This January I’m in organise and simplify mode. To continue with this series I’d love to share with you how I approach family meal planning and how to plan a whole week of meals in just 15 minutes.
I’ve been meal planning for years and I’ve experimented with different systems and methods that have worked well at different times of life. The system that suits me best right now is simple, quick and adaptable. I plan a week’s worth of meals once a week, usually on a Tuesday. I do this during naptime when I can sit down with a cup of tea, my diary, my homemaking binder and my calendar.
In this season of life as a mum of two little ones, living in the country where the nearest shops are half an hour away, I need to be efficient. I love being able to do my weekly shop in one go, knowing exactly what I need and what I’m going to make. It saves me a lot of time, money and hassle.
But there’s more to family meal planning than that. It also helps me to create beautiful, healthy and tasty meals for my family, while minimising food waste. It gives me a sense of calm and joy, knowing what’s for dinner every night. And it allows me to enjoy the process of cooking and eating together without feeling stressed or rushed.
Create a Master List of Meals Your Family Loves
One of the most helpful things I’ve done to speed up weekly menus is creating a list of my family’s favorite meals. This may take a bit of time at first, but it’s well worth the investment. My goal was to get at least 20 meals on the list, and then expand it to about 40.
To do this, I sat down with my husband to brainstorm what our favourite meals and side dishes are and what we have noticed our toddler loves most. If you have older kids, it would be fun to involve all family members in the process.
I then organised our list into categories, such as vegetarian, chicken, beef, lamb, seafood, etc. From this list, I can mix and match different meals and create some variety. I can also create seasonal meal ideas, based on what’s fresh and available at different times of the year.
My Family’s Favourite Meals
- Chickpea curry with coconut cream, sultanas, and rice – serve with a side of cucumbers and natural yogurt.
- Baked sweet potatos with toppings.
- Zucchini & tomato slice.
- Ratatouille with crusty bread and goat’s cheese.
- Lentil dal with pumpkin and spinach with rice and chapatis.
- Spanish omelette.
- Marinated chicken thighs with rice and salad.
- Roast chicken with roasted vegetables and salad.
- Chicken pot pie.
- Roast chicken, pea, and asparagus risotto.
- Country chicken soup with broth
- Barbecue spatchcocked chicken in garlic and herb marinade with loaded salad mix – salad greens, cucumber, tomato, avocado quiche, soft-boiled eggs, and crusty bread.
- Chicken parmigiana with sweet potato fries and salad.
- Korean chicken wings and drumsticks with rice, kimchi, cucumber sticks.
- Slow-roasted brisket with roasted veggies and salad.
- Slow-cooked silverside beef with steamed veggies, white sauce, and sauerkraut.
- Spaghetti bolognese
- Osso bucco
- Granny’s beef casserole served on mashed potatoes.
- Meatloaf with sauerkraut, crispy potatoes, and salad.
- Roast tomato soup with beef bone broth.
- Roasted leg of lamb with mint sauce, roasted potatoes, and steamed green beans.
- Shepherd’s pie.
- Lamb chops, steamed corn cobs, steamed potatoes, and salad.
- Slow cooker pork shoulder stew with Black Eyed Peas, butternut pumpkin served over rice.
- Danish meatballs, mashed potato, red cabbage and steamed beans
- Roasted vegetable & bacon frittata
Fish & Seafood
- Pan-fried rainbow trout with broccoli, baby potatoes with butter and herbs, and salad.
- Salmon tacos.
- Salmon fish cakes with crispy potatoes and green salad.
- Salmon sushi bowls.
Having this list of meal ideas in my homemaking binder makes putting together a healthy meal plan a breeze. I don’t have to rack my brain or search the internet for inspiration. I just pick and choose from my list, and I know that my family will love it. You could also include copies of your favorite recipes in your binder so you have everything you need in one spot. It will take some extra time at the beginning to put together, it’s an easy way to save a lot of time in the long run.
One of the things I like to think about when I plan my meals is the order of meals. This helps me to use my ingredients wisely and avoid wasting food. It also helps me to save time and energy, as I can cook once and eat twice or thrice.
The best tip I received when I first started meal planning more intentionally and frugally was to use certain cuts of meat in larger quantities to cook a main meal when I had enough time, and then have a couple of meals planned using different components of my leftovers.
For example, I love doing a roast chicken dinner one night and then using the leftover meat in a pea and asparagus risotto the next day. I also return the bones to make a broth and add corn, noodles, and any leftover meat to make another quick meal. This way, I can get three nutritious meals out of one chicken, and they are all different and delicious.
