Healthy eating doesn’t happen by accident. If you want to be healthy, you need to put time and effort into making it happen. It requires planning and preparation.
With a little planning and preparation, you can make meals healthier, less stressful and happen quicker each week. If you are wanting to eat healthier meals and reduce your grocery bill, then meal planning is a must!
What is meal planning?
Meal planning is planning your meals ahead of time, for a set period (e.g. a week or a fortnight). You may also choose to plan dinner for the set period, or you may like to be totally organised and plan your breakfasts and lunches too. It also includes writing a shopping list and grocery shopping to ensure you have all the ingredients you need to make your meals.
Benefits of meal planning
- Eat healthier: If you are organised and know what you are going to cook each week you are more likely to stick to your plan. However if you don’t have a plan, you are more likely grab convenience foods that may not be the best choice nutritionally or cost-wise.
- Save money: When you have a plan and a list on your shopping trip you can stick to your list and avoid unnecessary items that will increase your grocery bill! You won’t be randomly throwing items into your trolley that you may not need or use! If you plan ahead and have everything you need in your kitchen, you are able to go home and make what is on your list. This will minimise a last minute (and time wasting) trip to the supermarket, where you would also most likely (if you are like me), walk out with an extra $30 of stuff that you hadn’t planned on buying in the first place.
- Save time: I find it can get quite stressful (and rushed) if I haven’t planned what we are having for dinner. Shopping only once a week will save you time too. No more running to the supermarket for last minute items required for dinner.
How to meal plan step-by-step
Outlined below are the steps that I take when planning my meals each week. I also provide the guidelines that I use to keep my grocery bill low. I spend around $125 a week on groceries to feed my family of five (my three kids are 7, 5 and 2 years old).
STEP 1: MAKE A REFERENCE LIST OF MEALS
Write up a reference list of meals that you and your family likes to eat:
- List all of the meals that your family already eats and enjoys regularly.
- Search magazines, cookbooks, food blogs, recipe apps for inspiration for healthy plant based meals.
- You will need at least a week’s worth of meals (or more if you like variety).
- Keep in your pantry all the pantry basics to be able to make these meals.
- Type/write up your reference list and keep it somewhere handy. Refer to it when writing up your menu plan and put them on rotation.
Filing your recipes
Keep all of your favourite recipes on file in a way that suits you. You can photograph all your recipes and put them on your iPad/iPhone. You can save them as word files or PDFs in a folder on your computer. Or you can put hard copies into a display folder. (Or if you’re hard core, you can put all of your recipes into your own recipe book using an online program or a design program such as In Design – please note that this is a rather time consuming process learnt from personal experience!).
You can also keep a file of recipes that you want to try out but have never made before. File them in a similar filing system as your other recipes so that you can browse through them when doing your menu plan. I keep mind in a display folder- these are recipes that I have printed off from online or ripped out of magazines.
STEP 2: MAKE A MENU PLAN
Write out your plan and put it on the fridge or keep a list on your electronic device. I find it helps to have it on the fridge so I can glance at it whenever I need to. Include variety in your meals for nutrition and to avoid boredom. Include a range of flavours, legumes, grains and veggies throughout the week. Make the bulk of your meals based on foods that are plant based and minimally processed. This will increase the nutrient density and reduce the cost of your meals.
I tend not to designate a specific day to what meal we have. I write out a list of roughly six to seven main meals for the week, and each day I choose from the list what I will make on that particular day. This is based on what I feel like making/eating that day. That way I can be a little more flexible, and if I have had a day where I’ve been out and get home late, then I can just pick one of the easier (and quicker to prepare) meals. It’s so helpful and less stressful to know in my head what I am going to make and that I have all of the ingredients to make it. It also helps when I have pre-prepared some of the meal components such as cooked the grains, or chopped the veggies.
