All the food blogs I read agree: meal planning is the way to go if you want to avoid food waste, daily shopping trips, lack of inspiration and general cooking malaise.
For the last few weeks I've been kicking around an idea for a meal planner that takes a list of possible meals, along with a points value based on healthiness, ease of cooking and opinion (so for example something that is complicated, unhealthy and not really popular would get three points, whilst something that is quick, healthy and delicious would get one) and then generates a weekly meal plan with a maximum of fifty points per week, ten per day.
That was the plan. When I sat down at my computer to create the spreadsheet I had envisaged, I hit a problem. I had absolutely no idea how to do it.
So I consulted the oracle that is the internet, and after a few false starts I discovered something far beyond my wildest imaginings.
The Free Weekly Meal Planner from the Excel Templates blog is amazing. Jon Wittwer, the brains behind this incredible blog, has managed to create a spreadsheet that allows you to list your regular meals, make a planfor the week, copy the weekly plan into a monthly plan, use the monthly plan and an ingredients list to create a shopping list, and also record the recipes for each meal in case you can't remember. I've only spent a few moments (alright, maybe a few hours) playing with it and I'm already in love.
It doesn't do everything I had imagined my spreadsheet doing - it doesn't randomly pick your meals for you, or take account of the points system I had so cleverly devised (and definitely not pilfered from Weight Watchers, of course). But really, that isn't all that important once you're able to see at a glance what you're eating for the week. Whenever we sit down to plan what we're going to eat, all three of us are hit by a sort of weird amnesia, whereby we can't think of a single thing we eat except fried eggs and chips. With all our regular meals in a little drop-down list, with options for side dishes and desserts, that's not a problem any more.
You can add new meals to the list easily, and I did a bit of shifting around because I only want one item at breakfast but two at lunch. There's also a monthly planner, with a sheet for recording recipes (sadly not linked into the very complex quantity calculator), a nifty little conversion sheet for converting cups to lbs, lbs to tbsps and so forth, and a calendar view of the month's evening meals and the same drop-down list function.
So far, I haven't worked out whether it's possible to link the two together and somehow transfer each week's plan into the monthly overview, or use the weekly meals list to populate the monthly meals list. If that's possible, this might just be the only document you need to plan, shop for and cook your household's meals. I definitely recommend trying it.