Meal Planning

Meal Planning Step 5: Prep

Out of all of the meal planning process, this step is the one that I never knew I needed to be doing until I became a mother. Steps one, two, three, and four are each important with kids too (especially those who are picky eaters), but none other determines my attitude towards dinner each week quite as much as this one.

It's meal prep.

Meal prep is the final and most effective meal planning step to saving your sanity with meals each week. In anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, you can set both yourself and your family up for a week with less meal time stress and more feeding success. This post will help you see how.

I have only been a mom for just over three years now. Before that, I didn't know this whole "meal prep" thing even existed.

If I wanted to make an elaborate dinner for just my husband and me on any given night, I would. It may take more time to prepare, require an unexpected trip to the store, and push dinner later than planned, but ultimately I could prep whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I think we can all remember back to those days of leisurely making dinner, likely enjoying a glass of wine while we did so, and maybe even engaging in adult conversation or catching up on world events while listening to the news.

Then I had kids.

Now, there are no elaborate dinners, definitely no extra grocery runs, and a non-existent margin to when meals need to be served before I have a couple of hangry kids. I feel like I am waiting on a ticking time bomb as soon as it hits 5:00 each night, wondering which kid is going to lose it first and who's meltdown until meal time will last the longest. This whole window that I thought would exist for "making dinner" each day is not a time slot on my calendar that comforts my kids, dinner indeed is coming.

Instead, when evening hits and dinner time approaches, I am reminded that I am already too late at taking care of what I should have prepared ahead.

That's where meal prep comes in. It is simply the process of preparing in advance the items you would already be making later. The difference with doing these steps the day/night of however, is that you often are forced to prepare such items in the midst of the daily hustle. With kids needing their hair combed on the way out the door, or babes that are glued onto your leg when you need to rush ahead and get dinner out, meal prep eliminates the need for you to be in two places in these times.

Instead, with a little time and a blueprint for what to meal prep, this simple and yet final step to meal planning can save your sanity again and again.

I like to look at meal prep in three ways.

This post will address each of these and how they play a role in making for less meal time stress and more feeding success.

1. What can I prep ahead?

If you have gone through the first step of meal planning, you should have gotten my free download for a "Love it, Like it, Learning it" meal planner template (available for free, here). This is a great starting guide for families who want to focus exclusively on dinner meal planning and  the prep required to make Love it, Like it, Learning it style meals each night. For families who feel already confident using this approach or who are ready to look to the weekly menu at large, here is another free meal planning template that includes space for meal planning breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks during the week. This is the meal planning template I personally use to not only plan our meals, but determine which items to prep ahead.

Both the Love it, Like it, Learning it and the Week at Large templates will provide you with an overview of the items you intend on serving each week. With this, you are able to evaluate what to prep ahead by answering a few simple questions:

  1. What meal(s) are the most time-consuming to prep?
  2. What days or nights do I most need meals ready ahead of time?
  3. What items would be the most helpful to have ready and on hand?
  4. What foods will stay fresh until they're eaten?
  5. What could I get ready all at once, so I don't have to do _________ repeatedly during the week?

By answering these questions, you are able to start looking through your weekly menu in terms of meal prep. What you come up with is not intended to be an all encompassing list (unless you intend to spend a significant chunk of time in the kitchen to execute your meal prep). Rather, these questions are intended to give you a starting place for what items you could wash, cut, mix, make, bake, or cook in advance, Depending on the amount of time you allocate to meal prep on a given week, you can work your way through the items you need to have prepped to those that are nice to have done ahead.

For examples of what I like to prep ahead, check out my Instagram posts every Sunday where I share a picture of my #veggiesandvirtuemealprepchallenge. Feel free to comment or ask questions on each post to gather more ideas and information on how this could work for you.

2. What can I make multiples of?

Another thing that hit me somewhere in between the transition from one to two kids was batch-cooking. This whole idea of why would I only make one meals worth of a recipe we love when I could just as easily double, triple, or even quadruple it? Much to my surprise, batch-cooking and making freezer meals is by far the system that saves me the most sanity with pulling off natural, nutritious meals night after night.

