Learning how to meal plan can be a huge game changer when it comes to feeding your family healthy meals, but it’s also a concept that can be challenging and overwhelming. Try these 10 tips to help reap all of the benefits, without stress or worry about perfection.
How to Meal Plan
Taking the time to do a little prep work ahead of the week can help so much when it comes time to cook. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the kitchen doing full meal prep. There are some simple strategies you can use to work smarter and reduce your stress.
TIP: These all align with my general approach to planning meals, which you can see in my monthly meal planning posts.
Tip #1: Choose Meals Before Hitting the Store
This is my biggest tip because I think it really helps streamline all of the logistics. And while I don’t think you need to plan every single ingredient of a meal, generally knowing what you plan to have can help you avoid mid-week extra trips to the store…which always add up to more dollars than we intend!
TIP: I generally write out a list of dinners so I know the basic ingredients I need, and then I decide on specifics of fruit and veggies at the store when I can see what’s on sale.
Tip #2: Stay Flexible
There’s no hard and fast rule that says that once you decide what you’re having for dinner one week that things can’t change around. Move Tuesday’s tacos to Thursday if you need to—it’s all good! Flexibility can be a great way to adapt to a change in the schedule, adjust to leftover ingredients that need to be used up, or just to fit with what you may be feeling on any given day.
Tip #3: Cook Food that Makes YOU Happy
One of my favorite tips for staying sane when feeding a family is that that we need to start cooking more for all of “us”, not just for the kids. That means your opinion matters when deciding on what to make. And this can go a long way towards keeping the cook happy and ensuring that you’re not just serving up favorite “kid” food.
On nights when I cook a dish that I want that I am not sure the kids will love, I make sure to surround it with easy sides that the kids can enjoy—like fruit, applesauce, cheese, bread, or a plain grain. This prevents me from having to cook an additional meal for the kids and ensures they have enough to eat.
Tip #4: Teach “Not Every Meal Will Be Your Favorite”
This! This has been a huge help in talking to my oldest about meals she doesn’t love and it totally makes sense to her. So the next time your child complains about a meal, remind them that you don’t have to love it to eat it and maybe tomorrow night will be your favorite…because we all have unique likes and dislikes and we ALL deserve to have a chance to eat our favorites!
Then follow up with specifics on exactly when they’ll see that favorite meal they so badly want so they know when to expect it—and that they can trust you to follow through.
Tip #5: Use Theme Nights and Family Favorites
If your whole family loves spaghetti and meatballs, there’s no reason that you can’t make it every Sunday. Or have pizza Fridays or Taco Tuesdays. These benchmarks can make meal planning much easier and they can be nice routines to get into with the kids.
(Though warning: If you do this for a while and then suddenly don’t do it, make sure you prep the kids! Don’t make the mistake I’ve made—once they learn to expect something, they expect it!)
Meal planning by themes, or with “meal rotations” as I call them, is a really great way to reduce your mental load since you’re never starting from scratch.
Tip #6: Be Realistic
If there’s one night in the week when you’re running kids to and from practice or lessons, make that sandwich night. Or boxed mac and cheese night. Dinner doesn’t always have to be elaborate to be good!
If you consistently find yourself with leftovers or more produce than you actually eat in a week, adjust what you’re buying. And by planning for those easier meals, you can help make sure you’re setting yourself up to make things as easy as possible for yourself given your reality.
TIP: You can find my best Freezer Meals here.
Tip #7: Lower Your Bar
Related to tip #6, sometimes—and especially when the kids are little—lowering our dinnertime expectations can go a long way in making our meals happier. This can be related to how much time everyone spends at the table, how much everyone eats, whether the kids eat everything you offer, or whether or not you have any adult conversation.
Try to relax and just let family meals be what they are! It’s likely that this is a phase and that soon they might be totally different. (Kids change really fast.)
TIP: Read about Normal Picky Eating in Toddlers.
Tip #8: Skip Meal Prepping
You might be surprised to hear someone say this, but, full on meal prepping is a LOT OF WORK. And there’s no rule that says you have to do it if you don’t want to.
Meal planning and meal prepping are two totally different worlds and the latter can be VERY intimidating since it involves cooking many recipes ahead of time in one fell swoop on the weekend. If you find that helpful and satisfying, do it! If it makes you want to crawl into a hole, you 100% can skip it. (Because you might want to nap or take a walk on the weekend instead and those things are completely valid.)
Do the type of planning that works for you, your schedule, and your life right now.
TIP: You may like my full service meal plan Happy Family Meals.
Tip #9: Post Meals Publicly
I’m not talking about social media, I’m talking about in your house. By posting a list of dinners—whether it’s a fancy white board or chalkboard or a simple list on the fridge—you can get some buy-in on the meals from the rest of the family ahead of time.
And you let your partner or older kids have a chance to help prep the meal! (This helps me a lot because my oldest is forever asking me what’s for dinner at 7 am, ha!)
Tip #10: Know When to Fold
Even the best meal planners aren’t perfect, so know that you 100% can bail on a planned meal if you just can’t get it together to cook it. Give yourself a break when you need to and let the kids have toast or cereal or some other no-cook or otherwise shortcut meal. (We’re big fans of scrambled eggs for dinner over here!)
Or: There’s always takeout or a Snack Dinner!
Easy Meal Plans for Real Life
It’s possible to slash the cost of groceries, meal plan, and feed your family nutritious meals they’ll actually enjoy without spending hours cooking. This 4-week plan is here to help reduce your mental and physical work in the kitchen!
Learn more here.
Listen for More
We talked these issues through on a past episode of the Comfort Food podcast with KJ Dell’Antonia, Author of How to be a Happier Parent. Listen below or wherever you get your podcasts.
I’d love to hear your feedback on these tips, so please comment below to share!
This post was originally published November 2018.