We are a two parent working household with two children under age 5. So I always look for ways to streamline routines and make our daily life a little easier.
Evenings can be challenging for our family (just tonight, my toddler decorated our kitchen with hummus while I tried to make dinner). And one of the most important things I do to make sure our weeknights go smoothly is to plan out meals in advance.
I’ve been meal-planning for several years now, and I’ve picked up a few tips that make the process more easier and more successful.
- Involve everyone in meal planning. Each weekend, I find some time to sit down with some cookbooks, my Pinterest meal idea board, and my meal planning notebook. But before I get started, I ask the kids and my husband if there’s anything they’d like to eat that week. My 5-year-old likes to flip through cookbooks to find photos of meals she’d like to try. My husband also cooks a couple nights a week so he suggests things he’d like to make that week. (The toddler always has the same suggestion: “cheese!”) Getting everyone involved helps keep the meal rotation fresh, and the kids are more likely to eat a meal that was their idea.
2. Keep a Meal Plan Notebook.
The meal planning notebook I mentioned above is something I’ve been using for years. As I’m planning, I jot down the date and that week’s meal line-up, including the cookbook or website if it’s a new recipe. I also build a grocery list as I go. I can flip back to previous weeks to get ideas or to see which meals have been in (possibly too) frequent rotation. I also like to look at plans from the same month the year before for seasonal ideas. A friend of mine keeps a similar notebook, but she makes notes at the end of the week about what worked, what didn’t, and what to try next time.
3. Write out the meal plan in a place everyone can see.
We keep a small dry-erase board on the side of the fridge and I write out the week’s meals. It helps us stick with our plan (rather than uttering those words, “should we just get takeout…?”) and if my husband gets home first, he can take a look at what we planned and get dinner started.
4. Stick with some “theme nights” that are the same each week.
One way to simplify planning is to work within a “template” of sorts, with the same types of meals each week. In our house we have homemade pizza night on Fridays, and each week includes a slow cooker meal. But you could easily take this idea a step further, and designate sandwich night, taco night, pasta night, soup night (or my favorite, “leftover night”), each on a specific day of the week. You don’t have to make the same exact meal every week, but you’re also not starting from square one as you come up with meal ideas. For example, taco nights could rotate through fish tacos, pulled pork tacos, vegetarian tacos, and so on.
5. Include freezer meals in the rotation.
Each week, plan to make a double-batch of a freezer-friendly meal. Freeze half of it. Your weekly meal plan can then also include a meal from the freezer once a week. All that’s needed to prep that night is to move the freezer meal from the freezer to the fridge the night before.
6. Put any necessary prep on your meal-plan calendar.
If my meal plan falls apart, it always happens when I forget to do the prep work ahead of time, like defrosting meat or chopping vegetables. I’ve started noting those steps on my meal plan whiteboard. That’s one simple step that really helps to keep my plan alive.
The biggest key to meal planning success is to be realistic about how much time you’ll have and how much you need to devote to cooking. Keep things simple, take shortcuts when necessary and always work ahead whenever possible.