I know, normally I should have written this post first, but instead of giving you hard to digest information, I first wanted to give some ideas on how to apply some of the planning before I went into details like what, who, when, where and why (we’re already working on the how). So, here is the five W post.
Food planning and food prep (or meal planning and meal prep)
First, we need to make a distinction between the two. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are two different things.
Food planning / meal planning
As the name implies, this is strictly related to the planning stage. For example, the previous two posts were purely related to food planning. Most of the posts in this series will be related to food planning, though for example some of the recipes coming up will also have meal prep elements to it.
Food prep / meal prep
Food prep, short for food preparations, is when you prepare food ahead of time so that you won’t have to cook (much) later. I do this for my lunches every week but also during the week when we cook once and eat the same thing multiple days in a row. For example, this week we made a big pan of pasta sauce and we divided it into 8 portions so that we could eat from it for 4 days. For food prep, your freezer will become your best friend.
So, while the two things are not the same, they are very similar. Food prep can be an important part of your food planning. But they don’t have to be implemented both at the same time. Food prep was especially important when I lived on my own, I didn’t want to cook whole meals every night, so I cooked once and I ate from that multiple days. So while I didn’t *plan* my meals, I did have a freezer full of *prepped* food, and these days I do a combi of both. It’s up to you.
Anyone can meal plan, it really is as simple as that. But there are some groups of people who may benefit more from it than others, these specific groups are single people, couples, people on diets or with food restrictions, people with busy schedules at home/work. But really, it’s really helpful for everyone.
When you’re on your own, you are the one responsible for all your meals, for all your shopping and for all the cooking. Most recipes are written for at least four people and most things like vegetables and meat are packaged in sizes that are designed for these four people recipes. So, making these larger recipes and saving them in portion sizes will save you time, as you don’t need to keep cooking full recipes, just reheating is enough. You’ll save money as you don’t have to buy in special “small portion” sizes, and you’ll save a lot of waste as you can use packages as intended and don’t have to throw away any leftovers. Even if you don’t plan out all your meals, but simply choose 1 or 2 recipes to make for dinner and just do whatever you like for your other meals, you’ll still be better off.
Your advantages are mostly the same as for single people, apart from that you’ll probably need more recipes in a week to make. Another advantage of this is that you can easily plan for one of you being away or late. There is no “who is cooking tonight” if you’ve already got a meal prepared. Also, this makes sure that you don’t both talk each other out of eating healthily, or somehow end up with two dinners because neither knew what was going to happen. And yeah, with two people, talking each other into bad eating choices gets a lot easier than if you’re on your own…
People on diets or with food restrictions
When you’re on a diet, tracking what you eat is a good idea anyway, even to get an insight into your eating habits. Apart from that, if you live in a household with other people, them knowing what you’re eating, or you knowing what they’re eating can help with not straying or, in the case of food restrictions because of allergies or other reasons, you can plan to eat some meals together while you can eat different meals on other days. This means that you don’t always have to eat differently from the rest. If there is a meal that you *can* share all together, planning it beforehand means that everyone knows when and what. No more last minute freaking out over trying to get the vegetarian in the family a veggie burger while the others have hamburgers because you’ll know beforehand what you’ll have to buy.
People with busy schedules
Planning your meals and your shopping around your schedule can really improve on your time management. Sometimes it’s easier to take one afternoon off to food plan and food prep so that you only have to defrost and heat something up in the microwave when you need a meal. Sometimes it’s easier to plan and shop once, but cook every couple of days. It all depends on what your schedule is like. But planning your food and shopping and cooking ahead does give you more control over your time and schedule. Which means that with just a couple of minutes spent elsewhere, you won’t have to stand in front of the ready-meal section trying to choose between the only 2 nice meals on offer and mentally calculating if you’ll have enough time to go to the gym that week to work off the extra calories of the pizza you’re bound to take home.
You can start at any time that you want. You can take small steps, big steps, or in between steps. But any step you take will be improvement.
We sit down on Sunday, look through the recipes that we may be interested in, pick about three of them and write the shopping lists. Then we go shopping. Usually, we also cook on Sunday, then Tuesday and finally Thursday. We often eat the Thursday meal also on Saturday as Friday is “snack night” which usually means takeaway. I prepare my lunch for the whole week on Sunday too, putting two of them in the fridge (Monday and Tuesday) and the other three in the freezer.
As you can see, the “when” can be pretty personal. Back when I lived on my own I would cook for two weeks in a row, so the only thing I had to do every day was pull a meal from my freezer and boil some pasta. This was handy especially during busy weeks, when I had easier weeks I would experiment with food a bit more.
When to start? Now, preferably, or as soon as possible.
When in the week will you be doing this? That’s all up to you. Do you work during the weekend? Then maybe an afternoon during the week is better for you. Do you work nights? Then you may need to find the moment when you’re still most awake and can block out a couple of hours for planning (and maybe preparation). Do you work weird schedules that have you working non-standard weeks? Then base your shopping on *your* best days, that can be different every week, as long as you create a system that works for your situation instead of the other way around.
At home, at college, anywhere really. But you know, the literal “where” is not very useful in this case.
Where? On paper, better, in a notebook or something else that you can keep. Here are two pages in my Bullet Journal that are really important for me.
