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I’m going to tell you our story of how we became meal-plan converts. I don’t usually take up whole blog posts with an anecdote, but so many people have expressed an interest in how to start meal planning over the last few days, since I posted a question on my Facebook page, that I thought perhaps the easiest way to describe it was to simply to share our experience.
We never wrote meal plans when we were first married, nor even when we had a newborn baby. We’d buy a load of food each week – usually the same kind of meats, vegetables, dried products etc that we knew we liked to eat – then each evening we would decide who was cooking (usually who had the least work to do!) and throw a few bits in a pan.
A new phase for our family
When we started to wean our baby boy (around six months), we largely kept with what we’d already been doing, giving him little bits of what we were having where appropriate, as well as finger food that he could hold and chomp on.
I’d like to say that it was our new phase of needing to cook for three which inspired our meal-planning, and maybe that was a factor, but also it was something far more superficial.
When I’d left work to have our son, my colleague had given me the best gift: a subscription to BBC Good Food Magazine! All of a sudden, my fairly standard cooking repertoire of pasta, curries, stir frys and casseroles was exposed to a much wider range of different kinds of meals. I was learning about such new and interesting ways to prepare food, and reading recipes from all round the globe, opening up my mind to new possibilities and flavour combinations.
I started to fold the page corner over on the pages of recipes I wanted to try, and it didn’t take long to realise that with the amount of corners I was folding every month, I was going to have to make a plan, otherwise I’d never actually cook any of this stuff!
Simultaneously, there were changes in our family. Our growing son was needing to eat at around 5.30 at the latest, whereas we’d always eaten nearer 7 or 8pm. My husband, who’d had more flexible jobs in the past, was now out all day and returning home at around the time my son needed to eat. I’d been working out of the home, but was now spending a lot more time at home with my son. And we knew that, if at all possible, we’d like to eat together as a family.
It was clear that the ‘throw everything in the pot when we get back home from work’ mentality wasn’t going to work!
For starters, there were natural restrictions on what my son was able, or allowed, to eat. The die-hard Baby-Led Weaning brigade would balk at this sentence, arguing that we should have just given him everything. We did give him a wide range of food from the start, but when you observe that your baby can eat, for example, slow-cooked casserole meat much more successfully than a sausage, you’re probably going to try and give him more of the former!
[Sidenote: he’s nearly 10 now, and has never disliked sausages. It really is OK to hold certain foods from babies until they’re able to chew and swallow them safely – it really doesn’t take long for this to happen, and it won’t scar them for life that they went three months without!]
Another restriction was the fact that it would now be me doing the cooking, as my husband simply wasn’t home early enough to get a meal on the table by 5.30. And, at that early hour, I really needed to know what I was cooking in advance, because trying to be creative with food whilst also feeding/changing/playing with a baby is no fun. Nap-time became a good opportunity to get ahead with meal prep.
Learning to meal-plan from scratch
So I started to plan out what we’d eat every evening, then make my shopping list from that. Our meals had more variety because I was trying new recipes from Good Food, and anything which we particularly liked was cut out and put in my own recipe book.
This happened for several years, resulting in a Rycroft recipe book which is full of interesting and varied meals, and which I still use regularly – some of our family favourites are in that book, and I honestly wouldn’t be without it!
Tip no.1: if you’ve never done this, start collecting your favourite recipes in one place. You can do this physically, in a book – or, easier these days, using an app or online platform like Evernote or Trello.
Changing our diet
Somewhere along the line, my husband and I decided we wanted our diet to be less meat-based. So we started to alternate between vegetarian and meat/fish-based meals.
We still do this, and I won’t lie: finding vegetarian meals that the whole family eats is always a challenge! Veggie pasta bake, chilli, fajitas, calzone/stromboli/pizza are some of our current favourites. I’ve done a lot of ratatouille in the past, but more recently some of our number have started complaining, so that’s on the back burner for now!
On the plus side, it means we’re never fazed when vegetarian friends or family members come to visit, as we now have a really strong repertoire of vegetarian meals to hand.
Tip no.2: if you’re trying to change your diet, or catering for different diets within one family, meal-planning is a great place to start. You can keep a list of meals which work well for everyone, as well as meals which only need slight variation for different family members.
