Meal planning has changed my life.
I had spent my carefree twenties laughing in the face of people who needed to plan ahead what they were going to eat a week or more in advance… even more so, those folk who live on a fortnightly rota, an endless loop of 14 dishes….
And then my children came along, and then they started eating, and then I went back to work, and mealtimes became structured and early and less carefree. I felt it was important to sit down at the table as a family to eat, which needs to occur in the tight window between all being in the house after work/school/clubs etc and needing to go to bed. (and we’re lucky enough to be able to accomplish this most evenings) Those of you with young children will know, that suddenly being forced to eat your evening meal at 5.30 pm rather than at 8pm is a bit of a culture shock.
All of a sudden deciding what we were all going to eat, cooking it, and having it on the table within about half an hour, was not the carefree spontaneous joy that it had been. It was stressful. Getting in from work, to be greeted by a hungry family, then having to simultaneously assess, plan, prepare, and nutritionally balance the ingredients at hand into something edible… amounted to nothing short of blind panic most evenings. Which is exactly the last thing anyone needs to experience after a day at work. This mostly resulted in a lot of pasta being consumed.
The other factor which pushed me over the edge into meticulous meal planning was the commitment to a weekly organic veg box. After the birth of my daughters, my drive to buy exclusively organic produce led me to a national veg box scheme (we are remote enough out here in Norfolk that none of the ‘local’ schemes would deliver to our door!) and I haven’t looked back. The produce is consistently excellent, the service is friendly and personal, and with meal planning, the weekly delivery becomes brilliantly convenient. And apart from all of that, there are the added ethical bonuses of reduced and recycled packaging, a company commitment to fair-trade and zero air freighting, and supporting organic farmers and growing practices. Win, win, win, win, win, win!
However, the veg box only really comes into its own when you plan in advance how to use the contents over the week. My meal planning revolves around my Friday veg delivery, and so each planned week starts on a Friday. Many an enthusiastic veg box recipient has lost momentum after 3 weeks of unused savoy cabbages and butternut squash. A serious quantity of veg needs to be handled with an equally serious plan.
This is where it all gets really geeky. I now plan my weekly meals using slides on Google docs (basically powerpoint, but it’s a shared file that my husband can also access online) using a duplicated slide for each week. This means I can look back over previous weeks for inspiration, when I have a particularly tricky set of veg to deal with.
I list the weekly veg at the top of each slide, which I can view online or choose from the veg box website up to a week in advance. Then starting from the delivery day on Friday, the main table has spaces for 7 meals, their main ingredients (so I can work out which veg I’ve used and what I’ll have left later in the week – making sure I use up the most perishable stuff earlier on) and an extra column for any details, such as when I need to soak my beans, or put the bread maker on, or if I need to prepare something in advance for the next day. This allows me to achieve a good variety of meals over the week cooked from scratch from excellent quality ingredients, and I can check that I’m covering a range of carbs and proteins to go with the veg and that nothing gets wasted. After a time you will also become adept at knowing exactly what you can do to use up that stubborn red cabbage or massive bag of chard.
This takes me less than half an hour every week; from checking my veg box order online, to duplicating the last week’s slide, adjusting the details and putting together the plan for the next week’s meals… Which is positively relaxing compared to the dread and frenzy of 5pm most weeknights, and infinitely more inspiring!
So there you have it. This is quite literally the one area of my life which I organise with such meticulous detail. I think it would definitely be going too far to apply this diligence to the rest of my chaotic life, I can’t even use a calendar or diary reliably. But meal planning, well that’s about feeding my family, and eating good food – it’s important – and definitely not to be laughed at.