I have always loved cooking, but once kids were added to the mix, meal prep got…complicated. I learned very early on with having kids I could no longer “wing it” for meals. When you have kids, life gets busier than you can imagine (and all the moms nod their heads). Trips to the grocery store were an adventure in itself, and I often found I would forget ingredients (shopping with kids is very distracting) and then rushing to put dinner together come dinnertime. Over the years I have learned life saving tips and tricks to save mealtime and to have dinner be a joy again! Enter: meal planning.
Throughout the week, I try and have a variety of foods and cuisines. For example: I don’t like to do more than one ground beef, or double up on chicken or any particular vegetable side. I also like to have at least one ‘explore’ meal to introduce more and different foods to the kids. This could mean a new recipe, spice, or ingredient. It is completely my preference, but I like to keep it varied! Every meal I try and have a vegetable, meat, and a starch/carb.
Meal planning is not as bad as you might think! Just a few minutes of planning can set your entire week up for success. Keep reading for my favorite hacks to simplifying dinnertime and feeding your family!
1. Decide Your Meal Planning Plan Of Action
You have to figure out what works for you to set yourself up for success, just like anything in life. Find a day that works on a consistent basis to sit down and do your meal planning for the week. For me, that is Sunday after church when the kids are resting. Dustin and I have pretty good communication during the week of upcoming plans, but I will still check in with him to see if there are any evenings that have commitments that aren’t on our calendar. Depending on what we have going on in the evening will determine what kind of food I will make. For example, evenings we have soccer practice at 6 p.m. means dinner needs to be done and on the table at 4:30, so I either need to make a crockpot meal or make dinner earlier in the day. Or if Dustin has a work dinner, I know I can make a meal he wouldn’t prefer.
2. Meal Planning Budget
Next, I take a look at the food budget. Near the end of the month usually the budget is a little tighter, which means I will try and choose meals that are a little less expensive. Think meatless dinners, casseroles, or even using a “free” freezer meal (I will explain more about that later!). Having a plan helps me from getting random groceries that won’t end up getting eaten and ultimately money down the drain.
3. Grocery Pickup
As I choose each meal for the day, I also have a tab open in my browser for a grocery pickup order. Let me tell you, this is a GAME CHANGER. I can skip the grocery store and simply pull up and my grocery order is ready for me. It also allows me to add to the cart what I need while looking over the recipes and check my pantry stock. It also limits impulse buys, which saves money too! (Have you ever grocery shopped while hungry?). I usually do two different stores a week, my fresh produce from Hyvee (local grocery chain) and pantry items or miscellaneous home things like toothpaste from Walmart. Throughout the week, I will add things I run out of to my Alexa shopping list and I will add those items to my cart, too.
When my meal plan for the week is done, I check out online and groceries are ready for me when I need them! Since I do my planning on Sunday, I will schedule a pickup for Monday morning after I drop the big kids off. This way I get home with a trunk full of groceries to start my week with success!
4. Make Ahead
On those nights where there is just no time to make a meal at dinnertime, this is where planning ahead comes in handy! Crockpot meals can also be a life saver for those who work and are gone all day. If you work and aren’t able to prep a meal during the day for those evenings that are busy, maximize your weekend! A little meal prep goes a long way. If I know I won’t have the time in the evening, sometimes I will make dinner earlier in the day. Something like homemade mac and cheese is easy to put together and then throw in the oven closer to dinnertime!
It is important for me to have healthy foods available. Pretty much every week I will make hard-boiled eggs, roast sweet potatoes, or grill some chicken so I have good food to choose from for the week instead of consistently choosing an English muffin for my meals when I am home! Prepping simple items like the ones mentioned previously are great to build into lots of other meals, too.
5. Pantry Staples
I have some items I always keep in stock. Every parent (or human, for that matter) knows oftentimes you’ll get a curveball throughout your week and you need to throw something together you weren’t expecting. An unexpected visitor which requires more food, a last minute errand or doctor appointment which now means dinner needs to be quick – whatever the reason, think about the meals that are your go-to and you can make without thinking. A few of ours are chicken quesadillas, spaghetti, grilled chicken, or breakfast for dinner. So I’ll always have tortillas, chicken breast, noodles, spaghetti sauce, eggs, hash browns, and bacon on hand. And all of the above are freezer-friendly or stay for a long time on the pantry shelf, so you don’t need to be worried about them perishing.
