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How to master meal planning?

Family meal planning

Okay, the real question is: Why would you spend your precious time with meal planning?

Let’s face it: meal planning is a weekly struggle in most mum’s life. What to cook? When? What ingredients do I need? When to buy them?

Still: I have lots of reasons in support of meal planning, let me show you what you can gain planning family meals ahead.


I read an article recently what recommends a quick method for meal planning: just make a list of your favourite family meals, arrange them into order and you can get a one-month family meal plan. It sounds easy and quick, but there are problems with this: it just miss the nutritional point of view. It would be a big mistake just to eat the same 25-30 meals all year around. There are seasonal fruits and vegetables which provide their best when they are in season, and also they are the best value. Why would you eat the same dish all the time (and get bored from it)?

The other reason not to stick to a few familiar dishes: our nutritional needs are changing by time. We, adults probably do not notice this, as these changes can be slow, but our children  do. As they grow their taste is changing, their nutritional needs are changing and they become more open – or contrary less open for a new taste. It is really important to provide them a variety of food- not just in toddlerhood but through their growth until adulthood.

The main goal of meal planning is not just save time and money – but to create a nutritionally balanced, varied and healthy diet for the whole family. Do you think it is not possible? It is not complicated – just needs a little bit of practice.  Below I share a Family Meal Planner – you can customise it to your family and I help you with the most important steps of meal planning.

Yes, planning your meals takes time. I spend at least 1-2 hours planning our weekly meals and putting together a shopping list. Is it too much time? I do not know. I am quite expert to plan a balanced weekly menu for the family – however, I have to face with changing circumstances and nutritional needs as my children grow and step from baby age to toddler, from toddler age to school age. Plus I spend some time looking up new recipes, trying new ingredients or kitchen tools… Okay, it could be done in less time…


Why would you spend your precious time with meal planning?

Here are my  8 best reasons besides meal planning:


#1 Planning meals means less waste: you buy only what you need, so you can reduce food waste

#2 You can take control over your time and reduce stress in your life: avoiding 6 pm panic

#3 Less shopping: you can keep food expenses within a budget

#4 Less time spent popping over to the corner shop to buy one or two missing ingredients to the dinner…

#5 Probably the only way to provide a healthy and balanced diet for the family,

#6 There is no weight loss and weight management without meal planning: losing weight or keep weight off you have to be conscious about your food and drink consumption. there is no better way to do it than planning your meals and putting them down on a piece of paper, so you can track on your fluid and calorie intake.

#7 You take control over your food choices: it is obvious that you are less influenced by food marketing when you put together you shopping list based on your nutritional needs sitting at the kitchen table than making impulse choices on the shop floor. Buy what you need not what others want to sell you.

#8 You eat more healthily if you plan ahead and you have all the ingredients available than thinking of food when you are hungry, irritated and lack of time. When we are hungry we usually chose more calorie-dense food, than we would do otherwise. So make your choices with a clear head and follow them.


Meal planning for families

Does meal planning take away flexibility in family meals?

I do not agree with the opinion that meal planning is something that kills flexibility and creativity in family meals. Meal planning a tool – you choose how to use it.

A family meal plan must be flexible, feasible and loveable. It just does not work if it not acceptable by every family members. This does not mean that everybody has to love every meal on the menu, but everybody has to find their taste and this can be done only through negotiations and compromises. But this is the way how a family can work – in my opinion.

What about flexibility?

I never thought about planning a weekly menu – like something carved into stones. Contrary: making a plan, help us as a family to react to unexpected events. Flexibility simply must be built into the plan. There can be nights when you do not cook and eat cold food, nights when you use up leftover ingredients, nights when you just warm up leftovers – and there can be nights when you cook double batch, nights when the whole family cooks together and make fun, nights when you have guests, – or nights when you all go out.

You know better what suits to your family lifestyle better.

I rarely have a week when every meal goes according to plan. Sometimes I swap meals or reschedule them for next week (giving priority to those that use up the fresh ingredients already bought). As I always have a couple of freezer meals planned I can just postpone them for the following week without wasting any food. Or they can be used when unexpected dinner guests turn up. There is also emergency food in my freezer/cupboard to use in case plans change: like frozen homemade soup, burgers, pizza base, falafel mix, tortilla wraps, pasta and pasta sauces etc.

What about creativity?

Meal planning does not kill creativity. Quite opposite: you need some creativity to put together a meal plan, and of course you can plan creative dishes ahead. I usually cook 1-2 new recipe every week, – I just plan them ahead. I make a note of my ideas, I buy the ingredients during the weekly shopping and then I cannot wait to make them.

Yes, you can use your creativity to use seasonal ingredients, to use up leftovers, to plan healthy and still exciting snacks, healthy desserts or show stopping meals. Just you do not need to worry that one or more important ingredient is missing…

I know people who like the challenge creating a new revolutionary dish from just ingredients available at home – in inspired moments. You still can do it, just make sure that there are inspiring ingredients in your fridge/pantry and they are healthy.

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What about wishes of family members?

My advice: don’t ignore meal ideas and wish lists of family members.

