How to start meal planning: a housewife's guide

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Oh meal planning, the fundamental key to good housewifery. I’m not even joking ladies and gentlemen, we are huge advocates of it here at The Darling Academy. You’ve heart it said before that the kitchen is the heartbeat of the home, and we want it to beat in an orderly fashion now don’t we?

I must admit, of all the emails and requests for advice I receive via email and on social media, the one that surprises me the most is those asking for help with meal planning. Now don’t get me wrong, this comes from a heartfelt place - but having done it for so long, it feels like riding a bike and I blink and wonder why and how more homemakers aren’t already don’t it.

That’s testimony there for you folks - once you get the hang of it, you’ll be doing it in your sleep, so no need to get frazzled at the thought. Let me share my top tips with you, for kitchen management, budget, and meal time success.

What is meal planning, and why you should do it?

In order to understand the topic, we must first understand the “why”. Meal planning is exactly what is says on the tin, a plan! That does not however mean that it is inflexible, restrictive, monotonous, or boring.

So why should we “plan”? Put simply, for freedom! Meal planning, though initially sounding constraining, actually provides a lot more freedom than cooking off the cuff, and releases a lot of precious time for the homemaker. Not only this, it is extremely friendly for your budget, and minimises food waste.

It’s also healthier for you and your family as you are in complete control of what ingredients go into your food, and if you’ve planned ahead then there is less temptation to reach for fast and convenient food because you have found yourself stressed over what to make, or time poor.

Time and extra money usually spent shopping for last minute food items is also halved, time fretting about what to put on the table is no longer wasted, and in many cases, time in the kitchen itself is reduced significantly. If you know what you’ve got coming up, you can plan ahead and manage your time efficiently, which is precisely what we want as professional homemakers.

Need to marinade something? You can set that up that the day before while you’re chopping vegetables for another meal! Cooking bolognese? Why not batch cook some to save yourself a whole afternoon of cooking later in the month?

How to start meal planning.

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Plan your menu, but remain flexible.

This is the first rule of meal planning. Though do remember, while we plan, we are not strict. The plan is merely a guide, and an outline of what you have on hand in the fridge and pantry in order to feed your family this week. It works against the homemaker’s happiness and vibe of her family to force feed the brood broccoli on a day when you’re craving pizza simply because “that’s the plan”. In fact, it helps to…

Look at your diary, and choose meals accordingly.

Does little Max have Rugby practice on a Tuesday? Then perhaps that day is ideal for utilising your slow cooker. If your darling husband works a late shift on a Friday, make something that can be heated up well later!

Never feel like cooking on a Saturday night? I certainly don’t, so don’t sweat it! Indulge yourselves in oven pizzas, takeaway, or an easy meal deal for that day. No need to feel guilty about taking it easy from time to time.

Personally, I like to plan my meals around two things;

  1. Our routine and plans (such as extra curricular activities, and planned events).
  2. What day my vegetable box arrives (it’s a Tuesday, which also usually coincides with the days supermarkets are often restocked after the rush of the weekend).

Knowing where we will all be on certain days, and having a peek at the seasonal vegetables that have arrived helps me decide what to have when. It’s also really useful to scour Pinterest, follow along with your favourite foodies on Instagram, and pick up a seasonal food magazine here and there. Getting to know what’s in season and when is an ideal way to save pennies as in-season foods are generally cheaper.

Write yourself up a little “wish list” for things you’d like to try, and take note of what your family may have asked for. My boys are never shy to ask for Mummy’s Lasagne, or a Saturday pizza. I pop in a few things I might have spotted too - that way, each week we’re all getting something we love.

Now I know what seasonal and requested yummies need to be shoehorned into the menu, I then…

Shop the pantry, fridge, and freezer before planning meals.

It’s no use buying chicken when I have plenty in the freezer, and I certainly can’t make a risotto if I have no risotto rice. This step requires a little imagination, and ability to spot your needs.

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Weekly meal plan ideas for your family.

I like to write our weekly menu up on my printable template meal plan (included in the manual above). It’s attractive enough to display on the fridge so I can see at a glance what it is that I’m cooking for the week and prompt me to defrost what I need to, or think about timings if a dish takes longer than usual.

My boys also don’t need to ask me ‘what’s for dinner’ as they can see what’s coming up too. I find it really useful to date the meals plans, and file them once they are complete so that I can look back and remember what we had in particular season and to give me ideas of dishes we really enjoyed in the past. Looking through the dishes you have made (and rated) is a good way to plan family-approved meals for coming weeks. The internet is good for sourcing ideas, but sometimes what you like, is well, what you like! There’s no shame in repeating family favourites. Housewives needn’t be gourmet chefs serving up wild and wonderful three course meals every evening.

