How To Save Time and Money with Simple Meal Planning
You may not have thought that meal planning could be so easy and beneficial! And, yes it is! This is because it saves time and money. When you save money in earlier shopping, you use it to buy higher quality foods and more variety to cater for needs of every member of the family.
One of the challenges of eating healthy is that busy families hardly find time to shop and cook nutritious and delicious meals. Unfortunately, our lives are getting busier.
Cooking for the family takes time. Cooking healthy meals takes even more time. I hear mothers talk about what they are going to make for dinner when they get home from the office.Time constraint is a major factor to parents buying pre-packaged food for their kids.
Meal planning may seem to take a lot of time. But in real sense, it doesn’t. If you consider the time you invest in putting up a meal plan, it is far less than it takes to visit the market several times within a week.
Planning and preparing meals especially for busy families is not an easy and straightforward task. Nonetheless, it is a task that must be done. But it can be accomplished and I have tips to help you do it.
Here are tips to help you to plan meals for your family. But first, why is meal planning even important?
Why Meal Planning?
If you do not want to:
- Rush to the freezer to pop out any frozen meal you find, microwave it and serve it to your family because your meeting unfortunately ran overtime and you had to come home late.
- Prepare meal that is not healthy and balanced with the necessary nutrients required by your family because that is the only available item in the fridge.
- Call a food delivery vendor at 7.pm to place an order for take-away dinner to serve your family. Only for them to arrive late with dozens of excuses about why the food came late or, why your order was mistakenly switched with someone else’.
- Prepare a meal with the only available ingredients you find in the fridge-meal that none of your family members have interest in eating.
I am sure you get the message.
What are the benefits of meal planning?
Everyone’s daily work and personal routines are different. Whatever your routines are, the rewards accrued from meal planning are many and they benefit everyone in the family. Meal planning helps you in the following ways:
- Saves you money
- Saves you time.
- Reduces food waste
- Reduces undue stress
- Encourages healthy eating
- Helps to make sure you have a balanced plate.
- Makes it possible for variety in your menu.
- Encourages families to spend quality time together
If you plan your menu around what you purposefully bought and placed in your fridge, you’ll avoid throwing out leftovers and cut food spoilage and food waste. You will also save some cash.
Planning ahead and thinking through what you will serve ahead of time allows you to plan out what protein, carbohydrate, fruits and vegetable you want to include in each meal and in what proportions.
You’ll be less likely to fall into the rut of serving the same few dishes again and again if you plan your menu in advance, especially, if you plan more than one at a time.
Now that you understand the reasoning behind meal planning, let’s make meal planning more manageable with my top tips.
Begin small and then grow.
Begin first by learning how to cook simple meals. Know the ingredients (and their substitutes), method of preparation and cooking time. Start with easy, quick recipes and grow to harder, more time-consuming recipes. Learning and growing your cooking skills this way builds your confidence in cooking and makes you aware of a variety of ingredients and cooking techniques.
If you you’re a meal planning beginner, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start planning two meals per week and work yourself up to three, then four. Once you get the hang of it and find what works for you, you will be able to progress to planning for a week or even more. Nevertheless, I recommend you plan for one week at a time, but occasionally, two weeks, particularly if a holiday week is coming.
Create your menu
This may seem really simple. It actually is. However, putting pen to paper makes all the difference when it comes to creating a menu. It doesn’t matter if you use a notebook, excel sheet, Google Calendar, your mobile phone, a personal computer or a meal planning template. The options are limitless but they all aim at the same thing – to make you more organized and better at saving you valuable time and money. For me, I use a simple meal planner.
The real process of writing down the menu will help you remember what you planned to cook and hold you accountable to it. Essentially, the most difficult part of meal planning is figuring out what recipes to go on your menu. But you’ll save time when you create the recipes ahead.
I take advantage of a combination of resources to create my recipes. I use cookbooks, food magazines and the internet. I also get inspiration from friends, restaurants and from previous recipes I made myself.
Remember, the idea of doing recipe research is to get inspiration and ideas to help you create your own recipes. You also want to get tips for a great cooking experience. Your recipes must not exactly be how someone else prepared theirs. It makes you creative by bringing out the cooking genius in you. But most importantly, cook what your family loves, with ingredients you have.
Keep an open mind for unforeseen loss of appetite or change in plans.
We are humans. Stuff happens. Sometimes we plan a full menu and then, suddenly, our appetite for those meals drop. What do you do when that happens? I recommend you plan each recipe with an accompanying alternative. That way you have options, if you change your mind on what you initially planned to cook.
Take stock of what you have at home
Like I mentioned before, I come up with my menu plan from different sources. But the best way I decide about what to cook depends on what I have in my fridge. It is the surest way to avoid food waste and to make sure I use up all the ingredients available.
Go through all the items on your ingredients list. Double-check the items in the fridge, freezer and food containers. Cross off what you have and add what you need to your list.
Meal preparation is usually an easy but important exercise. It saves you time and money-you won’t mistakenly buy what you already have stocked at home.
Make a grocery shopping list
Once you have your menu created, you should make grocery shopping list to go with it. It will organize your shopping. A shopping list helps me to save time at the market and ensures I don’t forget anything I need to buy.
When you make a list, it helps you to avoid impulse buying and unnecessary spending. Everything in the market looks appealing and you will most likely convince yourself and find reasons for spending money.
Whether you shop in an open market or in a supermarket, you most likely know where each item on your shopping list can be found. Don’t wander around nor act like you are on a fact-finding mission in the market.
While shopping, stick to your list and budget. Your list contains items from your meal plan. Anything not on your list means you don’t need it, thus, you shouldn’t buy it.
