Successful meal planning to feed your family well can feel like an insurmountable task when you are juggling work and the kids have activities here, there, and everywhere all evening long.
The best defense against the dreaded “What are we going to eat tonight?” is a good offense when your evening is filled with kid shuffling, homework, community meetings and — if you are lucky — an episode of your favorite show. In this case, a good offense involves developing a proactive and realistic plan that accounts for all the things you have going on in life.
This article will review six steps to successful meal planning so you can nourish your family and still have time for
a reality TV show episode or two self care.
Successful Meal Planning Strategy 1: Make time to think ahead
Set aside time once a week to think about what activities are ahead, what you’d like to eat, look at what is on hand already, and what you need from the grocery store.
I am indeed asking you to make time for one more thing in an already busy schedule. However, this is like compound interest—planning time taken now grows free time later.
Spending 20-30 minutes each week to plan your meals and grocery list, and then making one grocery store trip will ultimately save you time.
Since you have thought ahead, the number of times you find yourself staring into your fridge, freezer or cupboards wondering what to make for tonight’s dinner will significantly decrease. Those last minute trips to the store will also be less frequent, and you will have more time for that self care.
Successful Meal Planning Strategy 2: Write It Down
Get a stylish notebook, a meal planning journal, or use this free template I made for you. Write down what activities are going on and what you made or ate for dinner each night of the week.
Keeping track of both your activities and what you had for dinner will help identify your weekly rhythm. It will also clarify which days you have less time — or more time — to make food.
After one week, and as time goes on, these records will serve as fantastic inspiration for future weeks of meal planning! I regularly thumb through my notebooks to look for dinner ideas that I know worked for me and our busy life.
Successful Meal Planning Strategy 3: Keep it Simple
If you are starting to feel overwhelmed by the thought of documenting activities and meals, let me reassure you. These records don’t need to be detailed, they just need to be understood by you, the meal planner/implementor.
I’d recommend listing out the known activities per day of the week while you are thinking about recipes and what you need from the store.
Then, jot down short-handed references to what you plan to make that week. I do this brainstorming in the margins of my notebook.
For example, I know exactly what “Tostadas” and “GG’s” means for my planning, and that’s all that matters. [GG’s is Great Grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe – yummy!].
Write down what was eaten on a given day when it suits you. That could mean during planning or after the fact. I personally write it down after the fact. We have so many activities going on that pivoting to a different meal is extremely common in my household. I bet you can relate.
Meals don’t need to be complicated, or 100% from scratch, to be nourishing. When my kids were preschool and elementary school age, I went through a period of feeling guilty if I wasn’t making everything from scratch. The pressure I put on myself to ‘make it all from scratch, all the time’ created a lot of stress and feelings of overwhelm.
Once I internalized the fact that I am not a bad parent — or dietitian — if I use a product with more than 5 ingredients on the food label (as one popular blog recommends as a limit), my stress levels went way down, and I got a lot happier. Feeling happier and less stressed makes me a better parent and a better person and improves my health overall. My family also finds me a lot more pleasant.
You can feel happier and less stressed about meals too! Identify 4-7 easy, ‘go-to’ meals whose ingredients are usually on hand in your pantry or freezer. When things get hectic and you haven’t had time to plan, having those staples on hand to create a quick, nourishing meal will save the day!
A few ideas:
- Canned beans with rice and grated cheese and salsa
- A carton of soup and a hot sandwich
- Pasta with a simple olive oil and garlic sauce or a jarred sauce
- Scrambled eggs and toast
Actually, I bet you already have some “SOS” meals in your wheelhouse that fit the bill. Maybe they include a recipe for SOS itself. That’s a slang term for chipped beef on toast. My husband ate it growing up – mainly when Dad was out of town and Mom was trying to get a break from elaborate cooking. I’ll let you discover on your own what the SOS stands for in that recipe– if you don’t already know. Who knows, maybe it will become a family favorite!
Successful Meal Planning Strategy 4: Stay Flexible
Now that you are excited about planning meals for the whole week ahead, I encourage to you leave some room for those inevitable schedule changes that pop up and require you to cook something a day or two later than originally planned.
Successful meal planning will vary family to family. For my household of two full-time working parents and two teenagers with multiple activities, planning 4-5 meals for the week is our sweet spot. It allows for wiggle room when something changes in the week – because it always does.
You are in the sweet spot for successful meal planning for your family when you simultaneously avoid these two pitfalls:
- Being under prepared with dinner ideas which results in last minute trips to the store.
- Over buying food that ultimately is thrown out because the family was so overscheduled there wasn’t time to prepare it.
Successful Meal Planning Strategy 5: Eat on Repeat
Maybe I am an organizational nerd, but I think planned-overs are my love language. Planned-overs are intentional leftovers. It makes me so happy when I’ve got food already made in the fridge or freezer. I heat it up, add a side or two and we are enjoying a great meal. We’re eating well, and I’m stressing less about preparing food on a busy night.
As an example, I made a bulk batch of meatballs and baked them off on a Saturday.
We hosted a friend for dinner that night and served them Asian style with a teriyaki-style sauce, grilled veggies, brown rice and fresh mango.
My family of four ate this meal again on Monday. I polished off the rest for lunch Tuesday and froze 40 meatballs for the future. I will use those for pasta, hot sandwiches and soups in upcoming meals.
I’m getting all tingly just thinking about those frozen meatballs. Yep, planned-overs are definitely my love language.
Think about recipes you make that store well so you can make extra for later in the week, or so you can freeze them for a meal down the road. Make extra chicken for salads, wraps or soup; double a stew/soup/lasagna recipe and freeze it for next month. Your future self will thank you!
Successful Meal Planning Strategy 6: Start Where You Are
Getting started is the most important thing when it comes to doing something different. There is no real order of importance when it comes to the steps I’ve shared here for successful meal planning. The important thing is to just pick a strategy and start!
If you aren’t ready to schedule a time for weekly meal planning, try:
- Writing down what you are currently doing to serve as inspiration in the future.
- Building out that list of go-to meals and stocking the ingredients for them.
- Making planned-overs – whether it’s a double batch of something to freeze, or extra protein or starch that can be eaten for lunch or dinner this week.
You see, there are so many places to start, it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. So, pick the one that suits you best right now and go from there!
All options lead toward successful meal planning for your family, which will ultimately make it easier to eat the way you want, while also saving time. Now that’s what I call a good offense!
Take good care.
Meredith Kleinhenz, RDN, CSG, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Board Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition. Over 20 years of experience working with patients has taught her there are no good or bad foods and context matters a whole lot when talking about nourishment. Learn more about Meredith’s philosophy on nutrition and health here.