It’s funny how you can get into a habit.

Doing the same thing over and over and over again until there’s no longer a thought behind the action. You can build great habits this way: training yourself to wake up earlier in the mornings, committing to regular exercise, healthier eating habits, even changing your brain chemistry to see more positivity in the world instead of focusing too hard on the negatives.

Of course, it’s so much easier to get into bad habits: Going to bed so late you can’t get enough sleep, working longer hours than you’re being paid to because you don’t want to let your team down, coming home absolutely knackered and sitting in front of the telly for the rest of the evening instead of cleaning the flat, ordering a take out because you don’t have the energy to cook.

That, right there? That’s where I’m currently at.

Sorting my bedtime and morning routines should be fairly straightforward. Maintaining the work/life balance is a little bit harder at the moment due to irregular shift patterns and the exhausting nature of a public-facing job in tourism. The energy to cook though? Ordering takeaways? That’s got to change. One way or another.

My wake-up call was adding up how much my partner, J, and I had spent on food one month between the two of us. I could have died when I saw we’d not only spent over £200 on groceries, but that we’d also spent an equal amount on takeaways in the same time period. /cue gross sobbing.

Something HAD to change.

THAT’S WHEN I DISCOVERED MEAL PLANNING

It was really tricky at first. With the irregular shift patterns, neither J nor myself are guaranteed the same days off every week. We’re not even guaranteed the same start/finish times day by day. What we are guaranteed, however, is a weekly rota. So that’s where I had to start. I could look at our rotas and see which evenings we’d be home early enough to cook a meal, which days we had off to cook bigger meals, and which days we’d need to have prepped our meals in advance.

I’ve been meal planning on-and-off since around January of this year, and I can honestly say— hand on heart— that the times we lapsed are the times we ended up spending way more than we should have each month, but the times we stuck with it… well, let’s just say I could make that one £200 shop last upwards of two months*.
*yes, we really did have that much food in the flat!

SO, HOW DO YOU MEAL PLAN?

Simply put, you need to make a list of absolutely everything you have in your fridge, freezer and cupboards, including quantities if possible (as the last thing you want to do is plan a meal and then realise too-late that the bag of pasta you thought you had was actually mostly finished).

You would then start with making a list of meals you actually like to eat— checking this list against your ingredients to see if it’s actually a feasible meal plan (and, if you are planning to buy groceries, making a list of things you still need to get). I always try making meals from items I already have, as you ideally want to use up everything in your stores first before doing a new food shop.

Once you know what meals you can make (crossing off ingredients as you ‘use’ them up on your list), you then look through your calendar for the next week and start to figure out which days are better suited to which meals.

Rule of thumb for me is as follows:
DAYS OFF: make more complex/longer prep meals AND/OR prep meals in advance and fridge/freeze as required.
EARLY FINISHES (6-8pm): easier/quick prep meals.
LATE FINISHES (8-11pm): something prepped in advance (fridge/freezer meal) and usually eaten at work if sandwiches won’t suffice.

You might find you have some ingredients ‘left over’. Try to get inventive with them, if you can! Our failsafe is to make either a pasta-bake or a stir fry, especially if there’s stuff we need to use up in the fridge. We’ll usually bulk out these meals with frozen veggies (actually, pretty much our all meals get bulked out with veggies or some variety of potato!).

If you’re short of ideas you can try googling meals based on a main ingredient, or— my personal favourite— try doing the same search on pinterest! Alternatively, recipe sites like AllRecipes, SuperCook & MyFridgeFood let you put in your ingredients and will then provide you with a bunch of meals you can make with them.

You might have to get creative, but sometimes it’s worth it!

WHEN MEAL PLANNING GOES WRONG

Of course it’s not all icing on the cake when you first start. You’re going to mess up your meal plan. You’re going to forget you don’t have that one ingredient you really actually need to make the meal you’ve planned. You’re going to get annoyed or frustrated and rage-buy that take-away you promised yourself you wouldn’t.

It’s not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world. Don’t be afraid to change your mind on what you’re having for dinner if something unexpected has thrown your meal plan out the window.

Sometimes I’ve gotten home and I’m having one of those so-tired-I-can-barely-keep-my-eyes-open kind of evenings, and I cannot for the life of me bring myself to make the mac’n’cheese I promised myself I would. But that’s okay. You know why? Because I’ve (usually) already pre-prepped something that’s sitting in my fridge/freezer and I know I can just swap the days around!

Or, a personal favourite, I’ll ‘backpacker’ style it. So instead of making a proper cheese sauce, I’ll literally just make the macaroni pasta, add butter and cheese, salt and pepper to taste, and hey-presto! Backpackers mac’n’cheese.

Or I’ll get a take-away. Ahem. In all seriousness though, I really am trying to steer well away from that option!

I mean… you should probably try to stick to your original meal plan. And thinking about it, this is probably why I keep lapsing with the whole thing, but it’s a learning curve, you know? And I’m definitely still learning!

If you want to keep up with how I’m getting on check out my #mealplan journey tag, with Meal Plan Monday’s coming to you from June 10th, and maybe let me know how you’re getting on with your own plans too!

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