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tips for effective meal planning

POYEL: Secrets to Successfully Getting Dinner on the Table

Time for another Project Organize Your ENTIRE Life check in.  We’ve already addressed meal planning a bit but today I want to lay out the complete action plan for getting dinner time totally under control.  


Step 1: Have a System for Finding Meals


The quickest and easiest way to conquer dinner planning is to have a system for finding recipes each week.  So far we’ve featured two options for doing this here on POYEL: Mel’s 6 week meal plan (complete with recipes and grocery lists) as well as a free trial membership, and the chance to win a lifetime membership, to the meal planning super site Relish!  Of course, there are other options too.


I used to just sit at the kitchen table with my favorite cookbooks, recipe websites, and meals in my head and create a weekly menu.  At one point I even started to create a spreadsheet listing all my family’s favorite chicken meals, fish meals, veggie meals and etc. to make it a bit easier.  Ultimately I switched to Relish! because I loved that it would take my chosen meals and generate a shopping list (and even conveniently categorize the items by where they could be found in the store) but that’s a luxury, not a necessity.  All you really need for this step is a system that works for you.


One additional thing that I’ve found works really well for me (and that many of you have written in and said works for you) is to assign a theme to each night.  An example would be something like this:


Monday – Fish
Tuesday – Slow Cooker
Wednesday – Chicken
Thursday – Veggie
Friday – Mexican


Doing this makes it easier to ensure variation in your family’s meals.  It can also help with time management and cut down on wasted food.  For example, I work Tuesday afternoons and don’t finish until dinner time.  By making Tuesday slow cooker day I can ensure that nobody starves on those nights.  Similarly, since we grocery shop on Sunday, making Monday fish night helps to ensure that it’s nice and fresh.

Step 2: Figure Out the Easiest Way to Shop with Your Kids


This is the hardest part for me so let me just say straight off that the easiest way may be not to do it at all.  With a 20 month old and a 3 1/2 year old it seems like someone always wants a new snack, wants to walk instead of ride, or has to go potty.  There’s just no getting around it.  So for now we’ve settled into a routine of taking care of the grocery shopping during nap time on Sundays.


If weekend or night shopping doesn’t work for you then you need to figure out the best ways to keep your kiddos happy at the store.  Many of you have written in to say that snacks go a long way.  Depending on your child, distributing the snacks in a fun way may get you even more mileage out of this idea.  See here for a particularly cute dispensing system found by my pal Maddie.


Taking the concept a step further, one reader wrote in with this great tip:


I meal plan on Sunday or Monday, then go shopping on Tuesday after story time at the library. My daughter’s happy, we’re already out, and she gets “market lunch”: bagels at the bakery, slices of salami at the deli, a fruit roll-up in produce, and some string cheese. They scan the empty wrappers at check out, then she has a banana in the car. Meals are simple (tacos, pasta) unless my husband is able/willing to cook or entertain children.


Along with the adorable “market lunch” idea, she also makes the incredibly important point that timing is everything when it comes to kids and grocery carts.  Do everything you can to ensure they’re in a happy place before you try to plop them into one!  Click through for the rest of the action plan…



Step 3: Make a Habit of Thinking About Dinner Ahead of Time


Take 10 seconds every night and look at what you’ll be eating for dinner tomorrow.  Slow cooker meals are crazy convenient IF you remember to start in the morning… not so much if 3 o’clock rolls around and you realize your pot roast should have already been cooking for 4 hours.  Whether it’s setting an alarm on your phone or just keeping your weekly menu out in the open, do whatever it takes to get in the habit of thinking about dinner in advance.


Step 4: Cook When You Have Time


Let’s face it, for many parents 5 o’clock just isn’t a very convenient time to start chopping and sauteing.  There’s a reason, after all, that this time of day is known as the “witching hour”.  The kids are often starting to get tired, a bit cranky, and more than a little needy.  Instead of trying to come up with ways to pacify them and cook dinner, I’ve started doing as much meal prep as possible earlier in the day.  If I’m working in the afternoon, for example, I’ll put S down for nap and start cooking with C around noon.  We address whatever can be chopped or mixed and then sit tight for a few hours.  Obviously this won’t work for everyone’s schedule but it’s worth thinking about doing some of your meal prep in the morning, the night before, or on the weekends if possible.

