Meal planning is an organisational method used by many people to plan their meals in advance, by writing out weekly, fortnightly or even monthly meal plans. Many plan dinners, some plan all their meals and snacks! By working out what they will cook, buying exactly what ingredients they need, and knowing what meals they or their family like to eat, this can save time, money and reduces waste. It also saves you the last minute ‘what are we going to have for dinner?’ madness!

Meal prepping is also about being organised in the kitchen, and partially preparing ingredients in advance, to save some steps when it comes time to cook a meal. It can also be making full, ready to eat meals, that can be reheated the next evening for dinner, or frozen, then defrosted and reheated another time.

What are the benefits and challenges to meal planning + meal prepping?

So, you’ve heard of meal planning, or prepping, and you kinda know it’s probably going to help you out, but you aren’t 100% sure its worth the effort? Here are some reasons to give it a go:

  • You can reduce the amount of food that you throw out or waste. Think of all the precious resources that went into the food you buy, or the time and effort you put into growing (or foraging) your own food. You could save money too, by only buying what you need, instead of paying when you end up throwing half of it out!
  • Being organised and efficient, means more time and energy you can put into cooking from scratch (and learning the skills to do so), and creating great meals with what seasonal ingredients you have.
  • You can incorporate more home grown (or locally sourced foods), but maintain the convenience and flexibility your lifestyle demands. Eating this way is better for you (and the planet) but you have to make it work for your schedule.
  • You can feel less overwhelmed by the ‘what are we having for dinner tonight?’ conversation you have in your head on the way home from work, or less annoyed by the ‘what’s for dinner?’ moaning that comes at ‘witching hour’ in a house with young kids. 

Hmm, but there must be a catch, right? The possible downfalls are:

  • It does take some time to work out what you are going to put on your meal plan
  • Meal prepping for the week in advance means you have to set aside a couple of hours on one day to chop veges and prepare sauces etc. Making complete meals in advance (to freeze) can take several hours.
  • Some people may think it is boring to know every meal in advance for two weeks, they worry they’ll miss the excitement of spontaneously searching through the freezer for meat and digging through the crisper for vegetables.
How do I go about Meal Planning?

There are various ways to create and write up your plan. This is the basic way to start meal planning (based on only planning your dinner/ evening meal in advance, as is most common).

  1. Pick a day that your meal plan will start. This will be based on whether you have a regular day that you go grocery shopping, or order a delivery to arrive. Say, if you go shopping on Fridays, your meal plan might start from Friday evening, or from Saturday nights dinner. Many people shop on the weekend, and their meal plan starts from Mondays.
  2. Write down the days of the week or fortnight in order. You might use a sheet of scrap paper, notepad, notebook, a magnetic weekly planner on the fridge, or download or create your own template. (If you set up a spreadsheet, you can easily have a rotating meal plan for 4 weeks or more). You can download and print out the Weekly Meal Plan and Shopping Organiser I have created for you.
  3. On your plan, write any activities you will have on those nights, next to the day, that could change the type of meal you need to cook. Consider what kind of meals you will require on certain days, to fit in with your schedule. (See note below for more explanation).
  4. Think about types of meals or cooking methods (such as Quick, Make in Advance, Slow Cooker, Regular, Special – see explanations in Type of Meals FAQ section below) that will suit your schedule each night of the week, or fortnight. Write that down too.
  5. Write down a meal for each night of the week, and write it on your meal plan. You might refer to cook books, cooking magazines, recipes on websites, or run through the mental list of family favourites you store in your brain! If you take turns preparing meals, work it out together.
  6. Make a shopping list, once you have your meal plan of what meals you will cook for each evening, with the groceries you will need for those meals. If you are referring to a recipe, just make sure the serves/ amounts cover the number of people you are feeding, and you get enough ingredients!
  7. Take your meal plan and shopping list when you go shopping, to your farmers market or local grocer. You may be able to adapt planned meals if you see something on sale, or in season.

VARIATIONS

  • You might have a very standard weekly routine that sees you home to cook dinner every night. You can plan 7 (14, 21) meals and then choose in the morning (or the night before) which one you will have that evening (and defrost anything frozen) rather than allocating a specific meal to a specific day.
  • You might have days of the week that need different types of cooking or meals, such as Monday afternoon sport, so you need a filling meal you can make quickly when you get home. Maybe you work late, or do evening shifts on Tuesday and Thursday, so need meals made in advance, that your family can easily heat up. Perhaps Saturday night you like to hang out with your family, and get creative in the kitchen, making a special meal. Or Sunday nights is taking it easy, you need a quick meal, or using up things in the fridge, freezer or pantry.

