I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with meal planning. Love, because the idea of it is amazing: save time, reduce food waste, and have loads of delicious, healthy meals. Hate, because the reality is hours spent poring over cookbooks and lots of leftover veg wilting and wrinkling in the fridge

Don’t get me wrong, I love browsing food blogs and curling up with cookbooks. I’ve even read all my cookbooks cover to cover at some point or other. It’s a lovely lazy way to spend a Sunday afternoon, with a cup of tea and a cookbook.

But choosing recipes, assigning them days, and writing a shopping list? Hate it. And so I’ve devised a way to do it that takes just five minutes a week and makes it so much easier to reduce waste and make sure I have tasty, nutritious meals all week.

Do you need to meal plan?

Absolutely not. Jennifer from Simply + Fiercely doesn’t meal plan at all; she has a simple method of creating balanced meals on the fly based around whatever veggies and protein she picked up at the supermarket that week. If something like this works for you, you absolutely do not need to start meal planning.

I’ve tried eating like Jennifer but found I very easily fell into a rut and found my meals lacklustre, making me more inclined to order takeaway or microwave a ready meal. I still throw together the odd salad with leftovers and some oil + vinegar, but it’s not the core of my meals.

However, I still love Jennifer’s simple and minimalist approach to eating, and this was something I wanted to replicate myself. I didn’t want to spend an hour every weekend meal planning, only to find myself frazzled as I tried to cook and wasting food.

I wanted something simple. More than that, I wanted to enjoy cooking again, instead of just treating it as a necessary evil interrupting my evenings.

A simple approach to meal planning

Because my meal planning approach is simple, it doesn’t take me long at all. The key is the Trello board I keep updated with meals and their ingredients. I love my cookbooks, but for the purposes of meal planning I take a photo (or, if it’s an online recipe, a screenshot) of the ingredient list and add it to the card for the meal.

I have three lists, but you can use however many or few you like. Mine are:

  • Big batch meals. These are the ones that generally take longer to cook but, as the name suggests, leave plenty of leftovers for lunches or evenings where I don’t feel like cooking. I like to make one or two of these a week, usually on a Saturday or Sunday and an optional weeknight, and double or even treble the recipe if need be to have some leftovers.
  • Quick weeknight suppers. Anything that I can make, start to finish, in under half an hour. There’s a mix of proper recipes here and more general ideas, like ‘salmon and roasted veg’. I like to plan a few of these each week for evenings when I have other things going on.
  • Pantry meals. The last category, these are meals that can be made entirely with pantry staples: tinned foods, frozen foods, and veg like onions and carrots that I always have on hand. I don’t typically include any of these meals in my weekly meal plan, but I like to have them on this board to refer to should one of my planned meals fall through for some reason. They’re also great for lunches if I misjudge leftovers from dinner one night.

Once a week, I pull up this board and assign one meal per evening for the next five days. I try to pick things that use similar ingredients, and check the fridge first to make sure I incorporate anything that needs eaten. Lunches are typically leftovers or a salad with whatever veg I have in the fridge.

I only plan five days at a time because I know things are going to change. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever stuck to my meal plan every evening for a week, but I still like to pick specific meals for specific days in advance because some nights I know I’m busier. If you’re home every evening then you could also just pick five meals from your list and eat them in whatever order you fancy.

Expanding the list

Every single recipe on my list is tried and tested. It’s something I know I like, and all the ones my husband likes are tagged with his name (I’m a pescetarian who eats largely plant-based, and he’s … not). But part of the joy of food and cooking is trying new things, so I always like to incorporate new recipes every so often.

Seeking out new recipes, however, makes my weekly meal planning more of a chore. It’s fast and easy to go through my list of meals and add them to a calendar; it’s much slower and more tedious to leaf through cookbooks trying to find things to eat, especially as we do our grocery shopping mid-week so I’m usually meal planning on a Wednesday evening.

One of the key tenets of this blog is savouring the mundane parts of life, like cooking, but that includes meal planning as well. Instead of a harried hour stolen mid-week, desperately hunting through cookbooks for recipes that use up the ingredients in the fridge, I’ve made my weekly process fast and simple, and saved the more time-consuming aspects for when I can enjoy them.

When I start to feel like my meals are getting too repetitive, or I just get the urge to try new foods, I’ll take my time hunting out recipes. I’ll curl up on the sofa with a few cookbooks and pick out a handful of new recipes to try, add them to my list, and incorporate them into my meal plans over the coming weeks. This way I’ll keep the joy of browsing through cookbooks and food blogs separate from the chore of meal planning, and I’ll keep the meal planning so simple and quick it doesn’t even constitute a chore anymore.

Some final thoughts

I love this approach to meal planning because it doesn’t feel like a chore, and it makes the rest of my week so easy. If I come home from work one evening and don’t fancy what I have planned, I can pick something from later in the week or grab some leftovers from one of my bigger batches. But I don’t find myself staring at the fridge with no idea what to eat, because if all else fails I have a meal planned for that evening and the ingredients for it already in the fridge.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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