How to meal plan

Planning what we’ll eat each week is the only way I manage to cook from scratch, stay healthy, avoid waste and save money. I love to cook but I don’t like cleaning up or visiting the grocery store more than twice a week. I’d rather spend time cooking and eating than shopping!

So I started sharing my weekly meal plans on Instagram and Facebook and on here. I also share recipes and tips for what I’m cooking each day on social media. So many of you have given me such great feedback on how these plans are helping you get real food on the table without drama.

But some of you need more of a helping hand, so I’ve launched a monthly subscription where I do all the thinking for you. I send you meal plans, shopping lists and recipes as well as tips for how to make the most of your freezer and store cupboard. I’ve created a UK version and a US version – that way you have the measurements, terminology and recipes that work for what is available in your country’s food shops.

click here for the UK version

click here for the US version

You can watch me talking about how and why I plan here…

Why meal plans help anyone who is too busy to cook

I know from the cooking classes I teach that for most people, it isn’t an inability to cook, but a lack of planning that stops them finding time to cook in their busy lives. I know how easy it is to slip into eating less than healthy food, or spending a fortune on ready-made food or eating out just because it is suddenly 7pm, you’ve just got home and everyone is starving. I’m no angel, I know the lure of take out or toast when I’m tired.

Here’s a typical meal plan for me and my family.

week 5

How to make and stick to a meal plan

1. Plan a (realistic) week at a time

Sit down for half an hour once a week with a pen and paper and a cook book, blog or magazine. Grab your list of what is in your freezer too (see below). Write out who’ll be in on what days and if you’ll be eating together or in shifts then write your grocery list. I write my list by aisle at the store so that I can get round fast.

Don’t try to make 6 new recipes a week. Life gets in the way. Pick 2-3 recipes you can make without a recipe with your eyes closed. Pick a couple of nights you’ll have leftovers or food from the freezer then try 1-2 new recipes a week if you want.

In my plan you’ll see how I plan to use leftovers for lunch on lots of days. And which things I plan to grab from the freezer vs. make from scratch.

I like to leave the weekend a little looser and assume that we’ll eat up what is left in the fridge. I often come up with my best new recipes when I’m using up leftovers. On Saturday we often just grab all sorts of things out of the fridge and make our own sandwiches, tacos, soup or salads for lunch.

2. Grocery shop once a week

I have so many students who tell me they don’t have time to cook, but they go to the grocery store every day. Try hard to shop once or twice a week (using the list you make when you plan) and use that time instead to cook. There is no way I’d have time to cook if I went shopping every day. You’ll save money too.

3. Tough love

Think about recipes that have a pick and mix element to stop you feeling like a short-order cook. I cook for myself, a never-full husband and my boys – aged 6 and 8. Sometimes we eat together but most often we eat after they’re in bed.

Sometimes they have what had the night before, sometimes I prepare something earlier for them and save some for later for us. But I only cook one meal – everyone gets everything on their plate and picks which parts they will eat. No drama. This is the biggest gift you can give yourself if you feel like a kitchen slave. It may take a week or two to get people used to having no choice but it will save years of extra work.

4. Get out of jail

Even the best laid plans fail sometimes. Have some ‘get out of jail’ dinners that are quick but healthy, things you can pick up from the store or grab from the cupboard and do very little to to make a meal. My go-to is one pan pasta.

5. Multitask

When you’re cooking, think about what other jobs you can get done while your kitchen is already messy and while you’re already in there. Maybe make a batch of houmus or pesto. Chop veggies for the next day. Roast some meat for salads or tacos. Cook some rice or quinoa and freeze it in individual containers. You’ll make your life much easier on subsequent days if you have some prep done.

6. Stock up your freezer

Plan that a couple of times a week, you’ll make double or triple of whatever you’re having for dinner that night. Freeze the extra portions ready for a night off cooking in future weeks. Stews, chilli, curries, pasta sauce are all brilliant to freeze. I’ve written a whole guide to what you can make for your freezer and how you can safely and deliciously use it here.

Keep a list of what is in your freezer and refer to it when you make your menu plan for the week. You will forget what is in there.

7. Embrace and plan for leftovers

Leftovers get a bad rep but used well they are a gift. Plan to use them for some of your meals each week and life gets a lot easier. 9 times out of 10 my lunch is some leftover dinner from the night before plus a handful of slaw. The important thing is to put a new spin on day 2 of leftovers – refresh the flavour and texture to keep it interesting. Add a fresh salad, sprinkle with some toasted seeds or if all else fails throw it in a taco.

I have certain dishes I know I’m making as much for the leftovers as for the initial meal. A roast chicken is a perfect example. We often have a roast chicken on a Sunday. I swat hands away from a second helping so that I’ll have enough leftover to make salad, risotto or soup the following night.

I often challenge myself to push my grocery shopping day until I’ve used up what is in the fridge. It is all too easy to always go shopping on the same day each week out of habit but chances are you have enough in to make dinner without shopping that day.

I’m happy to chat you about more of my strategies for keeping cooking fun while fitting it into a busy life. Just send me a comment with your questions/issues and I can help.

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