Step 5: Have a Back-up Plan


I mentioned earlier this week that we’ve gotten into the habit of making one or two freezer meals with C on the weekends.  While it’s not necessary to have a freezer full of meals, it is nice to have something you can throw in the oven when the day has unexpectedly gone awry.  Having a few super simple recipes in your toolbox can also help.  One reader wrote in with this suggestion:


I wanted to leave you my easy go to dinner!!
Take 6 boneless and skinless chicken breasts and put them in the crock pot. Take a whole bottle of bbq sauce (I like to take original and honey and do half and half) and pour it all over the chicken. Then take 6-8 of the mini corn on the cob and wrap them in foil and put them on top of the chicken. Cook on low for 8 hours!
I usually make rice to go with it when I get home. Everyone loves it and its super easy!


Hope you can use this,


That’s what I’ve got for you, now it’s your turn.  Any meal planning or dinner prep tips or tricks you can share with the group?


This post is part of MPMK’s “Project Organize Your ENTIRE Life”. You can read all about it here, check out all of our projects here, and join thousands of POYEL facebook group members here.



P.S. Looking for more ways to simplify and save time so you can connect with your family? Follow these 3 steps:

1) Check out our "Save Your Spring" bundle: over 50 pages of 2015 daily/weekly/monthly planners, cleaning schedules, meal planners, kids’ routine charts, budgeting sheets and much more PLUS 84 pages of kid activities perfect for spring break!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris March 15, 2012 at 3:03 am

I like using Food on the Table (http://www.foodonthetable.com/) for any of my meal planning. All right. I will admit. I don’t REALLY plan. But I use it at times because it matches up my local grocery store’s sales TO recipes, and I can customize the types of recipes it shows me, AND it gives me a printable shopping list broken up by type of grocery item (or I can use an app on my phone for that list, too). Just another option.

I don’t have the luxury of really ever passing my son off on my husband to go grocery shopping as he works offshore, so I make sure to make my grocery trips count. We don’t leave if kid gets mad/upset. We work through it. I don’t allow him to win. But I always arm myself with a packet of fruit snacks and his juice cup (and sometimes a train or a car or some other small item) for the moments he needs a distraction. The shopping cart fight — also something I’ve stopped fighting. If he’s out, he helps (although he doesn’t realize it). Otherwise, he’s in the cart or in the seat on the cart, or standing on the front taking a ride. And he’s not quite two yet.


gina March 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I subscribe to 5 dinners in 1 hour http://5dinners1hour.blogspot.com/

As a working mom with 2 kids this is the ONLY way to have dinner every night – all 5 dinners are prepped on Sunday and when I get home from work each night the dish goes in the oven (unless it was a crock pot meal) – makes week night meals a breeze!

As far as grocery shopping goes we go after breakfast on sunday – the stores are empty and my husband watches one kid and I take the other with me!


FireDancer Designs March 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm

To help with my meal prep I pre-cook things like chicken breasts and ground beef and then portion them out and pop them in the freezer. This also helps keep costs down because I can stock up when meat is on sale and thne cook it and freeze it to use at a later date. When it comes time to plan meals I take a look around my freezer and am generally able to come with almost a full week of meals from the meat I already have cooked. This may not work for everyone but I know it has helped me tremendously to get dinner on the table.


Ashley K March 16, 2012 at 12:51 am

Do any MPMK followers use Saymmm.com? If so, I’d love to be your “friend” so that we can share recipes easily. If not, it’s a convenient and free way to organize your favorite recipes, save meal plans, and even has a smart tool that makes your own grocery list too!


