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10 tips for better meal planning - great ideas here

POYEL: 10 Tips for Better Meal Planning

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have yet to master the art of the family dinner.  I try (really pretty, fairly hard) but it just doesn’t seem to be working.  My husband and I work too late and the kids get hungry too early.  Try as I might, I’m finding it’s just not possible to start cooking dinner at 6:00 and still have the kids fed, cleaned, brushed, pajamed, and in bed by 6:45. (Yes, they go to bed early, but they also sleep fairly late for toddlers – thank you God! – Being a firm believer in “sleep begets sleep”, the very last thing I’m willing to do is mess with their bedtime).

So I’m doing what I always do when things don’t seem to be working, taking a good hard look at my habits and re-evaluating – in this instance, my meal planning.  I’m realizing it might be time to pull out some big guns… I’m thinking freezer cooking at least 3 or 4 times a week.  And, here’s the part why you might actually care, I’m in top-secret talks with some of my favorite people on the possibility of putting out a second Project Organize Your ENTIRE Life book on the topic (cue applause here).

If you’d be interested in said book, be sure to add yourself to our email list so I can tell you all about it when/if it comes to fruition.

But that’s the future, let’s get back to today.  Since the book is still at least a few weeks off, and I hate to be a tease, I’ve asked MPMK’s resident chef Natalie to stop by and share her top 10 tips for more efficient and effective meal planning.

P.S. QUESTION OF THE DAY

I’m always so curious to know how the evening unfolds for other families (I ask my mom friends this all the time).  What time do you guys: Get off work? Eat dinner?  (Is it all as a family or in shifts?) Put the kiddos to bed?

Some people love meal planning, some people hate it. Whether you like it or not, it can be really helpful for your budget, your time management and your sanity as a parent. Everyone goes about meal planning a little differently, but this is how I set myself up for success before the actual “meal-planning” time begins.

1. Know your budget. You can’t know what ingredients you can afford to buy unless you know what you have to spend. We use a cash envelope system in our house, so I divide up the monthly grocery money based on how many times I think I’ll go shopping so I don’t overspend early in the month.

2. Know your schedule. You can plan a menu for a full month, two weeks, a week, or even a few days. Do what seems most convenient for you and your family. (I usually plan for about a week.) I look at the week ahead to see what’s on our schedule and plan our meals around those events. If we have a busy night, I usually plan a crockpot meal or something very easy to throw together. If we plan to be home all day, I might make more ambitious plans.

3. Know what’s in your fridge. Most of us are lucky enough to keep a well-stocked fridge, freezer and pantry. Let’s make use of that! Take stock of what you already have and build your first few meals around items that need to be used up. This is a great way to save money and use up food you already have. To streamline the process even more, try using a freezer inventory like this one.

4. Know your culinary limits. Not everyone enjoys cooking, and that’s okay. Meal planning doesn’t have to mean elaborate, gourmet meals every night. It’s perfectly fine to put “frozen pizza” on your meal plan if you don’t like spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The important part is that you’ve planned ahead and you’re prepared to feed your family without scrambling around at the last minute.

5. Know where you can shop. There are tons of choices for grocery shopping- traditional and specialty grocery stores, farmers’ markets, co-ops, online retailers and bulk food stores. Don’t let them overwhelm you- use them to your advantage. Find out where you can get the best deals on your staple foods and plan accordingly. For example, I buy some bulk baking ingredients online, so I build that into our budget every few months. We also frequent our local farmers’ market, so I make sure not to waste money on produce at the grocery store that I might find a few days later for a better price.

6. Keep a recipe stash. This makes the actual planning portion go a lot faster. Whether you keep a physical stash of magazine clippings, a Pinterest board or a simple written list, it’s a good idea to have your favorite recipes on standby. That way you don’t have to find all new recipes every time you sit down to plan.

7. Don’t forget breakfast, lunch and snacks. If you spend all your time focusing on dinner plans, you might forget that you have to feed your family a few other times a day as well! If you don’t plan for these meals, you can end up spending extra money eating out or buying expensive convenience foods. You can plan each individual meal and snack or just buy basics that you know will work (ie eggs for breakfast, bread for sandwiches at lunch, fruit for snacks, etc).