Usually, it takes me thirty to forty-five minute to shop in a local market. Too little shopping time, you do “panic buying” – shopping under undue pressure with no time for bargains. You also tend to forget to buy some items on your list or you mistakenly buy the wrong items. Too much shopping time, you indulge in impulse buying.
As you shop routinely, you ought to have an idea how long it takes you to shop. Therefore, you plan enough time for your shopping. Prepare Your Meals Ahead.
When you have your menu in place, put down your recipes and make a list of ingredients. Write down what to do with each ingredient and how long in advance you would be able to prepare the meal. For example, if you have frozen chicken to roast on Saturday afternoon, you’ll need to defrost and thaw it by Tuesday morning.
Keep your cooking appliances and utensils in good working condition. Ensure all tools are ready-to-use always – electrical appliances are functional and gas cylinder refilled.
Clean all kitchen surfaces, especially the work station, clean and tidy after each use. That way, you save time from the clearing the mess of previous food preparation before you begin to prepare a new meal.
Choose the best days and times to make each Meal
When you create a weekly meal plan, consider your daily routines and scheduled activities throughout the week. Choose your less busy days for harder, more time-consuming recipes and busier days for simply, easy and fast recipes. Breakfast is quite simply, quick and easy to prepare. Use leftovers for lunch on busy working days. Harder, longer recipes are suitable for dinner.
For me, I cook my difficult recipes over the weekend. Want me to cook Masa, moringa soup and roasted chicken on a Monday night? That’s a difficult one. Can I make macaroni salad for lunch on a Thursday afternoon? Yes! That’s easy!
Cook in bulk.
Cooking in bulk is probably the best way to plan meals ahead. You will have extra food to make the next recipe. You will have leftovers to make quick and easy meals on-the-go. Although not everyone is inclined to eating food labeled as “leftover”, leftover food does not imply the food is stale, tasteless or unhealthy. When properly prepared and kept under ideal storage temperatures and in the right containers, leftover food could be as healthy as freshly-made meals.
In my opinion, creating a menu that allows extra leftovers for other meals not only saves time but it is smart cooking for a busy housewife.
For instance, roast a whole chicken once and create more recipes with it; up to three chicken-based recipes. Prepare a bulk, plain tomato sauce and pour into different storage jars. Add a different spice to each jar to make different recipes later. And so on.
Freeze extra meals and ingredients
It is particularly helpful to freeze crunchy fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, peas, radish, beetroot, apple, guava, and other root vegetables. However, you should avoid freezing leafy and fleshy fruits and vegetables.
Leafy and fleshy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes are best eaten fresh, especially in salads.
You can equally freeze the extra meal for the next week. Some of my favorite forms of recipes to cook in double or triple portions and freeze are home-made vinaigrette, sauces and soups. I also marinate beef, chicken and fish and freeze them. I make and freeze different dough for pastries too (they come in handy for breakfast on rushed mornings and for office lunch box).
You can also buy some vegetables in bulk. For instance, you can buy many baskets of tomatoes when in season. In northern Nigeria, tomatoes in season are very cheap. With a steady electricity supply in your home, you can buy tomatoes in excess, grind into a thick paste and store in a deep freezer for months ahead. The same applies to onions and red peppers.
Plan your meals with the season
Ingredients that are in season are usually fresher and cheaper. They are healthier too. Different fruits and vegetables in a particular season creates variety in your diet. There will be several substitutes of a particular ingredient for a given recipe.
In Nigeria for example, you can substitute spinach for water leaf, ugwu leaf, hibiscus leaf etc. to make vegetable soup in the rainy season. These leaves are all in abundance. You have In fact, diversified your menu.
Involve your kids in cooking
It is interesting to see how much kids can do to help out in the kitchen. Do not underestimate their abilities. They love it when you get them involved.
Apart from the fact that they save you time, meal planning and preparation is an educational activity. Your kids will learn basic cooking skills. They will also learn to plan and prepare healthy recipes. In addition, your kids will learn to eat a well-rounded, family-oriented, culturally acceptable food and put an end to “picky-eating”.
Initially, the idea of kids saving you time in meal preparation is a mirage. You will in fact waste more time with them in the kitchen. They will slow you down-throw things around, spill liquids over; seek for your attention and so on. Believe me, it will get really messy and, initially, measurements are wrong. But with time, lots of patience, teaching and supervision, kids actually help you time in the kitchen.
Children from four to six years can help with pouring ingredients using measuring tools (spoons, cups, bowl and the like). They can stir batters, combine dry ingredients and bring out items from the fridge. They can also help with clean up tasks such as wiping counter tops. You can get them organized by teaching them to put away silverware, spoon sets and table napkins.
To get the best help from your kids in meal planning or preparation, choose a convenient time. Remember they are kids. They might be slow in executing tasks-they take their time. You must be patient.
You should plan when you intend to involve kids in meal preparation.
Choose the right time for the kids- when they are not hungry, sleepy, agitated or frustrated about something. At these times, you won’t get the best out of them.
Catch a night off
As much as it can be fun, cooking can be time-consuming. I love to cook. But I also love to have some days off cooking and away from the kitchen. Some days I want to simply serve breast fast as dinner or just prepare a ten-minute meal for everyone.
Nights off are a great time to use for family relaxation and to enjoy each other’s company.
There is really no right or wrong way when it comes to meal planning. You do what’s most suitable and convenient to you and what your family needs.Cooking decent meals for the family every day after long office hours can be a nightmare for those who don’t plan their meals ahead. For those who do, meal planning is a life-saver.
Enjoy healthy and delicious meals all week-long, saving time and without breaking a bank.
Are you inspired to start meal planning? Do you have a tip I didn’t include here? Share with me in the comments below.