Are you convinced that meal planning is drudgery? Mighty Mommy's look at the ways meal planning can make family life so much more enjoyable may change your mind!
You’re running late to pick your kids up from soccer practice and have two things on your mind—"Please don’t let me be the last parent, again, for pick-up” and “What the heck are we going to have for dinner tonight?”
Mealtime with our loved ones should be a time to connect and nourish both body and soul. Instead, many families struggle to put a simple dinner together and end up scrambling for last-minute ingredients or frequenting take-out places because they’re too exhausted to bother.
If you’re tired of flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to serving up delicious, healthy meals, then it’s time you give meal planning a chance.
How to approach family meal planning
Let’s have some fun and digest each of these. (Pun intended!)
1. Craft a meal planning mindset
Busy parents spend a good portion of their time in the kitchen. Meal preparation, not to mention serving and cleaning up, is time-consuming. Factor in the time it takes to shop for food—and that groceries account for the third largest expense in a family’s budget—and you can add frustration and a heaping dose of stress to the mix.
Don’t go into meal planning as just another chore you have to tackle.
Before you dive into the world of meal planning, you need to shift your mindset. Don’t go into this as just another chore you have to tackle, instead, take a positive approach and have some fun with the process.
The time you invest in meal planning will result in a delicious weekly menu, or even an entire month of menus if you’re so inspired. You’ll also be on your way to a well-stocked pantry. That means grocery shopping will be streamlined and much less taxing. Impulse purchases will become a thing of the past, helping you save your hard-earned money. Best of all, your anxiety levels will plummet because you’ll finally be organized! No more wandering around the grocery store trying to figure out the ingredients you need.
The key to effective meal planning is to build it into your routine. In my previous episode, 5 Tips to Make Family Meal Planning Easier, I explained that sitting down and giving your meal plan some genuine thought is the key to success. Keep these tips in mind as you embark on this savory journey to create menus your family will hunger for:
Pick your meal planning day and be consistent.
Is there a better day or time each week that offers you the quiet space you need to put some thought into your menu? Thursday is my day off, so that’s the day I tend to do my grocery shopping. I want to have my meals planned a few days before that, so I use Mondays as my planning day, and I stick with that day so I don't get off track.
Be realistic—how much time do you really have to prepare and cook your meals?
You can plan all you want, but if you don’t have time to execute your meal plan, you won’t benefit from it.
Start by checking your family calendar. With a glance of the upcoming week, you’ll be able to figure out what nights call for a fast and easy dinner or what nights require something that can be kept warm and served at different times. When can everyone sit down together for a real family dinner?
It's okay to build in a day to give yourself a break, too. I created a super easy day in the mix called Take-out Thursday.
With this in mind, incorporate important elements such as a few make-ahead family dinners, and limit more time-consuming recipes to your least crazy day of the week. Tuesday and Friday nights are the busiest for our family, so I always have a casserole or something easy like quesadillas or a “make-your-own” dish such as tacos on those evenings.
It's okay to build in a day to give yourself a break, too. I created a super easy day in the mix called Take-out Thursday. This is my day off in the kitchen. On take-out day, we indulge in things like pizza, Chinese food, or burgers from our favorite pub.
PRO TIP: Because routine meal planning ultimately saves me money, affording take-out once a week is a piece of cake!
Now for the fun part: pick your recipes.
I like to create a two-week meal plan because I do one big grocery run every other week. If you know your family’s favorites—like aunt Betty’s three-cheese lasagna or Dad's mouth-watering glazed wings and mac and cheese—add those to your list. Ask your family for their input, so everyone has a say.
Don't forget to search out recipes in those cookbooks gathering dust on your bookshelf. You might also enjoy perusing the dozens of online recipe sites. And don’t forget school lunches, weekend meals, and breakfasts.
Making your meal plan visible may hold you more accountable for following through, and best of all, your family isn’t constantly asking what’s for dinner.
Once your weekly meal plan is designed, get into the habit of hanging it in the kitchen for all to see. Making your meal plan visible may hold you more accountable for following through, and best of all, your family isn’t constantly asking “What’s for dinner?” If I'm even a day late in posting our bi-weekly menu, my kids nudge me. They look forward to seeing what's coming down the pike for dinner. Their excitement is an incentive for me to stay with the program.
Embrace the meal planning lifestyle.
Show enthusiasm for this new way of life by making your kids part of the process. Let them help you when you’re planning, shopping, and prepping. If they’re old enough to read and understand how a grocery list works, when they have to tag along to the store, let them be responsible for helping to gather the items you’re shopping for. Remind them that you’re strictly sticking to this list and not veering off your family’s meal plan. Taunt them with how delicious the homemade breakfast sandwiches are going to taste when they whimper about not being able to purchase that sugary cereal with neon marshmallows. You’re all in this together!
Once meal planning becomes a part of your lifestyle, you'll have more time and energy to devote to your family with even a little left over for yourself.
