Meal planning. One of those dreadful terms that have made its way into normal conversations everywhere. Something that once meant planning meals in order to stretch not only your money but your food now means planning meals in such a way that you know when to take out the ribeye steaks. Although there is nothing wrong with that translation of the concept, I tend to stick to the more traditional definition.
To me, meal planning is much more than simply working out what my family will eat during a set period of time. It goes beyond knowing what to buy when I hit the stores. It is a process during which time I plan on what I will use, what won’t be wasted, how I will economise electricity and water usage, cut down on trips to the store, make use of discounts and sales, and still feed my kids meals that are tasty, acceptable to their fine palettes, and nourishing. And also, but not necessarily most importantly, meals that are affordable.
My little family of 3 have gone through a few hard changes the last couple of months. After getting separated, the kids and I are on our own – their Dad works overseas. Although he pays child-support, anybody who has ever successfully raised kids as a single parent will know that even with child-support you still need to cut your corners finely in order to get by. With the added stress of Covid-19 and the fact that I could not work during the 5 months of harsh lockdown, our family income has drastically shrunk.
So, we are now in the beautiful position of having to make do with only a fraction of the income we used to have. To make do, I have come up with a few rules, ideas, and systems, the biggest one being meal planning. I have placed an absolute moratorium on any unnecessary spending, and that includes food, making meal planning not so much a nice-to-have as a need-to-do.
To get us through this patch, and to also establish better spending habits, I have made a few rules:
- If I can make it, I won’t buy it
- No shopping during the week unless it is a life necessity. All shopping will be done on Mondays and then for the rest of the week we make do with what we have
- If I cannot freeze or keep the leftovers, I cook less food – then only enough for dinner and one lunch
- Buy on special only what we can use for the week. No pilling up in the pantry, that is money on the shelf. Specials do come around again
- Limited treats, especially for the kids (because I am also strict on the amount of sugar we consumer)
Some of these rules seem harsh (my kids will tell you they are personally suffering as a result of no 5), but they are very doable and in the long run, not that limiting. When I take my time to work out nice meal plans, the kids love it. They get to eat their favourite foods, and since we are saving by not buying unnecessary food or wasting so much, we can afford to have a special treat at least twice a month. For them, that means getting sushi or making pizzas – both very affordable, even as a treat!
In order to make the meal planning not only effective but easy to commit to, I have worked out a system. The system works as follows:
I work out the menu for the following week on Sunday.
To plan this menu, I take a full stocktake of everything in our fridge, then our freezer, then our pantry. I also consider the batch recipes I have made and frozen, i.e. stock, sauces, cooked veg, etc.
Then I take a look at what is on special for the week (thank you Sunday newspaper!) and plan the meals around these food items, focussing mostly on what we already have with minimal ingredients that must be bought.
I like to use 2 or 3 tried and tested recipes with 2 or 3 brand new recipes. If they work, then great, if not, I throw them out. Based on the menu for the week I plan my shopping list, which I buy on Monday morning. If there is anything that must be batch cooked or prepped, I will do that afternoon/night Monday. Any cooking that needs hours in a slow cooker or instant pot will go through the night.
And that is it! As easy as that.
In order to be as successful as you possibly can, I can offer a few additional tips:
- Pick at the most 2 stores that you will visit. There is no sense in driving out all your petrol to numerous stores just to save a few bucks. A special is only a special if it actually allows you to save.
- Don’t be scared to buy or cook in bulk and freeze – although I say don’t pile up your pantry, the freezer is a bit of a different beast. It works at its best when it is almost full, so try and keep your freezer stockpiled, if only for the electricity savings.
- Keep an inventory list on the door of your fridge/freezer/pantry or all 3. This makes it really easy to know what you have on hand, as well as when it was bought/cooked/frozen. I have a roll of stickers as well as permanent markers that I use to date code whatever I freeze, and to write the contents off on the outside of the container.
- Know what can be frozen and what not, and also in which forms, i.e. whole eggs cannot be frozen, but whisked eggs or separated eggs can. Bread freezes very well, cheese not so much unless you are only planning on using it for grilling in any case. Let me know if you would like a whole post on this in the future!
- Have recipes that are tried and tested to help you use up food that would normally waste, such as a great banana bread recipe for black bananas, tomato sauce recipe for over-ripe tomatoes, or cream cheese recipe to help use up yoghurt before it splits.
- Educate yourself on how to handle and prepare fresh produce in order to preserve it, i.e. blanching, freezing, pickling, etc. This way you can buy in bulk.
- You do not need to invest in fancy containers in order to freeze your bulk buys or batch cooking. I keep ALL of the glass jars that food normally comes in and repurpose them to freeze in. The secret to successful freezing in glass? Never fill the container to the top. Leave at least 2cm of air so that the food has enough space to expand in. And screw the lid on tightly! Place the containers upright in the freezer – once frozen they can be placed on their sides.
- Grow a garden! Certain vegetables are so easy to grow, and you can even do them on a balcony. Things like tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and herbs can even be grown indoors. Grab a pot, some soil, and help cut your grocery bill even further.
- Invest in a slow-cooker, instant pot or crockpot. They really help to stretch your budget since they can make cheaper cuts of meat tender and tasty, without any effort on your part.
I have been running this system for 6 months now, and we are at the point where we had weeks that the only thing I had to buy was fresh milk and cream, the rest were all already cooked in previous weeks or we had leftovers from batch cooking. We have cut our grocery bill in half, and we have nicer meals with better food than ever before.
Have you tried meal planning before? Let me know what your experience was or is. And if there is anything specific you would like to get more info on, please let me know!