Probably you say: “Well, it would be hard to ignore them… Kids would eat pancakes for breakfast every day, jelly beans for a snack, chips for lunch, some chocolate raisins as snack and spaghetti every night…” Okay, it is not easy. A family meal plan is not equal with a list of treats and favourites.

I have two rules:

1, Everyone can have a meal suggestion

2, I decide what and when I include the family meal plan.

I try to fit the meal suggestions into our plans and balanced them out. Pancake for breakfast – no problem, but then snack must be fruit and cheese. So basically I distribute their treats in time. What I cannot include into this week’s meal plan I try to fit in next week. This way I do not need to say “no” to their requests, but we compromise on things – a kind of negotiation really. I always give them a brief explanation, so they know the reason behind the decision. So they learn what are the important building blocks of a balanced diet and that treats are not forbidden, but they are only treats.Balanced diet - Meal planning for families

What about favourite family meals?

My opinion that there is no forbidden food. There are food what we can eat only with limitations like high-fat or high-sugar food, but if we eat healthily in the 80% of the time, then there must be space for a couple of jelly beans and fish and chips too in our diet.

So, yes family favourites can be/ must be part of our meal plans, just probably we have to balance them out again with healthier side dishes or low-calorie snacks during the day.

Also, it is a good idea to find lighter, healthier versions of our favourite meals. I have seen really good examples in Healthy Food Magazin to transform traditional family meals into a healthier dish.


Who to master meal planning for your family?

First here is a free downloadable Family Meal Planner to help you putting together a weekly meal plan.

On this sheet,

  • you can plan 5 meals a day,
  • add notes for special diets,
  • make a note for a weekday shopping and
  • meal ideas for the following week using up leftovers.

Click on the link to download:


Weekly Family Meal_Planner – free downloadable pdf file


 The most important points of meal planning

Know your family’s nutritional needs

Every family member has different nutritional needs by age. Also they may have different lifestyle (like an active athlete in the family) different daily routine (like early starts, night shifts) or different nutritional restrictions (like weight loss diet, or gluten/dairy free diet or vegan diet). It is not easy to plan for a family where the nutritional needs are very different but to manage our time wisely – I reckon – this is a clever way to do it.

Related: What does it mean a balanced diet in the family?

Have a manageable time frame

A would say a manageable time frame is about 5-14 days – ideally one week. I plan for one week but it depends on your family life and shopping habits. I like to make one big weekly shopping – usually on Friday – and one smaller shopping around Tuesday to buy fresh products like milk. So my weekly plans are from Saturday until Friday, it just works better for me.

Have a look at the calendar

This is one more reason not to use the same circuit meal plan all the time: there are no two weeks the same. There is always something different, a late meeting makes impossible cooking dinner, or we have a dinner invitation, birthday party, BBQ… So before making any plans for next week, it is a good idea to have a look at the family calendar.

Know your budget

Meal planning does not mean that every meal is a five-star restaurant meal. Indeed, it is better to keep it simple and within a reasonable budget.

Think of yourself too

Plan food for your yourself too! Your health is just as important as everyone’s well-being in the family, so pay attention to your own healthy eating habits. Always start your day with a breakfast – even if it is no more that an energizing smoothie. Make room for healthy snacks and sit down to the table at family meals. As you can see there are planned snacks on the Family Meal Planner, these are for you too. I usually plan healthy snacks for myself – as kids always want to eat the same as I eat – and then I top up their snack box with some extra, kids-friendly carbs, dairy or fruit.

 meal planning for families

Find a healthy balance

When you plan meals that your meals in a perspective. This gives you an opportunity to balance out the family diet according to the healthy eating guidelines. So you can plan fish, red meat, white meat consumption: at least 2-3 portion of fish a week (one oily fish like salmon, mackerel or sardines); red meat 1-2 times a week, poultry 2-3 times a week is recommended. Also, make sure that plant-source protein is also included into your diet: like beans and pulses.

You can also check how much fruit and vegetables are planned for a day and adjust the amount if it is less than the recommended 5-7 portion per day.

We are prone to plan our meals based on protein/ meat, and this is not the best way to do it, as usually we end up with too much carbs in our diet. Start the weekly menu with planning starchy food first like pasta, bakery products and potato, then add protein and fruit/veg. This way you can control the carbohydrate consumption better.

You can plan treats too – just balance them out. An example: a lovely cake on Sunday afternoon is a must for me, but we usually have just light bites for dinner on those days.

You can find the main guidelines on balanced diet here: A balanced diet

Stay practical

Try to reduce your time in your kitchen: make practical plans what works for you. Cook double batches of freezable meals what you can use next week on a busy day. Use up leftover cooked meals and ingredients: transform Sunday lunch leftovers into a lunch on Monday. Plan meals to use up leftover ingredients towards the end of the week. For example pizza, frittata and wraps are perfect to use up leftover ham, cooked meat, raw or steamed vegetables and cheese.

Plan simple snacks, which can be dropped into bag, no preparation needed and they are not messy to eat – like a small pot of yoghurt with oat cakes, or carrot sticks with walnut or individually wrapped small piece of cheese.


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