Kim March 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I have been following this series and it has already helped me a great deal to become better at organizing and meal planning. I live in Belgium, Europe and our meals are very different here than the ones on the meal plans I’ve seen on your site. So I decided to just make my own. I wrote up 4 weeks of meal plans with dishes that my family likes. The ones we absolutely love appear in multiple weeks. I’m starting with week 4 next week and I can say that I’m still THRILLED to be doing it this way! Why didn’t I think of this myself? No more stress in the evenings thinking about what to cook and grocery shopping is so much easier as well. I don’t know if this is a possibility in your country, but I always do my grocery shopping online. Our local store offers this service and it’s such a timesaver! For only $4 they pick my order and I just have to go fetch it the next day. And that $4 is easily paid back by the things I am not buying because they’re in my face or in my children’s face at the store.
Anyway, thank you very much for these inspirational posts, you’ve helped me a lot and I come back here multiple times a week!


Jeanne March 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I’ve been house bound for the last few months after foot surgery and have tried several different ways to get groceries. If Hubby goes, he comes back with a lot of extra snacks. Instead, I LOVE the online shopping option. You can pop open the web site and add things as you need them (not any harder than adding it to the grocery list) and can edit the list up to the day before delivery. Problem is, not all areas have online/delivery options. Luckily my area does. It isn’t the cheapest way to handle grocery shopping, but it does save a little money (no crap) in the long run.


hennymats March 21, 2012 at 8:54 pm

We just did the exact same thing, assigning themes for each night based on schedule and the like. I’m three weeks in and it’s great! So much easier!

Thanks for the great inspiration, Steph!



Steph at ModernParentsMessyKids.com May 10, 2012 at 11:09 pm

This was a comment left by Mary P that I’m moving to this location:

Mary PMay 9, 2012 4:41 PM

One easy way to create a cycle menu is to:
1. Poll your family for their favorite meals–if it’s not their night, their night is coming. Plug those meals into your
2. Over a couple of weeks seasonally use a little extra effort to create meals that are both nutritious and your family enjoys.
3. Write down the menu each day on a blank calendar form.
4. At the end of the two weeks you have a seasonal cycle menu. Do this each season and you have a permanent cycle menu.
5. Try new recipes as you like and plug them in to your menu wherever they fit.
6. Use your crockpot for days you are out of the house for errands or activities.
7. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.


Anonymous July 1, 2012 at 1:45 am

There is a meal planning/freezer cooking site that I use called Once a Month Mom. Each month they post a new menu based on what is currenly in season. Their services are free and they post a months work of recipes, a shopping list, and directions for cooking day. You can personalize it based on your family size and they offer multiple menus; vegetarian, gluten free, whole foods, etc.



Steph at ModernParentsMessyKids.com July 2, 2012 at 5:15 am

Thanks for the tip Stacy, can’t wait to investigate!


Donna September 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Hi Steph,
I enjoy reading others’ strategies for meal planning and finding tips that I can use in my arsenal lol, so I thought I’d share one with you! Regarding Step#3: Oh, yes, I’ve been there too – (“3 o’clock rolls around and you realize your pot roast should have already been cooking for 4 hour.”) – Ugh!!
Our dinners have been saved many times by the pressure cooker because it can take a pot roast from fridge-to-table in 1 hour — 15 minutes to come to pressure, 20-30 minutes of cook time, and 10-15 minutes for the pressure to release. There are so many great books out there about pressure cooker basics (I picked up this one: http://www.amazon.com/Miss-Vickies-Pressure-Cooker-Recipes/dp/0764597264) that even I, a klutz who couldn’t figure out how to cook rice until after I was married, is now in love!
Thanks for the great site — I’m looking forward to checking out Relish!
:) Donna


Christina January 20, 2013 at 3:35 am

After a little research into meal planning I came across http://www.pepperplate.com
Its a free site that has helped me organize all of my recipes, create menus, meal plan and creates shopping lists automatically from the recipes I choose for the week.

It does require that you import your recipes (either directly from the web site where you found it- or by typing). But it is definitely worth the effort.

I’ve organized my recipes seasonally and by type. So helpful.

Thanks for the POYEL inspiration.



Sandy January 23, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Fabulous tips! I love your idea of keeping it simple with assigning a theme each night. My family would always know what to expect! Thank you for these great tips!



shanta June 8, 2014 at 9:17 pm

where did you get the portable kids table for shopping carts? Thank you! :)


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