Menu and meal planning is something that I always recommend to clients and encourage at my workshops. Although it may initially sound daunting and time-consuming, planning ahead will actually save you time and money in the long run.
Weekly menu planning goes a long way towards ensuring that you always have the necessary healthy ingredients on hand – cutting out those last minute dashes to the grocery store, or the need to rely on convenience or take away options. It’s simply the best way to create a healthy and wholesome menu that caters to all family members.
Coming up with inspiration can often be half the battle – which is why I address this issue in my book Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook. The book features an array of family and lunchbox meal and menu planners, utilising the simple recipes and techniques that are covered in my book.
The menu planners include options to suit all families, including those with allergies and dietary restrictions and those without, as well as lunchbox planners for both adventurous and fussy little eaters and a time-saving healthy party menu planner. The menu plans provide practical guidance on how busy families can best prepare for the week ahead, helping to make it as stress free and simple as possible.
Here are my seven top tips to make menu planning simpler and easier:
1. Get the family involved.
In my previous article ‘healthy pantry overhaul‘, I talk about the importance of getting children involved in the planning, shopping and food preparation element – as well as the power of simple swaps, like switching to whole grain versions of pasta, bread or rice and bulking up family meals and sauces with added vegetables.
The best way to encourage fussier eaters to stick to the planner and food on offer, is to get them involved and by encouraging each family member to help choose a meal and lunchbox ideas for the upcoming week. For some simple lunchbox recipe inspirations, see my post ’10 healthy lunchbox snacks that you can actually make at home’.
2. Focus on nutritious versions of family favourites.
Having a list of go-to family and lunchbox meals is one of the simplest ways to speed up the meal planning process. When embarking on a ‘healthier’ way of eating, it’s not necessary to ditch old favourites, but rather to give these a nutritious overhaul by swapping out processed ingredients with whole food replacements. For example, in my book I show how traditional family dinner favourites like pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti bolognaise, mac n cheese, fish fingers and chicken nuggets can be overhauled so that nutritious versions can be offered on the week’s menu planner for the whole family to enjoy.
LISTEN: On this episode of Year One, our podcast for new parents, we talk nutrition, raising a toddler who’ll eat everything, and when it’s time to transition to solids. Post continues after audio.
3. Increase variety.
Whenever you find a new meal that you and your family love, add it to your rotation. Consider trying one or two new recipes a week, and use a few old favourites to fill in the gaps. Increasing variety slowly is a great way to combat repetitive eating and slowly desensitise fussier eaters to new foods. It also means that your family will be incorporating a wider range of nutrients over the week, which is key to boosting overall health and wellbeing.
4. Rely on multi-tasking meals.
Additionally I encourage families to think of “multi-tasking meals” – meals that make use of leftovers that are easily repurposed into the next day’s nutritious lunch. This goes a long way towards streamlining your weekly food planning and preparation, as well as making the morning rush less stressful.
Some of my favourite multi-tasking meals include:
– Beef and veggie meatballs: serve for dinner and then send to school in a thermos with mashed sweet potato or quinoa pasta, or place in a bento style lunch box with veggies and some homemade tomato sauce.
– Homemade sweet potato pizza (recipe on page 131 of my book): perfect for a simple and nutritious Sunday night dinner, and then sent to school in the lunchbox the next day cold.
– Baked salmon: serve with homemade oven baked wedges for a mid-week dinner, and then mash up the leftovers with a good quality, preservative free mayo and send to school in a wrap.
– Cauliflower, chia and cheese falafels: a delicious and versatile tummy filler, send the leftovers to school in a wrap, or on their own in a well-insulated lunchbox or thermos.
– Boiled eggs with sourdough toast soldiers: a go-to dinner for busy families. Boil extra eggs and send to school the next day in fun egg moulds, or mashed with tzatziki as a sandwich or wrap filler.
– Roast chicken: One of our family favourites. Save leftover chicken and shred or cut into small pieces and add to buckwheat pasta for a tasty and nutritious chicken pasta salad.
5. Create a shopping list.
Use your menu planner to create your shopping list. This not only saves time when at the supermarket, but also reduces the amount spent on weekly groceries and provides you with better options for rotating meals throughout the month.
I’m always quick to point out the importance of understanding the ingredient labels on the products you are purchasing. This is a great way to be armed with purchasing power and nutritional knowledge when at the grocery store or even browsing for products online. It’s also something that I feature in depth in my book.
Online grocery shopping can be an absolute saviour for families - with the ability to review the product’s ingredients online, this can be a time-saving option for those crazy weeks.
6. An organised and structured pantry and fridge.
One of my pet peeves is rushing to the shops to get an “ingredient” only to realise afterwards that I actually already have one or two (or more) already sitting in the back of the pantry or fridge.
It’s impractical for families to keep an immaculate pantry or fridge (considering how many different pairs of hands come into contact with it daily!), however a lot can be said for keeping things relatively orderly so that things can be found quickly and easily. Not only will this help save you time and stress, it will save you money too.
Different systems suit different people, so it’s important to work with what suits you and your family’s needs best. For instance, I am guilty of often buying duplicate bottles of the same herbs and spices, and packets of seeds. Deciding to clear out a shelf and positioning all the herbs and seeds, so that they are clearly visible meant that this has stopped happening (as much!).
7. Batch cooking.
I’m a big advocate of batch and bulk cooking - and then freezing. A few hours preparation on a weekend can mean a freezer filled with nutritious, homemade ‘convenience’ food, removing mid-week evening stress and reducing the average shopping bill too.
Here are some meal prep hacks:
- Many recipes (including the recipes in the Wholesome Child Nutrition Guide and Cookbook) are suitable for freezing, so double (or even triple) the ingredient quantities and freeze the extra portions. If you do this regularly for a couple of weeks your freezer will begin to fill with wholesome meals for the days you haven’t got time to cook.
- Lunchbox snacks can also be prepped in advance. My kids love pear and raspberry muffins and salmon and millet rissoles, so I often double the batch and freeze some of these for the week’s school lunches.
- When roasting vegetables or steaming cauliflower, make extra for the next night’s dinner, or for use in sweet potato pikelets or cauliflower pizza. When chopping vegetables chop extra veggies sticks. They can be added to lunchboxes and stored in the fridge for two to three days in an airtight container.
- Cooking wholegrains can be time consuming, so it often helps to double or triple the portions you’re cooking and place the extras in the freezer. Cooked grains such as quinoa, brown rice and even millet can be frozen. Reheat as needed.
- Do things fall apart on the weekend? A great way to reduce the constant nagging for sweets and lollies is to prepare batches of your children’s favourite sweet snacks and store in the freezer. Popular recipes include banana bread and chocolate almond scones.
Menu and meal planning does get easier with practice. Getting the family involved, figuring out which tips and tricks suit you best and seeing the time and cost saving benefits all help to pave the way for a less stressful and more nutritious journey. Remember to celebrate the achievements along the way - however small they may be!
LISTEN: The school holidays are officially over and we’re trading in our beach towels for tea towels. If you need a kick up the butt this year, we’re bringing you the ultimate back-to-school boot camp.