8. Set aside specific time for planning and shopping. Maybe your children are all angels when you sit down to make plans, but mine surely are not! I like to set aside special, quiet, kid-less time to plan our meals. It makes the task much more enjoyable and helps me to think clearly. If you like to get your shopping done alone, set aside that time, too.

9. Plan it out. Find a plan that you like and fill it out! There are tons of free printables online. Just search “meal plan printable” on Google or Pinterest and you’ll get tons of results. Try this weekly one for a more detailed plan and these blank monthly ones for looking ahead.

10. Give yourself a break when it doesn’t work out. Relax! It takes a little while to get in the swing of meal planning. It is easier in some seasons of life than in others, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t find the time to plan or if you hit some bumps along the way. Just try again whenever you’re ready.

Question of the Day

I’m always so curious to know how the evening unfolds for other families (I ask my mom friends this all the time).  What time do you guys: Get off work? Eat dinner?  (Is it all as a family or in shifts?) Put the kiddos to bed?

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.

 

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Natalie is lover of all things edible and mom to two sweet babies under 3 years old. She shares her favorite from-scratch recipes, techniques and tips for entertaining on her blog, Oven Love.

Latest posts by Natalie (see all)

{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie February 19, 2013 at 3:48 am

I can’t stand meal planning but I have to admit it does make the afternoons and evenings a whole lot easier. I usually think a few days in advance and around weekends or special occasions. In India we are likely to have a shortage of Western groceries so I have to meal plan after I shop; available items change on a weekly basis.

I like to have dinner on the table at 6:15 when my husband comes home so we all eat together. The bedtime routine starts at 7:00 and the kiddo is asleep by 8:00.

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Tracie Gulit February 19, 2013 at 9:10 am

I have a 17month old and we work together in the afternoons from 2-6. I’m a nanny and madisyn goes with me. I typically cook dinner for my charges before I leave work so the thought of cooking AGAIN is almost never exciting. I try to crock pot at least twice a week so at very least our meat is already cooked when we get home. Madisyn eats at work at 5 pm. We get home about 6:30 pm. She is in bed at 7 pm and then I have to cook dinner. Husband gets home at 7 as well. Almost no time together as a family : (

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mpmk February 19, 2013 at 5:02 pm

We’re struggling with that family time too Tracie! Especially with my hubby not getting home until 6:15 – 6:30 and kids bedtime being 6:45-7:00. We try to make up for it in other ways – My husband gets up with the kids and sets them up with breakfast and helps them get dressed so they get one-on-one time with him in the morning. We do family bedtime at night with all of us in the 4 year old’s bed reading a story and the weekends are big on family time for us too.

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gina February 19, 2013 at 9:19 am

Our meal planning goes like this:
Sunday grill a bunch of chicken and hamburgers
The rest of the week use the hamburger and chicken. hahaha
Friday is pizza night.
Weekend lunch is usually sandwiches (PB&J – kids school is nut free so they love getting these on the weekend)
Lunches are usually leftovers from dinner.

I pick up the kids around 4:45 and give them a snack in the car. We eat dinner NLT 5:30pm – then its play time, baths, snack, bed. 2 yr old goes at 7pm and 4yr old at 7:30pm.

The evenings are a little rushed but we make the most of it =)

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mpmk February 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I’m finding that cooking parts of the meal ahead of time is a big help – for me this is HUGE in stopping me from skipping lunch. It’s just so much easier if I already have cooked grains, chicken, and eggs to throw together a rice bowl or salad.

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Molly February 19, 2013 at 9:24 am

I would love to get into meal planning… but its so hard to start! My husband and I both get home between 7-7:30. With him he brings home our twin 15 month-old girls. I try to get dinner cooked and on the table by 7:30 so we can all eat together, though sometimes we just feed the girls while we are cooking our own meal because they are usually starving. We play with them for a bit and have them in bed by 8:30. If dinner happens really fast that night, we can squeeze in bath time :)

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mpmk February 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm

We often find ourselves doing the staggered meals too – getting the kids fed and then putting them to bed and not eating ourselves until 7:30 or 8:00 – exactly why you said, because otherwise the kids are super hungry. I’m hoping freezer meals will help with this since we won’t have to spend any time on dinner prep – just cooking.

