Family meal planning can be a lot to take on, especially for busy parents. But dedicating some time at the beginning of the week to organize meals and meal prep can actually save time in the long run.
Benefits of Meal Planning
- Money Saver: Embracing meal planning can lead to substantial savings. Imagine the cumulative costs of frequent takeout and deliveries. Preparing meals at home, especially when leveraging sale items and seasonal ingredients, often proves to be more budget-friendly.
- Time Saver: While the initial menu planning stage may demand some extra time, it pays off in the long run. Once your weekly menu is set, your supermarket visits become targeted and streamlined – no aimless wandering down aisles. Moreover, you can frontload some meal preparation, easing the daily rush.
- Minimize Food Wastage: By constructing your menu around items already stocked in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, you effectively circumvent the all-too-familiar fate of disposing of leftovers and spoiled edibles. This not only conserves food but also safeguards your wallet.
- Balanced Plates: With a deliberate approach to meal planning, you’re positioned to design nutritionally balanced plates. Each meal becomes an opportunity to thoughtfully incorporate proteins, carbohydrates, and a diverse array of fruits and vegetables.
- Variety: Engaging in advanced menu planning discourages culinary monotony. The risk of monotony, where the same limited dishes are repeatedly served, is significantly diminished when you chart out your menu ahead of time, especially if you extend your planning horizon beyond just one week.
Let’s get to it!
This guide will provide you with a simple framework to create a time-saving meal plan that you can reuse month after month.
Planning to Plan
Crafting a successful family meal plan that everyone loves can be like solving a puzzle. Many strategies can work, but it’s best to start by laying the foundation with obvious pieces of the puzzle.
- Schedule Planning, Shopping & Prepping Days: Choose a specific days and times to plan your meals for the upcoming week or month. This can change from week to week, but treat it as a priority in your schedule. Also, set specific days for grocery shopping and/or batch cooking to create a routine that suits you.
- Regular Kitchen Audits: Base your menu on what’s already in your kitchen – fridge, freezer, and pantry. Check expiration dates and ensure you have all the staple ingredients for your planned meals. This helps curb food waste and encourages creative, nutrient-rich meals. Some of the most satisfying dishes arise from pantry staples thrown together in new ways.
- Start Small: If you’re new to meal planning, take it step by step. Begin by scheduling two meals a week, gradually progressing to three and then four. As you become comfortable and discover your ideal approach, you can adapt the plan to your family’s needs. Whether it’s weekly, bi-weekly, or longer-term planning, find what suits you best.
Getting Started: The Planning Process
- Review the Schedule: Before planning meals, look at your family’s weekly schedule. Determine where everyone will be, what activities are planned, and if any meals will be eaten away from home. Use a simple weekly grid to organize your meal plan, with each day as a column and each meal as a row. Grant yourself breaks by adding in weekends with leftovers, occasional adult nights out, or a family dinner at a restaurant. A midweek night off provides respite and space to indulge in batch-cooked frozen meals or take-out.
- Sketch Your Menu: While seemingly basic, putting pen to paper has a profound impact on executing your plan. Jot down your menu using a smartphone’s notes section, a blank notebook, or a specialized meal-planning pad. Also, plan backups made from more shelf-stable items in case the planned meal has an ingredient that goes bad, is eaten, or is forgotten.
- Involve Your Family: Get input from everyone in the family when planning meals. Take a poll to find out their favorite dishes (we have a binder of these) and consider trying new recipes that they might enjoy.
- Plan Easy Combos for Breakfasts & Lunches: Select a few easy things for breakfast or lunch that can be made quickly or could have multiple purposes. Fruit, vegetables, cheese, nuts, or deli meat can easily be added to plates for either meal or combined to create a meal.
- Finalize the Menu: Again, this has significance. Finalizing your menu can help you with the execution. You’ve taken the time to look through what you have, ask people what they want and coordinate it with your schedule.
- Create a Grocery List & Shop: Once your menu is set, craft a corresponding grocery list. Organize it based on your familiar supermarket layout to save time. you can even think about ordering online for pick-up or delivery. Ordering online can be a helpful avenue to avoid grabbing extra things that are not on the list.
- Meal Preparation: After finalizing your menu, create a prep list for each recipe. Identify necessary tasks for each ingredient and determine the optimal prep timeline. Whether defrosting chicken or prepping veggies, foresight streamlines your cooking process. A lot of these items can also be purchased pre-made or pre-chopped too if you need quicker options. We pull the meats for the next night’s meal when cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. Our prep list is on a dry erase board on our refrigerator.
- Cook, Enjoy, and Adjust: Cook and enjoy the meals with your family throughout the week. Take note of what worked well and what could be improved to adjust your meal plan for future use.
Time Savers with Meal Planning
- Creating Meal Plan Backups: When we take the time to create a week that is rather successful, we save the recipes on a planning sheet with a list of the ingredients needed. These plans, recipes & lists come in handy later on when we are very tight on time and need a plan that is already thought through.
- Full Month Meal Plan Rotation: Choose a set of recipes for the week, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. After one week, switch out the recipes and select new ones for the following week. Repeat this process for a month, creating four weeks of recipe combinations. At the beginning of the new month, circle back to the first week’s rotation and repeat the cycle. This approach adds diversity to your meals while providing stability and organization for planning and prepping.
- Cook in Bulk for Convenience: Harness the foresight of meal planning to cook extra portions for future meals. Prepare additional batches of versatile items like tomato sauce, soups, or proteins. Freezing these portions facilitates quick, hassle-free meals during busier times.
Remember to Try to Have Fun with It
- Family Favorites Binder: Store the favorites in a binder with a 5-star system. At the end of dinner, go around and ask for everyone’s food critic style critique and how many stars they would give the recipe.
- Get adventurous: Pick something new! Choose a different cuisine, a random ingredient at the grocery store, or new fruit or vegetable at the farmers market and find a way to cook it.
- Take the lead: Depending on age and ability, see if one of your children wants to “head” a family dinner night and ask them what they want to prepare. You can be their sous chef!
- Theme nights: Think about adding themes like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, or Fish Friday to help with creativity and streamline recipe selection. This can also help with lowering the number of choices when decision fatigue is high.
- No rules: Have brinner one night (breakfast foods for dinner) or other dishes that have been categorized for snack, lunch or even dessert. Create a spread of appetizers!
Family meal planning may require significant upfront time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. Not only does it save time in the long run, but it also gives you more control over your family’s health. By involving everyone in the planning process and continuously seeking feedback, you can create a meal plan that satisfies everyone’s tastes and preferences.
Happy planning and happy eating!