Mums and Dads who plan ahead for their family meals, tend to have children who make healthier food choices as they grow up. This is because having a plan is one of the foundations for positive food parenting. It allows you to use your knowledge of food and nutrition so that your child has a good chance of eating a well-balanced diet.
However, many of the Mums I chat to dread planning family meals. They see it as a chore. So here are my 7 top tips to make it as easy as possible for you, and hopefully save you some money too!
What is family meal planning?
It’s all about planning meals in advance for you and your family, usually for the week ahead.
It’s also about shopping ahead of time for everything you need for those meals.
Some families like to plan all meals for the entire week and some plan just for the evening meal.
If you’ve ever found yourself staring into the fridge, trying to ‘conjure up’ dinner ideas or making too many last minute supermarket dashes, this could be for you. When you meal plan, you will no longer be stood in front of an open fridge wondering what to cook for dinner tonight!
It will also stop you asking your children what they want for their dinner. They don’t know! They have limited knowledge of what’s good for them and so will always opt for their favourite!
For many people, meal planning makes them feel more organised and helps them spend less time thinking about how to answer the dreaded ‘What’s for dinner?’ question.
What are the advantages of family meal planning?
Nutrition and variety
If you ever feel like you’re eating too much of the same meals, you probably are! A wide variety of food is great because it helps you get all the different nutrients, you and your family need.
When we don’t plan ahead we often stick to the same list of meals. This not only gets a bit boring but less variety means less nutrition.
When you plan out healthy family meals, it helps us all get the nutrition we need from our food. Children have 40 different nutrients they need to meet every day and the way to do this is by having a wide range of different foods to eat.
Variety also helps our children learn about and explore new foods and helps them become familiar with a wider range. Remember, children are learning about food and continue learning until the day they leave for University!
Reduces food waste
Planning ahead reduces food waste as all you have in your fridge is what’s needed for the meals ahead. This means less is thrown away because it didn’t get used. It’s estimated that we throw away around 6.6 million tonnes of household food waste in the UK every year (1)
Save you money
Cooking from scratch is often cheaper than buying convenience foods and much cheaper than takeaways or eating out. Planning ahead can allow us to be very ‘price savvy’ and choose meals with cheaper seasonal ingredients. Dietitian Emer Delaney, has shown how family meal planning on a budget is possible. Emer demonstrates how to feed a family of four for under £30, for five nights of meals (2)
. How good is that? See her examples here.
It’s the cornerstone of positive food parenting
Planning family meals supports the gold standard parenting style known as ‘diplomatic food parenting’. The first element of this style is all about providing structure where you organise your child’s meals and snacks in a non-controlling way to facilitate their ability to get sufficient nutrients from food in order to grow and be healthy. In order to do this, you need to plan.
It saves time
Although you need to make time to plan, having a family meal plan will certainly save you time during the week. You’ll no longer be trying to decide what’s for dinner and you won’t be browsing the supermarket shelves trying to make decisions.
My 7 awesome strategies that make planning Family Meals effortless
Brainstorm a list of family meals your family usually enjoys. This will get you off to a great start. Ask your partner and children what they like too.
Start small. While some people like to plan more than a week ahead, start with just one week at a time. And if you like, just plan evening meals.
Look for inspiration online including recipe sites, supermarket websites such as Sainsburys, Ocado or Tesco. These have recipes and family food blogs. Food magazines and recipe books are great too. Or ask friends and family for their favourite recipes to try.
Think about nutrition.
Do you know how many portions of certain foods you need across a week?
What do you feel your family doesn’t eat enough of? Often we tend to stick to a couple of favourite vegetables because of habit.
What vegetables do you like but don’t have regularly? Try and include these. It’s the variety that will help your family meet their nutritional requirements.
What’s your protein intake like as a family? Do you have a variety of protein sources? Such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, vegetarian alternatives such as Quorn or tofu, or do you just stick to chicken and beef?