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Ashley February 19, 2013 at 9:31 am

I love this list… although, I must admit, I’m rarely the dinner chef! My partner is the stay-at-home dad, which also means he’s the chef extraordinaire. Usually this evening time is pretty secretive to me because I don’t return home until around 9pm from work. However, the evenings I am home, the kiddos usually wake up from their afternoon naps between 4-5 and it helps to do a little dinner prep while they are sleeping. Dinner with Dad can happen anytime between 6-7:30 with bedtime happening around 8 (although sometimes there are “hellos” from upstairs when mom gets home). We live on a small, family farm, so we are fortunate to have most of what we eat in freezers and jars, which also helps with the food prep (blanched frozen veggies usually just need to be warmed up and seasoned). I tend to be more of a planner while Dad is the king of improvisation – I actually think being a good improviser is key to good meal planning because sometimes the health/craziness/stamina of the household demands something other than what you were originally planning…

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Kirsten @One Tough Mother February 19, 2013 at 9:36 am

I hate meal planning almost as much as I hate grocery shopping BUT they are both necessary evils. I, too, was failing miserably for a while, so I recently sat down and made an 8-week meal plan + shopping list. (I even shared it with my FB fans.)
I went to Sam’s Club and purchased the meats and freezer items for the first 4 weeks of meals, then hit Publix for the produce, etc. for Week 1. I prepped the first 4 weeks of meats – freezing 3 weeks and popping Week 1 in the fridge. Everything is labeled and at the ready for cooking.
I have to say, it’s kinda rockin’ my socks. And it makes my wallet happy.

And to answer your question, we have an 11-yr old daughter who goes to bed at 9pm. I get home at 6pm each day and start cooking almost immediately. Our goal is to have dinner on the table by 7, dishes cleaned up by 7:45, and then have time to review homework and hang out as a family until my daughter goes to bed. :)

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Lindsay February 19, 2013 at 9:55 am

I stay at home with my boys, but daddy loves to cook. He gets home at 430 (lucky us!) and usually cooks dinner then, so we eat by 5/530. Then we play or go out on adventures, then start baths at 7pm. 18 month old is in bed by 730, 3 yr old at 8.
HOWEVER, I’d really like to take over some cooking duties, so I’m interested in hearing how others handle it. I also could use a better system for preparing lunches. Right now it’s a scramble after a morning of play to put something on the table. I’d like to be a bit more prepared and thoughtful about it.

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mpmk February 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

4:30?! Oh, I’m jealous! See my comment above for lunch prep for you – the kids I haven’t totally mastered yet.

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cecile February 19, 2013 at 10:23 am

my husband and i both work full time and we live in Paris, i guess it makes things a little different.
we both get home at 7, our eldest (2yrs), has eaten with the nanny and so we only have to give a bottle to the youngest (7mths). Then it’s bath and play until 8:45 for the oldest, because usually mini wants her bed at 8. and then, WE eat around 9, 9:30.
it’s awfully late and my husband has been complaining that he wants to eat earlier and all together, so we gave it a try for a week, but given that we cant really be home earlier than 7, it makes it super difficult…we need to cook something and can’t be ready before 7:30, by that time Margaux is starving and too tired too eat without being terribly fussy, obviously. i am absolutely not hungry so early ( im the french one of the story, hubby is canadian) and doesnt set a great exemple at not finishing my plate : /
all in all, it wasnt a conclusive experience.
i usually cook at the weekend and on wednesdays where i’m home with the girls, and we all sat down together.
i would love to be the uber mom who plans everything ahead and wips up healthy, inventive meals for everyone to enjoy…
when i go back to my parents, my mom always has a little bristol card ready in the kitchen with all the menus of all the meals, lunches and dinner for the week, complete with shopping list on the back, and days where to pick up fish or meat ordered from her favourite butchers etc…i can’t compete ! ; )

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Sara February 19, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I’ve been meal planning for a while, but still haven’t found the perfect system for us :/ …we’re getting closer though!

My husband gets home around 4:30, then one of us plays with the kiddos (2 & 4) while the other cooks dinner. Or if the kids are entertaining themselves then we hide in the kitchen together and cook. :) Dinner is usually around 5:30, then we play, watch a movie, have bath time, etc. until 7:30. The kids share a room (they have been for 6+ months and we all love it!!), so we all do story/bed time together. And if all goes well, then the house is picked up and kids are asleep by 8-ish, so mom and dad can have some kid-free time!

