Let me just start with a disclaimer: I hate meal planning (read more about that here). It’s a faff and I never know what I’ll want and it just seems so…constrictive.
With that in mind, I also think I’ve come up with some decent tips that make meal planning work for me a bit better. I don’t do it properly – I have a kind of abstract approach but it works quite well. It means that if I don’t want to cook, and just fancy oven chips with gravy and Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire puddings, I’m not wasting food.
Oh, and these tips focus more on the saving money and wastage side of things, rather than the healthy eating thing, although I’ve found that the more I plan my meals the healthier they seem to be. Anyway, let’s crack on…
1 – Plan a month of meals
Get a piece of paper. Write the numbers 1-31 down one side. Write a corresponding meal next to each number. Repeat meals if you want (for example, if you have tacos once a week, you can put tacos four times). Add in lazy meals like sandwiches.
This is your reference guide. If you’re truly stuck regarding what to cook, look at today’s date, go to the corresponding number and cook that. Match up a meal on the reference guide with what foods you have to hand.
2 – Have variations on the same meal
Ok so, you’re having chilli for dinner. Cook chopped onions, carrots and celery for half an hour on a low heat. Add mince (I use soy or Quorn). Add tinned tomatoes. Up until this point, the chilli isn’t chilli. It could be spaghetti bolognese, burritos, lasagne or cottage pie, with the addition of various carbs, spices or sauce. You could add in that elderly green pepper that lives in the fridge door for a few extra vitamins and a bit of bulk. Add and
Add an extra tin of tomatoes or two (31p each – bargain) and you’ve got enough for two meals. Put half in the fridge, and carry on making your chilli. It’ll last a good three days (more if you use a veggie alternative to meat), and you’ve got dinner practically sorted for another night.
IN FACT whilst we’re waiting for our onions, carrots and celery we could whip up some cheese sauce (melt knob of butter in pan, take off heat, add flour until a paste is formed, put back on the heat, cook for a minute, add milk, whisk until thickened, add grated cheese). Now you can prepare tonight’s chilli and tomorrow’s lasagne in one sitting. Well done you, you little meal prepper.
3 – Use your freezer
You’re probably sick to the back teeth of people preaching about freezer cooking on Pinterest, but I actually don’t really freeze meals. My freezer is teeny weeny and full of food for our tropical fish. My tips is this:
You can freeze chopped onions.
You may wonder how that’s a tip at all, but it’s freaking life-changing for me. You see, I’m not a massive health freak or anything, but I worked in a restaurant for a long time, and the one cooking tips I learned was this:
when you cook a meal that requires sauteeing onions to start, you can bulk it up and add flavour by also adding carrots and celery (both cheapy cheap cheap cheap).
It also reduces the amount of salt you’ll need, and you probs won’t need a stock cube or bouillon. Winner. Also, cook them long and slow, so all the sugars are released and everything tastes divine.
Here’s the thing, though: chopping onions is a pain in the bum. Celery’s pretty easy to chop, I grate carrots but onions are a funny shape, they’re too slippy and they make me cry. Le sigh. My solution? Chop a whole bag of them at once wearing swimming goggles (yep, really) and freeze individual portions in a freezer bag. SORTED.
4 – Have the same meal more than once
If you hadn’t already noticed, I freaking love chilli. Especially with all the trimmings – salsa, sour cream, guacamole – the whole gang. I’d happily have it every night of the week and just tweak the carb. My fave way to have it is with jacket potatoes, but you could have rice or wraps. Versatility is its middle name. It’s cheap to bulk out too – you can add frozen corn, beans – even the half packet of cooked rice that’s living in the fridge.
Don’t think for a second that you’re failing as a domestic goddess because you’ve eaten pasta five times in one week. Italian’s have it twice a day. In Indian, they sometimes eat curry up to three times a day. It’s only our weirdo culture that can’t have the same meal more than once a week (except for breakfast, when it’s weird if you chop and change). If you want to live on sandwiches, go right ahead.
I don’t really like rice that much. It’s too much of a faff to cook, BUT if I’m having a vegan week, brown rice is a great source of protein and b-vitamins, so I buy those little microwaveable pouches (since I don’t have a microwave, I just pan fry them). They may seem expensive (£1 for two portions) but it’s the only way I’m going to eat it. I have raw brown rice in my cupboard but I never cook it, so even though it only cost me £1 for about 20 portions, it’s a wasted £1 since it’ll never be used.
Sure, if we were suddenly in huge financial difficulty I’d stop buying the pouches, but I still don’t think I’d be prepared to wait the millennia it takes for brown rice to cook. It just doesn’t taste good enough to warrant the time taken both for it to cook and to scrape the burnt rice off the bottom of the pan (whoops).
6 – Chop stuff up
Whilst you’re watching telly on Sunday afternoon, get your chop on. You can do tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, celery, onions. They’ll last about five days, so you’re free to pig out on Saturday. Having everything prepared means you’re more likely to eat it/reach for that over going to the shop for chocolate. I also like to take grapes off the vine and put them in a bowl in the fridge, for something that’s approaching a sweet treat (it’s no chocolate, but it’s trying).
These are the tips of a reluctant meal prepper. If you have anything to add, pop it in the comments below, and until next time,
Have fun and be good.