How do I create flexible and simple meal plans?
Why should I try this?
Use this guide to explore how creating weekly meal plans will ultimately save you time and make it easier to keep to your food budget by ensuring you buy only what you need and that all your food in your home is eaten and not binned.
Life is very busy for many people, constantly juggling everyday challenges, that it’s easy for food to become something that just happens, everyday, without further thought.
We’ve all been there – quick trip to the shop based on a fleeting thought about what we fancy eating during the week then when we need to make a meal, those thoughts are long gone and you cant think of what to cook which is especially wearisome when you are tired.
Often our best laid plans to use up our food falls by the wayside, we either make something with what’s in front of us or we spend out on a takeaway – while the lovely food we planned to eat which is full of goodness and which has already used our planets resources, heads for the bin … and with it, the hard earned pennies used to buy it. Finding a quick and easy way to create meal plans will become your new best friend around food.
How do I do this?
There are three steps we recommend that you follow to create a meal plan that works for you:
- Step one – Getting started, find a method for writing your meal plan that’s right for you
- Step two – Meal planning around your food budget
- Step three - Choosing meals to prepare/cook
Getting started - finding a format that works for you
It’s important to find a way of creating a meal plan that fits into your lifestyle otherwise it’ll become a real challenge for you to keep doing it every week and you’ll give up, losing all the benefits a well-crafted meal plan will give you.
Are you a scribbler, tech whizz or freestyler?
1. Scribbler – get yourself a simple note book and keep it specifically for meal plans. You can then refer to previous weeks for inspiration for meals you enjoyed and which were easy to make, particularly when busy.
- You can also use a wipe board on your fridge so it’s always to hand, and then take a photo at the end of each week before you write the following weeks’ plan to remind you of meals that worked well.
2. Tech whizz – use your mobile phone and create a folder in your notes app for weekly meal plans. Then create your meal plan in a ‘note’. Keeping all meal plans together will, as per the above point, help you to refer to previous weeks plans.
- You could set up a note as your template and type out the days of the week and mealtimes and then just make a copy of this note each week to start your new meal plan. e.g. Monday - Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
3. Freestyler – If you don’t like to be pinned down to a specific meal on a particular day then meal plans can still work for you with a bit of flexibility when you create them.
- Simply select one of the methods above (scribbler or tech whizz)
- Then rather than adding a meal under a specific day, add up how many busy days you’ll have and how many days are left when you’ll have time to cook something that takes a bit more time, not forgetting to note the days you are eating out.
- Then add a list of meal choices for ‘busy days’ and a list for ‘other days’.
- You can then choose which meal you would like on the day.
Time saving top tip for all methods – you don’t always have to create a full week’s meals all in one go. Once you’ve created a meal plan for one week, why not just keep adding an other day so it becomes a rolling weekly meal plan? i.e. if it’s Monday today, add meals for next Monday towards the end of today.
Meal planning around your food budget
Remind yourself of your weekly food budget and create a plan that helps you stick to your budget. This will help you think about different meals to add to your meal plan.
- Making the most of food staples for your cupboard and freezer will help you balance your meal plan with your budget.
- You can also mix and match/swap ingredients to make the most of food you buy e.g. if something needs meat then you don’t have to necessarily buy the meat stated in recipes costing a fortune and ending up with several half used packs in fridge. You could buy a pack of chicken, for example, and use it for a couple of recipes instead. Or buy a bag of carrots and use it in place of parsnips.
- Buying own brand will also help you to stick to your budget and you’ll still create tasty and nutritious meals too. Give them a try and see how you get on.
Top tip – write your shopping list at the same time while you are looking at recipes. This will make it easy to scan your food required and see where you can make simple swaps. It will also make it easier to see whether you need fresh food or can buy frozen food or food staples for you cupboard e.g. canned and dried.
Choosing meals to prepare/cook
This will get easier to do the more you write meal plans and will soon become second nature.
If you take time to work through this checklist then it will help you buy only what you need during your food shop, saving you time and money. Plus, as mentioned above, it’ll make mealtimes a lot easier as you’ll have chosen meals that work for you, at the right time, reducing thinking time and you can just crack on with making the meal on that day instead.
1. Who’s at home and who’s out during mealtimes?
- Make a note of who is in during the week and which days. This will help you calculate how much food you need to make and buy as well as choose the right meals for those who’ll be at home.
