Meal planning can be tough but there are solutions to help even the busiest families stay organized

As my children have grown, I have often struggled with meal planning. Over the years, I have found myself standing in front of the freezer at 4:00pm many times wondering what I can thaw for dinner.
There is no question about it: planning and preparing meals with and for young children is a gargantuan task. If you struggle with being consistent at this, rest assured, you are not alone. In fact, you are in good company.
So what are your options? Pizza every night? Chinese food take out?
When I had young children, I tried a variety of meal planning services–both paid and not paid. They usually only focused on dinner and I had 3 meals per day to make and sometimes snacks. These plans also didn’t account for *my* schedule. Maybe this week we were going to the grandparents’ for dinner. Or maybe it was a holiday week. Or we had a family birthday. Whatever it was, I always ended up off their carefully made and planned schedule within a week or two.

I now have a solution that works for me. My meal planning sheet. (And shopping list) And I’m sharing my tips so you can have an easier time too.

I didn’t go back to meal planning because of that. Now, as my children are older, I’ve found the need to get back into it. I worked hard to create a format that would work for us. What I came up with allows me to write down what we will have for breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day.
Breakfasts on weekdays for us are always simple and easy. Maybe oatmeal. Maybe pancakes (which I can make in my sleep) or maybe an egg dish. Weekends, we tend to have fun, maybe even trying a new recipe.
I realized after filling out and following my meal plan for a couple of weeks that we had enough food made after 2 days to actually schedule in a meal of leftovers. Wow. Instead of planning for and making 21 meals in a week, I could plan 15 or 16 AND we would have all our leftovers eaten. Furthermore, I noticed that I was able to easily skip planning for the days I knew we would not be here. I focus on choosing local foods from farmers I know. Meal planning made shopping with local farms even more efficient and fun since I always know what I need now.
One thing that was important to me in meal planning was an additional column to remind me what I needed to do to prepare for the next day. Maybe get meat out to thaw or get something unusual from the store.

Pizza Night! It can’t be every night, but is definitely part of our meal plans

Tips and tricks

I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. It’s hard work to plan and make meals all the time. So here are my 10 tips to make it easier for you!

1. Give yourself a break

Work in one day a week that has less meal prep–maybe granola for breakfast or something equally easy that the kids can fix for themselves. Plan a leftover meal for that lunch or dinner and an eating out/take out night once every 1-2 weeks . depending on your budget. If your budget doesn’t have room for any extras right now, you can still plan one day where you don’t have to cook by preparing double one other day. Not having to cook for 1 day gives me something to look forward to.

2. Plan regular themes, but vary them

For example “Taco Tuesday” or “Soup night” 1-day per week. We do it, but we have fun with variations. This way, I know I don’t have to think as hard. For example, chorizo tacos one week, sweet potato and bean tacos another night… Play around with it and find what your family likes best.

3. Packing lunches

I know packing lunches is a whole other topic that many people have devoted whole blog posts to. My friend Mandy covers her lunch box ideas on her blog Real Food Recovery. Thankfully, my children have never been picky about having “dinner” items in their lunch boxes. There are many great ideas for planning packed lunches that you can incorporate into this meal planning sheet.

4. Fix one meal for everyone

I’m a big believer in everyone in the family eating the same thing. I definitely work hard to make sure it appeals to everyone. But some things won’t. I put enough on the table for people to have choices. If someone doesn’t want kale, they don’t have to eat it, and they won’t starve. But, if someone refuses to eat what I’ve prepared, I don’t make another meal for them.

5. Give children an opportunity to choose menu items

I might not fix separate meals, but…. I do let them tell me things they want on the meal planning sheet. We probably have mac and cheese more often than I would choose, but then the kids are active participants in preparation and for sure they will eat it.

6. Enrolling older children in meal prep

This is one of the best things about having older kids. I used to watch other families with envy as older kids would prepare a meal. Now mine are doing that! I treasure their involvement and will go to great effort to accommodate the menu wishes for any of the kids who wants to take on meal planning and prep. Furthermore, you can choose easy dishes for them to make. (yes, it’s okay to have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner).

7. Make 2-3 meals at a time

…But not every time. For example, Wednesday evening is soup/salad night. I make a soup or stew every Wednesday for dinner. I make a lot intentionally so we have enough for Thursday lunch and sometimes even Thursday dinner. This way, I stretch my food budget and the amount of time I spend on prep.

8. Plan two weeks at a time

This is what is most comfortable for me. I spend a couple hours once per week going over cookbooks/recipes and I get 2 weeks worth of meals planned.

9. Remake recipes (or even use the same plan twice!)

I keep all my old meal planning sheets to inspire ideas for other meals. It helps me remember what my family enjoyed versus what was not popular. Sometimes I can even replicate a past sheet and don’t have to think about it at all.

10. Get ideas and preferences from the children (or whoever you are cooking for)

There is little that is as discouraging as going to great effort to prepare a meal only to have the people you are preparing it for not like it. Help ensure they will like it by asking them what they want. And then make it.

Smoked salmon rolls with cream cheese

So there you have it. You now know everything I know about making meal planning easier. Download and print the planning sheet here and the shopping list here. I hope it helps you manage your meal plans and be efficient in your kitchen time.


Do you have tips and tricks that help you in the kitchen? Please share!

Liz Reitzig

Food is the Foundation of Liberty. Nourishing Liberty is where we plant seeds for ideas to grow and flourish A place to be inspired by each other, to join together in peaceful activism, to build community.

Wherever you are in your personal journey toward clean living and local food, thank you for joining me in mine. I look forward to sharing it with you.

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