To make multiple batches of any staple recipe on your family's meal planning rotation, adopt this new, more-efficient mindset:

  1. Instead of cooking the same dish on several separate occasions, adjust the ingredients so you cook one large batch then store leftovers for future weeks.
  2. Consider making enough of items you know your family will eat within 1-3 months. For grains, consider making large batches of brown rice or quinoa, cooling, then storing in freezer-safe containers to cut out a step in your meal prep in the future. For marinaded meats, drop raw meat and other required ingredients into a freezer-safe container to label and freeze flat. For breakfast items you know your kids ask for and would enjoy on even your busiest mornings (like pancakes, waffles, muffins, and french toast), prepare extras then freeze flat with parchment paper in between layers. Soups and crockpot items are also infamous for being "dump recipes" you can easily make multiples of using an assembly line approach.
  3. Store extras in portions that are appropriate for each use. Find what the right portion is for your family size for items like whole grains, spaghetti sauce, and taco meat. These are easy staples to keep on hand, which are made even easier when prepped ahead and in individual meal serving size containers. Additionally, this helps lessen freezer burn and food spoilage. Instead of having to reopen a freezer-safe container several times, you have exactly the amount you need to thaw already portioned out and ready to go.

Limited for freezer space? Consider batch-cooking your marinades only. You can easily store these in small mason jars or freezer-safe ziplocks, then add the meats fresh each week. This will reduce the footprint batch-cooking has on your freezer. Also, consider doubling your recipe (versus tripling or quadrupling). Although most meals stay food safe and fresh tasting for easily three months’ time, you don’t have to quadruple recipes to feed for the whole season. You could instead double the batch - eating one and storing the second, especially if unsure about a new recipe.

3. What can I buy as a short-cut?

Do you remember those elaborate meals I mentioned above as a normal part of a new marriage? Yeah, so since those are not a normal part of motherhood, let's also be real about how much we can legitimately meal prep each week. Spaghetti night may be an all-American, family favorite, but I don't know many fellow moms who are making their own fresh noodles, hand-squishing their own homegrown tomatoes for a sauce, then baking an awesome focaccia bread to go with it on the side.

That sounds amazingly delicious and yet completely unrealistic. Am I right?

That's why this step is key. Even to the home-cook, scratch-made lover that I am, I know I need to come back down to planet earth a bit more often to evaluate what items in our meals I can go without having to prep much at all. Some of my personal faves are items like:

  • Whole grain sandwich bread
  • Boxed, whole grain pastas
  • Yogurt
  • Pasta sauces
  • Pre-cut veggies
  • Frozen veggies
  • Canned beans
  • Pre-washed baby greens
  • Some condiments and sauces (i.e. salad dressings, mayo, BBQ sauce, Thai sauce, etc.)

With smart shopping habits (like those discussed in step four!), you can find pre-prepared products that compare in cost and quality to those you would make from scratch. Having these staples on hand is how I am able to round out our weekly menu with confidence in the choices I am offering and yet sanity over what it takes to execute everything.

Take the #vvmealprepchallenge

It sounds freaky, I know. I know because I used to not do this whole "meal prep" thing either. But if you are a mom that feels there is just too much anxiety around that arsenic hour before a meal time, it is time to start taking this step to meal prep.

After working your way through the steps to meal planning as outlined in this series, meal prep is a seamless final step to set your family up for less meal time stress and more feeding success. You have to do it though.

Just like each of the other steps to meal planning, meal prep doesn't just do itself. You need to make an intentional choice to value your sanity without sacrificing what you put on the table. To achieve this, address these three questions:

  1. What can I prep ahead?
  2. What can I make multiples of?
  3. What can I buy as a short-cut?

Once you have gone through and identified which items make the most sense to include in your week's meal prep, DO THEM! Start small and pick one thing you could prep ahead. As you see the transformative power of such small yet significant meal prep, start adding on another thing each week. Soon, you will come to enjoy this hour (give or take) that you commit to getting your family ready for the week because you see how much it lessens your pre-meal time stress.

As you take this step to meal prep, share it! You should be proud of yourself for the ways you are taking care of your family's meal planning responsibilities. I would love to cheer you on in the process too, as well as answer any questions you may have as you start implementing this final meal prep step. Just tag me and include #vvmealprepchallenge, so I can see all your hard work! I promise, this meal prep step will never be time wasted.

Meal Planning Step 4: Purchase

It's life. #momlife.

We head to the store at any sparing second we can and grab the random items we know we need. We inevitably forget one or two things, so later on in the week (when our sanity or schedule allows) we make another pit stop to grab the remaining groceries.

But for most of us who have ever been like this, we have learned that we can't live like this.

