We recently hosted a live video talk on our Instagram account with author, food writer and busy mum of three Caitríona Redmond of Wholesome Ireland. Caitríona shared some of her most popular meal planning tips for feeding families on a budget, and we know you’ll find them incredibly useful.
Caitríona has been blogging on Wholesome Ireland about feeding her family well on a budget for over a decade and her cookbook Wholesome – Feed Your Family Well for Less was published in 2014. She is a member of the Guild of Irish Food Writers, works for Lidl Ireland as a brand ambassador, and juggles parenting with working from home full-time.
Caitríona’s Meal Planning Tips
Caitríona is on a mission to help parents manage their time in the kitchen while still providing their families with wholesome home cooked meals. Her philosophy:
“I want to be able to cook wholesome, delicious meals for my family. But I also don’t want to be tied to the kitchen. I need the meals I make and time I spend in the kitchen to match with our family’s activity-packed lifestyle, so I can spend more time with the kids and doing my paid work.”
Through meal planning, Caitríona has worked out a strategy that helps her achieve this goal, which is based around the following three simple principles:
- Making savvy decisions based on your budget, your time and what ingredients you already have.
- Planning meals around family activities.
- Having back ups for the nights when you’re not prepared.
1. Make savvy, budget-friendly, time-saving decisions
There’s a big misconception around meal planning that it’s about cooking every meal from scratch in huge batches. There’s also a widely held belief that cooking from scratch is the best way to feed your family. Caitríona disagrees with this idea and contends that actually “the best way for you to feed your family is a way that keeps you healthy and happy”.
Meal planning is about building a forward-thinking strategy that saves you time.
“It can feel really boring trying to plan out what you’re going to eat for the week ahead. But when you have got an awful lot of activities going on in the household, that’s when meal planning can really make your life so much easier, particularly if you’re very careful about what you make.”
When sitting down to make a meal plan (you can use our free weekly meal plan download to get started), the first thing you need to do is make an inventory and consider your budget.
“When I am meal planning, I take a look at what I’ve got in my freezer. I take a look at what I’ve got in my cupboards. And then I also take a look at my budget.”
Once you’ve assessed what you’ve got to work with, you have a much better idea of what ingredients you need to buy and how you can stretch those ingredients to work for you.
2. Plan meals to fit your family’s schedule
Next, Caitríona recommends considering what each day of the week looks like for your family. Are there any evening activities planned that mean you won’t have time to cook or that you’ll need to have something prepared to fill hungry bellies in a flash?
Plan your meals around these pre-planned events so you don’t have to compromise on a good home-cooked meal. (See the example week meal plan below for how to do this.)
3. Prepare your contingency plan
There will inevitably be evenings where you don’t have anything prepared for dinner, something pops up that gets in the way of your plans or you simply don’t feel up to the task of cooking. That’s totally fine and normal!
Caitríona recommends having something on hand in the freezer or cupboard for times like these. For example, frozen leftover portions of meals you’ve cooked before or even a frozen pizza or a tin of beans with some oven chips every once in a while isn’t going to hurt anyone for when you need and deserve a break!
Meal Planning: Caitríona’s Week in Family Meals
Here’s an example of a typical working week of meals planned to match Caitríona’s busy family schedule:
“Mondays are generally hectic in my house as all of us have activities and will be in and out at different times of the day. So, we need to be prepared and have the meal ready and able to serve up with very short notice.”
“The kids both finish school at different times as well, so I’ll tend to have something in the slow cooker so I can feed them all as they come in the house. It will generally be something like a pasta ragu that I can pop in the slow cooker in the morning. And then as the kids come in throughout the day, we can all eat a hot meal, no matter what time it is, before we all head out to training.
“Thinking ahead, when preparing the ragu, I’ll make double the quantity that I need and then freeze half of it for use later in the week.”
“After the low-stress cooking of Monday, I’ll make something that requires a bit more effort. Something like lamb chops. I’ll make a marinade during my lunch break (or you can do it the night before if you’re not working from home). I’ll chop some potatoes into wedges and pop them into the airfryer. Once I’ve spritzed them with a little bit of oil, I’ll pop the lamb chops into the grill. And then I’ll use whatever fresh vegetables we have in the house to go with the dish.”
“I’ve a very basic cheat meal on Wednesday because I really don’t fancy cooking and I am a huge fan of homemade fast food!”
“Now I’ll introduce you to the absolute delicacy that is a crispy fried egg with rice noodles. Take a packet of rice noodles and rehydrate them in a jug of boiling water. Then add in some frozen peas and sweetcorn from the freezer. Next, heat up a frying pan and crack in some eggs. Cook them on high for a couple of minutes and then put a lid over the pan and reduce the heat a bit. This is so you’ll have a crispy bottom but the yolks will still cook.
“Meanwhile, drain the noodles and veg and put them in a big bowl. Add in a tablespoon of sesame oil, a tablespoon of soy sauce and squeeze in the juice from a lemon. Portion out the noodles and top with your crispy fried eggs. Drizzle with hot sauce (if you’re a fan) and voila! A delicious meal that took you all of ten minutes to prepare.”
“If you remember, I made myself a ragu on Monday that I made double quantities of and stored in the freezer. I’m going to take it out on Thursday morning. As soon as it is defrosted on Thursday afternoon, I’ll pour it into an ovenproof dish. Then I’ll take oodles and oodles and lashings of grated Parmesan, and a small amount of grated mozzarella, to sprinkle on the top.”
“I’ll add some garlic powder or garlic salt, sea salt, pepper and some fresh oregano. Then I’ll bake it in the oven at 160ºC. Remember, you’re only reheating it, everything is already cooked, but I want to get that mozzarella and parmesan combination really stringy and ooey-gooey on top. I’ll cook it for 30-35 minutes, and then I’ll dish it up.”
“Friday, well, I need a break. So honestly, I’ll probably get a takeaway if it’s in the budget. If it’s not in the budget, then we might make pancakes or we’ll have a frozen pizza.”
Extra Time and Money-Saving Meal Planning Tips
Use Frozen Vegetables
“One of those ways of getting rid of the drudgery of meal prep is by buying in some frozen ingredients. I am a huge believer in frozen sweetcorn and frozen peas, which actually happen to be fresher and more nutritious because of the way that they’re prepared. Frozen peas and sweetcorn, for example, are processed within about an hour to an hour and a half of them being picked. So they hold the maximum amount of nutritious content. And they’re so easy to add into your meals – you literally just take them out of the freezer, defrost them in a little bit of hot water, or you stir them into sauces, and then you serve them straightaway. They save you so much time!”
Make Extra and Freeze
“As I did with the ragu above, having extra in the freezer can make weeknight meals so much easier. Another example, if I’m making a roast chicken dinner, I will make double the quantities of potatoes. So after I’ve served up potatoes, I’ll take the second half and mash them. When the mash is cool, I’ll pop it in the freezer. Mash reheats brilliantly out of the freezer for another day.”
Buy Seasonal and Local to Save Money
“Seasonal food that comes from Ireland, that is local to you, is going to be cheaper and it’s also going to have less food miles. So if you’re concerned about things like your carbon footprint or the food miles that food takes to come to you, and you also want to save money, then take a look at what’s in season in Ireland at the moment. Foods will be labelled with their country of origin.”
You can find more tips and recipes from Caitríona in the full video on our Instagram channel or on her website Wholesome Ireland. There you can find a free slow cooking mini-book available to subscribers, along with meal planning printables.