I am a huge advocate for having a weekly meal plan in place as a family. When we had our first child, I truly had no idea how busy it was going to be. My husband and I had casually used a meal planner prior to becoming a family of three, often having a set of favourite recipes, but no exact system for meal planning in place in part because we didn't have an exact and defined dinner hour - it was at our leisure! Enter our son, and we soon learned how important structure and schedules are for little ones. Having dinner ready promptly at a set time each day demanded a meal plan that made our lives more streamlined while also providing healthy and enjoyable meals.
As the primary meal prep person in our family's home (largely because I am faster at the task), we identified what our needs were for meals first. Like many families, we knew we needed a system that didn't require much thought each week, the ability for busy weeks to provide some convenience options (homemade or other alternatives), and the occasional day where there would still be the opportunity to experiment with new recipes that we wanted to try out. It needed to be a plan that relied on meals that could be prepared quickly by one person, or in advance between one or more people a night in advance. Below are the 5 steps we follow as a part of our meal planning routine to make our lives easier.
1) Create a list of family favourites for regular meal planning:
Talk with your family about what your favourite fast, make-ahead and freezer meals are. Make a list of these meals that you can refer back to often. We have a list for our family of our Top 30 Favourite Meals" complete with hyperlinks that we can easily look up for creating our weekly menus, and we continue to rotate through those meals across a series of weeks. Some nights you will need meals that are made ahead or in the slow cooker, while other nights you may have time to throw something together quickly. On some days (e.g. weekends) you will have additional time where you can double a recipe and put half of what you make in the freezer for another day when you are busier. You might have slightly different favourite meals based on the season (Winter / Spring / Summer / Fall). We still try to build in time mostly on weekends to experiment with some new recipes to see if there anything we wish to add into our meal plan rotation.
2) Plan meal for each week:
Plan meals weekly based on your schedule from the list of family favourites / requests. Talk to your family members, and look at your calendar – What are your busy days? Are there any days where something is planned close to dinnertime that needs to be considered? Our family also likes to try one new recipe each week (while some families prefer familiar fare), which we will often experiment with on an evening where we are not as rushed. Other things to think about might be when will you have enough time to make a double meal to create a freezer meal for another week? Do you need to pull a freezer meal out for an evening this coming week? Is there an evening you can cook a bit extra to reuse as another meal on another evening? (E.g. if we do a roast beef in the slow cooker one evening, it may get repurposed as beef burritos on a following evening.)
3) Create a grocery list:
As you plan, make your grocery list. You can use a grocery list application for this, a handy piece of paper and a pen, or if you have a grocery pick-up service in your area you can add things straight into your ‘virtual’ cart as you plan! (See the post on Walmart Grocery Pick Up for Busy Families.) Also think about beyond the recipes about other items you will need: breakfast supplies, items to compliment meals or for snacks, and other items you may have on your shopping list that you use frequently or require to keep your pantry stocked.
4) Set aside some meal preparation time at least one day per week:
When you get your groceries each week, set aside an hour or so to clean out any old produce from your fridge (can it be frozen? salvaged? or composted) and prepare items for the upcoming week. Finding a little bit of time each week to do this (whenever that might be for you) will save time throughout the week and make meals less stressful during the busy days. For our family, this means pre-washing any fruit and rinsing and pre-chopping fruit and / or vegetables for meals or recipes. Also, if we have items like bananas that are ripe we will freeze them, or spinach we might make into a quick pesto to go alongside of some whole wheat crackers as a snack. We also find that the life time of pre-chopped produce is much higher in glass containers versus plastic containers. When possible, try to pre-chop ingredients each evening for the recipe you will be making the next evening to make dinner less rushed. You can also set out shelf stable ingredients on the counter, and grab any nonperishable items you might need from your pantry. Finally, you can leave out kitchen tools so that you are ready to get cookin’ once dinnertime arrives.
5) Give yourself a break!
You won’t always have time to cook every night! Plan for this. Have a couple of homemade freezer meals handy, and if you don’t have time to make these yourself (see post on How to Make Your Own Freezer Meals: Part 1), you can look into pre-prepared foods at your local markets, deli or butcher shops that might provide some healthier alternatives to going through the drive-through window (e.g. Shepherd’s Pie, Quiche, Soups, etc.). Also, have a few extra handy ingredients on hand in your pantry that you can use for a back-up meal in a pinch for when things don’t go as planned. We often keep some flatbreads on hand and some whole wheat couscous, salsa and canned beans to have some super fast veggie burritos, or even an emergency "Chili Kit."
Meal Planning Template:
We use a simple meal planning template that we've created for our family, had laminated, and it allows us to use erasable markers to jot down our meals each week, and keep track of our grocery list as well. You could also print multiple copies of this as well.
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