Research has shown that women who plan their meals have lower odds of being overweight and have a healthier more varied diet which is easier to stick to.
Meal planning can also save time and money. You will buy only the ingredients you need and are more likely to use them then waste them. Some meals can be made up in bulk and stored in the freezer until ready to use.
If you plan meals ahead of time the likelihood is that you will choose healthier foods and be more successful in improving your nutrition and health.
Being hungry and realising you don’t have anything planned for your meal can cause us to eat unhealthy foods whilst thinking about what to make for a meal, this adds in calories to our diet and we tend to choose unhealthy foods to give us a quick fix to hunger.
By planning meals you can see how much you are actually eating, you can also make sure that your meals are well balanced and full of nutrients. Portion control is another benefit.
Planning meals is also an opportunity to get the family involved in cooking and eating together, and food choices are likely to be healthier.
Some studies have shown that eating together as a family may reduce work-related stress and relieve family tension. It's also an opportunity to catch up on the day's events and spend some quality time together. Make mealtimes gadget free so everyone contributes to the time spent together and enjoys eating what has been prepared.
Food waste also is an important thing to consider, both financially and environmentally. Higher food waste levels at home are associated with being less confident with cooking and preparing foods, having children in the home, eating meals out and following a certain diet (Paleo/Atkins/ having food allergies/intolerances etc).
In the UK we waste around 9.5 million tonnes of food per year equivalent to £14 billion and 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. The average person in the UK wastes 150 kg of food per year, 40% of which is still edible. Have a think about your own food waste, could it be improved?
So how do I go about meal planning?
Set aside some time each week to plan your meals for the coming week and time to cook them. The weekend might be a good time to do it if you're not working.
Start small if you need to and focus on just one main meal of the day, or go all out and plan all the meals, do what feels manageable for you. If the kids have school dinners then you don’t need to worry about their lunches unless it's half term.
If you usually buy your lunch at work then add a homemade lunch into your weekly planner. Eat breakfast on the go? Think about what you need to make it healthy and filling that you can take with you.
To start with, first consider food waste. Check what ingredients you already have in the cupboards and write them down. You may have forgotten that you have tinned foods and dried foods like pasta, noodles and rice sat at the back out of sight. Plan to use up the foods which are still within date before buying more. Check your fridge and freezer for foods, some might have been there for a while and might need disposing of whilst others can be used for your up and coming meal plan, this will also free up space to store your pre-made meals.
A good way to use up vegetables that are old but still edible is in soups and pasta sauces. Write a list of all foods you have so you can incorporate them into your meal plan.
Check you have storage containers and labels, you’ll need these for freezing or storing foods in the fridge. If you don’t have any then glass storage dishes are great, they usually come with clip on plastic lids for freshness, choose ones that are oven proof/microwave proof so no need to decant your stored meal into a cooking vessel.
Glass storage dishes are better for the planet as they have less plastic than using Tupperware or something similar! Make sure you label what the contents are and the date you stored it. Make a list of what you have made and stored so you know what meals you have prepared.
Ask your family members to be involved in the cooking and decisions on what to eat, there’s no point in preparing meals which are not appealing to everyone as this wastes time, money and food. It’s also really satisfying to see everyone enjoying a meal you have spent time preparing.
Use healthy cookbooks to give you inspiration, choose meals which are easy to prepare and can be frozen if needed. This keeps meals interesting and helps to avoid eating the same meals too often. Using cookbooks is also a good way to find recipes which contain the foods you already have in the cupboard and fridge freezer which will save you money on your shopping bill.
Using the list of foods you have, write down some meals you can make with them first. You might be surprised how many meals you can get and you might not even need to go food shopping!
Prepare a shopping list with the meals you plan to eat on one side and what additional ingredients you need next to it, this will keep you focussed in the supermarket, make sure you stick to your shopping list! Try to buy loose fruit and vegetables to save on buying too much and to reduce packaging, this way you will only buy the amount you need.