10 Meal Planning Tips for Busy Families
Get healthy and delicious meals on the table all week long with these 10 meal planning tips for busy families.
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If you’ve followed along with me for a while now, you know that I’m an avid meal planner. I consistently share my weekly Menu Plan Monday posts here on the blog, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Meal planning isn’t a novel idea, but to my surprise, these weekly meal plans have been a huge hit with you guys. My focus on it has resulted in speaking engagements and media interviews on the subject, as well as a following of people who look forward to my weekly posts.
I started regularly planning my weekly menus back in 2012 around the time that my twin girls were about 6 months old and ready to eat real food with my husband and me. As our lives got busier, meal planning became my insurance that I would be able to get a healthy and delicious meal on the table (almost) every night. On a rare week that I don’t plan my menu in advance, I find myself at a loss for what to cook or out of ingredients that I need to make a meal.
I know I am not alone in this. On a nearly daily basis I hear parents talk about what they’re going to make for dinner, or, as is more often the case, asking “what am I going to make for dinner?!” Meal planning for busy families is not an easy task, but it can be done, and I have the tips to help you do it.
But first, do you know why meal planning is so important?
Why You Should Meal Plan
As I already mentioned, for me, meal planning is my saving grace when it comes to feeding my family. I could not get nutritious and delicious, balanced meals on the table for my girls by 6 pm every night if I didn’t do it. If you don’t mind serving your kids dinner on the later side or ordering take out or popping a freezer meal in the microwave every night then this reason may not be good enough for you. But here are five other reasons that may just motivate you to get on the meal planning train.
- Meal planning saves you money. Take out and delivery add up, and how many freezer meals would you need to feed a family?! In general, cooking at home is more cost effective, but especially if your menu plan is based on ingredients that are on sale and in season.
- Meal planning saves you time. It may take some extra time upfront when you’re sitting down to put the menu plan together, but once you know what you’re cooking for the week you know exactly what to get at the supermarket (no wasted time perusing the aisles) and you can do some meal prep ahead of time.
- Meal planning reduces food waste. If you plan your menu around what’s already in your fridge, freezer, and pantry, you’ll avoid throwing out leftovers and spoiled food (another money saver).
- Meal planning helps ensure a balanced plate. Thinking through what you’re serving ahead of time allows you to plan out a protein, carbohydrate, and fruits and vegetables for every meal.
- Meal planning allows for more variety. You’ll be less likely to fall into the rut of serving the same few dishes over and over again when you plan your menu in advance (especially if you plan more than one week at a time).
Now that you understand the reasoning behind meal planning, let’s make meal planning for busy families more manageable with my top 10 tips.
Meal Planning for Busy Families – Top 10 Tips
1. Start small.
If you’re a meal planning newbie, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start by planning two meals a week and work yourself up to three, then four. Once you get the hang of it and find the system that’s right for you, you can progress to whatever is the best fit for your family.
I usually plan one week at a time, but on occasion I’ll look ahead and plan for a week and a half or two weeks, especially if a holiday week is coming up or I know I’ll be recipe testing or out of town.
Remember: There’s no right and wrong when it comes to meal planning. You do what’s best for your personal family needs.
2. Map out your menu…
This may seem really basic, but putting pen to paper makes all the difference when it comes to implementing a plan. It doesn’t matter whether you use the notes section of your smart phone, a blank notebook or pad of paper, or a pre-designed meal planning pad (this is the one I currently use, but there are lots of options available). The act of writing down the menu will help you remember what you planned and also hold you accountable to it.
The most time consuming part of meal planning is figuring out what will go on your menu. I use a combination of cookbooks, recipes I’ve ripped out of magazines, Pinterest, tried and true recipes of my own, and fellow dietitian and food blogger recipes I’ve come across that appeal to me. I also base my menu on what’s in season, what ingredients are on sale at the supermarket, and what food I already have on hand.
If you’re not up to the task of designing your own weekly menu, don’t give up just yet. There are a number of meal planning sites and apps you can use to put together a meal plan for you. You still have to do the cooking, but you’ll save time thinking about what recipes go on the menu. A couple to try: Plan to Eat and The Six O’Clock Scramble.
