Meal Planning, Quirky Cooking
Photo by Sabine Bannard for Simple, Healing Food

Do you feel overwhelmed at the idea of menu planning? Having a flexible plan for the week saves me money and time – here’s the how and why, for those interested…

* Keep a file/list of your family’s favourite recipes (either on paper or on the computer) so you have plenty of ‘old faithfuls’ that will keep your family happy.  Use mostly these recipes each week, plus a couple of new and interesting ones, or healthier versions of old ones!  I go through my recipe books (or websites) each week looking for new ideas – sometimes I end up putting too many fancy new ones on the menu, and I find I’ve bitten off more than I can chew (lol)… It’s really easier if you just have one or two new ones each week, unless you’ve got plenty of time to spend in the kitchen!  (Or unless they’re simple ones, eg. basic Thermomix ones.)

* Figure out how many times per week you want to have fish, chicken, red meat, and vegetarian meals for your main meals… or whatever your family eats.  Write down next to each day of the week what you’re going to have that day.  Eg: Monday – leftovers/vegetarian; Tuesday – fish; Wednesday – red meat; Thursday – fish; Friday – chicken; Saturday – leftovers/vegetarian; Sunday – meat/chicken.  Now you have a plan you can build on.

* As you look at each day, think about your calendar and commitments, and have a look through your recipes to find meals that will suit you time constraints.  For example, I think: “Tuesday I’ll be homeschooling all morning, then out from 2pm to about 9.30pm doing a cooking demo – I need a quick lunch, so I’ll make extra dinner the night before so that there’s leftovers for lunch, and I’ll make a casserole during the morning that the family can heat up for dinner.  I’ll also have to make sure there’s something for snacks, so I’ll make a cake today, and get the kids to make custard after they have dinner.”  I know that sounds like a lot of work, but because I plan it out ahead of time I don’t have to have cupboards full of junk food and packet snacks to fall back on, and we hardly ever buy take away meals.  We save a lot of money by planning home-cooked meals and snacks, and we eat a lot healthier.

* As you choose the week’s recipes, think about what’s in your fridge, freezer, garden, vege box from co-ops, and cupboard – leftovers, grains, veges, fruits, tins of stuff, etc – and try to incorporate them into your menu.  It’s easy to forget the leftover veggies in the fridge, or the abundance of chokos in the garden, or bags of dry beans and quinoa that have found their way to the bottom of the freezer.  Use up the oldest things first, and try not to double up when you go shopping.  (A good way to remember what’s in the fridge and freezer is to keep a list on the fridge, on a whiteboard or a laminated piece of paper.  You can write on it (with a whiteboard marker) any leftover meals, frozen meals, and bags of things you’ve bought bulk and frozen, rubbing them out as you use them.  This is also helpful for when you’re about to put in another bulk order, as you know how much you have left of things.)

* Try to plan at least once in a week to make a double batch of something that can be frozen for a future meal – casseroles are especially good for this, as they can be thawed and cooked at the same time.  (Just pop it in the oven frozen and cook on 180 degrees C for approx. 1 1/2 to 3 times longer than you would need for baking in its’ unfrozen state.  Or thaw overnight in the fridge for shorter cooking time.)

* After you’ve planned your main meals, think about lunches.  This is optional – you might be the kind of person who always has a sandwich, or a basic salad, for lunch.  I’m not! We have main meals at lunch time sometimes, as my husband shift works. And if I’m doing a Thermomix demo at lunchtime, I have to have something organized for the family at home. We often eat leftovers for lunch, and if there’s not enough I make it into something else – eg. soup, vege & bean patties, fried rice, veggie curry…  Or we have fresh bread or bread rolls or tortillas/wraps with tuna and salad (or whatever else there is), different kinds of salads, or a quick veggie pasta made in the Thermomix.  We don’t generally eat lunch meats because of the additives and preservatives in them, so it’s either leftover roast meat, salad, and/or homemade spreads for sandwiches/wraps.  If you have kids at school, it’s a good idea to plan their lunches too, so they don’t get bored with the same thing every day.  Eg: soup in a thermos with whole-grain muffin/crackers; raw veggie sticks with dip & boiled egg; interesting sandwiches or wraps; fruit salad; pasta salad.

* Sometimes I also plan for breakfasts – generally, though, I just use up leftovers or cook up some eggs or porridge with fruit. 

* When you write out (or print out) your menu plan, add notes on each day to remind yourself what you need to prepare for the next day.  Eg: beans, grains or nuts that need soaking for the next day, meat that needs to be thawed in the fridge the day before, bread that needs to be baked the day before so you can have toast for breakfast the next day… anything that can be prepared ahead to save you time the next day.

I don’t always stick completely to my menu plan – sometimes meals get changed around because I didn’t get the preparation done the night before, or something has come up and I don’t have time for what was planned.  In that case, I switch the meals around, or use the meat/veggies planned for that night to make something simpler.  

I often share my meal plans in my newsletters – see some examples here. Subscribe to my newsletter to receive my Quirky Cooking meal planners (pictured below) for free!

I hope you find these ideas helpful.  A menu plan is a great tool that will save you time, money and frustration!