Meal Planning started when I ran a home daycare. With 7 kids needing two snacks and lunch per day, plus my own family to feed dinner to, daily organization was needed! Meal planning helped ensure we had a variety of nutritional content, food wasn’t wasted and I was using my prep time wisely. Trying to ensure everyone has something on their plate they liked, while also introducing new foods was something I strived for.
When my work reopened during Covid and life got quite busy, it was time to bring back more formal meal planning where our weekly dishes weren’t just floating around in my head. I brought up a chalkboard we weren’t using, hung some twine on the back and in seconds had an easy to use board that the whole family could see. Meal plans can be written on pen and paper, an electronic version or anything in between. Decide what works best for your family and go from there.
I like to keep things simple. Know what foods your family does and doesn’t like, ask for input (this is my kids’ favourite part) and don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new. I often try new meals when I know we have some favourites leftover in the fridge. Our rule is 10 bites, at least try it before deciding it’s a dish you don’t like. If you don’t like it, you can make your own meal from the fridge, but it has to be nutritious. Knowing the foods my family likes, I start planning by taking a look in the fridge. What ingredients need to be used up first, what do I have too much of? Often, this is produce. Once I see the items I need to use up, I start picturing meals that will use them. I head to the freezer next to see what is available. After the freezer, I check my pantry. Then, I write out our weekly meal list.
I try to plan with a variety of proteins, I look at meals that can carry into each other or the following week for easier prep and I base our meals on the seasonal produce available when possible too. We tend to do groceries on Wednesday as our daughter has Cheer practice and there is a grocery store just down the road. Two birds, one stone sorta deal. I look at what we had the week before, try not to duplicate meals more than once a month and get a little creative. I also look at our weekly schedules. What nights am I home to cook? What nights are a little more rushed? Are there any appointments or commitments? Any special celebrations, holidays or sleepovers happening? The goal of my meal plan is to be functional, tasty and easy to execute. It has to fit within the family’s lifestyle to be functional, so looking at what the family’s needs are, is key.
Once I have a rough outline of the ingredients I need to use up, I fill in the blanks. For example, the first week pictured I had a lot of salsa and tuna on hand. I could double up the mashed potatoes for Friday and Sunday. Rice or mini potatoes could work with the chicken fingers on Saturday and the weather was great for bbqing that steak. I had pork and apples on hand, but needed proscuitto and a different cheese. We had cucumbers, peppers, carrots that needed to be eaten soon, so Saturday easy dinnner was great for that. I was off on the Monday and had cottage cheese to use so stuffed shells were an easy answer.
We did a lot of cooking the first week, so I kept it simpler the second. We had leftovers for sure. The chili and stew were pre portioned and frozen from previous weeks, which meant no effort at all. We had taco shells to use up and soup in the freezer too. We were visiting my family on Saturday and coming home Sunday which meant leftovers from that week were the easy answer for Sunday dinner. It also meant that the fridge would be cleaned out ready for a new week. No groceries had to be bought for this week as everything was on hand between the fridge and freezer.
Planning our weekly meals takes no more than 30 minutes, often closer to 15. It helps give me a quick inventory of our groceries too and sets up our grocery list for the week. If you’re someone who needs more structure, you can have a binder or recipe box of meals that can rotate. Have the recipes written down, ingredients first so you can see what is on hand and what needs to be bought. Batch cook where you can. Make a meal for tonight and one for a few weeks from now. Then, on a busier night all you have to defrost and cook. Other meals can be cooked straight from frozen. Don’t forget that simple meals can have great nutrition too. Keep some basic ingredients in your pantry and replenish once they get half to a quarter left. Buy butter, cheese, breads when on sale and freeze. Learn your spices and herbs to create different flavours. And don’t be afraid to change it up. I find tweaking an ingredient, adding something new or pairing different sides can keep a dish interesting. Have fun with your meal plan and create one that works for YOU!