It will make you crazy.

Not only do you have to schlep kids to and fro when you go, but you end up wasting a lot of time, money, and food with such a haphazard approach to grocery shopping.

That's why this the actual purchasing step is part FOUR in our five-part series on meal planning.

Instead of being the starting point as most people may assume, grocery shopping is most successful when it is done AFTER three more preliminary steps (being to plan, pick, and pair). That doesn't mean you can't work backwards from what you already have on hand, but that kind of thinking tends to come after the foundation for more effective meal planning is in place. This post will help you think through factors impacting your buying decisions. By the end of this post, you will have the resources and resolve to better approach your family's grocery shopping each week.

How to approach grocery shopping smarter:

1. Be organized

Based on what items you have planned for, picked, and chosen to pair with your meals in the week, you are now ready to make your grocery list. You can write your own on a notepad, or download the Veggies & Virtue grocery list that is arranged by each section in the store. The important thing is that you don't go to the store without one.

2. Be flexible

While I never recommend going into the grocery store without a list, it is important to make a note (mental or physical) of which items are needs versus nice to haves. I am not talking about, "I don't really need to get us ice cream." Rather, I mean which items (must you get regardless of price)? Compare this to which items could you possibly substitute should you find a sale on something else.

For our family, this usually applies most to produce and staples. Being mindful of which fruits and veggies are on sale is often the most obvious way to scope out which items are considered "in season." This not only optimizes the nutrition by buying items at their peak, but also it keeps healthy, real food ingredients more affordable than when shopping out of season. If you find that pineapple is on sale for $0.99 each and pears are nearing $3.00 per pound, consider serving pineapple more often this week then switching it up again next week based on sales. You don't likely need pears. Since balance and moderation applies to your family’s diet over time too, you don’t sweat serving the same fruit or veggie on multiple nights in one week if that is what saves you the most time and/or money. Just aim to get a different variety of fruits and veggies next week.

As for other staples, keep your eyes out as you walk the aisles. You may see non-perishable items like oats, rice, quinoa, canned goods, dried fruit, nuts, fruit and nut bars, cereals, granola, sauces, and condiments on sale. Another area where you can find decent savings is with meat and seafood that may be frozen. These items are the one and only area where I actually encourage you going "off the list" to buy an unintended item or two. Avoid stocking up excessively, especially if you don't know how many of an item you already have at home. Be mindful how good of a sale it is too, as sometimes a yellow sticker doesn't necessary mean it is a killer sale. A well-stocked pantry, however, is of great help when meal planning so much as you know what it stashed in your fridge, pantry, and freezer.

3. Be savvy

Most of us fall into one of two camps:

  1. We are the analysis paralysis type. We tend to scratch-make more of our meals because it makes us feel more comfortable about the ingredients we know we are offering. We take longer than normal to grocery shop as we read ingredients list and cross-compare several products against others. We develop brand loyalty, but usually for specialty products that are either more expensive and/or uncommon to every grocery store. We need easy options to keep on hand without being disappointed in an item being "lesser than."
  2. We are the convenience is king type. We would rather buy instant rice in convenient containers than meal prep on the weekend. We tend to prefer groceries delivered or at least available through curbside pick-up. We develop brand loyalty out of marketing, taste, and convenience, but tend to be moved more by marketing claims on the front of a package than reading the ingredients list on the side. We want to feel like we are making smart buying decisions and getting the healthy food we hope to be paying for, but we don't think it is worth stressing over. We need someone to tell us what to buy, and that's what we will get.

No matter which of these you fall under (or somewhere in between), most everyone wishes they had someone to decode the guesswork of grocery shopping -- even me! That's why I have started the "What I Buy and Why" section of this site. By featuring many of the grocery items we all use, these posts will help to decode some of the good, better, and best options for you to take back to your home. Each post will come with a free download of dietitian-approved options, including brand name specifics.

If you have a specific item you would like me to feature in this new section of the website, please shoot me a note here so I can get it in the cue of products to cover.

4. Be conscientious

Call me overly frugal, but it literally pains me to think about how many items majority of people over spend on. If you follow my weekly #whatIbuyandwhy posts on Instagram, you know that I often splurge on wild caught salmon, organic produce, minimally-processed dairy products, and an array of other plant-based foods like whole grains, nuts, and seeds. But with that, I know I need to make up for the added cost elsewhere.

