Let’s face it, we're all stuck at home these days, eating 3 meals a day together, and ordering too much take-out! Mealtime stress is real! We all know that meal planning can reduce stress and make our lives easier. Having meals organized can also cut down on food waste, contribute to more balanced meals and even save us time and money. As a Registered Dietitian and someone who teaches meal planning for a living, I even struggle to maintain a family meal plan. Why is it so difficult to adopt this routine?
Sometimes I think we expect too much from ourselves. If we start slowly and give ourselves some grace, the rest will fall into place. And when you fall off the wagon (because we all do), don’t be discouraged. Just get back on and start again. This is not a simple task, and the process takes time. The key is to find out what works for you and your family, then stick with it!
If you're ready to get organized and let go of mealtime stress, follow these 6 simple steps.
1. Start slowly
Don’t get overly ambitious, especially if this is new to you. Beautiful cookbooks and perfect Pintrest posts can be tempting, but remember to start slow. Changing everything at once is a recipe for disaster and not sustainable. Many people start off super ambitious only to give up after a few weeks because it's been too much work to keep up. Enthusiasm is great but be realistic!
Start with what you and your family know and like, and go from there. Build (or Upcycle) on these meals by adding or substituting ingredients.
For example, if you like chicken stir fry with rice include it on your menu one week then try peanut veggie stir fry with noodles the next. OR...everyone's favorite, ground beef tacos, include it one week then try shrimp tacos the next week.
If the thought of planning a whole week of meals makes your head spin, then start with one or two days at a time. Perhaps at dinner time, you can discuss what will be on the menu for tomorrow’s dinner. Even knowing what’s for dinner in the morning can ease some stress. Find out what works for you and stick with it.
There is no need to plan every meal and snack for every day.
If your house is anything like mine, breakfasts tend to be simple and repetitive. We like toast with peanut butter, cereal and milk, oatmeal and smoothies for breakfast.
Keep lunches easy by eating leftovers and keeping a few protein staples on hand (like canned tuna, cheese, eggs, canned beans). You can then build lunch around these foods by adding veggies and fruit and whole grains like bread, wraps, crackers or pasta.
Focus your planning on dinner meals. Once you have your dinners mastered, you can consider adding other meals and snacks to your plan.
2. Plan ahead
Pick a time of the week when all family members can sit down together to plan your meal(s). for the week or even a day or two ahead. Try this meal planning tool to keep you organized. Talk about the meals you would like to eat and review the schedule for the week.
Allow everyone to have a voice, even young children. By planning together as a family, there’s sure to be something on the menu for everyone. Kids will learn that they can’t have their favorites every day but they can trust there will at least be something they like to eat at every meal.
Try including some DIY dinners where everyone gets to assemble their own, like tacos, pizza or rice bowls.
If you’re struggling with meal ideas try a theme week or theme nights. Everyone knows about taco Tuesday, but what about meatless Monday or wacky Wednesday or fish Friday. You could even choose a specific cuisine theme for the week, for example Thai, Indian, Korean or Italian foods, or even a vegetarian week.
Plan for leftovers. When planning your meals, think about making a double batch. Cooking once and eating multiple times is one of the best meal planning time savers!
3. Shop wisely
Once you have your meals planned, make your grocery list. Preparing meals is so much easier when you have all the ingredients on hand. It’ll save you time from running to the grocery store multiple times. You can also make fewer trips to the store by buying larger quantities of meat and bread and freezing them when you get home.
An organized grocery list template may help to save you time at the store. Consider writing your list according to the store layout. A little extra planning can save you a lot of time, stress and even money.
4. Keep a well-stocked kitchen
A well-stocked kitchen is the foundation of successful meal planning and preparation; and the key to quick, affordable and delicious meals.
Think about what foods you like to keep on hand all the time and what meals can you pull together quickly with these staple foods? Keep a list of these staple foods and when you run out, add it to your grocery list. If you keep staple food supplies on hand, you’ll always have what you need to make a quick meal.
Be careful not to get carried away and overshop. This will lead to overspending and food waste. A little planning ahead will help to save you money by reducing your food waste.
Download 'A Busy Mom's Guide to Meal Planning' for more information on on stocking your kitchen and pantry staple meals.
5. ‘Meal prep day’
Now that you’ve got the groceries you need, it’s time to prep them for the week ahead. A general rule of thumb is that ‘if you eat, you help!’ (age appropriate, of course). It’s all hands on deck!
Find a time when all household members can gather to assist with meal prep day. Set aside 1-2 hours to slice, dice and pre-cook some foods to make your week easier.
Look at your meal plan and determine what can be done ahead of time. For example; you may want to pre-cook your ground meat, boil eggs, cook rice, wash and chop veggies for the entire week. You can even put all ingredients into a large freezer bag for a slow cooker or Instant Pot meal and freeze until ready to use.
Trust me…this will change your life!
6. Give yourself a break
Build in a day of rest! Planning and making meals every day can be tiring. Take one day a week and give yourself a break.
You could order in or go out to eat; let everyone fend for themselves; or have cereal and a smoothie for dinner, or popcorn and chocolate milk with your Friday night movie. YUM!
It’s ok to take a break. Trust that everyone will get fed. This may turn out to be your family's favorite day of the week!
Most importantly...be flexible. It takes time to get the hang of this. If it doesn’t go well, that’s ok. Give yourself some grace and keep going the following week. Once you get a handle on meal planning, you’ll quickly realize that it really does make your life easier.
Remember…to enjoy mealtimes with your family, no matter what is on your plate.
Janine LaForte, RD
Real Life Nutrition