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It is possible to have quality family meal time even when life gets busy. Follow our guide to meal planning 101 to find out how.
Table of Contents
Before I Started Meal Planning
I have been meal planning for 16 years. When I first became a wife and mother, I had dreamy and lofty ideas about the kind of meals that I was going to serve my little family. I pictured myself serving extravagant three course meals on the regular, adorable Pinterest worthy snacks shaped like bunnies or hearts to my baby once he started eating solids, and healthy, hot breakfasts every morning.
Fast forward to a few months into this plan. I was completely burned out from cooking elaborate recipes. The fancy meals were sending my weekly food budget over the edge. I was scrambling to figure out what was for dinner every night because I didn’t plan in advance, and the only thing my picky-eater baby wanted to eat for a snack was cheerios. No adorable spinach pancakes cut into star shapes for him. I felt like I had failed.
What I needed was meal planning, and not just any meal planning. I needed a meal planning system that would work for my specific family, our budget, our time constraints, and our needs. As my family has grown, I have needed to adjust my meal planning process, and in this meal planning journey, I’ve discovered lots of tips and tricks for making meal planning work.
Why You Should Meal Plan
Meal planning is not a new concept, and I’m sure you’ve considered it in the past. Maybe you don’t meal plan because you’re too busy to grocery shop. Are you too busy to cook? Too busy to sit down and actually eat a meal? I’ve been there.
Do your kids have a million after school activities? Maybe money is tight and fast food seems like the only affordable option.
I have so many of the same struggles you have right now, and I’m here to tell you that not only is meal planning possible, it’s also going to save your life. I know it saves mine on a nightly basis. Meal planning is something that I can’t imagine living without.
Here’s why you should meal plan –
- You save time and mental energy by deciding on meals once. Plan the meals for the week and you don’t ever have to wonder, “What’s for dinner?” on a Tuesday night again.
- You save time on grocery shopping. With meal planning, you only go to the store once a week. No more running to the store every day for that one thing you need.
- Healthy meals are always ready to go. Home cooked food almost always has less butter, salt, and fat in it than restaurant food.
- You’ll save money eating at home instead of eating out.
Meal Planning Tip #1: Be Realistic, Not Aspirational
This is the most important part of meal planning, especially if you are just starting out. Don’t be like me when I first started meal planning – getting out my copy of Julia Child’s The Art Of French Cooking and thinking I am going to be serving elaborate meals every night.
When we are realistic about what we can cook on a busy weeknight after a long day of work, we are more likely to actually stick to the plan.
Scenario One: I planned to cook a lamb roast on Tuesday night. I didn’t read the recipe ahead of time, so I didn’t realize it needed two hours to marinate and three hours to roast. One of my kids has basketball practice in an hour, and I’ve got to drive across town to get him there. I realize that roasting lamb isn’t happening tonight, and we order pizza.
Scenario Two: I saw an amazing looking recipe for gazpacho in a fancy magazine. I put it on my meal plan for the week. The night I decided to serve it, I put it on the table for my family, and none of my kids ate it. I forgot they all hate tomatoes. They all make peanut butter sandwiches, and I’m frustrated that my hard work and money went to waste.
In both of these scenarios, my meal planning was aspirational. I picked recipes and meals that fit into a life I want to lead instead of the life I actually lead. There will be time for elaborate lamb roasts, and maybe one day, my kids will like tomatoes. But for today, I need to be realistic in my meal planning.
Meal Planning Tip #2: Gather Loved Recipes
I like to get recipes from several different places. Pinterest is a great resource for free and yummy recipes. I am a bit of a cookbook addict and love flipping through cookbooks for recipe ideas.
Let’s start our meal planning process by making a list of recipes that you and your family love to eat. You can keep this list in a notebook, a word document, or the notes app on your phone. It doesn’t matter where you write your recipe list down as long as you do make an actual list.
Having a list makes meal planning so easy. When it’s time to plan for the week, all you will have to do is go to your list and pick recipes from it.
Everyone is different when it comes to how they feed their family. While I know getting kids to eat their veggies and fruit is super important, I also try to make sure that the recipes I choose for my meal plan are liked by my kids as well.
I definitely know the frustration that is having picky eaters for kids! I used to have a hard rule that my kids had to eat whatever was served whether they liked it or not, but honestly, that rule led to a lot of conflict at the dinner table. I realized that dinner time was turning into a battle of the vegetables instead of connection and quality time as a family.
If you’ve been struggling with this tug of war with your kids, maybe consider this your permission to serve whatever food will get your family around the table, talking, and laughing together. Healthy recipes might look different at different stages of your life.
Meal Planning Tip #3: Consider Coupons and Sale Ads
Saving money is always at the front of what we do at A Mess Free Life, and with the cost of food these days, we want to save money wherever we can!
If meal planning already seems overwhelming, maybe skip this step. Once you get the hang of weekly meal planning, you can add the extra element of coupons and sales. If you feel like a meal planning pro, let’s talk about saving money at the grocery store.
Store Sale Ads
Do you ever pick up the sale ad that your grocery store puts out on a weekly basis? If you never have looked at what your store had on discount that week, you should start. I like to grab the sale ad online at the store’s website and make my meal plan using only ingredients from the sale ad. This saves a ton of money!