NOTES

  • You may decide to not plan a meal for one or two nights, as this gives you the chance to use up things in your fridge/ pantry or freezer, or things you are harvesting, to reduce waste and save money. This might be a casserole or fried rice you froze, or a quick omelette using veges from the garden, or the chilli con carne you made but didn’t eat as much as you thought you would.
  • Rotating meal plans are when people work out several weeks worth of meal plans in advance, say 4 weeks worth, but then reuse the same meal plans every month. I write a new meal plan up every two weeks, because I look forward to cooking and adapting to the seasons, however, you can set up a rotating meal plan so that you have an ‘archive’ of weekly meal plans that you refer to over the course of a month (or longer).
How do I start Flexible Meal Planning?

So now you are thinking, but how can I plan for certain meals every night of the week, if I don’t know what will be ready to harvest in my edible garden? Meal planning may seem too restrictive to be able to handle trying to eat seasonal foods, you have grown or sourced locally.

Flexible Meal Planning means you can adapt to what is being harvested, or what is in season at the farmers markets etc. On your meal plan, you can still write certain kinds of meals (Quick, Make in Advance, Slow Cooker, Regular, Special) or cooking methods (stir fry, slow cooker, baked, BBQ) for certain days to suit your schedule, but use homegrown or seasonal local ingredients.

Download and print this Flexible Weekly Meal Planner and Shopping Organiser I have created for you.

To make the most of your harvests and seasonal produce, there are a few ways to go about it.

  • Substitute seasonal produce into your usual meals and family favourites. For example, Beef Meatballs made in Winter might use kale or silver beet, carrot or kohlrabi, but in Summer, you might use zucchini, corn and basil. Read more about substitutions in the Beginner’s Guide to Cooking from the Garden.
  • Choose seasonal recipes that lend themselves to what you are harvesting, like a Panzanella Salad in Summer, or a Broad Bean Risotto in Spring. Read more about seasonal eating in the Beginner’s Guide to Cooking from the Garden.
  • Plan the meat/ protein component, and then create the rest of the meal from the garden. So plan Lemongrass Chicken for dinner on one night, and then stir fry some veges, like zucchini, capsicum and green beans from the Summer garden, or snow peas, broccoli and asparagus in Spring
What type of meals will suit my busy schedule?

Time is precious, and most of us have busy lives, trying to balance our schedules with our commitments, especially if you have added growing your own food, or raising backyard livestock, into the mix!

Changing your perspective about what you think you should be eating, can make a huge difference. Instead of feeling like you need to serve a gourmet meal each night that takes a lot of time to prepare, consider that a quick omelette can be nutritious and delicious, use seasonal harvests, as well as filling you up.

Flexible Meal Planning (see FAQ Section above) helps save time, because you plan and shop for each week or fortnight, rather than deciding what is for dinner on the day, or having to go to the shops frequently. When planning, you can choose types of meal based on how complex they are, or what cooking method they use, that suits your schedule.

QUICK MEALS

Meals that can be made from scratch very quickly and easily, that adapt to seasonal ingredients

  • Stir fry
  • Omelettes or frittata (great to use leftover veges)
  • Salads
  • Quesadillas or toasted focaccia/ sandwiches
  • Vege fritters
  • Roasted vege stacks or Stuffed Mushrooms

MAKE IN ADVANCE MEALS

Meals you can cook in advance, and reheat easily, or that freeze/ defrost and reheat well are a good for convenience. Make in advance meals that lend themselves to being adapted to whatever produce is in season, or available locally, include:

SLOW COOKER MEALS

Meals that can be made in a slow cooker, that pretty much cook themselves all day, ready to eat for dinner, that adapt to seasonal ingredients include:

REGULAR MEALS

Normal meals, with sides, that take time to cook, like

SPECIAL MEALS

When you want to go all out, making difficult or multi step meals with condiments etc

OTHER IDEAS to save time

  • Learn some short cuts, like meal prepping (see next FAQ section), or roasting vegetables when you have the oven on for a different meal, and then freezing them in portions, giving you a head start with a meal for another time, like using roast pumpkin cubes in risotto.
  • A jar of homemade relish can be an instant flavour addition for a slow cooked casserole, which is ready when you get home from work.
  • If you make sauces from an abundance of apricots or plums in Summer, you have an easy marinade for chicken or pork another time of year.
  • If you are into preserving, learn how to dehydrate meals, such as soups, or the ingredients for a casserole, or how to pressure can complete meals in jars.
  • Make good systems work for you, like how you harvest, wash and process your produce to make it easier to use, or cooking bulk amounts on a Sunday for the week ahead.
What is Meal Prep? Does it ‘save me time’?

