Zero Food Waste – Menu Planning

image of two dinner plates with curry on them

When I was preparing a talk on sustainable ethical eating I asked in the Zero Waste Ireland Facebook group if anyone had any particular issues they’d like to hear about.  I really surprised that menu planning was number 3 on the list. I didn’t think that menu planning was a thing in Ireland. I only really started doing it when I had kids and that was really just to make life easier and simpler. I was also unsure if I had enough content on this issue to write a full article. Well turns out I had information for three articles, of which this is the first.

This article really focuses on dinner planning, partly to keep the article length reasonable but also because lunch in our house is a hugely dependant on leftovers and what needs to be eaten up in. I will be following up this article with one on sustainable ethical sources of food and ways to minimise food and energy waste when cooking.

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I remember fondly the days when I used to decide what to eat on the day, ah the freedom. Now it’s pretty much all planned out on a Sunday evening and follows a predictable pattern. This might sound boring and it is certainly less spontaneous that deciding on the way home from work but it 1) frees my brain up from daily decision-making and 2) prevents a lot of food waste.

How to Plan Meals to Reduce Food Waste

This is how I go about planning my family’s meals on a Sunday evening.

Check the Calendar

In my experience most food waste is down to not planning for upcoming schedules. There is no point doing a big stew the day you’re out till late, unless you’ve got a slow cooker. There’s also no point planning to have a salad for lunch when you know you’re going to be eating dinner late.

Start with the Main Event

For me, this is the main source of carbohydrate for you it might be the main source of protein or the style of dish. Whatever floats your boat. My plan can look like this

  • Monday – potatoes
  • Tuesday – couscous or quinoa or another grain
  • Wednesday – homemade pizza
  • Thursday – rice
  • Friday – pasta/ noodles
  • Saturday – potatoes
  • Sunday – whatever we fancy

I prefer to eat potatoes more regularly than other carbohydrates because I know they come to the greengrocer in paper bags and are often grown in Ireland.

Select Your Protein Source

In Ireland typically meat is the main source of protein , and it’s the same in my house because at least one family members dislike beans, pulses and eggs. We were doing well on increasing the amount of plant based protein in the house until I developed IBS. Not that I have this under control I’m hoping to get back to 2 or 3 vegetarian/vegan dishes a week. We used to eat fish but the sustainability of fish is so hard to establish we just gave it up.

  • Monday – potatoes & chicken
  • Tuesday – couscous or quinoa & spanish style meatballs
  • Wednesday – homemade pizza & pepperoni
  • Thursday – rice & veg (curry or risotto)
  • Friday – potatoes & meat substitute
  • Saturday – pasta & chicken
  • Sunday – whatever we fancy

Every so often I’ll plan a leftover day, just to finish off anything that was put into the freezer.

Selecting a Recipe

It’d be way too time consuming to search for new recipes every week so we have our favourite recipes bookmarked, which I refer to for inspiration. I’ve organised them by carbohydrate type and have about 5 recipes that I can mix or match to suit each type. Take Monday for example we could have boiled potatoes with inside out chicken kiev, or piri piri chicken or summer in winter chicken or sweet chilli chicken or chicken saltimbocca. Similarly we’ve a selection of dishes that we often have on a rice day including Thai Green Curry, Sweet and Hot Pineapple curry, Chicken Tikka Masala, or Chicken and Chorizo One Pot.

Anytime I come across a new recipe I bookmark that new recipe in a designated folder, which I refer to when I’m looking to try something new.

Tweaking a Recipe to Reduce Food Waste

I generally never cook something exactly as the recipe states. I’ll always have to adjust a recipe to suit what we can afford and get package-free or locally-grown.

I also have to avoid the never-ending list of ingredients that at least one family member dislikes. Currently the list includes; beans, peas, carrots, lentils, mushrooms, onions, egg, butternut squash/ pumpkin, cabbage, cauliflower, courgette, aubergine, cooked peppers, raw tomatoes, any sort non-melted cheese or cheese sauce, mayonnaise, cream, deli meats.

I’m an experienced enough cook to know what I can leave out without spoiling a recipe or what will work as an alternative but when I’m stumped I just Google ‘alternative to …….. ‘

Our favourite family recipes are fairly standard, although I’ve tweaked our favourite recipes to involve less cooking, ingredients and time!

Here’s a list of our favourite recipes along with links to the original recipes, where I could find them;

Schedule your Shopping to Reduce Food Waste

Once I’ve made the final decision on what to have for dinner I’ll schedule my shopping to suit. If I’m making a salad I like to buy the ingredients on the day, similarly with a whole chicken. If I don’t think I’ll be able to get to the farmer’s market or butchers on the appropriate day I’ll amend the menu plan to suit.


PS – The other two articles in this series include Zero Food Waste – Sustainable Ethical Groceries and Zero Food Waste  – Shopping, Prepping and Eating

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

3 thoughts on “Zero Food Waste – Menu Planning

  1. Hi there, I find myself reading your blog so when it pops up each time I am happy to usually learn something new. Thank you for your comprehensive article in menu planning. I run a big household so dinners are the only time of day we get to be together and catering for such volumes can be tricky. However I freeze, reuse and generally our cat and dog can have the meager leftover meat pieces. However this is not why I am writing to you today. It is the packaging for the meat, chicken that I find impossible to avoid! I have gone to the butcher (our town has plenty of fabulous butchers) but the cost can be nearly double. That may seem an exeggaration but ALDI 4% angus mince works out at nearly half the price. The chicken breast for a kilo is €8.60. Again a lot cheaper. But here is the rub they all come in plastic containers. I am so torn! There is a no plastic shop opening in Portlaoise soon and a good pal of mine gives talks on a no plastic household. So I am aware of this new way of living but trying to make one change a month! The latest is eliminating liquid hand soap. But I am finding it difficult to find a soda that doesn’t go gloopy and play dough like after a week! Any suggestions on the above I would be grateful. Thank you for your comprehensive post with the meal planning.


    1. Hi Helen.

      Sounds to me like your doing a fantastic job of trying to live as sustainably as you can. I was not in a position to buy my meat anywhere other than Lidl and Aldi for a long time, now we have a bit of extra money and I am in a position to pay the extra cost to buy my meat package-free from local butchers. For me living lightly is not about only buying package-free food or anything particular action, it’s about using as few resources as possible and if unpackaged meat isn’t feasible for you at the moment that means you are using a few resources a possible! Well done you. You’re doing your best and that’s all that anyone can ask. Sometimes we put too much pressure on the individual, after all it’s successive governments who have allowed retailers get to the point of wrapping everything in plastic in order to maximise profits, which we then have to pay to get rid of in our taxes and waste charges.

      Regarding the soap, mine goes a little gloppy too but not so much as not to work. I’ve found it important to leave it stand for at least 12 hours after it’s made to see how thinking it’s gets. Then you can adjust it by adding hot water before putting in the dispenser. Also if it gets too thick in the dispenser i just add a bit of hot water and give it a shake.

      You’re right to only concentrate on one thing a month. Otherwise it’s overwhelming. I’m over two years down the road and it’s a lot easier now. I would also add that i gave up on some things because they just weren’t sustainable for us money or energy wise, like homemade crackers, which didn’t stay fresh enough in lunch boxes for me to give up the plastic-bought shop bought versions. The one area I was able to save a lot of money on was cleaning products. Now that we only use vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and a bit of dishsoap for cleaning we’ve saved a fortune, which we decided to invest into organic veg, which i am lucky enough to be able to buy package-free locally.

      Just continue to do your best and be kind to yourself. Every step you can make is contributing to the solution.



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