I don’t know about the rest of you, but meal planning and preparing used to be one of my least favorite parts of this motherhood thing. My husband can make a mean PB+J and reheat leftovers, but that’s as far as his culinary skills reach. I’d say I have basic cooking skills but I’m more of a ultilitarian cook — I do it because it needs done but I don’t love it or find it relaxing. It isn’t something that I do simply because I enjoy it. I think one reason is we are renters and city dwellers, so we don’t have a great kitchen. It is separate from the living space so it removes me from the rest of the family and prevents me from keeping a good eye on the kids. I often do a lot of back and forth between them and the cooking, which can get annoying. Also, I’ve always been really intimidated by planning meals ahead of time. It has never been a strength of mine but especially not since having so many kids. Sometimes I feel like I live minute-to-minute and don’t think about what to have for dinner until about 4:30 pm when it is usually too late to make anything that needed some extra time or planning (like thawing something). But now that I finally have a handle on having three kids I set a goal for myself to start meal planning on a regular basis. I’m three months in and it is going really well! Once you get a handle on it things are much more manageable.
If you are a busy parent and are struggling with how to prepare and cook healthy, homemade meals for your family without spending a ton of time or money doing it, then this post is for you. Because that was (and occasionally sometimes still is) me. I was so overwhelmed with the daily tasks of family life and taking care of three kids that I couldn’t get a handle on planning anything, let alone meals. I was not being mindful of mealtime when I did my grocery shopping, didn’t think about dinner until about 4:30 pm each day, and found myself scrambling each evening to find something my kids would eat. We started eating a lot of frozen meals from Trader Joe’s (which aren’t bad, but not quite as healthy as cooking something up yourself, even if it is frozen veggies and chicken breasts) or ordering take-out. So we weren’t eating as healthy as we could have been and I was spending more money than I should have been. Sometimes I share peeks of it in my Instagram story, and many of you ask me how I meal plan or what recipes I like or what I buy at Trader Joe’s, so I thought I would share a bit here.
If you are a long-time reader, you might already know that I rarely post recipes on this blog. It is because of two reasons: 1) I am not a good food stylist or photographer, which means my food photos aren’t pretty, and 2) I’m not a great meal planner with a variety of food. Or at least, I didn’t used to be. But I want you to see that if I can meal plan and cook 5 dinners a week (sometimes 4 and then we do leftovers and maybe a pizza the other nights) that you can too. So here’s my very not-pretty meal planning board and some of my favorite basic go-to family meals (notice I started my meal planning this month the second week of March, which is why the first week is empty…)
First things first, you need a dry erase board calendar. Nothing fancy, just one that you can hang in your kitchen somewhere and write meal ideas as you prep your shopping list. I bought and use this one which does the job just fine.
Second, you need to get inspired. I get stuck in a “spaghetti, soup, chicken and veggies” rut sometimes. So go to wherever you get inspired — cookbooks, your favorite food bloggers, Pinterest — and make a list of some meals that you want to cook, think your family would like, and that are manageable for you. I’ve pinned some of my favorites to my Meal Planning board on Pinterest if you need a place to start. I pin meals I’d like to try to that board, then make a short list on my phone or notepad and go from there.
Once you have a list of meal ideas for a week, start writing them out on the dry erase board. I write a meal on every other day to start, putting leftovers on nights we usually have less time (for us Wednesday evenings are always a quick meal or leftovers night, for example). Then make a shopping list for what you need to make that week’s meals. I go recipe by recipe, checking what ingredients I already have and writing down what I need. I keep that list in my phone so I don’t forget it at home. Then all you need to do is shop! I keep it simple: if I need a whole cooked chicken, I buy rotisserie at the store. If I need fresh veggies, I usually buy them frozen. I definitely don’t have time to wash, peel, chop, cut, cook, etc. from scratch and I don’t even try most of the time. I try to make something that the little ones will like as well (I basically used to be a short order cook and I DO NOT put myself through that anymore. I make one meal, and we all eat some version of it.)
(Parmeasan Crusted Tilapia with Brown Rice and Sauteed Spinach, plus a side veggie for the kiddos)
Here are a few cooking staples that I use on the regular and keep stocked in my pantry (most are from Trader Joe’s, so if you don’t have one of those, I’m sorry… but I’m sure you have something similar at your local supermarket.)
- Frozen veggies (chopped onions, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and medleys) and frozen garlic and basil (you just pop out a little frozen cube and you have fresh herbs or garlic for your recipe vs. always having fresh on hand!) I also LOVE the Trader Joe’s Multrigrain Medley (in the frozen veggies/rice section).
