For many years I have done a weekly meal plan before setting out to do my weekly shop. It helps me know what to buy, and it saves me money because I don’t end up buying lots of food “just in case” which we then throw away. On the whole it’s been working pretty well, although the geekdaddy does like to throw the odd “I don’t fancy that tonight” spanner in the works every now and again.
My main problem with my meal planning was the length of time it was taking me every week. I had to give over several hours to research, finding recipes, working out the shopping list and then actually doing the shopping. I was starting from scratch every week, trying out new recipes every week, and consequently never managing to build up a library of stock meals to pick from each week. In the back of my mind I knew I needed to change this, but I never managed to make the time.
The geekdaughter went up to Juniors at school this year, which means no more free school meals. She’s been wanting to take a packed lunch to school ever since Reception, and I have always resisted this because I couldn’t work out how I would manage to get a proper cooked dinner on the table each day, especially on my working days when I’m typically not home before 6.30pm. However part of my resolution to live a more healthy life means more home cooking, and it seemed a good time to sort my meal plan out for once and for all and to move us towards sitting down as a family to eat dinner in the evening all together.
Over the summer holidays I managed to make the time to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – I produced a rolling four-week meal plan. No more hours producing a meal plan each week, now I can just look at the planner, work out which week I’m on, and therefore what I need to buy. It has sped up my weekly shopping and preparation no end! I thought I would share how I put this together in case it helps anyone else in the same boat. So here is my 4 step guide to meal planning like a geek:
1. Work out your categories
The meals I cook each week fall in to different categories. Monday to Wednesday I am at work all day, and so ideally I want meals that I can leave in the slow cooker so that the geekdaddy and the kids can help themselves to in case I’m delayed getting home. Thursday and Friday I am at home, but need something I can cook quickly with the kids underfoot. And then the weekends are the times I can spend a bit more time in the kitchen, so this is the perfect time for more complex meals or batch cooking. So everything I cook needs to fit into one of those three categories.
2. Assign recipes to categories
Once I’d got my categories I worked my way through my repertoire and favourite recipe books and assigned each thing I could cook to a category. If a particular dish didn’t fit into fit into any category then it didn’t get included – by my reckoning I would never cook it! I did this planning in a very “hands-on” way – with a large whiteboard. This enabled me to see at a glance if I had enough meals in each category. For any categories where there weren’t enough options, I went back through my recipe books and identified suitable new things to try. My goal was to have enough recipes on my board for 4 weeks of meals.
3. Build the plan
Now I had a selection of recipes in each category it was time to put them together into a weekly plan. I knew which days needed recipes from which categories, so I started to drop the recipes in place. I also wanted to make sure there was a balance of meals, so I tried to plan to have at least one chicken, one pork, one beef and one fish dish each week. We’ve also started having the geekdaughter’s best friend to tea every Wednesday so they can go to Brownies together, and she can’t eat gluten, so I had to make sure I planned a suitable dish in for her. For this planning I used a page in my A4 recipe binder so the plan is always somewhere safe, with the recipe names on little PostIt notes. The joy of using the PostIt notes is that I can make small changes to the plan at any time, so if there is a dish my family really don’t like I can swap it out. I also found I had a few “spare” recipes, so I have left them floating at the bottom, ready to switch in as and when we need a change.
4. Use the plan
Now I had my plan I had to actually use it. I bought myself an A4 whiteboard with magnetic pads that lives on our fridge. I have divided it into 7 sections, and each Friday I write out the meals we will be eating for the week ahead. At this point I can make changes depending on what our exact plans are for the week. I made sure that my plan has a recipe for every day of the week, but it’s easy to simply knock one recipe off if we decide to go out for lunch at the weekend, or an evening commitment makes cooking tricky at any point.
I’ve been using this meal planning method for a couple of months now, and it’s mostly going well. It’s definitely made life a lot easier, the shopping takes less time, and we’re definitely eating better as a result. I am still struggling with the slow cooker meals for my working days – so far only a couple of recipes have been successful with the kids, and they’re starting to turn their noses up on anything that comes out of the slow cooker simply because it came out of the slow cooker. So I’m still switching recipes around a bit trying to find a good selection that works. But it’s much easier to make little tweaks to a rolling plan than to be planning from scratch every week.
How do you plan your family meals? Do you have any great recipes that work well when everyone is out at work or school all day? Slow cooker recipes your kids love? I’d love you to leave me a comment and let me know!