It’s also worth asking friends what they are having too! Especially if they lead similar lifestyles - it can be a great way to get ideas and swap realistic recipes, like ladies and housewives used to do “in ye olden days”. The Darling Academy’s Kitchen Manual has pretty recipe cards too, if you’re fond of sharing handwritten recipes with friends. We need to bring that custom back, don’t we!?

Monthly meal planning.

Doing it monthly can save even more time and decision fatigue, and may be preferable if you live rurally and cannot get to the stores as often. If you prefer to plan your’s monthly, my friend Jules advises…

“Monthly meal planning may seem more than a little daunting; the reactions I get when I reveal I meal plan once a month are certainly entertaining! But once you get the hang of it, it can be truly liberating. Many of Alena’s meal planning principles can be readily applied to my method: shopping your store cupboard and planning accordingly; cooking in batches; planning around your diary and remaining flexible are all vital!

I am often asked how I can possibly know everything that is coming up in the month and truth be told, I don’t! But life tends to follow certain rhythms so I always start my meal plan sessions by plotting those predictable meals in: homemade pizza every Saturday, jacket potatoes on Mondays (my husband leads a youth group so I like to have a simple supper that requires minimal effort and forethought). Already, the number of meals a week I need to plan for are cut from 7 to 5! I’ll then look at my inventory of pre-made batch meals and allocate these to days that I know will be busy.

Finally I plan “the rest” which is normally no more than 3 meals per week. I always leave the last few days of the month unplanned to give me some wiggle room to chop and change the plan around if something comes up or we fancy something different! The next task is the shopping list: I buy my pantry and freezer items in bulk, leaving me only a small “basket shop” of fresh produce to shop for as I go. It saves me time not only planning, but also shopping! What a joy it is to not have to do “The Great Unpacking” every single week”!

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Batch cooking is ideal for meal planning.

In time, you will learn what your family like to eat, and start to spot patterns. For instance, stews and soups go down well after a brisk walk in Winter. So batch cooking those types of foods is a guaranteed way of putting a hot meal on the table after these busy days - and seeing happy tummies too.

If you are planning a ragu one week, why not double (or even triple) up on the recipe and make more than you need to freeze portions for the future. I like to use foil and card containers. They are better for the environment and your health than plastic tupperware as they are easily recycled and won’t disrupt your endocrine system. Sometimes I freeze larger portions in glass containers from IKEA too.

Most of the time, being a housewife and optimising your time is about working smarter, not harder.

I have just invested in this beauty, and may retire my two slow cookers. I went with the largest size for maximum capacity and portion potential. It has all the function of a slow cooker, but on days that I want to really ramp up the batch cooking potential, it offers a lot of time saving, and with the sauté function - hopefully means I’ll have less to wash up too! Most of the time, being a housewife and optimising your time is about working smarter, not harder.

Also, don’t forget to use discards for making stock! The more you really stretch the food in your home and “make do and mend”, the more you’ll save pennies in the long run, and it’s far healthier for you!

Keep your staples on hand in your pantry.

It’s a great idea to buy multiples of things that you use regularly, particularly long-life products such as tinned tomatoes, beans, rice, pasta, tinned tuna etc. I like to use the “one for now, two for later” rule when shopping. So if a meal requires a tin of tomatoes, I will purchase at least three so that I have them on hand for next time.

Over time you will build a working pantry that means you will end up with a larger portion of items in your home for meal planning. It makes “shopping” what you already have much easier because you can spot potentials for meals right then and there. From experience, looking at empty cupboards is less than inspiring!

So in summary:

  • Check your diary but remain flexible
  • Take note of requests, keep an eye on seasons, and add a little of what you fancy
  • Shop the pantry, freezer, and fridge first
  • Keep regular staples stocked up - for inspiration and time saving
  • Plan your menu according to tastes/desires and schedule
  • Batch cook where possible
  • Eat efficiently, use scraps for stock, and utilise leftovers
  • Look back on past plans to see what worked and what didn’t

Obviously you may feel for a while that you want to stick to your plan 100% else the effort is wasted, but if you utilise your freezer well, you can actually build a lot of freedom and flexibility into your menus.

It’s a great idea to master some basic store cupboard recipes like this one, and begin to build a quick-meal repertoire of your own in time. Remember that just because you start to plan you meals, they needn’t be elaborate or especially fancy. Even planning simple weeks that include spaghetti, baked potatoes, and a plain chicken salad is a step ahead!

Don’t forget to display your plan rather than keep it in your head - it’ll prompt you to defrost/marinade/remind you to get cooking in the kitchen at a certain time.

The job of a housewife, and aim of the game is to plan to save time and money when it comes to meal planning - that’s all! It’s up to you whether you want to couple that with Cordon Bleu recipes! No need to make it complicated darling.

Progress > Perfection.

I hope you enjoyed this article, if you like our values here at The Darling Academy and found this post useful or inspiring, would you kindly consider supporting the blog.

Alena xxx

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