I have found this is the best way to get the most mileage out of my meat and to make it stretch further. I like to think of these as the twins and triplets of the meal-planning world. They are meals that are related, but not identical, and they make my life easier and more enjoyable.
Keep it Simple and Fun
One of the things I love about family meal planning is that it’s a great way to keep things simple and fun. I don’t have to stress about what to cook every night, or waste time and money on unnecessary trips to the shops. I can focus on enjoying the process of cooking and eating together, and making it a meaningful part of our day.
I like to keep to simple recipes during the week and save the new recipes or more elaborate meals for the weekend. This way, I can cook without feeling (too) rushed or overwhelmed, and I can try new dishes that I’ve been wanting to make.
How to Plan a Week of Healthy Meals in 15 Minutes
Step One: Check your calendar
The first thing I do is look at my calendar for the next seven days. I see what’s happening that week, and how it might affect our meals. For example, I ask myself:
- Will we be home for family dinner every night, or will we have some nights out?
- Do we have any activities or events that require a quick or easy meal?
- Will we have any guests over for dinner, or will we go to someone else’s place?
- Will we be travelling or away from home, and not need to cook?
Step Two: Check your ingredients
The next thing I do is check what ingredients I have on hand, and what I can get easily. I look in my freezer, pantry and garden, and see what I can use. I also check what’s in season and on special at my local farmers market or supermarket. I jot down the ingredients that I have or can get, and group them by category, such as protein, vegetables, grains, etc. These are the building blocks of my menu plan.
Step Three: Check your Meal Ideas
The last thing I do is check my list of meal ideas and match them with the ingredients I have. I use my seasonal meal ideas as well, to make the most of the fresh and local produce.
I write down my meals in my calendar or keep them as a list in my diary. Some weeks I don’t assign them to a specific day, but I have a pool of family meals to choose from during the week. I like to be flexible and adjust to the weather, mood or circumstances.
Step Four: Make Your Grocery List
Once I have my meals planned, I make my grocery shopping list. I keep a to-do list pad with a magnet on my fridge, so I can write down things that I need as I run out of them. I also go through each meal and think of what I need to buy to make them. I don’t forget to include easy breakfast ingredients, lunch and snack items as well.
Use Your Time and Tools Wisely
Little Pockets of Time for Food Prep
During the day, when you have some spare moments, you can do some food prep that will make your cooking easier and faster later on. For example, you can:
- Chop some veggies
- Brown some meat
- Make a pot of broth and keep it in the freezer or fridge
- Make a batch of yoghurt and store it in jars
- Make some dough for bread and let it rise in the fridge
All these little tasks can help you get home-cooked meals on the table without much hassle.
Favourite Kitchen Helpers
Another way to save time and energy is to use your favourite kitchen helpers. These appliances or tools make your cooking easier and more enjoyable. For me, these are:
I love my rice cooker because I can cook a variety of grains in it, not just rice. I use it for millet, quinoa, buckwheat and more. I don’t have to worry about burning or sticking, and I can set it and forget it.
Especially in autumn and winter, I love using my slow cooker to make hearty and comforting meals. I just throw in some veggies, broth, meat, herbs and spices, and let it cook slowly all day. It fills the house with wonderful smells and rewards me with a tender and delicious meal at the end of the day.
I use my Instant Pot for making bone broth, yoghurt, and meals that require a long cooking time. The Instant Pot can do it in a fraction of the time and do it beautifully. I also love that I can cook dried legumes in the Instant Pot very quickly, and avoid buying canned ones.
This was a very generous gift from my mum when I was pregnant with Anna. She has been a Thermomix owner for over 12 years and uses it on the daily. I’ve always wanted one, and I absolutely love it. It allows me to make a lot of from-scratch basics that I otherwise wouldn’t have the time to do. I use it to make bread, jam, relish, chutney, sauce, yoghurt, mayonnaise, and even mill my own wholegrain flours and caster sugar. It’s absolutely magic and I see it as my very smart kitchen assistant that works faithfully in the background.
Making the Most of Your Food Budget with Family Meal Planning
One of the benefits of family meal planning is that it can help you save money on your grocery budget. You can avoid wasting food, buying unnecessary items, or eating out too often. You can also make the most of what you have and what’s available.
