Meal Planning Survival Tips: Five ways to keep it simple

Author: Dr Jane Watson
Accredited Practising Dietitian

My previous blog, ‘Meal planning survival tips’ outlined the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of meal planning. This is a continuation of the same topic, with the aim of consolidating your meal planning habits and reaping the benefits: saving time and money, while contributing to improved eating habits and calmer mealtimes.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

I started planning meals when my three boys were small, at a time when I felt that buying, preparing, cooking and serving food seemed to be taking more time and energy than it should. Planning meals for a whole week can seem overwhelming but it’s now a high priority in our house because I know how much time it saves and how much more smoothly the week goes with one less thing to coordinate. Through trial and error, we’ve learnt lots about what NOT to do when creating a weekly meal plan. Here are my top five tips for keeping meal planning simple.

  1. Check the calendar. Calendars change weekly, so I usually only plan for one week at a time. A quick cross-check with diaries helps ensure the meals that are planned will fit in with activities for the week. On nights we’re late home, we might plan a slow-cooker meal that’s been cooking all day or something we can throw together quickly. On nights when we have a bit more time, we might plan for something that takes a bit longer to cook or prepare. On weekends, we might even get a bit more adventurous and try a new recipe.
  2. Check the pantry, fridge and freezer. More than just verifying what you do and don’t have, a quick check of the pantry, fridge and freezer may give you ideas for meals to include and helps use up ingredients before you buy more – saving time, money and minimising waste.
  3. Have at least one ‘Plan B’ recipe in the pantry. The best planned weeks can easily be derailed when unanticipated events occurs. It sounds counter-intuitive but having a plan for when things don’t-go-to-plan is just as important as the plan itself. On nights when it becomes apparent that the dinner we have planned just isn’t going to happen, we’ll have something quick from the pantry or the freezer. It might be ‘breakfast for dinner’ (cereal and/or toast) or a tin of tuna stirred through pasta or something from the freezer. Knowing there’s a Plan B takes the pressure off and removes the temptation to grab expensive, less healthy takeaways.
  4. Be realistic. If your expectations for meal planning are too ambitious, it’s easy to burn out. Meal planning doesn’t mean cooking restaurant-style meals every night. Keep meals and ingredients simple. Minimise or avoid new recipes and, at least initially, stick to meals you’ve cooked many times before. Know your limits and cook what your family has already been eating. The only difference is that you’re planning ahead with shopping and cooking, to save precious time.
  5. Be flexible. It’s inevitable that some, and maybe even most, weeks you’ll need to juggle your meal plan with other priorities. When your plan gets thrown out and you need to use your Plan B, you can still feel like a dinner superhero. If your plan gets totally derailed and you buy takeaway, that’s ok too. Meal planning is always a work in progress. Being flexible with the plan and being kind to yourself is the key to keeping up the habit.

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