The first place is to cut the crap. A principle my single-mom taught me early on as a teenage was that we would always buy high-quality, good for us foods. However if a food didn't have any nutritional value, there was truly little value in spending any amount of money on it. That has stuck with me so much, especially now as I act as the nutritional gatekeeper to my own kids. The more crap we have at home, the greater the cost. I am not willing to crowd out those higher quality items that I am splurging a bit more on with crap. No one has the cash nor real estate in their kid's tummies for that.

The other key point here is don't be diligent in what you buy and yet not as careful about how much you spend. Since almost every camp above still cares about the bottom line of their food budget, majority of us aren't looking to spend unnecessary amounts of money on "healthy food" just to go broke doing so. Instead, learn you terms, compare your costs, and pursue sales. Do you know what a unit price is? Do you ever price compare what weekly items like lunch meat, bread, and eggs costs at a big-box retailer (like Costco or Sam's) compared to an average grocery store? What is a decent sales price on something, or which store has the best deal on a given item on a given week?

You can buy quality ingredients and products without having to always eat a high price tag. It just takes being a bit more deliberate about where you assign value and how you go about claiming it in your shopping behaviors.

5. Be intentional

Although the "What I Buy and Why" section will grow as a beneficial FREE resource, it still may not be enough. Know yourself, know your questions, and know your health goals. Then make intentional grocery habits accordingly.

If you know you fall into the first camp and are killing yourself trying to scratch-make everything with ankle-biters on you 24/7, take a deep breath and reevaluate where you might be willing to choose a path of more ease without compromising the nutritional standards you want for your family. If you fall into the second camp, choose your authority on the subject and assign me to "just tell you what to buy." If you are somewhere in between, maybe consider a Mom's Night Out at the grocery store to let other's the pain points about grocery shopping help bring to light some of the things you loathe (and love!) about being the nutritional gatekeeper for your family.

For any of these, I am your grocery store guru. I offer grocery store tours for individuals and/or groups that allow you the individual attention and/or collective engagement you desire. While I suggest focusing on the meal that you are most eager to transform for your family, we can also do an overview of all of your meal time questions in one visit. This decision depends on how much you desire to know the items you buy, how they fall into a realistic, achievable weekly meal plan, and the role they play in helping you achieve your family's nutritional goals. Contact me to discuss what grocery store tour options are available and which one might be right for you or your next girl's night out.

 

A reoccurring chore no more

Even for families who barely or rarely meal plan, grocery shopping is a chore on everyone's weekly to do list. Hopefully as you walk through the steps from this meal planning series, you are able to see how much more streamlined grocery shopping can be. It doesn't need to take you forever to make a grocery list nor to peruse through the store. The experience can be what you make our if it, highly-efficient or thoroughly-vetted for only the best items. The important thing is that you are mindful of the what basis will best set you up for grocery shopping success. Turn it from a dreaded, reoccurring chore to something you find great value in getting to own as the nutritional gatekeeper of your home.

Here is a recap as to how:

  1. Be organized. Download your free grocery list using the link above.

  2. Be flexible. Adapt your weekly menu where possible to save.

  3. Be savvy, Learn the good, better, and best grocery items to buy.

  4. Be conscientious. Stick to your food budget by becoming smarter about the way you shop.

  5. Be intentional. Know when it pays for itself to invest in an expert.

 

In the comments, I would love if you would take a minute to share with me: What are your greatest struggles with grocery shopping are?

Meal Planning Step 3: Pair

Do you want to know the way you serve ONE meal to the whole family?

You pair appropriately.

Being intentional about how you pair items at a meal is the step too many parents overlook the importance of. Instead, we too often assume our kid "won't eat anything" that we offer and we jump to making them another item we are sure they will eat. We try to throw together meals with our own devices or in using pre-made meal plans that may (or may not) work for the average family.

The problem is, most of these efforts don't get us the result we are looking for.

Dinner being served is the most simple, immediate goal. That fulfills the checkbox for "Feed family dinner" on our daily to do list. However for most of us, we know that this seemingly simple to do becomes increasingly stressful when the food we offer is rarely if ever eaten, let alone touched.

That shifts our goal to something much greater.

How do we actually get our kids to eat the same meal as everyone else?

If you have a kid who will eat almost anything, then you may actually get away with avoiding this step in meal planning. Whatever you want to offer usually goes over okay, or at least without leaving you worried they are going to "starve" from not eating enough.