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Courtney February 19, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Meal planning has become essential to me. My husband works out of the state most days of the week, so it’s just me, my 2 year old son, and the dog most nights. By the time I pick him up from daycare and get him home, it’s 5:45. With a 7:30p, (if we’re lucky) bedtime, it is a crunch.

I have found cooking on Sunday for the week helps. We eat pretty simply, so I just cook up a bunch of meat and beans, maybe pre-cook some pasta, and pre-chop any vegetables and fruit I might want to use. I try to be prepared for one or two “real” dinners for when Daddy is home, which sometimes involves freezer cooking or the crock pot.

Sometimes dinner is just PB&J’s, but that’s his favorite, so he doesn’t mind!

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Emily February 19, 2013 at 2:59 pm

My husband is home around 5 but needs about half an hour of “detox” time to himself when he gets in so dinner is usually around 5:30 or 6. I do most of the cooking during the week since I’m home but he loves cooking on the weekends or helping out during the week. Kids are in bed around 7 but only our son eats dinner with us- baby girl is just eating baby food still but sits with us. I try to mealplan every week- I use Pinterest to collect recipes and then move them into a Springpad notebook when I’m planning to make them- do a note with my plans for the week plus any extra info (i.e. use x leftovers for y meal or to make something ahead). I keep all the weekly “notes” so I can look back at previous meal plans. And I try to use what we have in the freezer or what’s on sale at the store…

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Nikole February 19, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Meal planning is definitely a chore but it always saves so much time and hassle in the long run. My favorite tool for meal planning is part of http://www.cozi.com, a free family management website. It allows you to save recipes in a recipe box, and then you can drag the meals over into your meal calendar. Recipes can be imported directly from a website to your recipe box by using a “add to Cozi meals” button that you download (this is just like the “pin it” button for Pinterest). It is very easy to use, a great feature, and free, which is important to me.

In terms of our evening schedule: I stay home with our two boys (22 and 4 months). My husband comes home around 5:45, and I usually try to have dinner so it is ready when he gets home. Depending on what I am making, I do sometimes do prep the night before, or I use naptime for some things (or I throw stuff in the crockpot in the morning). When he gets home, we sit down for dinner as a family and eat together. Our four month old does not eat solids yet but he joins us regardless.

After dinner is over (usually by 6 or 6:15), my husband and kids help with cleanup and then my husband will play with the kids while I continue to clean up or catch up on other things. At about 7:00, we have “family clean up time” where we pick up the toys together (to help teach our 22 month old to clean up). My husband gives the 22 month old his bath, so they get special bonding time while I tend to the 4 month old. I join them again after Dad has dried him off and dressed him, and read him a story. I bring the baby and say we all say goodnight. Toddler is in bed by 7:30.

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mpmk February 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm

This schedule make me happy Nikole – I love how you and your husband are working together as a team to see that everything gets done and everyone’s needs are met (including one-on-one time needs for the kids – so important). You’re inspiring me!

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Sarah February 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm

We plan a menu for the week, so even when life throws a few curve balls, I know there is at least something yummy to eat in the house. We both work full time and were spending way too much on last minute take out before – planning has helped considerably. Our menu usually contains one crock pot night (usually Tuesdays) and Friday is pizza and salad (and beer for the adults!) night. I love not having to think about cooking after a long work week. I try to plan healthy, quick meals for during the week and thanks to this site started using Relish along with my own cookbooks (LOVE Pepin’s Fast Food My Way) to plan it. I actually love cooking, so I do more ambitious meals on the weekends. We don’t have a decent freezer, but I’m working on getting one to improve storage capacity and have some freezer meals to fall back on.
We generally get home 5.30/6 and try to eat by 6.45/7. Two year old goes to bed between 7.30-8, 7 year old between 8-8.30.

