A much-too-long essay about meal planning

Meal planning is something that is spoken about often when it comes to reducing food and financial waste. The idea is simple – plan what you’re going to have to eat in advance, then purchase what you need in the quantities required.

In practise, it can be a hard habit to get into – especially if you’re used to wandering the supermarket without a list. I think the biggest difference I found to begin with wasn’t the price (though that was vastly reduced), but the quantity of food. I had everything on my list, but my trolley contained only around a third of my usual items.

Hopefully, if you’re new to meal planning, the information below will help you begin to save money, and prevent waste. The following is based on an article I wrote back in August 2012 for another blog, but I’ve updated it to focus on the environment.

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I try to approach meal planning with the 5Rs firmly in mind – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle & rot.

So, first step – we need to eat, so how can we refuse food?  In this case, we refuse to buy items we already own.

To begin with, I check the freezer and the cupboard, then make a list of what’s there. It usually becomes evident at this point which foods I can easily make from the ingredients I have, and what I can make by adding just a few extra things. This forms the basis of my meal plan.

So, for example, if my cupboard yields 3 complete meals and 2 incomplete ones, I would write down the ingredients to complete those 2 meals which are missing components.  Then, for the remainder of the 7 dinners, I would use the ingredients already on my list as my basis.

When it comes to reduce, this is the part where you assess what you actually need. This could involve questions such as

– ‘Do I need the BOGOF box of cereal?’ (If I don’t, should I simply buy one, or donate the extra non-perishable item to the food bank?)
-‘Do I need to buy snacks on top of any baking I’ll do at home?’
-‘Do I need to drive to the shop – can I car-pool, walk, or get a delivery? Can I use public transport, or call at the shops whilst running another errand?’
-‘Do I need to go shopping at all? If I start to put milk and bread in my freezer/switch to a milkman, could I plan cleverly and shop every second week /monthly ‘.

Reducing whilst shopping also covers our aims to reduce the packaging we bring home. Is it possible to make your own version of something to cut back on plastic, or using alternatives to plastic store-supplied packagaing such as your own cloth bags for loose bakery products and vegetables, or selecting frozen over fresh when the frozen goods are packed in cardboard.

In terms of financial savings, if there is a choice between a premium brand and a supermarket equivalent, it’s well worth considering the value/basics ranges – presuming the packaging is the same. It’s also worth noting that the class 2 veg available at some supermarkets is both fantastic value and helps to prevent food waste.

Another financial point to make is that it’s worth checking the kilo price of food too – remember that one can of sweetcorn costs around the same as a massive bag of frozen. Admittedly that frozen bag is usually plastic, but in terms of shipping costs – carbon and financial – and wastage, the plastic is going to be better, especially if the can contains a plastic lining which renders it unrecyclable. You can also use weigh out exactly the quantity of frozen sweetcorn that you need and then save the rest indefinitely for a longer period – unlike when you open a can, use half, and forget about the remainder at the back of the fridge… ahem.

If you have a bread machine, or are up for making your own bread by hand, there are further financial and environmental savings to be had. You can buy small cans of fast-action dried yeast, but Tesco bakery sections will provide fresh yeast for free (and you can take your own packaging) and Morrisons sell small packs of it for very little money. If you don’t want to have your oven on for long periods, you can also bake your loaf in a slow cooker. Once you’ve cracked a plain loaf of bread, pizza dough isn’t a difficult second act. We’ve had great success with making and then freezing pizza bases – saving on packaging and money – for use on busy days.

There are some amazing posts online about low waste snacking (and my own offering, here), so I’ll just cover a few basics now. If you can get reduced fruit juice you can make some pretty good ice lollies. Just pour the juice into a mould and freeze. Or alternatively, you can make something which tastes exactly like a Feast by blending 2 tablespoons of Nutella with some soya milk. Mmmm…. By reusing your own lolly moulds, you save the individual wrappers from landfil, the box from recycling, and the shipping cost of frozen goods. It’s also miles cheaper and you know exactly what you’re eating.

Popcorn is the classic low waste snack – buy the kernels, pop them at home and flavour yourself. Make in advance and pack in Tupperware, or used paper flour bags for packed lnches. Even if you can’t get this package-free, it’s still far less wasteful than bags of ready made stuff, bags of crisps etc. and it’s quick and easy – plus you can flavour it with whatever you like.

Reusing in terms of food comes down, once again, to examining our intake and the packaging our food comes in. If we plan our meals well, pay attention to portion size when we’re cooking (and by this I mean, what will we realistically eat – different people have different appetites and that’s ok), and don’t over-purchase perishable items, there shouldn’t be a huge amount of leftovers to reuse. Obviously, though, we’re not perfect, and plans change, so periodically this will happen. That’s Ok – just do a quick search online for ‘X leftover recipes’ and see what you can come up with. If you’re not going to use the food in question straight away, put it in the fridge – either in an airtight container (and here you can reuse old jars or yogurt tubs etc), or in a bowl with a plate for a lid.

The packaging from our food sort of crosses between reuse and recycle. We can reuse it – as stated above – to store other items, but we can also employ it an any other number of ways. A personal favourite is to use food packaging to grow plants in. Rather than buy new plastic trays, I like to use the hard-to-recycle black plastic trays to start seedlings in, sometimes with a clear plastic tray over the top. I particularly like planting things in old treacle tins, like this avocado pip:

I’ve spoken in the past about how much I love enamel as a material, but old food tins are a close second when it comes to household objects. If you’re not sold on the idea of them as pretty things in your home, try searching Pinterest for ‘vintage tins repurposed’. From cake-stands to lampshades, there are ideas aplenty.

Packaging can serve in other ways too – you can see some old coffee jars here, and some old wine corks which have found new life amongst our toys. A friend of mine even collected Bonne Maman preserve jars for a year and then used them as her glassware. Our own drinking glasses are mustard jars that Husband’s mother purchased over the course of a few years in 90s Germany, and I make jellies and mousses in ex-Aldi-yogurt jars for my eldest’s packed lunches.

More unusual reuse came about when I made soap before Christmas – the bottoms of plastic milk-bottles make superb soap moulds, as do selection-box packages (gifted to us, not purchased by us).

If there really isn’t anything else you can  repurpose your food packaging for, check with your local council as to what they do and don’t recycle.

Which leaves us with rot. There are lots of ways to really get the most out of any remaining food waste – composting at home and local food-waste collection being the two most common. You can, however, use some waste products to create dye, such as onion skins and avocado pips. Other things – such as spent tea and coffee can be used to grow things like cress or alfalfa shoots on.

I hope some of this has been useful. I realise we moved away from the basics of meal planning pretty early on, but hopefully this will help someone start to reduce their shopping waste.

What are your best tips for ensuring we don’t use more than we need in the kitchen? I would love to hear your suggestions.

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