Meal planning can be one of the most daunting challenges moms face. The pressure to come up with a variety of healthy, affordable meals that everyone in the family will enjoy is difficult even when you don’t have picky eaters or food allergies to work around.
Add in one of those constraints and even the best of us are tempted to throw in the towel. The worst part is that deciding on the menu is only the first step in the process. After the menu is made, you still have to make up a grocery list, do the shopping and prepare the meals.
It’s no wonder that aside from cleaning, meal planning is the most time-consuming and dreaded task moms undertake (for complete transparency, this statement isn’t based on a university study, just my own personal survey of myself and my friends).
Luckily, there are ways to make meal planning easier. Here are my favorite strategies for tackling this chore.
Meal Planning Techniques
Enlist Your Family Members
Let each person in your family choose a meal. Doing this accomplishes two things: buy-in from each family member on the menu AND less meals for you to think up. In my family, each child gets to select a dinner entrée leaving me free to balance the nutritive value in the side dishes.
Categorize Your Days
When I was a newlywed, I used to assign a different type of cuisine to each day of the week: Mexican Mondays, Italian Tuesdays, Chinese Wednesdays, Homestyle Thursdays, Dining Out Fridays, Leftover Saturdays, BBQ Sundays.
Later, I designated a different main ingredient to each day: Meatless Mondays, Chicken Tuesdays and Fridays, Beef Wednesdays and Sundays, Smoked Sausage Thursdays, Pork Saturdays. Right now each person has his or her own day.
Since there are six of us, this leaves us with one day for leftovers. Categorizing is a useful strategy because it gives you a smaller range of dishes to focus on, thereby helping you make decisions quicker and easier.
Always Keep an Emergency Meal in Stock
Some days, the time gets away from us and before you know it, it’s time to make dinner and you forgot to thaw the meat. Rather than caving in and ordering pizza or going out to eat, save your money and your health by pulling an emergency meal out of your freezer.
This can be a recipe you doubled so that you could eat one and freeze the other. It can also be a go-to meal for which you have the ingredients available at all times. For example, I always keep everything I need to make my Easy Tortellini Dinner on hand.
I also keep everything I need to make Chicken Enchilada Cups stocked in my freezer and pantry (when I don’t have wonton wrappers, I use a can to cut muffin-sized circles out of whole wheat tortillas which I usually have in my refrigerator). It doesn’t matter what your emergency meal is, as long as it is quick and easy and you can always keep the ingredients on hand.
Keep a Recipe File and Rate Your Recipes
Sometimes the hardest part of putting the family menu together is trying to figure out what to make. Keep a file, folder, or binder where you can store recipes.
You can organize yours however you want, but I highly recommend adopting a rating system so that you can easily choose recipes that your family has approved. When you try a new recipe, write your family’s reactions somewhere on the recipe.
For simplicity, I always have my family members assign it a rank from 1-10 (1 being “I would rather not eat again than be in a room with this food again” and 10 being “Wow mom, I think you should try out for Top Chef because this was amazing!”). If a meal scores 8 or higher from everyone, it goes to the front of the binder in our “favorites” section—the one I go to first for meal planning inspiration.
For those of you who aren’t dinosaurs like me, aka you are tech savvy, this file or folder can be a digital version. If I ever get over my fear of accidentally spilling cooking liquid all over my Kindle so that I can actually bring it in the kitchen, I might be able to use my pinned recipes directly from Pinterest rather than printing each one off using up all my printer ink and paper.
My point is, figure out a system that will work for you and then use it.
For Really Easy Meal Planning, Use Meal Cards
This strategy takes a fair amount of time and energy to set up, but once you’ve got it set up meal planning becomes effortless. One day, when you have an hour or two to devote to thinking about your menus, sit down with a stack of index cards.
On each index card write down one complete meal (entrée, sides, and condiments). On the back of the index card, write down all of the ingredients needed to prepare the meal. Stop groaning at me—I told you this was going to take a while!
Now, put all those cards in a recipe box or clip them together and put them somewhere you’ll remember. Every time you have to plan your meals for the upcoming week, pull out the cards and randomly choose seven. Make your shopping list from the back sides of the cards. Done!
Free Menu Planner
Use this free printable meal planner and shopping list to plan for the week.