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Sarah February 19, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Well, we had everything sorted out – I was an at-home mum with a five year old daughter, who is at school 9-3 every day, so I would either get dinner in the slow cooker after the morning school run, or try to have all the prep work done before I picked her up. Dinner was at 6:15 when my husband got home, bath time at 7, stories in bed and lights out at 8pm sharp. It was blissful.
Then we went and adopted an 18 month old. The slow cooker now features pretty much daily, because at 3pm my anxious five year old is desperate to assert her rights to my attention, and at 4:30, no matter how many naps and snacks are thrown her way, the previously contented toddler turns into a tired, hungry, leg-clinging screamer. I even make mashed potatoes the night before, because the last time I tried to do any actual cooking with the kids around, I looked down to see the toddler sucking on a spray bottle of screen cleaner. I didn’t even know we had screen cleaner.
Dinner time is now 5-5:30, my husband gets to bolt his food at 6:15 while I run the bath, family stories at 6:45 and the little one is asleep by 7, leaving the resentful big sister with an hour of parent time until her bedtime at 8.

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Sarah M February 20, 2013 at 7:15 pm

OMG, this made me laugh. It’s so true – you have something that works and then whoppa, so much for that. It’s tough now, but in a few years you’ll be chuckling about it over relaxed family dinners, watching the kiddos clear the table while you and your hubby enjoy sitting back and catching up on your day…

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mpmk February 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Oh my goodness Sarah – do you promise?!

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Vanessa (@IsleStyleLiving) February 19, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Meal planning is my least favorite time of the week!

Thanks for these tips- I just need to find a system that works for me. It’s easy for me to lose focus and become unorganized!

Our evenings are pretty mellow. My husband usually gets off of work before me (3ish) and will pick up our son (14 months) and bring him home. I get home from work around 5, sometimes 5:30pm.

We play for a bit and then feed my son dinner around 6pm. One parent feeds while the other prepares dinner and preps the bath. One parent bathes the baby while the other either finishes dinner or starts picking up toys around the house.

6:45pm is bedtime (books and prayers) and lights out at 7pm.

My husband and I then have dinner, finish up light chores around the house, catch up on our day, etc…

We’re usually in bed by 10:30 =)

We try to stick to the same schedule on the weekend but there’s a bit more wiggle room.

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Emily February 19, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Like you, we’re creatures of routine and BIG fans of a strict bedtime. My boys are 2 1/2 yrs and 1 1/2 yrs and in their beds by 7PM. Dinner is at 515/530, immediately followed by baths (because, you know, they’re covered in dinner) and then a brief playtime, stories and milk. My husband gets home right before bedtime (around 645) and once the boys go to sleep, we have our dinners etc.
I’ve found one trick for making the evening routine a little less…. boring?: Family dinners. We invite friends over for an afternoon playdate and dinner. The boys eat more because their friends are eating and the mums get company for a part of the day that can often drag a bit.

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Laura @ Laura's Crafty Life February 19, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Evenings are always so much less stressful if I meal plan. I need to shop by myself without kids to stay sane, so that is the hardest part for me – finding the time to get the shopping done. I am a stay at home mom, so I don’t go to work, but I don’t always have time to do elaborate meals. I try to look at our schedule the week ahead before I plan my meals. We all sit down to eat dinner together around 5:30. I have scheduled into my morning routine to check my meal plan and be sure whatever it is I am cooking is defrosted and ready to go. I usually try to plan at least one ‘easy’ dinner for the week, no matter what the schedule looks like because I know myself well enough to know that there will be at least one night I don’t want to cook. It is hard to get back into it if I have fallen out of the habit, but once I start back up the whole family is happier! :)

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Melissa February 19, 2013 at 10:43 pm

I am the mom of two. They are 4 and 5 years old and are very involved in extra ciricular activities. (probably over involved!) I own a furniture business and my husband is a shift worker at our local steel mill. Our weekends are chaos because the 4 year old plays hockey. We have different routines for different nights. I plan my week accordingly on Sunday and based on whats in season or on sale, I buy all of my food then. I pre-cook some things. For example if Wednesday night is Shepherd’s pie I make mashed potatoes on Sunday. Tuesdays we have swimming and gymnastics so it’s a crock pot night and Thursdays we have skating lessons (we live way up north in Ontario Canada :) ) so It’s crock pot too. On the weekends I also make at least one pot of tomato sauce (we are Italian) and one pot of soup broth and freeze them both in 2 and 4 cup containers. This gives us lunches and incidental meals if the plan can’t be followed. My husband is shift worker and I can get off anytime between 4 and 6. I am blessed to have the help of my parents to get my kiddies off the bus! Full time school starts at 4 years here! Bed time starts at 7:30 bath and reading happen usually before they fall asleep by 8:00!

