) I often cook extra at dinner time, so that we can have left-overs for lunch the next day. I try to be creative with the left-overs, so that it isn't like eating dinner all over again. By turning it into a pie, wrap or adding a different side, you can easily transform meat into a new dish! I am planning on doing some posts in the future with good ideas for using left-overs for lunches. I also try to cook extras on weekends, so that I can freeze portions to be lifted out for lunches later in the week. By having lunches prepared ahead of time, it makes packing our lunchboxes in the morning a piece of cake - although we do both quite enjoy salad sandwiches, which I can easily put together with all of the fresh food I have sliced and diced in my fridge (read more about that here).
When I start to do a weekly meal plan, I always stand at my kitchen bench with the template. Firstly, I check my current meal plan and check that we ate everything on the menu - if not, that meal gets transferred to the next week. Things always pop up at the last minute, so I find quite often that I adapt my plan as the week goes on, hence why I use pencil for my plan! Next, I open my freezer and check what meat I have in there, so that I can use up what I have, rather than buy new meat. Then I look in the fridge for any fresh produce that needs to be used up, and the pantry for any packets, sauces, etc that may be able to be used. The freezer, fridge and pantry usually provide me with inspiration for a few dishes, and it is surprising what you can put together without buying anything and using what you have already!
I have created lists of meal ideas, which are categorised into the meat types (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish), which I rely heavily on at meal planning time. I have created templates for you to download here, so that you can brainstorm your meals and categorise into meats.
I try to schedule in a different type of meat each night of the week - my husband sometimes says we will start clucking if we have chicken again!! By having different meats, it ensures that I include variety in the plan, which is good for our taste-buds, but also ensures our bodies are getting all their nutrition needs. Red meat is really important to ensure that iron levels are kept up, and I am always conscious of this. My meal lists are a life-saver at meal planning time. A good hint is to keep your meal plans for a month (or just a record of what you eat for a month), and then you will have a good bank of ideas to get you started.
At the bottom of the template, I also have a space for 'Snacks' - which I try to fill up with healthy ideas like 'apricots & almonds' or 'carrot & celery sticks'. I also put here any baking that I have done, as it is always nice to have a baked treat in your lunchbox! It is just useful to plan these snacks also, so that we are not just grabbing a packet of chips to fill up our bellies.
Then I also have a space for 'Frozen Meals'. This is useful if we need a quick lunch (maybe someone ate the 'left-overs' portion of the dinner ;) or on a Friday night when I don't feel like cooking, we know what we have on hand, and can easily lift it out to defrost. It is also good if I know I have a late meeting or an appointment, and I can then schedule the frozen meal as the dinner, and have the night off cooking - yay!
So, now that I have filled out my Meal Plan template, it is time to check my kitchen for supplies and add whatever I need to my shopping list. Try to consider everything that you will need for the meal - meat, fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, bread, rice, pasta, sauce, gravy, dressing, herbs, spices, cream, butter, oil... there are lots of things to consider and there is nothing worse than getting ready to cook dinner and realising that you are missing one vital ingredient! I usually retrieve the recipes that I will need for the meals that I have planned to check the ingredients that I need, so that I know what to add to the shopping list. Take the time to think through all of the ingredients you will need when you plan your meal - you will be so thankful come dinnertime on a weeknight :)
Finally, I then file the recipes that I now have out, in the front of my recipe file (which you can read more about here), in order of the schedule on the plan, so that come dinnertime in the week, I am not searching around for a recipe, I can simply lift it out of the file, use it and then file it back in it's file when I am done.
I display my meal plan in my kitchen like this.
This reduces the amount of times that I get asked 'What's for dinner?', and it also helps me to keep up with the schedule. It is hard to forget what it coming up on the menu when it is constantly in front of you.
I have lots more ideas to share about meal planning, but I will save them for another day. The biggest thing is to just get it done. I couldn't imagine coming home from work everyday and wondering what to cook, and then having to go to the grocery store to get the supplies :( I love coming home to my defrosted meat (which I lift out the night before) and pantry full of ingredients that I need to make a yummy dinner.
I promise that by doing meal planning your evenings will be less stressful, you will save money and you will feel so much better for eating a varied and nutritious diet. Happy planning!