14 Meal-Planning Tips for a Cheaper, Simpler and More Nutritious Diet
1. Get a workable system in place
Get a meal planning system in place. Buy a pad of tear-off sheets, print out a few copies of my free meal planner & shopping list PDF, write your own outline on a blank page, or perhaps download a meal planning app if you prefer to do it digitally. The most important thing is to make it easy and to make it enjoyable (I do mine on Sunday nights, with a big mug of tea, using a lovely pen – it’s the small things!).
A little hint: I keep all my old meal plans in a folder on my cook book shelf. I can then quickly flick back through a few past menus and use one of those if I am tight for time (usually with a few quick adaptations).
2. Do a ‘stock-check’
If you get a weekly vegetable box delivered, shop at a farmer’s market or grow-your-own, the first step is to jot down what fresh produce you will be getting this week. Also do a quick ‘stock-check’ of your fridge, freezer, fruit-bowl & cupboards and note any ingredients that need to be used. This will minimise food waste and give you a list of ingredients you know you’ll need to include.
3. Note your busiest days
Next, think about the days that you know you’re going to be busy or stretched for time. Star or highlight these mealtimes on your planner so you know not to put a preparation-heavy option on that day. I aim to have leftovers ready to go on busy days or something very simple like pasta, soup or a quick stew (salad in warmer months).
4. Investment dishes
Then find 1-2 days where you will have a couple of hours here and there to cook and use these to make some investment dishes. Perhaps a big tray of roasted vegetables, a chopped salad or coleslaw, a roast chicken, fish pie, chilli, curry or vegetable stew. Take a look at my batch cooking recipes and also my last two books – Nourish & Glow: The 10 Day Plan and Simply Good For You. Double up quantities if necessary so you’ve got plenty of leftovers to enjoy on busier days. Maybe you can freeze a few portions too.
5. Multi-task meals
If you know you’re going to have a dish in the oven for a while, use this opportunity to be energy-efficient and also put in some jacket potatoes, other roasted vegetables, or a simple casserole. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to ‘piggy-back’ a few dishes together like this and can save a lot of time later in the week.
6. Think about protein
Once you know the days where you’ll have a little more time, think about the key protein sources you want to use – depending on your personal preferences and tastes. As an example, I tend to work with a few of the following different sources per week and find different recipes to jazz them up a bit;
- Legumes: Pulses / Chickpeas / Cannellini or Butter beans / Lentils / Broad beans / Hummus (legumes are my commonest protein choice – they are cheap, sustainable and speedy).
- Nuts & seeds: / Nut butters / Chia seeds / Hulled hemp seeds / Flaxseeds / Almonds / Cashews / Walnuts
- Soy products: Tofu / Tempeh / Edamame beans
- Poultry – Chicken or Turkey
- Oily fish – Mackerel / Salmon / Trout / Sardines
- White fish – Hake / Haddock / Pollock / Cod / Whiting
- Red meat – Beef / Lamb / Venison or other game (We tend not to eat so much red meat these days, but might have it twice a month or so)
- Dairy – Eggs / Cheese / Natural yoghurt
Jot a selection (perhaps 3-5 different options) of dishes using your preferred protein into your meal plan. We often have fish on a Thursday evening, for example, as that’s when a local fishmonger gets his fresh stock in. Try to keep possible use-by dates in mind.
7. Seek out inspiration
If you’re feeling stuck for ideas, have a flick through some recipe books, social media accounts, Pinterest or websites to get some inspiration. Instagram has the save option so you can create a file called recipes and whenever you see something lovely, save it there for another time and Pinterest is great for this (have you checked out my Pinterest page yet?). Save recipes or dishes you’d like to try, as you see them, so you’ve got a bank of ideas at your fingertips when they are needed. Keep a list (on the fridge or inside a kitchen cupboard door) of speedy, easy meal ideas that you know have worked well in the past (especially if you are cooking for a number of different people with varying dietary requirements or desires!).
8. ‘Cook once, eat twice’
Work on the basic principle of ‘cook once, eat twice’. When you’ve gone to the effort of preparing a dish from scratch, it’s a reasonable plan to eat it for lunch and/or supper the following day too. Just follow common-sense food hygiene practices and ensure things are heated thoroughly before serving as necessary. I have a selection of clip-top glass containers that are perfect for storing leftovers and oven and freezer safe too. They are a great investment.
9. Make breakfast an easy affair
Don’t worry about trying to ‘plan’ breakfast. It’s the one meal of the day where having a simple, go-to dish can serve you well, without being detrimental to your overall nutritional intake. It takes a lot of thinking (and shopping) out of the equation if you stick to 2 or 3 breakfast recipes on rotation. Just ensure your everyday choices contain some source of protein and are not too high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fat or sugar. There are lots of healthy, quick & easy breakfast ideas here and in my latest book Simply Good For You.
10. At the bottom of the fridge, lurks a good meal
Make a ‘bottom-of-the-fridge’ vegetable stew, curry or soup towards the end of the week to use up left over vegetables. It’s also a great thing to do if you’re going away and want to leave the fridge empty. They will all freeze well and mean you’ve got a home-cooked meal ready made when you get home. See my article on How to Build a Healthy Plate if you don’t have specific recipes.
11. Simple puds
I don’t bother with desserts day-to-day. I’ll have a piece of fresh seasonal fruit, a couple of squares of dark chocolate, or a dollop of natural yoghurt with a handful of chopped nuts and berries if I fancy something sweet. None of these need to be included in your meal plan.
12. Revisit your plan
Once you’re happy with the key dishes you’re planning to make this week, quickly skim back over your plan and fill in any gaps, adding vegetables and side dishes (even if you change these on the day) and make any tweaks. Frittatas, soups, pasta dishes or a quick dahl / chickpea & vegetable stew tend to be my gap-fillers, if you’re looking for simple inspiration (remember that I have lots of easy dishes here on my site: see Recipes).
13. A plan is just a plan
It doesn’t matter if you don’t actually stick to your plan 100%. I rarely stick to it precisely, but the process certainly helps reduce the amount of time I have to spend thinking about cooking and meals during the mayhem of the working week. It really has been a game-changer for me, as a little time invested upfront in planning (it takes no longer than 10 minutes to do all of this with a little practice), pays off hugely over the course of the whole week. Plus, it has reduced my food wastage (and therefore expenditure), as well as expanded my cooking repertoire (and thus dietary variety). It’s also easier to stick to a healthy eating plan if you know what you’re aiming for – it’s a proactive rather than reactive response to the fact that we all have to eat every day, regardless of how tired and busy we are!
14. Write a list
Finally, write your shopping list and put in your order. I mostly shop online for things that don’t come from the organic delivery company, or in bulk. This saves me time and money, as I am less tempted to buy extra things on a ‘whim’.
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