Tips for Weekly Meal Planning from a Working Mom. Getting dinner on the table with your family doesn't have to be a struggle. This week I'm giving you a peek inside of my kitchen to see how we meal plan each week as a busy household. We've sharing tricks, tips, and a work-week's worth of recipes (complete with a shopping list) to get a delicious healthy food ready in half an hour or less.
You may have noticed, but I haven't been blogging in awhile. I didn't take a planned break. But I will say that as a full-time working mom, still looking for that elusive perfect permanent job (despite loving where I do work), who is trying to be there for my kid's needs (and his 5:45 pm dinnertime, which I cannot seem to extend to 6 pm), and winter holidays added into the mix... and it suddenly felt like too much sometime around November. So blogging halted. All that to say, however, that I fully enjoyed the time I shared with my family. But it's time to get back to my love of sharing delicious, fast recipes for families.
The good news is that my family has been testing a new meal planning approach the last few weeks that only has us cooking about 2 times per week, with my husband and toddler then reheating or cooking quickie meals as needed throughout the week. And it's been awesome. Everyone's involved, and our son has been so much more engaged and interested in his meals. We have also been truly enjoying mealtime again, with the lack of the "what's for dinner" rush, and the ease of planning in advance, ordering our groceries in midweek for pickup, and having everything done before the weekend even begins.
I am also more than happy to share with you some of our meal planning tips for how you can do this in your own home, as well as sharing a sample week's meal plan!
1. Grocery Shopping
Usually around Wednesday or Thursday night I'll give my fridge and pantry a once over. I want to know if there are any leftovers that I can use on the weekend, or that can be used in the next week's meal plan, before doing the grocery shopping. Sometimes life happens, and we may have had to skip something on the meal plan that week (I'll usually opt for skipping the recipe with the least amount of spoilage, e.g. Mac & Cheese, which can hold off until next week). Weekends are a perfect time for throwing together leftover food into a breakfast hash, pasta, an omelette, enchiladas, stir fry or pizza. I also order my groceries online usually during my Thursday lunch hour, allowing me to drive by and pick them up on my way home Friday night. To learn more about our reasons for shopping online for groceries you can read about it here.
2. Print out a Meal Planning Template
Print off a meal planning template! The Messy Little Kitchen has three versions of a meal planning template available for our our subscribers in the Resource Library.
Now that you're on a roll, start with blocking off the days you aren't home to make dinner (play dates, work meetings that run into the evening, etc), and next by writing down some desired meal ideas with your family. If you have an evening where you'll be getting home later, make sure you consider putting something like a slow cooker on the menu for that night so you can walk in the door and dinner is ready.
Think about what you and your family actually feel like eating this coming week. My family usually has a few ideas, as do I, and the next thing I know the meal plan is filled out for another week!
3. Schedule Time for "Meal Prep Sunday"
Think you don't have time on your busy weekend (or any time once per week) to prepare your meals in advance? What this hour to hour and a half of time affords me each week is many weeknights off from cooking! Ultimately, it's worth it.
So what do you prepare on your meal prep day? Below, I'm sharing a few ideas that have worked for our family...
- One large salad that preserves well to go alongside Monday and Tuesday's dinners (I usually lean towards broccoli, root vegetables, beans or kale). Something that keeps well, beyond greens that will wilt quickly once a dressing is applied.
- I also prepare some easy breakfasts for at least the first half of the week. This includes Creamy Steel Cut Oatmeal with Chia in the Instant Pot, some Yogurt and Fruit parfaits (with granola on the side), or Freezer Breakfast Sandwiches. The remainder of breakfasts are items I bake or prepare and freeze once per months life muffins and pre-measured smoothie packs.
- Prepare a slow cooker or make-ahead meal on Mondays. Seriously, is there anything better than coming home to dinner cooked on a Monday evening? I often select a recipe that is super simple such as a soup, or a roast beef (which can be shredded for tacos the next night).
- Prepare ingredients for Tuesday's meal. Since I already have a salad ready to go with this meal, this might mean just marinating some meat (for the grill) or prepping a small dish to make in the Instant Pot, like this delicious Better Than Take-Out General Tso Chicken in the Instant Pot. If we plan to have sides like rice or quinoa as well, I batch cook this in the Instant Pot in a matter of minutes on the weekend, then refrigerate or freeze leftovers for the week, or even for future weeks. Rice and quinoa can also can be used in salads on future weeks as well!
4. Keep it Simple & Flexible
Not every meal has to be fancy. We schedule in at least one sandwich / wrap / tacos night each week, usually Wednesdays, to keep things easy! Paired with either a simple salad or some veggies and hummus, and dinner is done. We like to get creative with our sandwiches... Caesar wraps, Cobb Salad sandwiches, or even make-your-own custom Panini's. The options are endless.
5. Schedule One Weeknight for Meal Preparation
I usually do some additional meal preparation on another weekday evening, which is often Wednesday evening for my family. I try to think of a couple of simple make-ahead meals that will use up ingredients from the week, such as reverse breakfast (using my son's favourite Cheddar Cheese Pancakes where we will pre-mix the dry ingredients and make a fruit salad to use up what we have left in the fridge), or even some Sloppy Joe's with a simple salad (you can pre-rinse and chop romaine, pat it try and wrap it in paper towel in a container and it will stay fresh and crisp for several days). If you have lots of leftover veggies, you might want to pre-chop them and have an omelette night with some pan fried hash browns to clean out your fridge. We also frequently make something like Salmon Patties, Chicken Strips or even a veggie risotto in the Instant Pot (in 7 minutes!). I also defrost any breakfast items (if required, like a muffin).
6. Freezer Meals
Lots of times the Slow Cooker Monday meal, or the Instant Pot Tuesday meal, ends up being very large. Sometimes I purposefully double a meal on the weekends, or batch cook a soup to have an extra meal on hand in the freezer (see my post on "How to Make Your Own Freezer Meals: Part 1" from last year, complete with some of my family's favourite recipes). This leaves me with leftovers to freeze for a family meal or lunches at another time. All you need to do next is pull it out one night before you want to eat it to defrost, and have whomever is home first reheat it when they arrive home.
7. Pantry Meal Kits
Sometimes life happens and you don't have a chance to meal plan. But instead of calling for takeout, I hit our pantry. We have several staple ingredients we keep on hand on rotation as part of our pantry. We even keep a handful of ingredients available for at least two "Pantry Meal Kits" which act as a standby in for when we've had an especially busy week and have reached the end of the meal plan, need something to eat, but don't want to order takeout. A "Pantry Meal Kit" is essentially a set of ingredients that I can keep on hand in my pantry to make a meal. Need some inspiration? You can download 5 Pantry Meal Kit Recipes (with a complete grocery list) in the Resource Library!
8. Prepared Foods
Let's be honest - we would love to always be able to prepare every meal from scratch, but it's not always feasible. This is what I've sourced a few options locally for pre-prepared foods I would be happy with using to make one night per week a bit easier if needed. I can get great frozen pizzas from the incredible culinary students at the college I work at. Sometimes even frozen entrees, if you get ahead of the crowds at their storefront. I really love the Yves vegetarian nuggets that my kid is convinced are chicken, when really it's veggies. I also enjoy some beautiful handmade meatballs (or burgers) from our amazing local butcher on occasion (since they are really as good as I could make them, but without the extra time from me in the kitchen). Because ... working moms just need a break sometimes. What are your go-to convenience meals? It never hurts to have
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