How to Meal
Plan ... Tips on How to Make
Meal Planning Easier
Fixing meals for your family should be pleasurable, but for many parents it is a major source of stress.
At the end of the work day, do you run into the grocery store and hurriedly grab ingredients for dinner, only to find yourself stuck at the end of a long, slow checkout line?
Do you come home to find breakfast dishes left in the sink, and your kids heading to practice and needing dinner right away?
Do you frequently microwave something to hand to your kids as they fly out the door and then feel guilty that you didn’t feed them properly? If this describes your family’s routine, then you have plenty of company.
Do your best, but don’t allow yourself to feel guilt and stress.
After all, it is better to eat very simple food in good spirits, than to eat a gourmet meal prepared with stress, resentment, and guilt.
Find a quiet time to assess your weekly routine.
- When is the best time to shop for groceries?
- What nights call for a fast and easy dinner?
- What nights require something that can be kept warm and served at different times?
- When can everyone sit down together for a real family dinner? Which days can you do the kind of cooking that you’d most like to do?
Monday Night Fast & Easy Dinner
MEXICAN PASTA BOWL3 1/2 cups uncooked Rotelle Pasta
1 package of taco seasoning
1 lb. ground meat
1 small onion (diced)
1 (14.5) oz diced tomatoes (in sauce)
1 small can sliced black olives
2 cups shredded cheddar/jack cheese
Prepare the pasta according to package directions.
While pasta is boiling, brown ground beef and onions in a
medium, nonstick skillet. Add taco seasoning and 3/4 cup water
and stir to combine. Add tomatoes and black olives, again
stirring to combine. Simmer for about 1-2 minutes. Drain pasta
and put back in the pot. Add the ground beef mixture and 1 cup
of cheese. Stir lightly to combine. Spoon pasta into bowls and
top with remaining cheese. Serve immediately.
Getting dinner on the table is hard work. There is menu planning, checking for ingredients, creating shopping lists, grocery shopping, putting groceries away, assembling ingredients at mealtime, preparing, cooking, and serving food, and cleaning up afterwards.
Because there are multiple parts of the job, there are multiple opportunities to improve
Start with your foundation, which are your staple supplies. Staples are those basics which you should always have on hand. Your list of staples may include items such as milk, eggs, and coffee, but it should also include basics like olive oil, spices, onions, rice, potatoes, canned tomatoes, bread, soups, cheese, and pasta. If all else fails, given the above staples, you could always throw together a quick
omelet and salad, or a simple pasta with red sauce.
Next, plan out a week’s menu of meals. Keep a few things in mind as you do this. Having identified the busiest nights of the week, plan the simplest of meals for those times. If you would like to prepare something special, plan to do that when you have time, perhaps over the weekend. Roughly chart out what you’ll make, and when you’ll make it. Keep in mind the following suggestions.
• Remember, you can feature leftovers in your plan. Baked chicken can
easily become delicious burritos. Spaghetti with meatballs can be turned into meatball subs. A great rule to go by is to cook once, and eat twice.
• When cooking special dinners on weekends, make enough to put half away for another night. Saturday night’s
beef roast can quickly be turned into a delicious stew midweek with
dinner rolls and a salad.
• Consider making double portions of casseroles, sauces, and soups. Doubling ingredients increases your work somewhat, but you’ll save time overall. Stock up on good freezer containers or bags, and freeze half of what you make for another time.
• Develop a list of favorite meals with recipes and print them out
to keep in a binder. Perhaps it’s homemade macaroni and cheese, or simple pasta dishes. Make these meals the foundation of your week. Save complicated recipes for weekends. Stick to meals you can prepare blindfolded on your busy nights.
• On hectic nights keep it simple. If you don't own a
crockpot then run and go get one. A crockpot is one of the
best investments for a busy family. If your family comes and goes at different times, have a
crockpot filled with their favorite dinner. Let everyone help themselves.
• Rethink what constitutes dinner. Dinner doesn’t need to include meat, potatoes and a vegetable every night. Dinner can be soup and a sandwich. It can be garlic bread, broiled with tomato, chopped fresh basil, and grated mozzarella
cheese with a warm bowl of soup. Dinner can be scrambled eggs with
cream cheese on toast and a side of sausage.
Once you have a week’s menu planned, make your grocery list. Check for the ingredients needed for your week’s food.
(Try our weekly
This next suggestion is crucial. Do your entire week’s grocery shopping at one time. This means finding one large chunk of time to shop, but you will save time overall. Stopping in quickly several times a week, usually at the end of your work day when the store is jammed, is a time killer. You’ll find that buying twice as many groceries does not take twice the time. So stock everything in at once, and forget about the grocery store until next week.
This is a one of the greatest ways to not only save time, but save
tons of money as well.
Map out your week, choosing one time to do all your grocery shopping, and one or two times that you can spend more time in the kitchen preparing food that requires time and attention. Then you’re ready to think about how you can streamline the daily work that goes into putting food on the table.
