A mom's beginner guide to meal planning

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You hear the words every day and they make you cringe. You wince at the question because you just don’t know the answer. You’re scrambling each day to find a suitable response, but you’re at a loss. You know even if you have an answer tonight, tomorrow, the question will pop up again.

“Mom, what’s for dinner?”

If your house is anything like mine, the question gets asked at about 8AM. Why is it that children need to know what dinner will be before they've consumed breakfast? Do they understand the stress that takes over when we hear that question and don’t know the answer? In a world of uncertainty, meals shouldn’t be one of them.

And that is where meal planning swoops in to save the day.

Did you just shrug your shoulders and think, “Ya. I know all about meal planning and I don’t have time for it. I don’t even know where to start!”

That’s the go to answer for most moms and I get it. The thought of planning yet another thing is daunting, but I am here to tell you that NOT planning is costing you a whole lot of time, money and energy.

Meal planning doesn't have to be difficult. It doesn't have to be labor intensive or scary or done months in advance. It doesn't have to be done by only moms who are skilled in the kitchen or who love to cook. Meal planning is simply the act of scheduling and/or prepping your meals ahead of time to save you the exhaustion of going through the “What’s for dinner?” rigmarole every night.

I am a mom of two and meal planning quite simply saves my sanity. On weeks when I have let it slide, I find myself stressed and disorganized, especially during the school year where at least 3 out of 5 weeknights are filled with some kind of appointment, meeting, activity or get together.

I would also like to mention that I am not a chef or even an amazing cook. I do alright, but I by no means have some kind of special cooking skills that make meal planning any easier. I’ve just learned how to do it efficiently, working around our schedule and our food preferences. And I’d love to share it with you, too. Sharing is caring, right?

The most notable excuse for why my mama friends, clients and followers have not implemented meal planning into their routine is because they don’t know where to begin. There is a big world of meal planning information out there, so let’s break it down.

Make a master list of meals or recipes you’d like to use

Every home has their go-to recipes that show up week after week. Whether it’s your world famous lasagna, taco Tuesdays, or homemade pizza, add it to a master list. Write down every meal you can think of and get your kids to help, too. Ask them what meals they would enjoy. The point of the master list is making it easier to choose the meals that you’ll schedule. You don’t want to sit down with a calendar and have to come up with recipes out of thin air. THAT is stressful. As you learn new recipes or try out new meals, you can add them to the list.

Discover new meals

After you’ve added all your staples to your list, go searching for other recipes. Pinterest is recipe and meal planning heaven, but your friends and family are also a wealth of information. As them what their favorite dinners are. Remember to gather a wide variety. Meats, vegetables, crock pot meals, casseroles, frozen meals, soups, stews, pasta dishes, etc.

Decide how far in advance you want to meal plan

It’s best to start small and work your way up. If you’re new to this whole meal planning endeavor, start with a week. As you gain more skills,  you can plan out much further, which I will say it an absolute delight and takes a tremendous amount of stress off you as a mom. I have had clients that had 2-3 months of meals planned out, written on a calendar, hanging in the kitchen and it worked like a charm for their large family. Meal planning isn’t just about taking the stress off you, but about creating routine and predictability for your family. When kids can see what is for dinner each time, they are less likely to ask for fast food or takeout, at least in my house that is true. My daughter loves to look on the weekly meal planner and see what each night will be.

Get out your calendar and take a look at the schedule

This is such an important part of meal planning effectively. Your family’s schedule will dictate which meals you plan for what night. When are your activities planned? Do you have parties to attend? When are the kids needing to be taken to sports or school activities? Do you have meetings? Dinner planned with mom and dad? There isn't much point planning a big sit down Thanksgiving-style meal for a day that you won't be home until 6pm.

  • For busy evenings, plan quick meals. Sandwiches, soups, salads. Anything that can thrown together quickly, cooked quickly or that doesn't require cooking at all. Who says sandwiches aren't a dinner food?
  • Plan homemade meals for days with less activity. If you have the time, use those days for big meals that take up more time. Here's a bonus tip: If you have the time to put together a big, home cooked meal, double it and freeze the rest. Now you have a delicious home cooked meal for another busy evening.
  • Prep freezer meals and casseroles for emergencies or last minute changes. We all know that the best laid plans don’t always work out. Things come up when we least expect them and it is wonderful to have a few meals prepped at all times, frozen and ready to be cooked when needed. Casseroles and Crock Pot dump meals are perfect for this situation. They can be easily thawed or thrown in the oven or crock pot.

Now, its time to get down to the planning and the shopping

Before you go anywhere or buy anything, take a look at what you need for each meal. Maybe you know the recipes by heart or have them written down. Perhaps you found them on Pinterest or your favorite cooking website. Take inventory of what you already have. Do you have all the condiments, spices and herbs that you’ll need? Do you already have a few pounds of chicken breasts in the freezer? This is all about saving time and money, so you don’t want to come home with ingredients that you already have.

The key here is to make 1 trip for all of your ingredients. Going to the store multiple times throughout the week not only cuts into your schedule and wastes time, it cuts into your budget. When you run into the store for a $5 item, you’re likely to get drawn in by the sales and impulse buys and walk out having spent $30. Believe me, I’ve been there. “Oooh, look. Chips are on sale!” Bye bye budget.

Now, let's prep.

Alright, alright. You did the planning, you did the shopping. So, now what? Now, we do some prep, because a plan is only as good as the preparation you do before it.

Divide up meats into meal portions and freeze. It is wasteful to thaw 2 pounds of chicken to cook one meal that requires a half pound. Decide how much meat each meal calls for and divide it up accordingly. Likewise, cook any meat that needs browning, such as ground beef, turkey or chicken. The last thing you want to be doing on a busy Tuesday night is browning meat that could have easily been done days before when you weren’t running around trying to remember where your daughter put her tap shoes.

Now, chop your veggies. Just like with the meat, the more you get done ahead of time, the less you will need to do on those busy weeknights. A tip to make meal planning even easier is to use your veggies and meats in more than one dish. Are you using peppers and onions for fajitas? Use them for a soup, too. Or breakfast, or a Panini at lunch. Good meal planning means using as many of your ingredients as possible for as many meals as possible.

Put together all of your casseroles or frozen meals. Be sure to label them properly with the meal name and date. The date is important. No one wants to eat a frozen baked ziti that you made 6 years ago. Yum.

And guess what. You're a meal planner. You've planned, you've prepped and now all you need to do it cook (or at the very least, heat stuff up) and you're the boss, applesauce.

Speaking of applesauce, don't forget the sides. I buy brown rice and steamable veggies in bulk or when there is a sale so I always have a yummy, healthy side dish in a pinch.

Remember, have fun. This isn't supposed to be a chore. Cooking and providing delicious and nutritious meals for your family is supposed to be wonderful, not fill you with dread. The planning is what makes it wonderful and takes the stress out of the constant starting over every day.

So, the next time your kids ask, "What's for dinner?", take look at the meal schedule, answer them confidently, then punch your fist in the air and pour a tall glass of wine. You've earned it, lady.