Buy in Bulk
If you have a wholesale butcher in your area, you could buy all the meat you need for the month at a lower price and freeze it in portions. You can then defrost it gradually throughout the week as you need it. You can also buy grains, flour, rice, beans, nuts, seeds, and other staples in bulk and store them in large containers. This way, you can save money and always have the basics on hand.
You can also save money by eating seasonally as you can purchase fresh produce at the peak of its taste and nutrition at the lowest price. You can also support your local farmers and reduce your environmental impact.
Cook with Cheaper Cuts of Meat
These cuts often contain bones, connective tissue and cartilage. When cooked quickly, they are tough, but when cooked slowly, they become tender and flavourful. You can use your slow cooker, Instant Pot, or oven to make delicious meals with these cuts, such as stews, soups, curries, roasts, and casseroles.
Make Basics from Scratch
This can also improve the quality and healthiness of your food. You can control the ingredients and avoid additives and preservatives. I started with simple things, such as bread, yoghurt, kimchi, saurkraut, jam, sauce, mayonnaise, and granola. You can work them into your weekly kitchen flow, and take on a few things at a time. Don’t try to do it all at once, as it will be overwhelming and discouraging. It will take some time to perfect your recipes and methods, but once you do, you’ll be able to make them without much mental energy at all.
Adapt your Family Meal Planning to Different Seasons of Life
One thing I’ve learned from meal planning for years is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Different seasons of life require different approaches to meal planning, and that’s okay. What works for me now may not work for me in a few months or years, and vice versa. The important thing is to be flexible and adaptable and to find what works for you and your family.
Here are some of the different approaches to meal planning I’ve taken in different seasons of life, and how they have helped me:
Using a Recipe & Meal Planning App
When I want to try a different approach to food, or when I find a cookbook author that I love and I want to cook lots of their meals, I use a great app to help me plan my meals. I’ve used apps like Paprika or Cozi Family Planner, which are great for storing recipes and creating meal plans and grocery lists from them.
This has been useful when I’m not fully familiar with the recipes yet and I can’t think off the top of my head everything I’ll need.
Using a Meal Planning Service
Last year, when I was pregnant with Anna, I experienced moderate nausea and fatigue in the first trimester. I still needed to cook for my family, but I had no energy or appetite to think about food, plan food, or do grocery shopping. So I decided to use a meal planning service for the first time.
I used Hello Fresh as my pregnancy app was offering a good deal on it (I was apparently in good company!), which delivered fresh ingredients and recipes to my door every week. I used it for about six weeks throughout the height of the nausea, and it was a lifesaver. It also led to almost no food waste, which I loved.
Doing Meal Prep
I have also gone through seasons where I have relied heavily on meal prep. This is when I spend a few hours on Sunday mornings in the kitchen, prepping ingredients or making whole meals to stock the fridge and freezer with. This way, I have ready-made meals or easy-to-assemble meals for the week ahead.
I adore this method of meal planning, as it makes me feel organised and prepared. It also saves me time and money during the week, as I don’t have to cook or shop as much. At the moment the most challenging thing for me is finding consecutive hours for anything with a 3-month-old and toddler. But I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point when things settle down.
Having Theme Nights
Another fun way to plan menus is to have theme nights for each day of the week. This is especially helpful for monthly meal plans, as it provides a simple organising principle to slot everything into place.
For example, some of the theme nights I’ve used are:
- Sundays: soups and rolls, family roast, or slow cooker meal
- Mondays: meatless, such as pasta, curry, or salad
Tuesdays: tacos, nachos, or burritos
- Wednesdays: freezer meal, such as lasagna, pie, or casserole
- Thursdays: one pot or one pan, such as stir-fry, risotto, or frittata
- Fridays: fakeaway, such as pizza, burgers, or sushi
- Saturdays: fish, such as salmon, fish and chips, or seafood pasta
Family Meal Planning is a Rewarding Habit
I hope this post has inspired you to take a look at how you plan your meals for your family and to get them involved. Putting together a family meal list is a really fun exercise and a very valuable resource to have on hand. Having these resources, along with a set day for planning menus and a day for grocery shopping, will bring a great sense of peace and efficiency to the way your whole family is nourished.
It may take a little while to get used to it, but I can assure you it will become second nature after a couple of weeks. You’ll be amazed at how much time, money and stress you’ll save, and how much joy and satisfaction you’ll gain.
Family meal planning is a simple and rewarding practice that can make a big difference in your life and your family’s. I hope you give it a try and see for yourself. Let me know how you go in the comments. Happy family meal planning!