Principles for Meal Planning
Base meals on inexpensive staples
Base meals around staple foods that are both healthy and inexpensive. Focus on plant based whole foods for maximum nutrition and lower cost. The less that foods are processed (in general) the cheaper they are. Staple foods to base meals on includes things like legumes (lentils, kidney beans, black beans, chick peas), potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole grains (brown rice, barley, oats and pasta) and seasonal fruits and vegetables. This is one of the most important factors in creating inexpensive, healthy meals.
Use what is in your pantry
Before you do your menu plan, take a look at what is in your pantry and fridge and use it! If you have some pasta, lasagna sheets, lentils, potatoes, pumpkin or rice, for example, plan your meals around those things.
Use seasonal produce
Food is cheaper and better quality if it’s in season. I always seek out the fresh food specials — like when pumpkin or sweet potato is $0.99/kg, fresh corn is 3 or 4 cobs for $2, broccoli is $3.00/kg.
Keep your meals simple
Weeknight meals should be very simple to make and no longer than about an hour. You may like to cook more elaborate dishes on the weekends when you have more time.
Here are some ideas for quick weeknight meals:
- Burrito Bowl
- Mexican Rice & Black Beans
- Loaded Baked Potatoes
- Chickpea & Spinach Curry with Brown Rice
- Green Thai Curry Fried Rice
- Rice and Tofu Bowl with Peanut Sauce
- Red Lentil Dhal & Rice
- Ethiopian Chickpea Stew
STEP 3: MAKE A SHOPPING LIST
After you make your menu plan, write a list of what you need to buy to make the listed meals (don’t forget to use what is in your pantry first).
STEP 4: GO GROCERY SHOPPING
Make time each week/fortnight to go grocery shopping and buy everything on your list so that you have all the ingredients you need to make the meals on your menu plan. I prefer to shop weekly as I can only fit about week’s worth of fresh vegetable and fruit in my fridge.
Avoid going grocery shopping when you are hungry. If I shop when I’m hungry I buy more than I need (and I’m more likely to get tempted with unhealthy snack foods). If you are wanting to stick to your budget, make sure you only shop from your list. And avoid the junk food aisles! Processed food is expensive and pretty much nutritionally deficient, so you’re better off without it!
You can also shop online if you prefer. Many people find they are able to save money and time this way. You can save money as you are less likely to impulse buy, and you will only buy what you need. It’s easier to stick to a budget and not be surprised when you get to the checkout. When you get to the online checkout and your total is over your budget, you can go back through your list and remove unwanted/unneeded items before you pay.
Grocery money saving tips
Menu planning and basing your meals on seasonal and inexpensive foods will save you money on your grocery bill each week. Below are some extra tips to save money on your food bill each week.
Base meals on inexpensive plant-food staples
The healthiest foods are the cheapest foods (in general). Foods such as potatoes, whole-grains (rice, barley, oats), wholemeal pasta and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils) are all inexpensive and are the healthiest foods for you to eat. As I mentioned earlier, you will save money if you base your meals on these staples.
I often make a meal out of leftovers. Add a salad or two or some roast veggies and it can make a meal. Or I will often eat leftovers for lunch. Don’t let them sit in your fridge only to be thrown out a week or two later!
Grow your own herbs
Herbs add colour and flavour to your food. It sounds cliched, but they really do take your dish to the next level. Herbs are expensive to buy but easy to grow yourself and you don’t need a large garden area. I grow my own parsley, basil, rosemary, coriander, mint and thyme.
Avoid prepared & pre-packaged foods
They are expensive and mostly not good for you. Make your own healthy sauces, dips and dressings from scratch. Don’t even go down the biscuit, drinks or lolly aisles!
STEP 5: MEAL PREPARATION
Cooking plant-based whole foods does require a little more time and effort than meals in the traditional Western diet. But I see it as a worthwhile investment into your own health and the health of your family. You are more likely to stick to your menu plan if you pre-prepare some of your meals, or parts of your meals for the week. It will also make meal time happen more quickly and easily. You may like to set aside half a day or one or two evenings each week to pre-prepare meals.