Clip coupons – This point can’t be stressed enough. Using money-saving coupons on the items that you use most is free money. Some grocery stores routinely double or triple coupons. When you want to try something new or exotic, use a coupon to get a discount off of the full price.
Visit the grocery store early in the morning – This works for stay-at-home moms. Everyone else is at work so you will have the place pretty much to yourself. Many trucks deliver supplies to the grocery stores in the morning. You’ll be the first to get the freshest cuts of meat and the best produce.
Shopping for the week’s groceries at one time requires you to think about when food will be used. Always use fresh food before frozen. Plan your week’s menu so that you use time sensitive food early in the week. Fresh fish should be eaten at once. Ground beef should be used within two to three days, or frozen until you are ready to use it. Good bread has a shelf life, as do fresh vegetables and fruit. Use any freezer items for meals at the end of your grocery week.
Now that you have checked for staples, planned menus for the week, done all your shopping, and stocked in supplies, all that remains is cooking, setting and clearing the table, and cleaning up. Here are some ideas for simplifying that part of your work.
• Enlist help in the kitchen. Get your children to help get dinner ready. This is easier said than done, so start small. Any contribution is helpful, whether setting the table, peeling potatoes, or grating cheese. This helps your kids to strengthen their connection to food, develop life skills, and appreciate the effort that goes into getting dinner every night.Buy
special colored plates for the younger children. This will make
setting the table fun and every child enjoys having their own special
• Kids should absolutely help to unpack groceries, and dry and put away dishes. This way, they know where everything is located in the kitchen, which comes in handy when you ask for help at dinnertime.
• You cannot always serve home cooked meals, but you can take packaged food and make improvements. Start with a frozen pizza, top with sliced garden tomatoes, grated mozzarella and parmesan cheese, and you’ll have a tasty, upgraded pizza.
• Yes, it is easier, in the short run, to do everything yourself. Teaching your kids how to do something is more time consuming than doing it yourself. However, the time you spend showing your child how to peel and chop an onion is an investment that pays off many times over. It’s also a good opportunity to share what you know with your kids. Just remember that it’s easier to patiently teach them a new skill on a leisurely weekend evening.
• Older children who come home ahead of you can be given a task to get dinner started.
Make it simple, such as scrubbing potatoes and putting them in to bake; or unloading breakfast dishes from the dishwasher.
• Always have emergency meals on hand for days when you are completely wiped out.
You simply cannot channel Martha Stewart every day.
Emergency Meal # 1
2 bags of your favorite frozen ravioli
1 large jar of pasta sauce
shredded mozzarella cheese
shredded parmesan cheese
Italian Seasoning (basil, oregano)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook the ravioli until tender
and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking. Place 1 cup
of pasta sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish and spread out
evenly. Lay 1/2 of the cooked ravioli on top of the sauce,
followed by more sauce and a sprinkle of seasoning and
cheeses. Repeat layer again. Cover with foil and
bake for 15 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
Emergency Meal # 2
1 bag of
medium egg noodles
1 cup green peas
1 can cream of chicken soup (you can use 2)
1/2 can of milk or 1 cup if you are using 2 cans
1 can of chunk chicken (in water)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook the egg noodles and peas
with 1/2 tsp. of salt until tender. Drain and leave in the
colander. In the same pan used to cook the noodles, stir
together the soup and milk and simmer for 1 minute or until
hot. Add chicken and stir to combine. Add noodles
back into the pan with the soup and stir again. Place
mixture in a casserole dish and top with cheese. Bake
uncovered for 15 minutes or until bubbly hot.
Desperation Emergency Meal
(for times of true dinner desperation)
1 bag of medium egg
noodles (or 1/2 of the bag)
1 or 2 cans chicken broth
2-3 Tablespoons butter
half & half
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup pepper
grated parmesan cheese
Cook noodles in chicken broth and drain reserving 1/2 cup of
broth. Melt butter and stir in reserved broth. Bring
to a simmer and add 1/2 cup of half & half , parmesan
cheese, parsley, salt, and pepper. Simmer for about 1-2
minutes. Add noodles back to the pan and stir to coat
Serve with a green vegetable
• Take the occasional night off. Ask your spouse or older kids to take complete charge of a meal. Add conditions, if you think it necessary, such as dinner cannot be a snack item. Otherwise, let them have at it. This requires that you back
off a bit if you can. Of course you can do it better. That’s not the point. The point is, the world will not fall apart if you don’t make dinner. Instead relax, recharge, and appreciate whatever it is that comes to the table. It won’t kill everyone to eat canned beans and rolled up cheese slices. Let them keep trying. They’ll get better, and as they gain skills and responsibility, they’ll also develop appreciation for the work that you do every day.
• Insist that everyone help to clean up after dinner. Even the smallest hands can help to clear the table. Your spouse can rinse plates and load the dishwasher. Older kids can cover and put away leftover food.