2. Save money by shopping for planned menus
Prepare your grocery list and prepare to save money! One of the biggest perks of meal planning for my family of eight kids is the amount of money we save each month. (Literally hundreds of dollars!) Any parent knows how difficult it is to go grocery shopping, particularly if you have hungry kids in tow. It's even more challenging when you have to wing it without a list.
Shopping without a list is borderline insanity and equates to throwing money away.
To me, shopping without a list is borderline insanity and equates to throwing money away. When you make meal planning a routine part of your life, you’ll finally eliminate those extra runs to the grocery store because you’ll now be shopping with a customized list once a week.
When I first started meal planning, I created my grocery list on the computer and organized it according to categories, such as produce, frozen items, canned goods, condiments, etc. I kept it posted on the bulletin board in the kitchen so I could add the necessary items I needed before I went shopping. I’ve since started using online lists such as grocerylists.org.
There are also plenty of amazing meal planning apps available, and they're convenient to use with your smartphone. Here are a couple I like.
- Yummly.com is a free mobile app and website that provides hundreds of personalized recipe recommendations including gluten-free, vegetarian, keto-diets, and more. It’s user-friendly and combines a grocery list as well as an actual meal plan. You’ll never serve ho-hum meals again.
- Cozi.com is another free, easy-to-use meal planning app that combines recipes and a dinner planner.
After you’ve been working off a grocery list for a few weeks, you’ll also start to create a well-stocked pantry. You’ll develop regular “go to” recipes that require many of the same ingredients and spices that you can purchase when on sale or that will last you weeks at a time. Knowing what’s already in your cupboards is a great money- and time-saver because you won’t end up purchasing extra cans of chicken broth or rummaging through the spice cabinet wondering where the chili powder is—you’ll know what you have, and you'll be able to put your hands right on it.
Show enthusiasm for this new way of life by making your kids part of the process.
3. Get creative and offer your family tasty experiences
Another benefit of meal planning is you can get your family out of the rut of eating the same old bland, boring, and even unhealthy meals you tend to be stuck on each week. There's more to life than hot dogs and tater tots!
When I embarked on meal planning years ago, I decided I was going to shake things up by trying one new recipe each week. Allrecipes.com and familytime.com are two of my favorites that always have a fresh and easy idea to try. My family wasn’t always crazy about some of these new concoctions but eventually, they became intrigued and began looking forward to the new plates we’d be trying.
There's more to life than hot dogs and tater tots!
Don't waste food—repurpose it!
Once I became devoted to the world of meal planning, I also committed to not being as wasteful with our food. There’s nothing more discouraging than having high hopes for a selection of fresh veggies and that perfectly-sliced corned beef from the deli only to open your crisper at the end of the week and see your food drooping and turning colors that look decidedly unhealthy. (Hmm. Is zucchini supposed to be that funky shade of brown?)
Thanks to some awesome websites, you can easily solve this problem and tap into your creative side. Check out supercook.com and bigoven.com and you’ll never have to be wasteful again. These sites will help you find new ways to use up the ingredients in your fridge and pantry or find ways to bring new life to your leftovers.
Make use of time-saving tools
Don’t forget two of my favorite tools when it comes to creative meal planning: the Crock-Pot and the Instant Pot.
Use a Crock-Pot: Yes, they’ve made a comeback and are a great part of a healthy and delicious eating plan. Many people use slow cookers these days because you can toss in a few ingredients in the morning and come home to the savory aroma of a meal ready to be eaten immediately. I use mine at least once a week. (Roaster chickens will simply melt in your mouth!) There are hundreds of recipes available online, including these favorites from delish.com.
Try an Instant Pot: This increasingly popular alternative is a combination between a slow cooker and a pressure cooker. Use it to make unbelievable meals in half the time! There is a huge wealth of recipes for the Instant Pot as well as online communities and recipes for those who are learning to use them.
4. Reduce daily stress and relish more time with your family
Today’s hectic family lifestyles don't have to mean we still can’t enjoy one another and have some fun. We can reduce our daily stress and have more family time by having a solid plan in place that allows us to eat well and be less frazzled.
Kids who regularly sit down to dinner with the family get higher grades, have better vocabularies, are more resilient, and are less likely to take up unhealthy habits like smoking.
Studies show that kids who regularly sit down to dinner with the family get higher grades, have better vocabularies, are more resilient, and are less likely to take up unhealthy habits like smoking. Eating together also allows families to stay connected with one another and share stories about what happened during their day. Parents have the opportunity to glimpse into the window of their kids' busy school lives. Likewise, kids get the chance to see what happens during mom and dad’s working hours.
Even if busy schedules make eating together as a family every night might be impossible, try for a sit-down meal several nights a week or enjoy a regular Sunday brunch. It's doable if you make meal planning a priority. Families that break bread together are more apt to laugh together and happily enjoy one another’s company.