I often like to pre-prepare components of my meals rather than the entire meal itself (depending on what we are having for dinner). For example, if I am having rice and tofu bowl with veggies and peanut sauce, I like to have the rice pre-cooked, cut up the veggies and make the peanut sauce in advance. Then at the meal time I just have to cook the tofu and veggies, and it is so quick and easy. I definitely prefer fresh cooked veggies, so generally speaking, I never pre-cook my veggies. Meals that I do pre-prepare completely is things like curry, soup, lasagna, stew, patties.
Stock up on storage containers
Before you do your meal preparation, make sure you have enough containers to store your food. You can also use zip lock bags to store prepared food in the fridge or freezer. These are also easy to write the contents and date on. If using plastic containers, you can use masking tape and a marker to label your food.
Decide when you will meal prep
It is also best to decide in advance when you are going to do your meal prep. I like to grocery shop one day and then meal prep the next day. You may like to take a few hours on a Sunday, or a couple of evenings per week to do your meal prep. Decide what works for you and your schedule.
Another thing that I like to do is make a double batch of the meal that we are having for dinner that night. I refrigerate or freeze the seconds batch for another day.
If you have small children it helps if your husband (or another family member) is at home to look after the kids so that you can cook uninterrupted! Sunday is generally my husbands day off, but not always (he works away quite a bit), and when he is home of a Sunday we tend to do family things on that day and I just tend not to be in the kitchen. So I tend to meal prep during pockets of time when I get the chance, like when my baby is sleeping, of an evening when my kids are in bed. Or I find that I can get a bit done in the mornings before or after breakfast when the kids tend to play nicely together without my input!
Decide what you will meal prep
Look over your menu plan and decide what you are going to pre-prepare. Some foods are better suited to pre-preparing than others. Some foods spoil quickly (such as those with a high water content).
Below I have outlined a list of foods that you can prepare ahead to save you time.
Top plant-based foods to meal prep
- Dips (for lunches or snacks)
- Dressings and sauces (salad dressings, peanut sauce, salsa).
- Chopped veggies for lunch /dinner (to steam, roast or for salad e.g. cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin, carrot, onion, capsicum, cucumber.
- Fruit for snacking/dessert: e.g. strawberries, blueberries (or other berries that are in season), pineapple, rock melon, watermelon.
- Veggies for snacking: carrot, cucumber, celery and capsicum sticks
- Whole Grains: Cook grains then cool and place into snap lock bags in serving sized or meal-sized portions. I find that 2 cups of cooked grains fits well into a sandwich size snap lock bag. Freeze for up to 3 months.
- Legumes: Soak and cook legumes then place into snap lock bags in can-sized portions (250g/1.5 cups when cooked). Lay flat so that they store easily in the fridge or freezer. I prefer to freeze my legumes if they are not going to be consumed within 2-3 days of cooking. Freeze for up to 3 months.
Print out all your recipes
Your cooking will happen faster and easier if you can refer to your recipes while you are cooking. You can use your iPad if that works for you and you aren’t going to spill food on it.
Prep your meals
While you are cooking wear comfy shoes and clothes. Keep a scrap bucket on the bench close by to where you are working. This will eliminate constantly going back and forth to the bin.
Storing your food
- Label your prepared food with the contents and the date it was prepared. I like to use masking tape and a black marker. Once your food is frozen it is surprisingly difficult to tell what it is unless it’s labelled.
- Avoid leaving recently cooked food out to cool for more than 1 hour; as soon as food has cooled, place it in the fridge.
- Keep the older food in the front of the fridge/freezer, so that they can be used first.
- Cover all stored food with lids, foil or plastic wrap.
I hope this has inspired you to spend some time planning your meals each week. And I hope I have been able to share some information that will help you along the way.
If you would like to see my weekly meal plan, I post it each week on my Facebook page. Here is a link to my Facebook page if you would like to check it out.
If you would like some plant-based recipes, please check out my recipes here.
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