On a bright morning the farmers’ market is heaving with all manner of freshness. I reach for my wallet time and again as I’m seduced by colour, crunch and intoxicating green and I cart my basket of nourishment home for my family. In the past though, with the best of intentions, I have filled my fridge and fruit bowl with wholesome produce only to have a guilty amount languish before I can cajole it into meals. Sadly, I am not alone as statistics show that 1 in 5 shopping bags of food is wasted in Australian homes costing a staggering $3800 per household each year.
So what changed? How did I drastically reduce the amount of food doomed for the compost bin? Meal planning. Setting aside time each month to plan out our evening meals and shopping only for what we need. There was a little bit of leg work at the beginning but now this simple monthly rhythm takes about half an hour and makes evening meal prep far less stressful while almost eliminating our food waste.
Here’s a few steps to prepare yourself for a meal planning habit:
- Decide on a “theme” for each night of the week. Some people like to explore foods from different countries e.g. Mexican on Monday, Asian on Tuesday etc., others like to have a pasta night, rice night, curry night etc. For me, I have a roast, a leftover meal (from the roast the night before), a soup, a chicken or meat meal, an easy night e.g eggs on toast with veggie sticks, and two vegetarian meals (sometimes this might include fish).
- Look at your calendar. For a meal plan that helps rather than a hinders it has to fit your lifestyle i.e. choose meals that suit the flow of each day. For example, Tuesday afternoons are particularly busy for us so that’s when we have soup. Prepped the day before and ready to be heated in minutes it’s a nourishing meal that’s quick to prepare and eat after a big day. Our “easy” night is on Friday when keeping the evening calm after a big week is our highest priority. It certainly sets the tone to slide into a gentle weekend.
- Make a favourites list. Sit down with your family and using the meal themes you came up with in step one, compile a list of tried and true family favourites. It makes for an interesting conversation and provides a great starting point at the beginning of each month.
Now that you’ve prepared a solid foundation, it’s time to start planning your month. These steps have become an easy part of my monthly routine and have significantly reduced our food waste to almost nothing
- Draw up a meal calendar and shopping list. On a dry erase board, chalkboard or a recycled piece of paper draw up a calendar grid for the month with the days of the week across the top and the corresponding meal themes. Prepare a scrap of paper for your shopping list so you can jot down ingredients you will need as you go.
- Take stock/start with what you already have. By this I mean open up your fridge and have a good poke around the shelves. Pull out the fruit and vegetable draws and see what’s lurking in the shadows and jot down anything that needs to be used up. The same goes for the fruit bowl, the pantry and the freezer.
- Spend a few minutes brainstorming what you could use those sad or surplus items for. Fading zucchini? Turn them into fritters served with salad, chopped avocado and creme fraiche. Too many tomatoes? Chop them up, gently saute in a saucepan with garlic and olive oil and toss over pasta served with plenty of parmesan and fresh basil. Add these meal ideas to the first few days of your meal plan to ensure all that precious food gets used up.
- Consult your family favourites. Add to your meal plan with a selection of meals you know will be eaten with gusto. This often fills the majority of the calendar and with the themed days across the top, is a simple fill in the blanks.
- Open your cookbooks. It’s only at this stage that I finally open my cook books for inspiration. The few days left on your plan can be filled with something new you’re intrigued by. Perhaps you’ve noticed something seasonal you’d like to introduce to your family. This is also a great chance to explore some vegetarian meals filled with budgetary and planet conscious legumes and seasonal produce. Either way, I limit myself to a few new recipes a month and make sure I plan these on a night when I have time to explore them fully and relish the kitchen creativity.
I believe that meal planning enables you to take control of not only your nourishment but your budget, your time and the impact you and your family have on the earth. It is a simple way of reconnecting with what sustains you while inviting calm and creativity back into your kitchen. And the earth will thank you for it.