- Are you all able to eat at the same time or do you need to create simple meals that can be eaten at different times and perhaps reheated in the microwave? e.g. child going to football club, partner arriving home late.
- Does someone need a special diet e.g. diabetic or is someone taking part in activity and needs fuel for energy?
2. Meal choices – planning your week around your routine/calendar and easy ways to keep it flexible and use up your food.
- Busy days – be realistic
- Throw-it-all-in meals – to use up your food
- Freezer meal day – give you a break during super busy days
- Breakfast – you may not need to plan this meal in detail
- Favourites – keep a list of your favourite and most cooked meals to help when thinking about what to add to your meal plan.
Further details - Meal choices
Your meal choices will be based on your notes from above plus the following:
Busy days - be realistic
Many people set out with the best of intentions and plan to cook a nutritious meal using fresh ingredients. Plus quite a few of us love cooking so we look forward to an evening of cooking. The reality is quite different and this lovely fresh food is often the food that ends up in the bin as we are tired and don’t have the energy to cook.
- If you plan meals that are simple and easy to prepare for the busy days/nights then you are much more likely to stick to these meals.
- The alternative is to cook batches of meals at the weekend or some other time when you have more time to cook and freeze them for your busy days.
- Remember what you have in your cupboards too – handy cans of tomatoes, lentils and beans make a tasty quick and simple meal in minutes.
Throw-it-all in meal, one day a week
- Keep one meal free for a flexible throw-it-all-in meal. Be creative the day before your shop and use up the fresh food that is getting close to the end of its edible life.
- Use our recipes search page and select the filters or just type in your food and hit ‘search’ for some inspiration. Often one pot meals are great for this or curry, stews and soups. You could also make your own pizza.
Your freezer can be your friend when you make the most of it.
- e.g. Buying frozen fruit and vegetables will give you more choices when you are busy and/or your plans change. It’ll still maintain its quality for another day and can sometimes be cheaper than fresh food.
- If you’ve cooked meals ahead then it’s very easy to heat them up in the microwave. Check out our food pages for top tips on how to freeze and reheat different foods safely.
- You may not need to write any thing for this meal on your plan every day if you regularly have cereal or toast.
- Make a note of things you need to use up that may be good to go with cereal on different days e.g. blueberries, yoghurt.
- Bread – remember to keep your sliced bread in the freezer. You only need to take out what you need each day and pop it straight in the toaster – no need to defrost.
We all generally end up making a handful of recipes most of the time.
- Make a note somewhere to hand of your favourite meals e.g. at the back of your meal plan notebook, in a ‘note’ in your meal plan folder on your phone or stick up a list on your wipe board. Remember to add a reference to the recipe book and page number or save a link if it’s an online recipe.
- You can then also challenge yourself each month to find something new and add it to your list.
- Keeping this list will make meal planning much easier as you won’t have to keep thinking up different meals.
What you may begin to notice
With anything new, it takes up a lot of brain power as we need to think a bit more and keep checking notes on how to do things. Things will get easier the more you write meal plans and you’ll quickly find ways to do it that work better for you.
Over time, you’ll find mealtimes less stressful as you’ll have removed the thinking time required to work out what to cook at mealtimes – something you’ll notice even more when it’s really busy.
You’ll also find writing your shopping list a lot easier too as you’ll already know what meals you are having. Plus if you start your shopping list when you write your meal plan then you’ll also save time just before you go shopping.
And finally, by being food savvy with your meal plan you’ll notice that your food shop will cost you less as you’ll be buying fewer different foods (food swaps/mix and match) that work across more meals, you’ll be buying only what you need and you’ll have created a day to use up food in your fridge (throw-it-all-in day) so less food will end up in the bin too.
Frequently asked questions
How can I avoid binning extra portions in packs when I only need one or two?
Simply pop the portions you cannot eat in the freezer for another time.
What can I do with half opened packs of food that are needed for making different recipes?
Swap/mix and match food - Write your shopping list at the same time as preparing your meal plan. This will make it easier to spot when you can swap different foods in recipes so you buy fewer packs of food and still make several delicious meals e.g. a pack of meat may be suitable for a couple of recipes – you don’t always have to buy what’s stated in the recipe.
How can I make thinking up different meals easier?
Favourite recipes/meals – keeping a note of your favourite recipes and meals close to where you do your meal planning will make thinking of meals simple and easy and reduce the time required to come up with a varied and balanced meal plan.