Experimenting with recipes
Around 2015, I stopped getting Good Food magazine, and started instead to go through all the many recipe books we’d collected. After all, what’s the good in having them if you’re never going to use them?! I used a different book each month of that year, and blogged about my efforts. Some books worked better than others, and those that really didn’t have much to offer our family (e.g. the recipes were too time-consuming, or too average) were bundled up in a bag for the charity shop.
Then in 2016, I decided to have a year of not using recipes at all. I felt I’d become too reliant on them – even familiar ones, where I was still checking the ingredients each time.
In order to do this, I started the year by making a huge mind-map of all the meals I could think of that we ate – some regularly, some occasionally. I still have this on the back of my kitchen door, and still use it when my mind goes blank and I can’t think of what to plan.
Tip no.3: whether you do it as a mind map or list, it’s really useful to write down 30 or so meals that you enjoy eating and can cook relatively easily/quickly. This gives you a whole month of variety.
Still alternating between meat/fish and veggie dishes, I would plan our meals for the week based on what this mind-map offered. I added to it when I discovered a variation, and although it’s definitely not a comprehensive resource of everything we eat anymore, it’s still my go-to place to start looking for ideas!
What are the benefits of meal planning?
We wouldn’t have kept planning meals unless there were huge benefits, and I expect you know most of these already: we don’t over-spend on food, we save time by not having to make lots of little trips to the shops (although we still do from time to time!), we waste far less food (although still trying to get better at using up every last bit of fruit, veg and fresh herbs!), and we eat a really good variety of foods.
Another important aspect for me is that I’m exhausted by 4.30. I’ve been working all day, then I’ve had 90 minutes with the kids, chatting, preparing snacks, dealing with school letters, helping them research something or whatever.
I don’t have the brain power at this time to start thinking creatively about what to cook. On the odd occasion recently, our meal plan has fallen apart for some reason or other, so I’ve been in this position, and it’s really stressful.
Some people say they can’t meal plan because they’re not sure of their movements in advance of the week. I understand that my family’s movements are probably more predictable than, say, if we didn’t have kids – but there are still regular times when I need to change things round too. In fact, I’d say most weeks I divert from the plan a little bit!
But having a plan helps me to be able to respond flexibly to new arrangements or unforeseen commitments. Having a plan means I have the ingredients for seven meals in our fridge and cupboards. Whether we do Monday’s meal on Wednesday, or Thursday’s meal lasts for Friday as well, doesn’t really matter – it still helps so much to know that we have enough food to last us the week, and can spend our time on other things than rushing out to the shops for emergency supplies.
Tip no.4: don’t be a servant to your meal plan: let it serve you. Swap things round when needed. Just keep an eye on fresh ingredients to make sure they’re still good for the new time-frame, and freeze any ingredients which need it.
Does meal planning work for fussy eaters?
Our four kids represent a range of fussiness, from one who will eat absolutely anything (he makes me and my husband seem fussy!), to the others who vary from day to day, it seems, in what they will eat.
For us, meal planning helps bring variety to our diet, especially when there are some dishes we know we just can’t cook for the whole family as they won’t be eaten. Because I write down what we’re eating, I’m more aware of ensuring a wide variety of different things. If I didn’t make a meal plan, I know I’d end up cooking the same things every week, or even twice a week, just because I’d forget what we’d eaten!
We’ve always cooked one dish for the whole family, and the expectation has always been that if you’re hungry, you’ll eat it. Now of course I do allow for known dislikes – my daughter doesn’t like mashed potato, for example, so if we do bangers and mash, she’ll have the sausages with some bread or leftover pasta.
But our emphasis is always on having a go and trying new things, and – the most important part – eating together, so that our kids always have us there as role models, tucking into our food and enjoying it.
I’ve also started to put less veg in one-pot meals, and do more veg on the side instead, which allows for everyone to have a choice but reassures me that they’re all eating some veg.
Combining recipe resources
Since 2017, I have cooked from a variety of sources: BBC Good Food online, my mind-map, recipe books (including our own, which I still add to), and of course from memory too!
And at the end of 2018 I was even privileged to contribute 17 of my own recipes to the Healthy Meal Planning Bundle.
So: be on the look-out for good recipes and keep them organised, so that you can find them when you need them!
For more tips, check out 7 Easy Steps to Making a Meal Plan!