How often do you have a vegetarian meal? If you need help with this for younger children, check out my Baby Nutrition Online Course, ‘Happy Healthy Weaning’
and also my Toddler Food and Feeding Club, ‘Happy Healthy Eaters Club’
. For general healthy eating advice, I recommend the fantastic NHS Eat Well Guide.
Tips to expand your vegetable intake;
To get all the nutrition we need from vegetables, we should be eating a ‘rainbow’ of different colours. If your family mainly eats peas and carrots, what else are you missing out on – how about sweetcorn, red cabbage, peppers or cauliflower?
Make use of frozen veg. Vegetables don’t have to be fresh, in fact frozen veggies are often more nutritious. Try canned veggies too but choose those without added sugar and salt.
Explore your supermarket. Browse the vegetable aisle or online section, and once a week try something you haven’t had before.
5. Plan ahead. Think about what your families activities are. If your children go to after school clubs, choose more simple meals on busy days. Prep ahead for hectic days so you can grab a nutritious batch cooked meal from the freezer and simply reheat. Write it down. This can be as fancy as you like! A magnetic white board makes a great family meal planning calendar and encourages kids to get involved too. You can buy meal planning pads or diaries or keep it simple with the notes section on your phone. Or you could use a paper wall chart, you can download my free one here.
6. Shop ahead. Once you have your meals decided, write a list of ingredients. Check your food cupboards so that you only buy what you need. When you shop, stick to the list.
7. Meal prep. For each meal, look at what needs to be done beforehand. For example, if you need a tomato pasta sauce, you could batch cook a month’s worth on a Sunday and freeze. Think about whether foods need to come out of the freezer to thaw overnight in the fridge before cooking. There’s nothing worse than forgetting to defrost the chicken for the roast!
My Top Tips to make meal planning easier
Start with what’s in your freezer or cupboard and go from there. Do a ‘stocktake’ and make a list of what you already have. Once you’ve got some key ingredients, you can search for recipes you like.
Food shopping online means you are more likely to stick to your list and be less tempted by things you don’t need. The annual delivery passes that most online supermarkets offer are a money saver too.
There are free family meal plans online you can get ideas from such as Tastes Better From Scratch
or Easy Family Recipes
or if you want something that has been specifically designed by Nutrition Professionals for families with children, there are weekly meal plans with recipes, available to members inside my Happy Healthy Eaters Club.
Find out which fruits and vegetables are in season locally to save money and help the environment by reducing air miles (3)
. ‘The Great Grub Club
‘ has a good list of seasonal produce for every month.
Take advantage of your slow cooker to help with your meals on busy days. There are some awesome bolognese, chilli and casserole recipes that take just minutes to prepare.
Think ahead. Try batch cooking in advance at the weekend or doubling up on recipes and cooking enough for more than one night. Keep the extras clearly labelled in the freezer for future meal plans. Most meals will keep frozen for around 3 months.
Make meal planning fun!
How about a children’s choice night each week, where your child chooses their favourite meal and if they are old enough, have them cook for you! If you have more than one child, get them to take turns. This helps children feel part of the process and allows them to explore their interest in food. Introduce some children’s recipe books or online websites for them to look at for ideas.
Have a freezer night every week, for a super easy family meal. Use up something you’ve prepared ahead or leftovers from earlier in the week.
Have breakfast for dinner. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to eat certain foods at certain meal times. You could have pancakes one night, or scrambled eggs and bacon or a cooked breakfast (grilled rather than fried) and there are some amazing savoury porridge recipes!
Have themed nights and be as creative as you like, trying cuisines from different countries such as an Italian, Mexican, Chinese or an Indian meal.
Try a plant based or vegan meal once or twice a week.
Can someone do this for me?
Absolutely! Inside the Happy Healthy Eaters Club
, we’ve listened to your requests and done exactly that. Myself and my team of Dietitians and Nutritionists have put our heads together to decide what the optimal healthy diet should look like for families and have planned meals and snacks throughout the week to match it.
There’s a brand new menu every week and we’ve even found recipes to help you, suggesting tweaks and twists to optimise the nutrition even more!
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