Having a meal plan. I feel it's something you either something you swear by, or else it sounds like torture to you. I used to be in the latter group and didn't see the value in meal planning ahead of time. I thought that it would just use up my precious time on the weekend and not give me any real benefit during the week. Well, I was wrong.
Yes, I do now need to spend some time at the weekend planning my meals, but that time is more than double given back to me during the week. Not only that, but it saves me stress when I come home from work after a physically and mentally tiring day of surgery and I know my meal is already planned (or sometimes already cooked!), it saves me time wandering round the supermarket pondering what to buy (not ideal in a pandemic), it saves me money as I'm less likely to give in and get a takeaway or overspend on a top up shop during the week, and it massively reduces food waste in my home. Meal planning is a busy zero-waster's saviour!
So let me share with you how I meal plan for two busy doctors who are trying to reduce their waste. I plan one week at a time because that's how often my fruit and veg box comes, but it could easily work for a fortnight or even a month.
Five simple steps to creating a meal plan
1. Look what is in your fridge/cupboards/freezer that needs using up. Preventing food going to waste is essential for the planet so we don't have valuable resources going to waste, but it also saves you money as you're not paying for food that goes straight into the bin. This is when I also look what I'm getting in my veg box for that week, and what will need eating up quickly and what will have a longer shelf life.
2. Then try to plan some rough meals with the ingredients you have. Personally I try to find a balance of quick meals, slower meals, and meals I can make in a slow cooker. I love using the Roasting Tin cookbook series, and BBC Good Food for ideas. Plan for any snacks or extras you want to have that week too. Note down any ingredients you don't have as you go - congratulations, you've made your shopping list minimal extra effort!
3. Next up, take a look at your week; which days are busy, which days are quieter, when will you need a packed lunch etc. and slot the meals in around your schedule. If I know I'm working a long shift I will look to see if I can cook food ahead of time, or put on a slow cooker whilst I'm at work. Make sure you've used any food that needs to be eaten up quickly early on in the plan to prevent its going bad.
4. Then head out and do one food shop. I have found that one shop is the simplest way for me to buy food as it saves time, saves stress and I've found that top-up shops tend to end up with me overbuying, leading to waste money and food. If you're interested to learn how to reduce your waste when food shopping, and look at this post, or this one for how to shop at an unpackaged store.
5. Come home, unpack and make sure you store that food properly straight away. So much food waste happens from poorly stored food so save yourself some energy and make sure your food goes into the right place initially instead of having to move thing later.
Then all you need to do is follow the meal plan!
A couple of extra meal plan tips for you:
Make sure you add in any prep-time to the meal plan, so that you remember to soak those dried beans or chop those vegetables when you have time, instead of stressing about later. There's nothing worse than forgetting to soak dried beans and having to dream up a new meal off the top of your head! Adding a slot a day earlier to prepare time consuming items, like a butternut squash, means you just get to come home the next day and throw it straight in the oven, which is a lifesaver for items that take longer to cook! I make my own bread (in a bread machine...) so I need to know when I need to bake the bread instead of just when I plan to eat it, so I schedule it in.
I also always make double the food in an evening as you then immediately have enough leftovers to take for lunch the next day, with minimal extra work - perfect to save you even more money, time and avoiding waste!
Leave a meal space blank and have that as a day to eat up any leftovers. Some people are amazing a portion sizing so this may not be an issue for you, but eating leftovers is great to avoid food waste. It also allows for some slack in your schedule in case life throws a curveball or you want to make some spontaneous plans during the week.
Work smarter, not harder. Slow cooker meals, bread machines, overnight oats etc. can be amazing tools and tips so help your meal plan work within your busy lifestyle. Try to borrow one of these from a friend for a week and see how it can make your life easier. If it works for you, thinking about investing in a second hand one to make your life simpler and your meal plan easier.
Think about how much food you're wasting overall, and check out this post on food waste to see how you can reduce it further to save money and reduce your carbon footprint too.
Having a meal plan has transformed my evenings and I hope it can help you feel less stressed and produce less waste too.
Come find me over on instagram to see more of how I balance a busy schedule as a doctor with reducing my waste and having a positive impact on the planet