- Seasonings: Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, Garlic Sea Salt Blend, Lemon Pepper, Everything But The Bagel — All come in their own grinder at Trader Joe’s — plus the basic single seasonings.
- Condiments: Trader Joe’s Vegan Mayo, Trader Joe’s balsamic, coconut oil, Salsa Verde, Marinara Sauce, Trader Joe’s Carolina BBQ Sauce, Local Honey, Organic Ketchup, Dijon Mustard
- Trader Joe’s Frozen Organic Brown Rice and Frozen Quinoa packets (you just pop one in the microwave for 3 minutes) and spaghetti or other pasta
- Trader Joe’s Frozen Fruit for smoothies: Peaches, Mango, Pineapple, Berry Blend, and Acai Puree packets
- Frozen Proteins: Alaskan Cod (I like the small pieces), a bag of frozen chicken breasts or tenders, frozen turkey meatballs, and Grass-Fed Angus Beef. (we aren’t big salmon eaters).
- Beans (black, pinto, and kidney at least) and Organic Chicken Stock, I also like the Black Bean Soup or Tomato for recipe bases.
Here’s a typical grocery list for my Trader Joe’s shopping. On top of the stuff above, which I buy when needed, I usually get this every week:
- Mini Silver Dollar Frozen Pancakes
- Frozen Multi-grain Waffles
- Berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries)
- Spinach (I buy the pre-washed organic bag to sautée or put in smoothies, etc.)
- Greek Yogurt (a couple of big tubs of plain, non fat for smoothies and the individual flavored ones for the boys)
- Coconut milk
- Milk (for the boys)
- Low Fat Kefir Milk (for the boys’ breakfast “smoothies”)
- Kombucha (the Pink Lady flavor)
- Shredded mexican cheese blend
- Dark Roast Coffee Pods
- Sweet Potato Fries, Multigrain Blend, Frozen Veggies, Fresh Veggies as needed for meals that week
- Trader O’s Cereal
- Peaches (Charlie is obsessed with the jarred ones)
- Organic Cane Sugar
- Power Berries (my vice and I try to only have a handful, but you know how that goes…)
- Tortillas or Taco Shells
- Whole Wheat Pitas
- Black Bean Veggie Burgers (these are really yummy inside a half of whole wheat pita!)
- Roasted Seaweed
Air popped popcorn
Flaxseed Tortilla Chips
All-natural creamy peanut butter
Unsweetened apple sauce
I might post specific meals and recipes eventually, but for now here are a few of my favorites, which are all found in my Meal Planning Pinterest Board.
Alaskan Cod with Multigrain Medley mixed with corn and peas, and sweet potato fries.
BBQ Chicken with Mixed Veggies
Pasta Bake: cooked rigatoni pasta, meat sauce (or you can just use marinara), and mozzarella cheese layered and baked at 350 till melted.
One Pan Roasted Chicken and Root Veggies (potatoes and carrots)
I love one pan meals, and there are lots of those in my meal planning pinboard. I don’t typically meal plan for meals other than dinner. My kids eat the same rotation of things for breakfast (mini-pancakes or waffles, cereal, english muffin, yogurt, fruit) and lunches vary depending on whether we are home or out, if there are leftovers, etc. However, many people do like to meal plan for all meals. So I wanted to share a free downloadable meal planning worksheet, designed by my friend Darla of Darla Marie Designs. You can find and download the worksheet here.
And lastly, here are a few tools for your kitchen arsenal that make meal planning and prep easier (if you don’t already have them). If only I could add a Vitamix to my set of tools… maybe someday!
- Half Sheet Baking Pan (for all of those one pan meals!)
- silicone baking mats to line your pans (makes cleanup a breeze and are reusable so saves you the foil or parchment paper)
- spiralizer for making zoodles and things
- mandoline for easy slicing of veggies and potatoes (just be very careful – I chopped a tiny tip of my finger off cutting sweet potatoes!)
- electric chopper (this thing is a must in every kitchen, and so cheap too!)
- cutting boards (I like these to help prevent cross contamination)
- a crockpot (I love this one because it is big and programmable to make cooking a breeze).
- a stock pot, a sauce pot, and a frying pan if you don’t have a good pan set (or just get this set with all you need for a very affordable price)
- good sharp knives
- food storage containers (for prep and leftover storage)
- a good blender (I use this one but I want this one)
- a standing mixer (the amount that I use this to shred chicken alone is worth it) or at the very least, a hand mixer
- spice organizer (this thing is kind of brilliant. And it doesn’t necessarily go with this post, but I love this for kitchen organizing too!)
- dry erase board for calendaring your meals
Do you meal plan? Do you have a system that works for you or tips I didn’t share (maybe they will help me improve my meal planning) or favorite easy family meals? Do share!
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