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I’ll spare you the details, but this December has been a particularly busy one.
Now December is always busy – who am I kidding, thinking there might be some actual rest involved – but various circumstances outside my control have meant that this year’s festive season has been just a little more stretched in terms of commitments.
I didn’t plan it that way, but you can’t always rely on planning, right? Life gets in the way. Frequently.
The thing is, often when life gets hectic, I end up fire-fighting. Anyone know the feeling? The laundry can wait. The housework can wait. The blog can wait. All that matters is getting through the current event.
There’s a problem with this approach, though. Actually, there are a few. But perhaps the most pressing ones are firstly that the following week ends up being full of those annoying ‘catch-up’ jobs that you didn’t do when you had a busy week. And secondly, you kind of forget to live in those busy moments. You’re just getting through them to get on to the next bit of life.
One way that I try to keep our family really living through those crazy weeks is to make sure we all have a good dinner each night.
Whatever other bits of housework slide while we’re busy, the one thing that doesn’t slip for us is our food – and the reason it doesn’t slip is because I meal-plan like a total geek.
I can’t remember when I first started to plan our weekly meals, but it probably wasn’t long after we started weaning our eldest child. When it was just me and the hubs, we’d get in from work, decide who was cooking, look in the fridge, throw some bits in a pan, and hey presto.
But kids need to eat pretty early, and they can also be incredibly fussy. You can’t always just throw stuff together in the hope that it ‘works’ for them.
So: a meal plan is kind of a necessity for us. And I’ll tell you something: this December it has kept me sane!
Knowing that there’s always a plan for dinner means that I don’t have to waste brain space worrying about what we’re going to eat, or use up precious time and energy nipping to the shops for ‘extra bits’ because we don’t actually have enough food to make a whole meal. It’s also meant that we’ve kept our shopping budget reasonable, in a month when we have plenty of other things to spend money on!
Yup. There’s a plan – and, whatever the state of our house, at least we always know we’ll be eating something good.
There are loads of different ways to plan meals, but here’s what I do:
1. Use a meal-planning app or food-shopping app
I love the Morrison’s app – it’s so fantastically user-friendly. I can type ingredients into it throughout the week as I think of them, rather than writing them on different scraps of paper which I’ll no doubt lose. Then when it comes to actually planning our meals, I add the stuff I need onto the app and book my delivery.
I’ve also tried the Real Plans website, and this is brilliant for generating a good variety of family meals, as well as giving you a shopping list. I love the range of different ideas on here – great for when you’re stuck in a rut.
2. Schedule in time to plan your meals
Our supermarket delivery comes on a Monday, which means that unless I want to spend a harried Sunday afternoon furiously typing ingredients into my phone like some supermarket nerd, I really need to get sorted on Thursday evening. This is when I plan out what we’ll eat for the following week (Monday-Sunday).
If I don’t have a chance on Thursday evening then I still have plenty of time left – but, most importantly, I’ll probably have amassed enough of an order to book a convenient delivery slot. Leave it too late and it’s likely you’ll be getting up at 6am to receive your delivery (NO CHANCE), or leaving it till the next day.
3. Incorporate one-off events into your meal plan
Check your diary before you plan your meals!
If we have friends coming over, it’s helpful to work that in to the meal plan in case we want to do something special, or make a dessert or something. Likewise, if I’m on cake rota at toddler group, I’ll want to add that to my shopping list too.
4. Plan a variety of meat, poultry, fish and veggie meals
Each family is different here, but ours has a rough aim of alternating meat and veggie meals. I try to ensure we’re eating a good mix of beef, pork and chicken – and occasionally lamb, turkey or fish – along with the vegetarian meals.
5. Vary the carbs in your weekly meal plan
I’d love to tell you that we’ve gone carbs-free as a family, but no – far from the ideal of filling our children’s stomachs with nutritious alternatives like spaghetti squash or cauliflower rice, we do rely on white, processed carbs far too much. Listen, I’ve got bigger battles to fight at the moment (like a daughter whose food likes and dislikes switch over by the hour).
What I do do is make sure we vary the carbs – for us, this usually means potatoes, bread (e.g. pizza dough base, wraps, garlic bread), rice and pasta. And every so often I sneak in something brown while no-one’s looking.
For me, this is important, because if I don’t do it then we end up eating pasta – albeit with different sauces – for three nights on the trot. Checking the meals are varied in their accompaniments is a good strategy for us.
6. Invite family members to contribute to the meal plan
Sometimes I like to ask the kids (and husband) to choose meals. I often do this when I’m out of ideas – but it’s a great principle anyway, as they then feel like they have some control over what’s being served, and get to choose a meal they really love and are going to eat!
7. Keep a collection of great family recipes
To be honest, I rarely use cookbooks for midweek meals, as they’re mostly quite long and complicated to prepare (and my kids often won’t eat anything too racy anyway).
Instead, I make use of the BBC Good Food website, which I can’t recommend highly enough for quick family meals that really work. The search facility is really great – you can search by ingredient or (what I do) browse ‘family meals’ or ‘vegetarian meals’, which is so helpful.
I also keep recipe scrapbooks – not so much these days, but I’m grateful for what I saved in the past when I had more time! The recipes I’ve chosen to keep over recent years have tended to steer towards quick and easy meals which are child-friendly.
An amazing resource which I’ve just started using is the Healthy Meal Planning Bundle – it’s a digital library of over 1000 recipes written by parents who know what it is to face the dinnertime challenge with multiple kids every night. I’ve contributed 17 of these recipes (including Elderflower Cordial) and a meal plan.
The recipes are divided into 12 helpful cookbooks, such as ‘Quick and Easy’, ‘Breakfast’, ‘Salads and Sides’ and ‘Slow Cooker’.
And there are nearly 40 pre-made meal plans which cover pretty much every aspect of family life that you could think of, from ‘Breastfeeding Mama’ to ‘Short on Time’ (that’s my one!) to ‘Kid’s Lunchbox’.
Most of the contributors are from the US and Canada, and I’m loving the new flavour combinations and ideas which come from this part of the world – they’re really getting me out of my cooking rut!
Perhaps my geekiness in meal-planning has just about paid off this December. While I’ve been struggling to keep up with commitments outside the home, the fact I’m in a meal-planning habit that I no longer really need to think about has ensured that, if nothing else, at least my family is being well fed.