5 essentials to eating well: Part 4 – Planning ahead

This week for National Nutrition Week  I’ve been sharing the 5 skills, actions and thought processes that are essential for eating well. Number 4 on my list is a big one – planning – so read on for some tips to help you plan ahead for a healthier week of food. If you’ve missed any of the other essentials so far, you’ll find the links at the bottom of this post. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for the last post in the series, it’s going to be heavy on the links!

#4 – Planning ahead


Unless you’re lucky enough to have a live in chef who cooks you healthy meals every day, healthy food doesn’t just appear on the dinner table without a little effort and planning. Setting aside some regular food planning time can help you to eat well throughout the week and reduce those last minute takeaway decisions on the way home from work. It can also save you money, not only because home cooked meals stretch your dollar further, but because you can get really thrifty checking out what is on special and planning your meals around those foods. A little bit of time planning can save you a whole lot of time and effort later by reducing decision making throughout the week.

Despite all of the pluses to menu planning, the term can strike fear and aversion into a lot of people. Many clients I speak to don’t like the idea of choosing everything they will be eating for the next week and being ‘stuck’ with those choices. The good news is, there are LOTS of different ways to menu plan and it is about finding the way that works best for you and your family. No matter how you do it, there is no reason to feel tied to the plan, in fact there should always be some level of flexibility because we can never really know what the week is going to throw at us.

Here are just some of the different versions of menu planning that I have used or heard have worked for others:

  • Weekly planning with set days – The type of planning that most people think of. Set out what you plan to cook each day of the week depending on what else you have on each day. Remember that even this sort of planning should have some flexibility – don’t feel like what is planned tonight? Switch with another meal from later in the week.
  • Weekly planning without set days – If you have fairly similar days throughout the week with a set routine, you could consider just choosing a set number of meals to cook for the week and buying the ingredients for those so that you have more flexibility during the week to choose what you feel like on that particular night. Simply list your chosen meals on a pinboard or stick it on the fridge and cross them out as you make them so you know what is left to make for the rest of the week.
  • A few days at a time – Some people don’t like to plan more than a few days at a time. If you schedule is all over the place and you never know what you are going to be doing on Thursday to be able to plan on Saturday, you might find it easier to do a couple of smaller planning sessions throughout the week. This should still save you time and reduce your nightly visits to the supermarket to just a couple of times a week. Again, you can do set days, or just choose a few recipes to last you the next 3 days.
  • Component planning - If you’re someone that doesn’t particularly like to get too fancy with your meals and find that you eat fairly similarly for most meals, it might be more effective for you to plan ahead for some meal components that you use regularly throughout the week. If you are a chicken and veg sort of person, cooking up chicken breasts in bulk on the weekend and freezing them in meal sized portions can save you time during the week. Have rice regularly? Cook up a big batch and freeze it in portions too. You can even go all out and make your own complete frozen meals with portions of chicken, rice and vegetables all in the one container ready to pull out and reheat for dinner in a flash.
  • Monthly planning & cooking – Some people like to get organised for an entire month all at once! If you’ve got enough freezer space and 1-2 days to set aside for shopping, chopping, cooking and freezing, once-a-month freezer cooking might be for you. There are plenty of recipes online if you want to try this, just google ‘once a month cooking’ or ‘freezer cooking’ to get some ideas.
  • Rotating plans – If you find a week of meals that works for your family, you might like to create a few weekly meal plans of your own and rotate them around. Saving old plans can really cut down on your planning time on the weekend and can even save you time putting together your shopping list if you keep these as well. If it works, why spend more time reinventing the wheel? You can of course keep adding new weekly plans when you find you are getting bored of them. I’ve found this really works for clients who don’t like spending time on planning – do it a few times and then repeat what you have done.
  • Set meal plans (bought or free) - While this isn’t something that I recommend too much, there are plenty of websites that provide free or bought meal plans to download if this is something that you think would work for you. The reason that I don’t really like them is that most people have likes and dislikes and it’s hard for a plan from someone else to take all of these into account! If you really have no idea where to start they can have some benefit, but be prepared to make changes to suit your family.


How I meal plan:

Remember, you need to find a planning strategy that works well for you, so you don’t need to follow my way by any means! I tend to use the meal planning with set days method described above. This is just an example, feel free to follow these steps, or come up with your own!

Menu plan

1. Get ready - Make cup of tea (or get partner to make one while I get everything else together), grab my shopping list pad and a pen and gather together some food magazines, cookbooks &/or pinterest boards for inspiration. Get comfy on the couch.