3. …and grocery list.
Once you have your menu set, you can make your grocery list to go along with it. I keep my grocery list on my phone and organize it based on the layout of the supermarkets I frequent the most. This helps save time at the supermarket and make sure I don’t forget something in a particular section.
Making a list also helps avoid those impulse buys just because something looks good or is on sale. If a store is out of an ingredient you need or if your kids pick out something they want to try, it’s perfectly fine to veer off the plan a bit, or buy the item and use it the following week as long as it won’t spoil.
4. Meal prep.
Meal planning and meal prepping are two separate processes and you need to set aside time for both of them. Once you have your menu in place, sit down with the recipes and make a prep list for each one. Write down what needs to be done with every ingredient and how far in advance you can do the prep.
For example, if you have frozen chicken you’re making on Tuesday, you’ll want to stick it in the fridge to defrost on Monday morning. If you’re making quinoa burgers, make a double batch of quinoa on Sunday and use half for the burgers and the other half to make a quinoa salad for a side dish or lunch. Slice vegetables and store in re-sealable containers to easily add to the kids’ lunchbox or add to a casserole, frittata, or Buddha bowl for dinner.
You’ll find more great meal prep tips from Lindsay at The Lean Green Bean – she is the queen of food prep!
5. Take stock.
As I mentioned, there are many ways I come up with my menu plan, but the number one way I decide what I’m cooking is based on what’s currently in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. It is the best way to avoid food waste and make sure we use up the ingredients we have on hand before buying something new.
Plus, some of the best meals in our house are what I call pantry meals. They’re quick, easy, and nutrient-rich. Put together some combination of whole grain pasta, canned beans, canned fish, a jar of tomato sauce, and some veggies and dinner is done. For example, my Nicoise Pasta Salad and Lentil Chickpea Vegetable Salad with Feta are made up of mostly pantry, fridge, and freezer staples.
6. Cook in bulk.
One of the benefits of thinking ahead and planning your meals is that you can make extra of a recipe, so you have enough for leftovers another night or to freeze for a busy week. Some of my favorite types of recipes to double or triple and freeze are homemade tomato sauce, soups and stews, meatballs, and burgers. The little bit of extra time it takes on that day of cooking is more than made up for when I have a defrosted meal on the table in no time.
There are also some recipes that I make specifically to have in the freezer, like my egg muffins, oatmeal cups, and veggie & bean quinoa bites. These come in handy for breakfast on rushed mornings and school lunch boxes.
7. Make one meal.
Not a separate meal for each child, not one meal for adults and one meal for the kids. One meal period. That’s it.
Put simply: Don’t be a short order cook.
This tip will not only help you with meal planning, but also in helping your children learn to eat a well-rounded diet and put an end to picky eating. Worried your kids won’t eat that one meal? As long as there is one item on the table that you know your kids like, you don’t need to make separate meals for everyone. I promise your children will not starve!
8. Take a night off.
Monday through Friday are the main days of the week that I cook from scratch, with weekend meals consisting of leftovers, one adult night out for my husband and me, and a dinner out as a family. In addition to the weekends off from cooking, I also schedule one night during the week that I’m off duty, usually Thursday.
Cooking is time consuming and as much as I love being in the kitchen and making my own meals, everyone needs a break. Nights off are a great time to use some of those batch-cooked meals you froze, serve some breakfast for dinner, use up leftovers, or splurge on take-out.
9. Involve the kids.
In my experience, kids are more likely to try new foods or eat what’s put in front of them if they have some involvement in any part of the meal process, whether grocery shopping, cooking, or helping you plan the menu. Get the kids involved in the meal planning by giving them choices and making a couple of nights a week “children’s choice dinner.” Older children may be more vocal about what they want on the menu based on their favorites you’ve made in the past.
Beyond planning the menu, let the kids help you pick out ingredients at the supermarket and prep meals come dinnertime.
10. Plan theme nights.
Theme nights are a lot of fun, especially for the kids. And it makes planning the menu easier because you know exactly what kind of recipe you need for every night. Some ideas for theme nights: Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wacky Wednesday (eg. Breakfast for Dinner Night), Pasta Thursday, Fish Friday.