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Johanna February 20, 2013 at 2:33 am

I have a 4yo and a 7yo. We both work so we take turns in picking the kids up from school at 4.30-4.45. The one who picks up the kids then cook dinner, whick we eat around 6 pm when the other parent comes home. Bet time routines start around 7.30 and the kids are usually asleep around 8.30 (my 7yo can stay awake longer at times, she has a hard time fallibg asleep).

We like to meal plan for about a week at a time, before we go grocery shopping, but for ling periods we just wing it too…

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Stacy February 20, 2013 at 7:46 am

I use google calendar for my everyday schedule for the family. Therefore when meal planning, I print it out because it shows my appointments. That way I can schedule a meal that works with the schedule.

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mpmk February 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm

That’s a great tip Stacy, thanks for sharing.

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Josie February 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I use Evernote to plan my meals. It’s been a great tool thus far. Because I also keep my recipes in Evernote, I can link directly to recipes in existing notes in my meal plan. What has been the most helpful are planning breakfasts (especially) and snacks for my little one. It gives her variety and it means that I am not standing in front of the stove on hectic mornings wondering what I am going to make her for breakfast.

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mpmk February 20, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Good call. I need to get better about planning breakfast – for me though, the kids are good with a whole grain waffle, yogurt, and fruit every single day of their lives :)

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Leah February 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I use Google Calendar for my meal planning as it makes it easy to see what else I have going on (I just have a separate calendar labeled “meals”). I recently switched to planning a month at a time as opposed to a week at a time and I love it. I will often look back at the previous month and just copy some old meals to the new month so I have to do less thinking. My family doesn’t mind repeating meals once or twice a month. I also have a rough idea of “themes” for each day of the week to give my brain some help when planning. So,
M = Fish or Vegetarian
T = BBQ or Roast
W = Slow Cooker or Stir-Fry
Th = Pasta or Mexican
F = Soup or Pizza
S = New Recipe or Comfort Food
(I only plan 6 days because we usually eat out or at the grandparents about once a week)

I don’t always stick to the themes, but it does help me create balance over the week and to make sure we are eating a variety of foods. The themes may also change with the seasons as different sports affect our schedule. Right now Wednesdays are soccer from 5:30-6:30, so the slow cooker is super helpful, but stir-fry is also something quick that Daddy can get ready in about 20 min when he gets home from work.

As to our evenings, my husband gets home from work around 6:15pm and we usually try to eat by 6:30pm (although sometimes I underestimate the time required to cook everything and dinner gets pushed to 7pm). I am a stay-at-home mom, so I am able to prep dinner in the early evening while the boys play together. After dinner is a little bit of playtime for Daddy and our two boys (5 & 3), then getting ready for bed starts btw 7:30 and 7:45 with the goal to have them tucked into bed by 8pm. Eating dinner together as a family is very important to us so we always wait until Daddy is home unless he calls to say he’ll be very late.

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Mandi G. February 21, 2013 at 9:53 am

When we got married almost 8 years ago, I started planning our meals (just dinner) one month at a time and I’ve kept that up every month. I love it! It means I don’t have to think about what we’re going to have for dinner every night. I can also buy more on sale, watching for things I need later in the month. When planning, I consider our schedule and plan easier things on busier nights. I work from a list of dinner ideas to form my menu. We repeat some meals every month, but rarely repeat something in the same month. Friday nights are either date night for us or we babysit our friends’ kids so they can go out. In that case, we feed 10 kids and do the typical kid foods.

For lunch, my husband and I usually eat leftovers. The kids eat peanut butter and jelly, quesadillas, ramen noodles, etc. For breakfast, everyone usually just has cereal or toast. I just keep a bunch of snack foods on hand. I include the basics for these things when planning my budget/grocery list.

I am blessed to be able to stay home with our children. Our oldest (6) is in kindergarten and then we have a 4 year old in preschool half-day, a 3 year old, and 16 month old. I usually take the younger two shopping with me while the others are at school.
My husband is a PhD student, so he is really busy, but his schedule is pretty flexible. We pick him up, after I pick our daughter up from school, around 4:00. We eat dinner as soon as possible after we get home, often by about 4:45. I do a lot of dinner prep earlier in the day, often while the kids are eating lunch. I will either have dinner prepped and ready to go in the oven, have dinner in the crock pot, or put dinner in the oven as we leave to pick people up. Then when we get home, we have minimal prep to do.