Another thing to consider is lifestyle items. Since 4/5 of our kids are in school, our kids need snacks and items for a packable lunch. Dustin will take lunch to work, so I need to make sure he has his arugula and rotisserie chicken on hand (or he will take leftovers). And for me, sometimes I just don’t have time for a meal, so I need to have snacks or quick meals on hand.
6. Freezer Meals
Another way I save time and money in the budget is preparing freezer meals. By this I mean if I am making a meal that freezes well (think soups, pasta sauce, meatballs), I will double the recipe and freeze half. This comes in handy in multiple ways – if I am running behind and need a fast dinner, there is one already done for me! Just heat up and you’re golden. Or if the budget is tight for the week, I will plan on using one of these meals. They are so easy because you are already doing the prep work, so doubling it is hardly any more effort. Try it, you will thank yourself!
Also, I learned this trick from a friend: Make cookie dough and freeze the dough in the individual cookie ball form. Then, when the craving hits, simply pop as many cookies as you want in the oven for fresh cookies on demand! Also works well to have these freezer hacks on hand if you want to bless a new mama or give a meal to someone who is sick or in a hard season.
Meal Planning In Action
I will walk you through how I came up with my menu for this week!
Eloise has gymnastics after school which doesn’t leave me a lot of time for making dinner. After I get my groceries, I will make ahead a mac and cheese during the day and pop it in the oven before school pickup on a delay time bake. My Monday prep day this week I roasted sweet potatoes, sautéed some kale, made the mac and cheese, and toasted breakfast burritos from my freezer stash for weekday breakfasts.
When we get home from gymnastics I will check on the mac and cheese and grill up some kielbasa and steam the green beans. Dinner will be on the table around 5:45 p.m.! I look over the recipe and what ingredients I don’t have in the pantry and add those to my grocery list. This means more American cheese, pasta shells, and milk.
Tuesdays are our crazy day. Scarlett has running after school and Levi has soccer practice at 6 p.m., so we need to eat on the earlier side. I will make a crockpot pot roast so we are able to eat as soon as we get home and we are out the door at 5:30! I usually have carrots on hand, but I know I need more, as well as potatoes and the roast.
I have more time on Wednesdays, which is a nice reprieve from the other evenings. Elliott has early out, so I get her at 1:40 p.m. My plan this week is to come home and prep dinner with her for some quality (but productive!) one on one time. We are doing chicken fajitas, so we will prep everything and work on knife skills. Adding chicken, peppers, and avocados to my shopping list.
Scarlett is running after school again and I am running with her in preparation for her 5k, so I will need another quicker meal. I will make Bulgogi and prepare it earlier in the day so it can marinate. When we get home I throw it on the stovetop grill and get the rice going in the rice cooker. And I will prepare cucumber salad earlier in the day also! Adding the cucumbers and beef tips to the shopping cart. I keep white rice as a pantry staple and it is getting on the low side, but I will get it another week since my budget is spent.
Friday is usually our leftover night or restaurant night. Depending on if we have a lot of food left from meals from earlier in the week, I will use this night to clear out the fridge! Or if the takeout budget allows, we will grab pizza or go out to eat as a family. Let the weekend begin!
I don’t usually cook a whole lot on the weekend. Meal times are usually much more fluid or there are date nights out or other family engagements, so planning ahead has never worked for me. We will do a lot of leftovers on the weekend too, or something more simple like a box of Velveeta, chicken quesadillas, or grill out. We like to take mornings a little slower, so we will do homemade pancakes or go out to breakfast, which is one of our favorite things to do as a family.
Another big tip is to keep a notebook of your meal plans. You will have those weeks where you just can’t figure out what to make, and this book will be your lifesaver! I flip through my old meal plans and it helps get the gears turning when I am not feeling creative. Also use Pinterest, scroll Instagram food accounts (I love Half Baked Harvest and Food52), and look through your recipe cards!
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Fergesen of West Des Moines, IA and originally appeared on her blog. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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