For the rest of us, however, this haphazard approach to meal planning doesn’t work. We are unsuccessful at feeding the whole family one meal. We are fed up with kids who refuse the food we offer. We are increasingly adding in "kid food" for the sake of our sanity. And although all of this may seem to save everyone in the moment of meal time strife, it sabotages the opportunity to raise a healthy eater.

Instead, we need to consider my “Love it, Like it, Learning it” approach with meal planning.

Despite first introducing this concept using lunchboxes, the"same concepts applies to all meal times. With a family meal, utilizing “Love it, Like it, Learning it” actually applies even more. That's because when feeding several family members, we all know that not every family member will eat and/or enjoy every item they're offered. That’s okay.

If you can choose to be okay with that, this step can radically transform how you approach a Division of Responsibility at meal times.

 

So here are the steps to how that kind of transformation happens:

1.     Evaluate the main entrée for Love it, Like it, Learning it.

As you begin to fill in your meal planning template, make a note about if you anticipate your child will: love, like, or still be learning the main entree?

If you have multiple kids, consider this same question for each of them. While doing so may feel a bit daunting at first, don't skip this part. It quickly becomes an intuitive step that is integral to meal time success. Also, considering if one or some children/parents enjoy this meal (while others may not) helps you to get into the habit of rotating meals that appeal more or less to each family member. This prevents you from falling into the trap of repeatedly catering to your "pickiest" eater, while teaching them how your family rotates through everyone's favorites.

2.     Add in sides accordingly.

Once you determine  if the main entree is a "love it," "like it," or "learning it" food, select your side dishes to counter. Use sides to make sure there is at least one “love it” food for each family member. This may often be items like whole grain rolls or bread with butter, but that's okay. The goal is to continue to expose "like it" and "learning it" foods alongside safe yet healthy foods you know your kids usually love.

Depending on the ages of your children, you can involve them in this process. Ask them what item they would like to go alongside the main entrée, especially if the entrée was something they "like" or are still "learning." This helps ensure there will be something at the table for everyone.

3.     Serve dessert with dinner.

Did you know I believe in serving dessert with dinner? Surprising to most parents, we can use this approach to our advantage with adopting "love it, like it, and learning it" at meal times.

Instead of using dessert as a bribe or to bait your child(ren) into eating more of their dinner, consider adding a sweet element to every meal up front. This being said, use your discretion when doing so. Ice cream and cupcakes won’t compete with roasted carrots for almost any of us, most especially not our kids. By offering something sweet like fresh fruit however, it acts as a sweet option and a healthy staple that counts for most kids as a food item they would "like" if not "love." With this approach, fruit also provides something for any family member to eat if nothing else worked for them that night. For many kids who are still "learning" to "like (or love!)" vegetables, fruit helps fill in the nutritional gaps for a diet void of vegetables too.

4.     Sip smart.

Make it a rule that water, milk, or the occasional healthy smoothie are the only beverage options at meals. Besides being smart, everyday options, milk or a smoothie gives your child another source of solid nutrition at every meal. Additionally, either can act as the "love it food" for meals when you know there may be fewer other foods they love or like. This gives you that added peace of mind that even if they don't take a bite of anything else, they aren’t going to wither away until food is offered again.

5.   Branch Out

For parents of adventurous eaters, what you pair with a main entree may not matter a whole lot. If you have an apprehensive eater who doesn’t touch any non-spaghetti-shaped noodle, rice, quinoa, mixed textures, or anything with a sauce though (as I do), fancy sides aren’t going to get you very far. Consider starting with more "safe" yet tasty staples and continue to reintroduce them in new yet familiar ways. As your family develops more of an appetite for adventurous flavors, dress these recipes up and add additional ingredients!

Either way, maintain a Love It, Like It, Learning It approach and you won't have to worry about if your sides are too boring or too complex of flavors. Some nights, buttered whole wheat noodles are our love it food. Others, Mediterranean Quinoa is a "learning it food." By using this approach, you will be able to quickly identify which nights you are most likely to be successful in serving a well-rounded meal with bland and/or adventurous options.

 

Next Steps

If you know you have at least one child who often refuses what is offered, it is time for you to reevaluate your meal plan in light of what they will eat. Apply the “love it, like it, learning it” approach to promote there being at least one item on the table they love, while also feeling freedom to offer items they may only "like" or still be "learning."

Stop right now and go fill in what sides you will pair with each entree on your meal plan this week.