Meal prepping is SO good, it makes such a difference to your day when you know your evening meal is half way ready (or fully ready!) When you get out of bed are in the middle of the school and work rush, to know your lunch is ready to grab on your way out the door. I have found we eat more vegetables, and healthier in general, when it’s ready to go. It can be done in various ways, for various meals.

Whilst it does take time to do the prep, it is more efficient to do a ‘production line’ method compared to individually preparing meals just before you eat them. Rather than saving huge amounts of time though, the advantage is one less task to do when you are busy/ have hungry and grumpy children/ are tired and worn out at the end of the day. Right when you really appreciate the convenience, the work is already done!

  • You might pre-prepare your dinner ingredients, to the point just before cooking. It means that you put in some extra time in one session to peel and chop vegetables, to put your sauces together, or to slice or dice meat, for every meal of the week. Whilst this takes time to prep, it means you ‘save time’ later in the week when you are busy. 
  • You might prepare several meals in one sitting, completely cooked, and ready to reheat, or to freeze for another day.
  • You might prepare salads, soups or snacks for the week, to take with you to work, uni or travel.
  • If you are using home grown produce, you can either pick several days worth of harvests and prep them, or prep the meat, sauces or flavourings, then just add the veges/ herbs etc freshly picked from the garden each day.

    STEP BY STEP MEAL PREP

  1. Put five (or seven, or however meals you are prepping) containers with lids, on the kitchen bench.  Put a smaller container for the side veges, if prepping at the same time.
  2. Write the name of the meal on the containers (in removable pen, or use a sticky note) which container correlates to which meal on your meal plan. You could write the list of which veges you need for those meals/ containers too, to keep you on track, if you prefer.
  3. Get out all your vegetables, rinse and allow to dry. Peel and chop the vegetables for each meal, place into the appropriate container for that meal. Prep any side vegetables, or salad, place in it’s own container.
  4. Using smaller containers (with lids), make up any sauce mixes, herbs and spices required for the meal, like a stir fry sauce.
  5. Place the containers together in the fridge (smaller containers may sit inside the larger ones, see tips below).
  6. You can also chop and marinate the meat or protein for each meal, keep the first couple of nights in the fridge, the rest into the freezer. Don’t forget to defrost as required.
  7. You can also make up a bunch of carb sides for each meal, like rice, pasta, mash, polenta. Again, keep the first couple of nights in the fridge, the rest into the freezer. Don’t forget to defrost as required.
  8. I do not prep any dairy (i.e. cream for a sauce, cheese for a risotto) out at this point. I leave it in it’s own containers until cooking time.
  9. Each day/ evening you then cook the meal using the prepped vegetables, sauces, meat/ protein, heat the carb side and serve with a vege side/ salad.

CONTAINERS

  • For weeknight dinner meal prep, use containers with lids, plastic or glass, and preferably same shape so they will stack easily in your fridge. I have a selection of plastic rectangle containers (from Target) in various volumes, but in the same length and width. That means I can put the vegetables for the dish in a large container, then the sides for the meal in a smaller container, that sits in to the bigger one (therefore I only need one lid) and they sit together in the fridge. The bigger one is large enough to fit veges for a family of four, as well as a smaller container (round or square) which contains the sauce/ herbs and flavourings for the dish. I either leave the meat in the bag it came from the butcher (already chopped up or in portions) or use the same plastic containers, with a lining of baking paper.
  • For weekday lunches, like salad and soup, I do have some glass Pyrex rectangle containers (that leftovers are stored and frozen in) but I also use my large no. 31 Fowlers Vacola preserving jars, with Snap on lids. Soup can be frozen in these and they handle reheating too. Salads can fit with a small plastic container for dressing (and any meat is in a separate small container).
  • Use a removable chalk pen, blackboard type labels with chalk or wax pencil, re-writable white labels and whiteboard marker, to write the name of the meals on the containers.

KEEPING IT FRESH

The number one question I get asked about any meal prep is ‘but does it last the week?’ or ‘doesn’t it go slimy?’ I find that fresh, good quality vegetables have no problems lasting 5 days, and for the organic stuff I buy, even longer! Keep your vegetables separate from meat, dairy, sauces or dressings. Put your heavy, moister vegetables on the bottom of the containers/ jars, and lights drier stuff on top.

OTHER MEAL PREP & TIME SAVING TIPS

Find more advice in the Beginner’s Guide to Cooking from the Garden

If you want to chat with other people who meal plan and meal prep, join the Growing Home Community, a closed group hosted on Facebook.


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