Meal planning is a life-saver, but sometimes it can feel like an overwhelming chore. Here’s how I keep things simple and delicious!
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I have been a firm believer in meal planning for years. It makes my life SO much easier. However, lately I’ve been simplifying my method even more to make mealtime doable during these crazy times we’re in.
Like many of you, right now we’re all home all the time, and when we get hungry…let’s just say things go awry.
So, I’ve been making a deliberate effort to make sure everyone is well fed (notice I’m including myself in the hangry club). However, with all the added responsibilities of directing the schooling of all my kids, I honestly don’t have a lot of energy left over to think of cute ways to turn a sandwich into a butterfly. What I need are simple, kid-friendly meals that I don’t have to think about.
Here’s what I’ve done to make our meals simple, and still delicious:
Step 1: Put breakfast and lunch on repeat
Until recently, I’ve always flown by the seat of my pants for breakfast and lunch, never planning ahead of time. However, when we started staying home all the time, it was exhausting to make those menu decisions on the fly while I was dealing with schooling, cleaning, and everything else.
I decided it would cut down on my decision fatigue (which is a real problem for me) if I could plan one week of breakfast and lunch and then put it on repeat for every week thereafter. It has be a total game-changer!
I brainstormed a handful of doable breakfasts and lunches, alternated hot and cold options, and wrote them into my meal planning sheet. If someone doesn’t like the day’s option for breakfast, they can always have cold cereal or toast with fruit. Same goes for lunch. The kids are always welcome to make a PB&J sandwich for themselves.
This action alone has saved me SO much mental effort–14 meals a week that I don’t have to think about anymore. That cuts down on my meal planning work by two-thirds!
You can see my “rinse & repeat” menu below.
Note: with every meal, I also try to serve some assortment of fruits and veggies. Breakfast is often clementines, bananas, and/or berries. Lunch is often apples, pears, baby cut carrots, etc.
I don’t really plan snacks regularly…but my favorite snack solution is to fill our Dollar Store party tray with a variety of fruits, veggies, and whatever else I find in the pantry that is already opened (pretzels, veggie straws, etc). Especially on days when the weather is nice, I set the tray out on the back patio and we have a little afternoon picnic while the kids play outside.
If you want a tray that can be covered and put in the fridge, I’ve been using this rectangular tray for years, and it’s been fabulous!
Step 2: Make a list of your family’s favorite meals
For dinner, I don’t love the idea of eating the same seven meals for the rest of my life, so I created seven categories instead:
|Thursday||Seasonal (soup for winter, salad/grill for summer)|
I made a spreadsheet with our favorite go-to meals for each category, so it’s really fast to plug recipes into our menu for the week. I know that making spreadsheets for meal planning purposes might officially cement my nerd status, but hey, it’s actually really helpful!
Want to see my spreadsheet? (I know I can’t be the only nerd out there…) It’s packed with over 70 of our family’s favorite meals, all with links to tried-and-true recipes!
Note: When things aren’t too crazy, I try to choose one freezable recipe each week (in an ideal world at least). I double it, and throw half in the freezer for another day. These chicken marinades are a SUPER efficient way to prep ahead.
How I adapt this for summer: Last year, I was dreading the idea of feeding everyone all summer long. I want to be off adventuring, not slaving in the kitchen. So I decided to simplify our dinners even more. I made a one-month menu of our favorite easy summertime meals, and then I repeated it for June, July, and August. It took me about 20 minutes, and I was done meal planning for the ENTIRE summer. Mom win!
Step 3: Print out a meal planning calendar & keep several copies on hand
Anything I can do ahead of time to simply the actual planning of meals makes me more likely to actually do the task. That includes having several blank meal planning sheets printed and ready to go. I just keep mine on the side of my fridge, tucked behind the current week’s plan which hangs there.
Once a week (currently Saturday mornings) I sit down and plan our meals for the week. I grab the grocery ads to see what’s on sale, check my handy-dandy spreadsheet (above) and quickly fill in all the boxes on my menu.
Tip: Take an extra few minutes to check the recipes and your pantry to see what groceries you will need to buy, then add them to your grocery list right away. I use the Out of Milk app so that I always have my list with me when I get to the store. (I’ve learned the hard way that planning meals doesn’t do a lot of good if you don’t actually buy the needed ingredients.)
Ready to simplify your own meal planning?
Here is the exact meal planning calendar I use…
The download includes several options for you to print for your own meal planning calendar, including a version that has a column for snacks, and one that has my breakfast/lunch menu filled in for you. Or keep it simple, and just print the basic blank breakfast, lunch, and dinner version. Do what works for your family. Enjoy!
Step 4: Leave wiggle room
I currently have a plan for all 21 meals my family eats each week. However, I don’t think we have ever followed the week’s plan exactly. We always end up changing something. That’s okay!
Sometimes, Wednesday rolls around and I don’t feel like eating spaghetti, so I push it off a day. Or I realize I forgot to take chicken out of the freezer, so I cook breakfast for dinner instead (nobody ever complains about that).
But even when I depart from the plan, I’m still glad I have a plan. Meal planning isn’t about locking yourself into a set menu. It’s about creating a framework that you can rely on, even if you shuffle around the details.
Good luck feeding the masses, mamas!
Tell me in the comments…Are you a meal planner? Or do you cook more spontaneously? What works for you?