For additional ideas, get the FREE download below for a list of side ideas. These are perfect mix-n-match options for any family wanting to establish a Love it, Like it, Learning it approach and to experience LESS meal time stress and MORE feeding success.

Meal Planning Step 2: Pick

Most meal plans out there miss most of the steps I address (or will) in this meal planning series. They focus so much on arbitrarily picking meals to put in your weekly meal planner that people often fail to actually execute any or all of these meal ideas week after week.

That's why I don't start with this step, nor is it where this meal planning series ends.

I would be doing you a great disservice if I guided you over to Pinterest to start pinning away any and every recipe that looks appealing. While we have all been guilty of doing this, it needs to stop.

It isn't serving you well.

I also wouldn't be serving you well if all I gave you were ideas. I think more parents need a new routine to meal planning than they need new recipes.

That's why in this post, I will guide you through how to pick the items that go in your meal plan a bit more methodically.

Here is how:

1. Pick your family's favorite cuisines.

Create a loose outline of your family favorites that you would put on a weekly rotation. Some examples of other family's favorites are as follows. These were answers to a question I asked as part of a recent survey I conducted among Veggies & Virtue subscribers being, "Which weekly dinner offerings does your family tend to prefer? (Select all that apply.)"

2. Plan which night you will serve which cuisine.

Based on the calendar demands outlined in Step 1, plug in which cuisine you want to make each night of the week. While you don't have to organize your meal plan this way, it eliminates some of the guesswork out of what to make each week. When you already have five or so favorite cuisines/meal types outlined as part of your weekly meal plan, all you have to do is pick from a select few recipe options for any given night.

Based on our schedule and the foods we enjoy eating, this is what our family's weekly rotation looks like:

"Simple Sundays" --> Bible study at church --> Need a simple dinner for the girls to eat on the go and us when we get home

Since I know we will be at church past dinner time, I pack Bento dinners for the girls to have at church then my hubs and I eat leftovers, a sandwich, breakfast for dinner, or something simple once we get home and get the girls down.

"Meatless Mondays" --> "At home" day --> No major needs; have time to cook complete meal

Since we stay home on Mondays as our laundry, meal prep, at-home work day, I know I will usually have time to cook a complete meal at dinner. So while I know that this is a bit cheating, I make "Meatless Mondays" our intentional seafood night each week. My Texan husband can't wrap his head around "meatless" meals, so this is a good compromise in our house. Plus, I try to cut down the amount of meat we eat every night by offering MORE plant-based sides. So this is what works for us and helps keep us on a schedule to ensure we get in at least one healthy dose of omegas at dinner each week.

"Taco Tuesday" --> "On my own" evening --> Need something easy to prep ahead and serve in stages

Consistent with reader feedback, our family loves Mexican. It is an item we gladly include each week. It is also one of the easiest meals to prep ahead and later reheat, which is nice since I know Tuesday is the day my husband won't be home until later. I feed the girls, then eat myself once they go down. Then my husband can pull out what's prepped once he gets home later. Mexican makes for one of my favorite lunchtime leftovers, so that is nice to have a lunch or two taken care of mid-week.

"No Work Wednesday" --> Swim practice --> Need a meal that's ready made when we get home

Not only is it hump day, but our girls have swim lessons on Wednesday evenings that keep us out until almost 7:00. For this reason, Wednesday's dinner is always a meal I have ready ahead. For us, this is usually something in the crockpot or a ready-made store-bought meal that takes minutes to put out.

Italian Thursdays --> Bible Study --> Family meal but with easy clean up

Another family favorite we seem to share with readers is Italian. This is one I can usually make, serve, and clean up with not a lot of fuss and yet I know each week it is a night where we can enjoy a slower, family meal. This helps since I try to have everything tied up before I leave for Bible study when the girls go to bed, as I HATE coming home to dirty dishes.

Freedom Fridays --> Impromptu potluck or take out or go out --> No stress dinner

Freedom from cooking! I am pretty sure every mom ever has appreciates any meal she didn’t have to make. Sometimes, I still end up cooking something if we have company over or go to our neighbor's for a potluck, but more often than not we order take out or go out to eat. No matter what, low stress dinners are our jam for Fridays so I rarely plan this meal much in advance.

