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What’s for Dinner? Meal Planning Strategies for Busy Families

November 22, 2021
Family eating together at a dinner table

Eating a nourishing meal together is a goal for many families, but with our busy lives and limited time, weeknight dinners can be chaotic and stressful. If you make countless trips to the grocery store each week, are frustrated by the vegetables that end up rotting in your fridge or are regularly stressed out at 5:00 figuring out what to feed your family, meal planning may be the answer.

Although it does take time to save time, meal planning is easier than most people think. It will help you to eat out less, buy fewer convenience foods, reduce your food waste and get healthy and delicious meals on the table all week long. Or at least will move you in the right direction. To help you get started, here are some strategies and tips for successful meal planning:

Start Small

If you’re new to meal planning, don’t go all in and expect to plan a whole week of meals and snacks right away. You’re more likely to succeed if you start with a few dinners and add one meal at a time until you get the hang of it. Just remember to be realistic about how much time you actually have each night to prepare a meal depending on your activities and schedule.

Scan and Plan

Instead of spending money on the latest cookbooks or trying complicated recipes with ingredients you’ll only use once, check what you have in your refrigerator, freezer and pantry and search for recipes that will use up these ingredients. From there, consider what’s in season, on sale at your grocery store, and include tried and true family favourites. Fun themes like Pizza Friday, Taco Tuesday, or Breakfast-for-Dinner can guide your planning and give your family something to look forward to. This is often the hardest step so you may find meal planning apps like, Mealime, Yummly and Spoonacular helpful and Pinterest is a great resource for finding easy, nutritious and quick meals.

Write it Down

The simple act of writing down your meals for the week is a big part of making this work. Whether you display the menu for everyone to see, just use the notes section of your phone or you keep a written list for yourself, this small step will help you remember what’s happening and hold you more accountable. It can also put a smile on your face in the late afternoon when you take a look and realize you’ve got a great meal already planned for that day!

Keep a Grocery List

Once you’ve set your menu—leaving an open night or two for leftovers or take-out—make a grocery list. Instead of meal-by-meal, organize your list by grocery department and in the order that you typically shop. Shopping with a complete list will save you time, make sure that you don’t forget something and help you avoid impulsive (and often less-nourishing) buys.

Meal Prep

Now that you’ve planned your recipes, made a list and shopped, there’s one more step to prepare you for success. What you do ahead of time depends on your recipes for the week but set aside an hour on Sunday to wash and chop fruit and vegetables, cook your proteins, make rice or any other prep work to help cut down weekday cooking times. This process will also make grabbing snacks and packing lunches easier and will help make sure healthy options are available.

Cook in Bulk

The key to meal planning is that if you’re going to spend the time cooking, you should make it last more than one meal. If you’re making a dish like spaghetti sauce, curry or chili, double or triple the recipe so you’ll have leftovers or can freeze portions for future meals. Similarly, if a recipe uses chicken breasts, cook two or three times as many so you can use the extra chicken on a pizza, in fajitas or on a salad later in the week. Although this will take some practice to get it right, it can also have the most impact. Investing in at least one small cooking appliance like a slower cooker, rice cooker or an electric pressure cooker can also make batch cooking easier.

Be Flexible

Like everything in life, no matter how much you plan things may change. If something like a spontaneous playdate, late meeting or spending more time outside because of perfect weather cuts into your cooking time, it’s okay to drop your original idea. To help you make last-minute meals in a pinch, always have pantry foods like pasta, beans, tuna, canned tomatoes and other key staples stocked and ready. Here are ten recipes that prove that if you dig around your pantry, fridge and freezer, you can make a simple but satisfying dinner. And of course there will be other nights where you just have to hit the drive-thru or get takeout and there’s no shame in that.

Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated or overly time-consuming. It just takes motivation, organization and some extra effort at the start of the week to make your life a lot easier. Start small, involve your family and stay flexible to keep making healthy, home cooking a priority.

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