“What’s for dinner?” That’s a question that plagues many parents each night! Do you find yourself in a panic at 5:00pm, rummaging through the cupboards and desperate to throw together something to eat?
Since dinner is going to come around everyday whether we want to face the fact or not, why not make it easier on ourselves? The answer? A simple menu plan.
Menu planning doesn’t have be complicated. It requires a small investment of time, but the rewards are well worth it! Meal planning helps you to eat healthier and saves you time, money, and maybe most importantly, your mental health!
WRITE IT DOWN
Start by keeping a food journal. Write down what you are making and eating for a couple of weeks. Make a note about what you liked/didn’t like. You can go old-school and just write it in a notebook, or go digital by using an app or a website.
Some popular online tools/apps are
CHECK OUT WHAT’S ON SALE
In addition to the weekly newspapers and newsletters that the major supermarkets (Coop, Migros) send out to subscribers, you can check the Comparis Smartshopper app which will give you all the weekly sales on your smartphone.
Once you’ve seen what’s on sale, you can make a plan on how to utilise those ingredients. I already talked a bit about how I save money buying high quality meats during the end-of-day markdown period (click here). Which is great if your family eats meat.
But what about vegetarians? I recently spoke to a woman who was frustrated that meat replacements cost nearly the same as buying meat. Saving money on food in Switzerland is one of the big recurring themes that I hear people talking about.
While meat replacements can be great and are a good way to transition to vegetarianism or to convert former favourite meat recipes into vegetarian meals — it’s not really going to save you money. Going purely veg is a better bet for the day-to-day, and using the meat replacements should be more of an occasional thing. I do buy the meat replacements occasionally myself (I particularly like the Quorn products that Migros sells), so I know that even they go on sale and get end-of-day reductions when they are at the expiration date. If you are looking to save money, wait for those sales and bulk buy!
FREEZE FREEZE FREEZE!
Which brings me to freezing food. A few years ago we picked up a standalone 3 drawer freezer. These can be bought at most all major electronics shops, and ALDI puts them into the weekly sales a couple times a year. You can also buy them used off sites like Ricardo, Tutti, and others. Having a large freezer has been a huge help when it comes to meal planning. If you know you will be living in Switzerland for a couple years, I would highly recommend buying a dedicated freezer. You can save a lot of money by buying food that is at, or near, the sell-by or use-by date and freezing it, as well as preparing extra portions of meals and freezing them. If you haven’t got room in your kitchen, think about placing it in your basement storage area. I even knew one family that kept theirs in the living area hidden behind a decorative screen, and another that kept their plugged in on their balcony. Get creative!
START A FAVOURITES FILE
Ask your family members to write down their favourite meals, and keep a log of the meals you make for a few weeks or a month. You can write them down old school style on a wall calendar, keep track of them on your electronic calendar, or just use a notes app or notepad to keep track. Soon enough you will see a pattern emerge. I tend to do a “easy” meal on the nights we have late activities (Kung Fu from 5-6pm!) or where I know we’ll be rushing into the door, hungry, and ready to eat! I tend to make more complex meal on the weekends, when I have my partner available to entertain the kids and keep them out of my hair, and we tend to like ethnic foods and seasonal foods. As soon as locally grown foods hit the supermarket and the farmer’s markets, I tend to go nuts and make *everything* with whatever is in season.
HAVE A STRATEGY
Go into your weekly meal plan with a strategy. Incorporate some fun theme nights if you think that will be a good idea for your family — it’s not as scary as you may think to make cuisines that you love but have never attempted. Not only are there thousands of videos on the internet at major cooking websites, there are also YouTube videos of all kinds of techniques. If you are feeling unsure, try watching a few videos first. If you aren’t an accomplished cook, start out simple with Taco Night, Italian Night, Fish Fridays, etc. If you are a bit more adventurous, try expanding your horizons a bit and move into more complicated techniques or more adventurous cuisines. For example, try your hand at Korean Bulgogi, or at fermenting your own foods (such as sauerkraut), or making a soufflé! You could also pick up a few new cookbooks on Amazon and give yourself a boost in ideas. I am a big fan of the River Cottage series, particularly River Cottage: Veg Everyday, which gives me great ideas for vegetarian meals.
COOK ONCE – EAT TWICE!
Use the leftovers from one meal in the next meal (roast chicken today is chicken tacos, salad or soup tomorrow), or double the recipe and freeze half for another dinner on a day when you don’t have time to cook. You can make extra fish fingers, chicken nuggets, pizza (yes, you can freeze prepared but uncooked pizzas!) By having these ready-to-go choices, you will save money and know that your ingredients are wholesome and healthy. The more home-cooked food that you have stored in your freezer, the less stress you feel when planning your menu, and the less tempted you are to eat out or buy ready-meals. Make a little extra of everything, and if you don’t want it right away, freeze it.
KEEP A WELL-STOCKED CUPBOARD
Part of my secret to meal planning success is buying in bulk when things go on sale so that I always have a pantry of food, which will allow me to put together meals from what I have on hand. Key items include: Dried or canned beans, dried pasta, rice, dried, canned or vacuum packed mushrooms, chopped tomatoes in cans or Tetrapak, tomato sauce (unflavoured), pesto – homemade or store bought, parmesan cheese, frozen mixed vegetables, frozen broccoli, frozen spinach, frozen fish, and of course items like flour,sugar, olive oil. And according to your family’s tastes, you could also add things like jarred curry paste, soy sauce, and coconut milk, etc. If you need additional ideas, drop me an email or a comment below!
CHECK THE WEATHER!
This might seem like a weird one, but trust me — if you planned a baked lasagna for the day that the sun finally decides to shine and the temperatures rise, you might not feel like assembling and baking such a stodgy dish. Check out the weather predictions for the week and plan accordingly. Soups and casseroles on cold and damp days, and quick and light stir fries or burgers on the grill on those warm and sunny days.
Get out your pen and paper or your computer and start your plan. You can print off blank weekly calendars as well.
- Don’t get too complicated. Start off with tried and tested recipes and family favourites.
- Write it down and then analyse your decision. Have you planned too many meals that rely on fresh vegetable or lots of meat? Your grocery bill is going to go up, defeating the cost-saving part of the equation.
- Did you plan your week to take special note of the expiration dates or the shelf life of your food? Think about what you buy and how long it has to sit in the fridge. Will all your fresh herbs go wilted by day 4 and you need them on day 6? Will your meat hit the use-by date before the meal you want to make with it? Maybe plan a soup after a couple meals that utilize fresh veg to use up all the rest of the scraggly bits?
- Make a shopping list, remember to note the sales!
- Hit the shops!
That’s my strategy, and I find it works pretty well, so I hope this gives you a good idea of how to get started with Meal Planning. Please let me know in the comments or by email if you have any questions, or any tips and tricks of your own!