The first one is my list of recipes page. Here I collect recipes that I’ve tried and really liked and recipes that I’d like to try. These are very handy, both when you want to make a certain recipe again and when you’re out of ideas. We regularly make recipes from our “Try out” list, though lately, we’ve been dependent on my new recipe book that I’m creating from recipes I keep collecting but never making (post on how to make one yourself will come soon).
The second one is a single page every month where I list per week the recipes I’m making that week. This is easy to keep variation in your diet but also to later look back what you had, especially if you really liked (or didn’t like) a recipe. The last square I use to list the lunches I make every week, though these are usually one out of two but meh, I like tracking and collecting things.
So yeah, another “where” is of course your cookbooks and anything else where you can find recipes.
And, of course, all of this can be done digitally too! I just personally prefer paper. But to each their own!
I guess I can talk about all the other elements all I like, but if you don’t see a reason as to why, how can I convince you to change whatever you’re already doing? So, here my reasons why planning (and prep) are valuable for people in every situation and every stage of their life.
In no particular order, most of these I’ve already touched upon slightly earlier on:
Planning out your food and only buying once a week is cheaper. You are more likely to only buy the food you need, which you’ll have written down! You won’t be tempted to buy snacks every time you go into the store, so no $30 worth of snacks every week. And, most food these days comes in pre-packaged sizes. So by buying (and cooking) meals at those sizes instead of small 1 or 2 people portion sizes means that you are way cheaper off, this will really add up in the long run. Also, you can really choose to make recipes that fit your budget instead of whatever you fancy as you stand in the store. It’s much cheaper to buy food in 4 portion sizes than in one or two portion sizes, or to cook once and eat of it multiple times than to keep throwing leftover away.
When you plan before you shop, you take control of not only your food but also your budget.
When you plan ahead, you can plan your meals to take control of as much of the produce as is possible. This works in two ways, one is the before-meal stage and one is the after-meal stage. Before you eat and cook, you can plan your meals so that they complement each other. For example, one recipe uses half a cucumber? Plan for another recipe where you use the other half (though cucumbers make great snacks too). One recipe needs 2 paprikas but they come packaged in threes? Plan another recipe where you can use the last one. Be aware of your planning and of how food is packaged. This reduces not only food waste (no more half cucumbers that disappear into the bin after the week ends), but also packaging waste. Buying very small portions of things (like small bags of carrots or small bags with sugar snaps) is not only more expensive, but creates more environmental waste. The after-meal stage is the question of what to do with leftovers. Well, for one, if you plan in portions, and eat the set portion, you shouldn’t have leftovers. What you may have, is dinner (or snacks, or lunch) for another day. Leftovers aren’t a bad thing. You can freeze them (if the meal is big enough for someone to eat it at another time), you can save them and repurpose them for something else (leftover potatoes or pasta make great ingredients for a very filling omelet, especially when you’ve got some veggies left over too), or even save them a few days and have leftover-day where you eat leftovers from 2 or 3 meals as a new meal. If you do have to deal with leftovers a lot, look at either making them useful again (by eating them at another time) or planning in a way so that you don’t have to have leftovers (for example, smaller portions).
When you plan before you shop, you take control over how much waste (both of the food and the packaging variety) you have on a weekly basis.
Planning takes time, but, you’ll get loads of time back from it at other points. When you sit down for an hour or two and plan your meals and do your shopping in one go you’re saving a lot of time later in the week. No worrying about what you’ll have for dinner as you drop by the store on your way back from home. No standing in the store trying to come up with a recipe. No waiting in line at the till every day. All that goes out the window if you do (nearly all) your shopping in one go. Also, if you go from cooking every 2 to 3 days instead of cooking a different meal every day, that saves a lot of time too. Really, it sounds like a lot of work, but you’ll be surprised how much time you’re actually spending thinking about what to have for dinner or waiting in line at the store.
When you plan before you shop, you take a little bit of time, to take away a lot of worrying-about-dinner time, waiting-at-the-store time and long-meal-preparations-every-day time throughout the week.
For some people, this will be one of the main reasons to plan their meals. I know that it was definitely for me. By planning my meals I took control over my food intake, this meant that I wasn’t tempted to just make a really unhealthy breakfast, because making a healthy breakfast only takes me a minute or so (as per the overnight oatmeal recipe that I shared a couple of days ago). It’s now easier for me to choose healthy than it is to choose unhealthy, imagine that. I’m very lazy, so taking most of this choice away from myself really makes me so much more healthy. Also, by only shopping once a week, I’m not as tempted to keep buying candy, or other quick snacks at the store, as I’m no longer tempted by them every day. I now buy some sweet snacks every week, but that’s all I can have, there is no buying extra later. It also means that if I run out at the start of the week… well, too bad. But, I guess the biggest improvement for me was the type of meals that I eat. When I’m not tempted at the store by all the pasta sauces or other things that all sound equally delicious (even when I know that they are unhealthy) but instead sit down and come up with some recipes that I know are of nutritional value, I can make much better choices for my health.
When you plan before you shop, you are more likely to choose meals that are healthier and you’re less tempted to buy loads and loads of unhealthy snacks.
Wow, that’s quite the post. But, I felt like I did need to write the rest of it. I also felt like going into the “How” would be a bit redundant, as this series of blog posts kind of goes into all of that. So, what are your tips for food planning? Do you have anything to add? Do you have any questions?