Meal planning for busy families doesn’t need to be complicated or time consuming. It just requires some forethought and the motivation to do it.
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Are you motivated to start meal planning?
Do you have a tip I didn’t include here?
Share with me in the comments below.
*Want a printable copy of this guide to Meal Planning for Busy Families? Sign up for my newsletter to get a free copy plus a 1 week menu plan!*
Oh this post is so perfect for me right now. And so comprehensive 🙂 I often slide during the week into thinking I don’t need to plan anything since it’s just the child & me. I do. We fall into food ruts. I think: there’s something in the house – – only to discover there’s absolutely nothing in the house which goes together 🙂 I need to ramp up the planning
I’m so glad to hear this is helpful Carla. The #1 tip to start small is really important for someone in your position. Hope it all helps and you’re able to get out of those food ruts!
What great tips! This is definitely my downfall as I have a picky husband, and he isn’t alway in the “mood” for what i plan ahead! SO I have fallen into buying in stages, but I know I spend more! Thanks!
Thanks Laury! That definitely makes things tough, but my point about not being a short order cook applies to spouses as well. And he’s old enough that if he doesn’t like what you make, he can make his own meal! LOL!
Amen! Love your ideas. Thanks
Thanks so much Marci! Hope they come in handy for your family!
I’m the cook AND the picky one!
Haha…well then you know what you need to make so you always have something you like on the table!
Meal planning is so key! You’re tips are awesome and totally doable. Thanks for sharing 🙂
I’m so glad you agree on the necessity of meal planning, Abbey. Thank you so much!
These are great! Everyone can use meal planning tips, but as the family grows it becomes more and more of a challenge!
I am not great with meal planning, but I’m better than I used to be (and still improving!). Meal planning makes such a huge difference in my stress levels and it makes cooking much more enjoyable
Getting better is all anyone can ask for! I’m so glad that meal planning is helping you in so many ways. That makes me happy to hear 🙂
Letting my fiance help out with meal prepping has been such a big help! I definitely agree with you about getting other family members involved.
That’s awesome that he helps you! This is a great reminder that it’s not just kids who should get involved!
With meal planning I prefer to say I want to cook X this week rather than set it to a particular day. Several times when I planned to make something I’m not in the mood to cook it after getting home from work. It’s always handy to have go-to meals in your arsenal when that’s the case.
That’s definitely a way to plan it – and it’s still planning. I sometimes move things around the meal plan I set depending on what the kids or I are in the mood for on a specific day, but having the meal on the plan helps to at least make sure the ingredients are in the house and ready to be cooked!
Such a great post Jessica, and so many tips to put into action! My meal planning game has been a little “off” as of late, but this week I did do some planning, and even managed to make a pasta salad before my son’s baseball game. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to come home at 7:30, and have a home cooked dinner all ready to go 🙂
I LOVE this! So many great tips!
Growing up, my parents always had a meal plan! We’d sometimes get to “submit” our dinner ideas, and mom would write up the week’s menu, then family grocery shopping trips were every Friday night! This was so effective, and a good way to get my sis and I to understand cost savings, reducing food waste, etc.
What a great post! Don’t be a short order cook is definitely one that is hard to avoid at times but I’m a firm believer that if they are hungry, they will eat! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Ansley!
[…] planning in advance. When it comes to nutrition, I recommend planning ahead for many things, making meal plans and grocery lists, and checking restaurant menus before you arrive at the table. And that’s just […]
Hi! Could I please get a copy of your Meal Planning for Busy Families guide printable?
Hi Marci, I just updated my post, which now has the link for you to sign up for my newsletter, and when you do you will get a free copy of the meal planning guide + a 1-week meal plan with recipes. You can also go directly here to subscribe: https://jessicalevinson.com/#subscribe
Hi Jessica, I really struggle with menu planning. Being a working/homeschooling mom of multiple kids,I’ve tried all sorts of programs but couldn’t really stick with one. Your tips are great! Thank you 🙂
Hi Kim, Thanks for sharing. I’m glad the tips are helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me by email if I can be of further help with meal planning!