Plan now ... your sanity will thank you later.
“While it may take a little more time on the front end, planning will be well worth it, saving you hours and dollars later,” says meal-planning expert Aviva Goldfarb, who is the founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online family dinner planner and grocery-shopping system designed for busy parents.
Plan to do your grocery shopping on the weekend, but start brainstorming ideas, looking up recipes, taking inventory of what you have in your kitchen, and making your grocery list on Wednesday or Thursday. That way, when it’s time to go to the store, you don’t feel overwelmed and you’re not over- or underbuying. If you don't know where to start, you can take a look at what food you should be buying for your kids. A great resource for nutritional recommendations by age group is ChooseMyPlate.gov by the US Department of Agriculture.
Goldfarb suggests making three dinners a week and taking into account your family's schedule so that you can plan around it accordingly. For example, if you know that Wednesday will be a late night due to after-school activities, then plan to eat leftovers or a previously frozen meal that night. Cook meals with perishables (e.g., fresh salmon skewers) earlier in the week, and save meals with longer-lasting ingredients (e.g., black bean quesadillas) for later in the week. Luckily there are so many great apps and websites dedicated to organization, and one of my favorites is Cozi.com: a website that can track and share schedules within your family.
Use technology to your advantage.
In a world where we use our smartphones and tablets to manage virtually everything in our lives, meal planning, and grocery shopping should be no different.
Imagine never having to lament about forgetting your grocery list at home ever again! Apps like MealBoard, Paprika, and Spinning Meals are a meal planner’s dream, offering tasks such as finding and storing recipes, creating weekly meal plans, keeping track of pantry items, generating grocery lists (and budgets!), and even tracking the time you spend cooking.
For last-minute meal emergencies when you don’t have time to run to the store, you can use Instacart to get groceries from local stores delivered to your door in an hour. How’s that for modern convenience?
Give your kids a seat at the planning table.
Involving your children in the planning process can alleviate some of the stress of you having to think of everything and get them more excited about eating, particularly when it comes to school lunches.
Kids will love weighing in on the decision-making process (and be more likely to eat what you make) with fun projects such this magnetic lunch chart. For tech-savvy kids, try the LaLa Lunchbox app, which empowers them to make their own lunch decisions from a customizable food library and then generates a grocery list based on those selections.
Keep weeknight meals deliciously simple.
Save more complex meals for the weekend, when you have more time and less pressure to feed the hungry masses. During the week, look for recipes that allow you to mix-and-match ingredients and that don’t require a lot of active time in the kitchen. A simple, but delicious chicken fried rice meal packed with nutritious goodies like the one above can be ready in just 10 minutes when you prep the ingredients beforehand. Yes, 10 minutes, that’s it.
One-pot meals are great way to cut down on dishes (who really needs more of those?) and keep your meals full of flavor at the same time. Find lots of delicious ideas here.
Introduce theme nights.
Theme nights (e.g. Taco Tuesdays) are a fun way to keep things simple on the planning side and still offer variety at the same time. Get the whole family involved by taking a vote on which theme(s) to incorporate each week.
Be strategic with your prep time.
Start prepping the ingredients for your upcoming meals over the weekend. During other times of the week, select prep times that work best for your schedule. For example, if you’re an early bird, you can cut up the vegetables for tonight’s beef stew and put everything in the slow cooker before the kids wake up. If you’re a night owl, take time after the kids go to sleep to make overnight Irish oatmeal for breakfast or prepare lunches for tomorrow.
Goldfarb recommends consolidating prep for multiple meals at once. “When you are making Tuesday’s dinner, chop up the onion and the peppers that you'll need for Wednesday's dinner, too. When you're cutting up carrots for tomorrow's lunch, cut enough for the whole week," she suggests.
Food prep is another great way to get the kids involved. Assign a different, age-appropriate task to each child, and rotate jobs each week so that everyone gets a chance to try something new.
Don't make multiple meals for one dinner.
With dietary preferences, dietary restrictions, and food allergies, you can easily end up making a different meal for each person in your family. Don't! Instead of making multiple meals, Goldfarb suggests selecting meals during the planning process that everyone can eat and then adapting as necessary.
"For example, you can top off your vegetarian's pasta with white beans and feta instead of the meat sauce you've made, keep the cheese on the side for someone who's lactose-intolerant, and use rice noodles to accomodate a gluten sensitivity," offers Goldfarb.
Don't let your picky eater get you down.
If you have a picky eater on your hands, the good news is that are things you can do to help him or her become more adventurous. One popular strategy shared by Goldfarb is to make foods with colorful condiments, toothpicks, or funny faces made out of food to capture your child's attention and interest in the food. Who could say no to a face like this?
"Continue to offer foods that your child has rejected before (taste buds change!) and keep the mealtime focus and conversation off food. The most important strategy is to remember to emphasize the positive (even if your child only takes a tiny bite of something), exercise lots of patience, and remember that family mealtime is about so much more than the food we serve," suggests Goldfarb.
Try meeting in the middle with these kid-friendly recipes that will please your palate too:
Make your freezer your new BFF.
"Your freezer can be your best friend when it comes to planning meals for busy weeks," says Goldfarb. "The easiest way to fill your freezer with homemade meals is by doubling meals when preparing them for your family and freezing one batch for a future dinner. Recipes that generally freeze well include casseroles, soups, stews and egg dishes like stratas." She also suggests that you "label each meal with the name and the date you froze it, and put newer dishes toward the back of the freezer so you can circulate and use what’s oldest." See Freezer Rules of Thumb for more tips.
Repurpose your leftovers.
To avoid mealtime monotony, plan to repurpose your leftovers into quick new meals. For example, if you make chili on Monday, plan to use it in another simple meal like a cheesy hash brown bake when you offer it again. Lunches are perfect for repurposing dinner leftovers too. Turning tonight's herb-roasted chicken into tomorrow's chicken salad sandwiches makes planning easier for you and lunch a little more interesting for the kids.
At the end of the week, Goldfarb recommends getting everyone for a casual dinner where you can "pull together a meal from leftovers or odds and ends in the refrigerator, and use up food before you shop for the next week." Fun ideas include make-you-own pizza, omelet and salad bars. "Omelets and pizzas can take advantage of leftovers like veggies, cheese, chicken or other proteins, and salad bars can incorporate all of those goodies plus fruits, nuts and beans," says Goldfarb. "Some additional options that can incorporate a variety of leftovers are stir-fries or quesadillas. One of the beauties of having a 'bar' set up is that all family members can customize their meal to what appeals to them," she adds.
For a curated list of affordable, family-friendly meals, including a grocery list for one trip to the store each week, check out the Grocery Bag series. Good luck and happy meal planning!
Don't know what to do with leftover meatballs? Watch the video below!