Sit Outside Saturdays --> Family Dinner --> No major needs; enjoy family meal at home and/or invite over friends

We love being home on Saturday evenings. It gives us the chance to enjoy our whole day without trying to rush back out for dinner plans, especially if we did something out the night before. Instead, we usually try to spend time as a family outside, grilling and enjoying our slowest paced meal of the week.

3. Narrow down your recipe options within each cuisine.

Once you have determined what your week looks like and what menu options make sense within the given week, it is important to have a list of "go to" recipes to fill in for each night. For us, I tend to pick 4-6 main entree options for each night/cuisine type each season. While a few staples like turkey tacos and spaghetti may stay the same from season to season, this gives me a chance to rotate through our favorite recipes while also introducing new ones every few months. Within each cuisine type, I try to pick ones that vary in their effort level. This helps me to choose between more difficult and more simple recipes within each category, based on what we have going on during the week as a whole.

4. Save your family's favorite seasonal recipes.

Whether it be printing them out to put in a seasonal recipe binder or pinning your family's favorite recipes on Pinterest, save and organize the recipes you use most often. Keep track of new recipes you love, while also trading out those your family didn't end up enjoying. This will help you keep track of you favorites each season, as well as give you a data bank of seasonal favorites to reference year after year.

5. Assign a recipe to each night.

Once you have gone through and:

  1. Picked your family's favorite cuisines
  2. Planned which night you will serve which cuisine
  3. Narrowed down your recipe options within each cuisine
  4. Saved your family's favorite seasonal recipes

Then you are ready to actually assign a recipe to each night of the week. Using the meal template (free download offer at the bottom of step one), plug in what recipe you will make each night. Be sure to vary how time intensive the main entree is each night, leaving margin for what sides you wish to also make and how many more-involved recipes you are prepared to make that week.

This step also helps you plot out additional considerations like if you are preparing a meal for a new mom, need to cook once and eat twice, etc. Make a note of this on whatever menu item you need to apply these considerations to so doing so becomes a part of the weekly meal plan.

 

Next Steps

I may have just brought the hammer on the next time you get pin happy over more recipes than you'll ever know what to do with. But for so many moms like me, it isn't about finding more recipes. It is about making dinner time more manageable so that you can rotate through favorites, introduce new options, and continue to expose your kids to healthy foods the whole family can enjoy.

If you would like to see which recipes fall into this step of meal planning, hop on over to my Pinterest page. Follow along for more updates of our faves each season.

 

A Note to the Short-Order Cook

If this all seems like a far-fetched effort, stay tuned. Next week's post is highlighting step three to the Veggies & Virtue meal planning process: pairing appropriately.

Step three is the hidden ticket to how you turn all the main courses selected above into the only meal option you make. Never again do you need to short order cook if you can adopt this approach and pair appropriately. Your meal plan doesn't need to include mac & cheese with a side green smoothie every night if you plan using an evidenced-based, age-appropriate approach.

Meal Planning Step 1: Plan

Whether you loathe or love your role of being your family's food coordinator/kitchen CEO, meal planning isn't a task most of us can avoid doing forever.

Dinner is just an every day aspect of life. How you choose to approach it however, can make a big difference on whether or not meal times are cost-effective, convenient, and conducive with a clean eating lifestyle.

That's why I am outlining the meal planning side of achieving less meal time stress and more feeding success. Each post in this series includes a valuable freebie to help you apply each step, so be sure to find your free copy of the meal planning template at the bottom of this post!

Here are the first things you need to think through for more successful meal planning.

Things to Consider:

1. Consider your calendar

Take a look at your calendar, and answer these questions: What does your family have going on this week? How many nights will you need meals for? Who all do you have to feed this week (just the kids/in town guests/community group/etc)?

With your calendar before you, write down what you have each evening. Include obvious events like:

  • Tutoring
  • Sporting event (game or practice)
  • Work meeting (you or your spouse)
  • Out of town travel (you or your spouse)
  • Family coming into town
  • Bible study
  • Workout class
  • School or work project deadline the next day (you,your spouse, or your child(ren))
  • Everyone is home
  • Company over

These may be activities that pertain to one or all members of your family. Regardless, list out any big items you know are in the week ahead.

2. Consider convenience

Based on your schedule, what kinds of meals do you need? Is it an especially busy week where you can get by with a lot of "cook once, eat twice" type of meals? Or, is it a week with numerous evening outings, making a demand for meals that need to be ready made to eat on the run? Will you be home to prepare the meals, or do you need to have items that are easy for someone else to through together and serve?