Did you know you don’t have to clip coupons out to find and use coupons? Gone are the days of sitting at your kitchen table cutting coupons from the newspaper. Most coupons can be found in the grocery store’s app.
There are so many stores with money saving coupons in their app – Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Costco, and most grocery store chains have apps that feature coupons. No more forgetting your coupon stash at home!
In the same vein of saving money on groceries, don’t forget to shop your own kitchen before you go and buy more food. I always look in my fridge, freezer, and pantry when I’m picking out recipes for my weekly meal plan so that I use the food I have before I go buy more.
Keeping an inventory of what food you already own will definitely help you save money.
Meal Planning Tip #4: Look Into Delivery Or Pick Up
One of the stumbling blocks to meal planning and cooking on a regular basis is time. No one has enough time.
Planning out your meals, making your grocery list, shopping for food, unloading the groceries from your car and putting them away – all of this takes so much time, and you haven’t even started cooking the meal yet!
There are weeks when grocery pick up saves the day. My local store lets me enter in my order online, schedule a time to come pick the order up, and then, they bring my groceries out to my car. Grocery pick up is one of the best inventions ever! When I think about not having to grocery shop with my hyper four year old in tow, I could just kiss the store employee who brings the order to my car (But for obvious reasons, I settle for giving them a nice big tip instead.)
If the stumbling block for meal planning and family dinner time is scheduling a grocery store trip, consider delivery and pick up options in your town. Some options cost an extra fee, but at my store, pick up is free.
Meal Planning Tip #5: Write It Down
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will remember what you planned by memory. Write down your meal plan.
Whether you use a planning app, a word document, a spreadsheet, the notes app, or a spiral notebook and pen (my personal favorite), write your meal planning down. I have a magnetic dry erase board made for displaying a weekly menu, and I keep it on the refrigerator. I write my meal schedule down on this with a dry erase marker. I can easily see what meal is cooked when, and I never have to hear my kids ask “what’s for dinner, mom?” again.
If you find yourself forgetting your shopping list (I’ve been there too many times!), take a picture of it with your phone. This way, you’ll always have you list.
Meal Planning Tip #6: Take Your Week Into Consideration
Before you make your meal plan, take a look at your calendar for the week. What’s happening this week? It would be a mistake to plan to cook a time-consuming recipe on a night when the kids have three different activities or you know you have to work late. Picking a recipe that needs a lot of meal prep won’t work when you have to hold a baby while keeping your toddler from coloring on the living room walls.
When I meal plan, I like to pick three or four easy and quick dinner recipes and two more involved recipes. Picking time consuming recipes every night won’t work, but only eating quick and simple food every night of the week makes me feel bored. So, I like to have a balanced mix of both.
Meal Planning Tip #7: Don’t Forget Breakfasts and Lunches
When you first start menu planning, only plan your week’s worth of dinners. Once you get dinner planning under your belt, start planning out your breakfasts and lunches. This will save you so much time and money, and it will make getting in your five fruits and vegetables a day so easy.
Remember that breakfast and lunch don’t have to be complicated. I like to pick two different breakfasts to eat each week, and I plan to eat leftovers for lunch. Breakfast can be as simple as a hard boiled egg and an apple. The less complicated the meal plan, the better.
Planning to pack a lunch will always be better for the grocery bill.
Meal Planning Tip #8: Ask For Help
Get the family involved! I’m the main cook in my family, and I love cooking and trying new recipes. But that doesn’t mean I want to cook every meal, every day of the year!
Do you have a partner living with you? Teenagers? Roommates? Ask them to take on some of the weekly meals. When I plan on someone else from my family taking over dinner for the night, I write that into my meal plan. Letting that person know in advance that they are responsible for a meal will ensure that they are ready to take it on and cook for the family.
Sometimes, my teenager scrambles eggs and makes toast, and we call it dinner. Even though it’s a very simple meal, he contributed to his family, and I’m just happy I didn’t have to cook that night! My kids love to make ground beef tacos for taco Tuesdays. They get a kick out of making it themselves, and they always eat well.
Meal Planning Tip #9: Baby Steps
It’s possible that meal planning feels too overwhelming, and you feel like it just isn’t for you. Before you jump ship, consider this – you might be doing too much, too fast.
Taking on seven dinners a week when you normally cook just three dinners a week might be too much to start with if you want to try meal planning. Instead, start by adding one more meal that you normally cook. If you normally cook three dinners a week, try to plan and cook four this week.
Build up to seven dinners a week slowly, and then, move on to planning breakfasts and lunches.
Meal Planning Tip #10: Shortcuts Are Okay
When I first started meal planning, I wish a magical meal planning fairy would have popped into my kitchen and told me one thing. “You’re doing too much! Keep it simple.”
I was trying to be Martha Stewart and Julia Child all rolled into one, and it was too much work! Now, I know that shortcuts are okay.
What do shortcuts in meal planning look like?
Serving a frozen lasagna on a busy night instead of making it from scratch is a great meal shortcut. Cooking baked potatoes instead of making mashed potatoes because it takes less time. Using a jar of pasta sauce instead of using homemade. Buying a ready made rotisserie chicken to eat with a quick salad. These are all good examples of meal planning shortcuts that will get a great meal on the table fast.
Mealtime with family and friends can be fun, happy, peaceful, and most importantly, easy. Follow our meal planning guide to making mealtime a special time for your family.