Everyone helps with cleaning off the table after dinner. Then the kids have baths if it’s bath night, our oldest does her homework, and they go to bed. 7:00 is bedtime, but we put them to bed earlier if we can get away with it. :) Daddy does bedtime with them because it just makes me frustrated and it’s his special time of day with them.

After bedtime, my husband is almost always back to work on weeknights. He’s home, but working on papers, grading, etc. We’re just grateful that he carves out a few hours at dinner/bedtime to spend with the family.

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Tessa February 21, 2013 at 10:24 am

I get off of work at 4. By the time all kids are picked up, we’re home around 5. I either use my crock pot or do any possible prep the night before or in the morning. I will have a 9×13 pan of whatever sitting, covered in my fridge so all it has to do is go in the oven. Then we either play or go ahead with baths while it cooks (depending on time and their moods). We all eat at the table together as often as possible. My kids’ bedtime is 7, but some days it ends up being 7:30.

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Patty C February 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Well I’m newer to meal planning and its a work in progress. For the past few months I have been planning out the meals for the entire month. I use an extra calendar and just write in meals for Mon-Sat and leave leftovers or eating out for Sundays. I have a separate notebook with a list of meals to choose from which includes our family favorites to repeat each month and new ideas to try. I also try to have at least one or two crock pot meals each week to save on time in the evenings. I write up two grocery lists for the month and buy enough to cover the meals for that two week period. I have found this saves us money as well with less trips to the store… I’m an impulse grocery shopper :) Then the on Sunday nights I try to do all prep work for the meals- cutting meat & veggies and putting them in labeled baggies. This has really saved on time each night. BUT this is the part I struggle with actually doing. When I don’t do the prep on the weekends a few of the planned meals for the week get skipped and we just get take out :/ Our lunches during the week are typically left overs from the night before. And if I’m really feeling like Betty Crocker on the weekends I will make up some muffin-tin omelets for my breakfasts during the week.

My hubby and I both work full time. He goes in at 6am and is usually out of work by 2:30pm so he picks our 20 month old son up from day care. I am home from work between 5:30-6:00pm each night and begin to cook dinner. On rare occasions I can get the hubby to put dinner together but that is only 2-3 meals that involve little effort :) We eat dinner together around 6:30ish most nights and then our son’s night routine begins at 7:30pm. Then mommy & daddy clean and relax. My next area to tackle is freezer cooking- I just need to plan the time for this :) Thanks for the ideas on planning!!!

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Lauren February 21, 2013 at 5:17 pm

I actually enjoy meal planning, mainly because it makes my week so much simpler. I grow lots of veggies so my plans usually revolve around how to use up the latest glut! I work three days a week and my husband and I are usually home by 4:30 being the Australian summer we still have a few hours of day light. As for schedule my 2yo usually has a little TV time, while we catch up on each others day. The dad baths her while I get dinner ready, then its dinner time, a little play time, books and bed by 7:30 . If only it went thus smoothly :-)

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Holly February 21, 2013 at 10:55 pm

My husband and I recently switched household duties around and I took over cooking, mostly because he hates meal planning and grocery shopping. When we switched, I tried to just wing it but that was really hard because I’m not an inventive cook and I like to follow recipes. It seemed I never had the ingredients I needed to make the recipes I wanted to try. Then we also decided to eat vegetarian for a while, so I’ve had to expand my recipe collection. Because I use my tablet all the time in the kitchen, I went looking for an app which would help me plan meals, store recipes, and create grocery lists. After reading a ton of reviews, I chose Paprika and it’s worked really well for me. I am the world’s slowest prep cook so I do a lot of chopping, slicing, etc, the night before after the kiddo is in bed. Sometimes I’ll even cook the whole meal and then just heat it up the next night. I love my crock pot so I use it at least once a week and Friday is pizza night (usually frozen with whatever additional toppings I can come up with – raw veggies that need to be used up are always good). Sunday nights we often eat out as a treat before the week begins. Lunches are usually leftovers. I’d like to get better about planning breakfasts and snacks since its usually just cereal or maybe scrambled eggs and toast in the morning and then goldfish or something else quick and easy for snacks.
Our evening routine is pretty flexible up til bathtime. I get home from work around 4:30 and start cooking; my husband picks up our 3-year-old at 4:45 and arrives home around 5 pm. Dinner can be anywhere from 5:15 to 6 pm, bath at 6:30, stories and snuggles at 7:30, lights out (and hopefully sleep) at 8 pm.