2. Get set - Write the days of the week down the left hand side of the back of my shopping list pad. I also write the dates and then see if there are any events that need to be noted (eg. Matt playing soccer on Monday night) or days when I am working late (Matt usually cooks on these days, or we might plan a leftovers or quick meal for that night). At this point I usually ask Matt if there is anything he feels like cooking this week to write on his night, or if he has any requests for my cooking nights.

3. Plan - I then go through any food magazines I’ve read recently to see if there is anything I want to cook in them (I fold the corners of any pages with recipes I want to cook as I read through them, so that I can flick straight to them when I am making my meal plan for the week). I may also have meals I am planning for putting on the blog (eg. in Winter I planned a soup every week to use for my regular Soup Sunday posts), or recipes I am trying to develop into healthier versions, so I take this into account and write them on my menu plan as well. If I’m stuck I also look through my Pinterest boards for inspiration. As I write them on my menu plan, I also write next to them where to find the recipe and any plans for what I want to serve them with. I try to get a good balance by getting in some fish, some red meat, some chicken and some vegetarian meals. We only plan our dinners as leftovers make up most of our lunches.

4. Shopping list - I then write a shopping list on the other side of my piece of paper (ticking each recipe that is listed on the menu plan side of the paper so that I know it has been added and making note of anything that needs to be bought fresh later in the week, like the salmon above) and then ‘go shopping’ in my own pantry to see if we have some of the things we need already and cross those off the list – like the cumin and chilli, for example. Lastly, I add anything else we need from the running list on the fridge before we head off to the shops. I keep my past menu plans for inspiration when I am stuck, or to remind me of recipes that need to make it to the blog.

Shopping list


Tips for better meal planning:

  • Try different strategies - You may need to try a few different ways to discover what works best for your household, so have a look at the different ideas above and think about what will work best for you.
  • Plan the right amount for you - Some people (like me) just like to plan their dinners, others find that planning out all meals and snacks is better for them to stay on track. Find what works for you.
  • Set aside a regular time each week for menu planning - Making this time a part of your weekly routine will help you to get consistent with your meal planning. Sunday afternoon works best for me, right before we head out to the shops, but you might find Saturday morning coffee time, or Friday night in front of the TV works better for you.
  • Keep it flexible -  Remember that it is just a plan or a guideline, it shouldn’t be set in stone! You need some flexibility for unexpected events (car breakdown, sick child, late night at work) or just to cater for your appetite and feeling on the day.
  • Communicate your plan - Make sure everyone in the house knows what is coming up, it will help to reduce those ‘what’s for dinner’ questions! Use a medium that works for you, whether it is a whiteboard, blackboard, corkboard, recipe cards with pegs, or a shared google calendar.
  • The freezer is your friend - Take advantage of your freezer and stash some emergency meals in there for those days where getting a meal on the table seems impossible. We all have those days! Planning ahead for them will make it easier to ignore the ‘I’ll just grab takeaway on the way home’ urge. Cook double of one of your favourite recipes every week or two and stash one in the freezer for later.
  • Ingredient double up -  When planning your meals look for ways where you can use up leftover ingredients later in the week. eg. use leftover cooked chicken in burritos another day, or cook up extra roast vegetables with your Sunday roast to go with another meal (or make them into vegetable frittatas).
  • Shop the sales - Check out sale catalogues before you put together your plan so that you can take advantage of meat that is on sale, or vegetables that are cheaper because they are in season.
  • Be realistic - Plan more elaborate meals when you have time (like on the weekend) and keep things simple during the week. On busy nights, plan ahead for leftovers or have frozen homecooked meals ready to go.
  • Use themed days for structure – This will make your menu planning decisions a little easier each week. Try ‘Fish Friday’, ‘Soup Sunday’, ‘Meatless Monday’, ‘Worldly Wednesday’, or how about having a regular night for leftovers or fridge freestyling?
  • Reassess every now and then - Reflect regularly to make sure that what you are doing is working for you – don’t just follow a habit if it isn’t working in your favour. Don’t be afraid to change things up if you need to.

Already got this menu planning thing sorted? Check out the other 4 essentials to eating well:

#1 – A balanced mindset

#2 – Basic cooking skills

#3 – Creativity

How do you stay organised with your meal planning? Share your tips in the comments below!

Image source (top of post): Punsayaporn on

What do you think?