Plan Ahead for Less Food Waste

Welcome to the third post in my series about reducing food waste. In post one, I defined the scope of the food waste problem. In post two, I talked about mindfulness in food shopping and developing a meal planning practice in small increments. In this post, I will look more at the actual act of meal planning. 

At the start of this year, I wrote a short series of blog posts about meal planning. Those posts, listed below, give you all the “technical” information you need to plan your meals and shopping lists:

  • An introduction to meal planning.  
  • A recipe roster. You only really have to do this once, although you can add to it as often as you like.
  • The actual meal plan. I make mine one week at a time, breaking it down by day, listing a main course, side, and vegetable. I often check grocery flyers first to plan around what’s on sale. From here, I make my grocery list. Then it’s just a matter of shop, cook, repeat. 

Beyond those details, you also need a strategy for making the meal planning habit stick. As I have mentioned in other posts, there are always stumbles along the way when changing habits and I certainly struggled with this for a long time. 

If you need motivation, remember why you are doing this in the first place: to reduce food waste and its associated environmental impact, to save money, and to make suppertime less stressful. Below, some other thoughts that may help. 

Tips & Inspiration

Time is probably the biggest impediment for meal planning. I work part-time outside the home, so the time pressure is not as acute for me. But every individual, couple, and family is different, and time can certainly be a factor when it comes to tasks like planning meals. My best advice, as I noted in my previous post, is to think of it in terms of a few minutes a day. Go slowly, with small steps to get in the habit. And cut yourself some slack. You are making a big change and that takes time and practice. If you don’t always reach your goal, just try again next week.

The supper crunch is usually worst on weeknights, when schedules tend to be busier. If you focus on weeknight meals to start, you can reduce the number of meals you need to plan from seven meals to five. With fewer meals to worry about, you can reframe your thinking: it’s no longer “I don’t have time” but “I only need 5 meals.” And don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel every time. Repeating meals and side dishes keeps things simple. 

When you think in terms of five meal ideas, knowing you can repeat what you’ve already done, it’s less intimidating. And remember, it’s about what works for you. It doesn’t have to be a cooked-from-scratch meal every time. Here are some ideas I came up with in about five minutes: 

  • Main courses can include an omelette or frittata, frozen chicken fingers, a quick stir-fry, burgers, and homemade subs. 
  • For vegetables, serve salads or a plate of raw vegetables with ranch dressing, or steam some broccoli or green beans. 
  • Need a starch? Try whole-grain toast with your frittata, mashed potatoes with your chicken fingers, dense noodles like udon with your stir-fry, frozen potato wedges with your burgers, and a pasta salad on the side with your subs. 

There’s your meal plan for Monday to Friday. Repeat your vegetables so you can use up the full amount in your fridge. For example, you can bookend your week with steamed broccoli or beans. If they’re far enough apart, it won’t feel repetitive.

For subsequent weeks, think in terms of repurposing. Yes, you can have a stir-fry every week, but change the protein and vegetables–chicken or tofu and edamame one week, beef and broccoli another time. Take your basic sub and mix it up with different styles of bun and switch up the meat–turkey, ham, leftover roasted chicken. Or do soup and sandwich instead of a sub. 

When coming up with side dish ideas, focus on what you already have in your cupboards, fridge, and freezer. Not only can you add those foods to your meal plan to ensure they get used up, you can pre-cook some things so everything comes together faster at meal times. Have a big bag of rice in your pantry? Cook some the night before so you can simply reheat it for the next day’s meal. Same with pasta–cook enough for a pasta salad the night before so the day of your meal, it is already chilled and ready to be tossed with whatever dressing and vegetables you have on hand. As with the plan itself, pre-cooking is an investment of a bit of time to make the actual meal easier.  

Check your fridge and freezer for proteins and try to come up with meals that use those foods before you buy more. Recently, I checked my freezer and saw that we have some pork tenderloin, so I incorporated that into my meal plan along with recipes that used the frozen chicken breasts and thighs I also had on hand. As an added bonus, I didn’t have to buy any meat that week when I went shopping. 

Depending on your freezer space, you can also batch cook some meals on weekends. Freeze them flat in freezer bags and stack them to save space. We do this with roti, pasta sauce, soup, braised chicken in sauce, and meatballs. Having prepared foods ready to thaw and reheat is a major time saver. 

It’s up to you how rigid you want to be with your food plan. Some nights the plan might not appeal to you. It’s fine to switch things around, but try to be conscious of any ingredients you purchased for the planned meals so you can find another use for them. 

And remember that sometimes, even with the best plan, food waste can happen. A new recipe can be a disaster or yield way more than the number of servings it promised. Food can go bad before you get to it, if it wasn’t particularly fresh when you bought it. Plans change and some family members may miss a meal or feel under the weather and unable to eat. In short, things beyond our control can happen. Do your best with the food that is left, but don’t beat yourself up if you have to toss some. 

Finally, be sure you have a plan for leftovers. More on that in my Leftovers post.

I am writing this blog series in the knowledge that many families have financial constraints that limit their food choices and for whom food waste is not an option. If you would like to make a donation to help people living with food insecurity, here are a couple of organizations I have supported: Food Banks Canada and Breakfast Club of Canada. Your local food bank would also welcome donations of food or cash.

Dinner plate illustration74251394 © Olga Polishchuk |

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