While you don't have to be this specific every night of every week (as shown below), it is good to get in the habit of thinking through what your week looks like. Listing out your dinner needs beside what you have each night helps you to properly pick meals that fit your family's real life. Being overly ambitious or under-prepared don't reduce your stress with meal planning. Getting a clear picture of what you will need each night however, helps you to pick meals that will serve you rather than leave you a slave to the kitchen...or the drive-thru.

Examples for each of the above calendar items include:

  • Tutoring --> Everyone is eating at different times
  • Sporting event (game or practice) --> Need something that’s already ready to eat when we get home
  • Work meeting (you or your spouse) --> At the office late and spouse or babysitter to feed the kids
  • Out of town travel (you or your spouse)  --> Self, spouse, family member, or nanny to hold down the fort and feed kids
  • Family coming into town  --> Need a meal that can be scaled and served to more people than usual
  • Bible study --> Eating on the go or at event (for self or whole family)
  • Workout class  --> Eating late/separate from family so food needs to be easy to self-serve and/or reheat
  • School or work project deadline the next day (you,your spouse, or your child(ren))  --> Need something quick with no mess to clean up
  • Everyone is home  --> Have time for a family meal with a bit more time to cook
  • Company over  --> Potluck or to prepare a meal for multiple people

 

3. Consider kitchen time

Some people look to save time, others look to save money. Get realistic with yourself, your family's actual interest and efforts in the kitchen, and how you can best approach healthy meal planning with these factors in mind. This doesn't mean every meal has to be homemade nor scratch-cooked, unless that is something you make time for and can commit to on the given week. Map out what meals you think you will make ahead, the night of, or not at all given your calendar and needs for convenience (or not).

Some examples stemming from the above examples may include:

  • Tutoring --> Everyone is eating at different times --> Crockpot meal that cooks itself
  • Sporting event (game or practice) --> Need something that’s already ready to eat when we get home --> Prep ahead meal
  • Work meeting (you or your spouse) --> At the office late and spouse or babysitter to feed the kids --> Simple meal, ready to serve
  • Out of town travel (you or your spouse)  --> Self, spouse, family member, or nanny to hold down the fort and feed kids --> Cook once, eat twice (or thrice!)
  • Family coming into town  --> Need a meal that can be scaled and served to more people than usual --> Eat out or make a large, family-style meal
  • Bible study  --> Eating on the go or at event (for self or whole family) --> Bento-box style dinner to take on the go
  • Workout class  --> Eating late/separate from family so food needs to be easy to self-serve and/or reheat --> Leftovers
  • School or work project deadline the next day (you,your spouse, or your child(ren))  --> Need something quick with no mess to clean up --> Take out or ready-made option (picked up with weekly grocery run)
  • Everyone is home  --> Have time for a family meal with a bit more time to cook --> Take time to enjoy cooking and eating as a family
  • Company over  --> Potluck or to prepare a meal for multiple people --> Review menu needs and prepare meal accordingly the night of.

 

Things to Do

1. Start completing your own meal plan each week.

Adopting this new practice will save you time, energy, and your sanity, especially as it becomes habit. While it looks a bit in depth, it should only take 5-10 minutes tops to go through the above steps each week. Investing this time in advance will answer the question, "What's for Dinner?" without the usual uncertainty and angst to get something on the table.

2. Download your own free version of the Veggies & Virtue Love It, Like It, Learning It Weekly Meal Plan Template.

Fill in the top section of the download (below) according to what factors were discussed above. Use the initial row as your guide for what your calendar, convenience, and kitchen time will be for each night, so it becomes easier to "Pick" what you're actually serving. This is what I personally use to plan our family's weekly menu. Unlike most meal plan templates, this is tailored specifically for the family of a picky eater. It doesn't cater to short-order cooking, but it does help you work through the basics of how to make one meal for the whole family in a way that yields less meal time stress and more feeding success. 

 

3. Please be sure to share!

Once you start putting this first step and meal template to use, please share this helpful, free resource with fellow friends and family you think it may help also.

 

Lastly, remember this:

Meal plans are meant to serve you and not the other way around.

Establish a weekly menu around what works best for your family, based on the time available and tastes preferred each night. Going through this initial step will set you up for less meal time stress -- no matter what you have going on. Then, in step two, you will quickly learn how to pick meals that fit your schedule and are your family favorites. Stay tuned for step two!