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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? 

meal planning tips

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 (20 minutes)


3 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 efficiency.

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 sample menu!)

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 plate.

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

Baked Chicken Casserole 

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)

Mock Alfredo 

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
dried parsley

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 noodles.

Serve with a green vegetable and relax.



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. 

THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT To master the skill of getting dinner on the table quickly, you need to have the right equipment.

  • Pot & Pans: Size does matter here and investing in a decent set of pots & pans in various sizes will not only make cooking a little more pleasant but will save you time and dishwasher space.  Cooking a quick cheese sauce for broccoli isn't a daunting task when you have a nifty little sauce pan.

  • 12-inch Skillet with lid (high sides with slope)

  • 7-inch Skillet 

  • 1 Quart Sauce Pan with lid

  • 3 Quart Sauce Pan with lid

  • 8 Quart Stock Pot with lid

  • Roasting Pan with wire rack

  • Baking Sheet or Cookie Sheet (2)

  • 9 x 13 Ceramic Baking Dishes with lid

  • 2 Quart Ceramic baking Dish with lid

  • CrockPot/Slow Cooker - Size this to fit your family and find one that is easy to clean.

  • Cutting Boards: You need at least 4-5 cutting boards for different types of chopping. Buy 2 large cutting boards and 3 very small plastic cutting boards.  There is no sense getting out a large cutting board when you need to quickly dice a small onion. Throw them in the dishwasher and always have extra on hand.

    Try to color coordinate your cutting boards:  white for onions and garlic, green for vegetables, and red for 


  • Measuring Spoons:  There is a dizzying array of measuring spoons available to choose from.  Take time to pick out a few sets that you really like.  Make sure to have (2) sets of measuring spoons so you're not digging the dirty set out of the dishwasher. Make sure you can easily read the numbers.

  • Measuring Cups - at the bare minimum at least have one glass measuring cup and a set of plastic measuring cups.  It's nice to have (2) sets of plastic measuring cups; again, pick out ones that you really like. Also, make sure you can easily read the numbers.

  • Mixing Bowls - Having a  least 3 sizes is nice:  One large bowl to mix meatloaf and a medium and a small size bowl to mix sauces and marinades.  These can also be used as serving bowls, but having the right size bowl to mix with makes preparing meals much easier.

  • Steamer Basket - Steamer baskets are a must for cooking vegetables and even steaming potatoes. Buy 2 so you always have a clean spare.

  • Kitchen Shears - A decent pair of cutting shears can cut raw chicken breasts quickly and efficiently.  

  • Kitchen Knifes - Everyone has their favorite knife so go find yours.  Get a good quality chef's knife and a few small paring knives. Working with the proper knife can save you lots of time.

  • Mini Food Processor - These are a must for quickly chopping onions, garlic, carrots and even shredding small amounts of cabbage.  The best thing about these mini food processors is they don't take up a lot of space and they are very easy to clean. 
    Be sure and get the electric variety that looks similar to the photo below.

  • Wooden Spoons & Plastic Spatulas - Splurge and buy yourself a great set of wooden spoons. Keep them in a pretty container on your kitchen counter so they are easy to grab.  Plastic Spatulas work the best on non-stick cookware - add a set of those too! Remember, make these easy to grab while cooking.

  • Plastic Storage Bags - Plastic Storage bags with ziplock closures in different sizes are great to have on hand for many reasons. Store Velveeta cheese or any block of cheese, leftover rice, and even pasta.  

    TIP:  Cook a pound of pasta, rinse well with cold water.  Store in a large resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator until ready to use.

  • Miscellaneous Must Haves:  

    • Wire Whisk, Tongs, Solid Cheese Grater, Sturdy Thick-Handled Potato Peeler, Strainer or Colander, Hand-Held Can Opener, Potato Masher, Basting Brush.

easy meal planning tips



TIP Always, always soak as you go.  Fill the sink with hot, soapy water and soak pots, pans, and other cooking materials while you eat dinner. This makes cleanup so much easier.

TIP: Get out all the ingredients you need for dinner before you start cooking. If the recipes calls for 1-1/4 cup of milk - have the cup of milk measured and ready to go.

TIP: Never start cooking until the sink is cleared and cleaned.  This especially helps if you need to wash vegetable quickly or strain pasta into the sink. Plus it just feels good to start cooking with a sparkly sink!

TIP Take the time to learn how to make a great white sauce and make it quickly.  This is an easy foundation to many quick recipes and also a great way to get kids to each their veggies by adding cheese to the sauce.

  • Basic Cheese Sauce Recipe:  

    Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. (Careful not to burn.)

    Slowly sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour to the butter and whisk through to combine.  Lightly salt the flour & butter mixture while you are whisking.  Slowly pour 1-1/4 cups of cold milk and bring to a light boil, whisking the entire time.  Once the sauce starts to thicken, remove from heat and add 3 ounces of Velveeta cheese, salt and pepper.  Stir until the cheese melts.  

TIP:  Remember:  Fresh fruits and vegetables are best.  Frozen are second best and third would be canned.



SPICES & HERBS:  Learning to cook with the correct spices adds so much more enjoyment to your meals.  Following is a list of dried pantry spices you should keep on hand. 
There are many more spices, but these made the list of "must haves."

Cajun Seasoning
Chili Powder

Garlic powder
Garlic Salt
Italian Seasoning 

Onion Salt

Sesame Seeds
Jar of Chicken Bouillon
Jar of Beef Bouillon
Brown Sugar



Beans: Black, Kidney, White
Chicken Broth
Tomato Sauce
Tomato Paste
Crushed Tomatoes 
Whole Tomatoes 
Condensed cream of chicken soup
Condensed cream of mushroom soup
Cans (or packets) Tuna Fish 
Can of Chicken
Canned Vegetables

Yellow Mustard, Dijon Mustard 
Worcestershire sauce 
Tabasco Sauce
Soy sauce 
Peanut Butter

(Emergency Meal made from your Pantry)

Delicious Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce 

1 (lb.) box of Spaghetti
1 -  (32 oz.) can Crushed Tomatoes in light puree  (try to find Delallo's brand)
1 medium onion diced
3 cloves of garlic, diced fine
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon each:  basil, oregano, onion salt
2 teaspoons parsley

In a medium-sized sauce pan, melt the butter with the olive oil.  Sauté the onions for about 3-4 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic, basil, oregano, and onion salt and continue sautéing for another 2 minutes.  Add can of crushed tomatoes and mix through.  Simmer lightly until your pasta is finished cooking.  Toss a fresh salad and dinner is on the table in 20 minutes and delicious!



Olive Oil
Canola Oil
White Wine Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar
Balsamic Vinegar

**Rice Wine Vinegar and Sesame Oil are both nice to have... but not must haves.

**Don't waste your money on grocery store cooking wine.  Instead, purchase a decent bottle of red and white wine from a liquor store. 

Milk, Bread, Eggs, Butter
Flour and Cornstarch
Bread Crumbs
Pasta: Spaghetti, Macaroni, Egg Noodles
Box of Rice
Bag of Onions
Fresh Garlic
Parmesan Cheese
Box of Velveeta Cheese




  How to meal plan - How to plan family meals easier!