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Jessica February 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

I think another important tip might be to allow yourself repeats. I used to get frustrated trying to come up with a ton of new recipes until I read how one blogger keeps a month long menu planner and repeats it for three months. This allows for seasonal foods to be taken into consideration. We tend to make tasks more ornate than they have to be.

Another little thing that has helped me is keeping (especially new) recipes on post it notes in my day planner. As I am meal planning I jot down the recipes and stick it on the day I want to make it. That way I’m not trying to remember what book or website I saw it in, I don’t have to go digging around before I start cooking, and then once I’ve used it I can toss it if i don’t like it, or move it to next months list if I do!

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mpmk February 22, 2013 at 10:30 pm

That is a really smart tip. No need to reinvent the wheel right?

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A Day in May Design February 26, 2013 at 2:02 am

Great tips! I’ve found that cooking ahead for the week can be tremendously helpful.

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Foodie friend March 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

As a fellow blogger, I loved this post! I have 3 blogs, one for food, recipes, menu planning, freezer cooking, etc. (I’m the master according to my friends. I can do a 6 month batch cook in one day, all meals cooked!) I blog about money & I log about raising an autistic child. I think your tips are great! I’d be very note rested if you did an Ebook on batch/freezer cooking. I’d be happy to help out too, if you wish! Good job on the blog! I found you on pintrest but I’ll be a follower now :) One big tip, I’d add that I don’t think I saw on there…but could have missed it, is when you are making a meal one night, double or triple your recipe & freeze the extras as whole meals or as individuals for lunches for work/school/on the run days! I would love to chat ith you Rutherford about this! I think you’re taking great steps & thinking logically about it….something many people forget to do! Again great post!!! Have a wonderful day & I look or ward to reading more of your blog!

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lolomcgee March 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

I’m a long time meal planner. I do 2 weeks at a time and do most of the shopping on one day. I go back to the store if we run out of milk or fresh fruit. I try to plan my menu around sales and coupons but that can be really difficult since we don’t eat much that we can typically find coupons for. I do most of our cooking from scratch using whole ingredients.
My spouse doesn’t come home at the same time every night and I am a student and plan my schedule so I can be home with the kids after they get done at school. We do a lot of crockpot meals, beans (I cook dry ones in the crockpot for four hours on high, no soaking, and so much cheaper than a can, add brown rice and a vegetable and you have a complete meal for 5 with leftovers and it cost less than $5), and have a weekly sandwich night (we have one busy day for activities and on that day our oldest eats a sandwich at the studio during a break between dance lessons and our other two eat in the car after gymnastics).

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Heather March 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm

I usually plan and shop for two weeks at a time–no coupons, but watching sales. I follow many of your suggestions, but don’t focus on breakfasts and lunches. The freezer usually has bagels or frozen sandwiches for breakfast, the pantry has cereal, pancake and muffin mix, while the refrigerator has juice, milk, eggs, yogurt and fruit. My children can (and prefer to) fend for themselves at breakfast–they are college aged and twelve. Lunch is pretty much the same–lunch meat, bread, condiments and cheese, chips, cookies and fruit are all kept on hand to supplement the pizzas, leftovers and soup. We also keep a snack drawer and a fruit bowl on the table that is fair game to anyone anytime. I have to eat gluten-free so dinner meals are kept fairly simple, which makes elaborate meals preparations unnecessary on most days. :)

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Foodie Friend March 11, 2013 at 5:38 pm

whats the water to dry bean ratio that you use? I find many times I have either too much or too little water & it’s frustrating! We’re vegan so beans are a staple and although I keep cans in my stock pile for back up or accidental run out, I usually make them in the crock pot as well but I can never figure out the right water ratio!

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Quiltin Jenny March 11, 2013 at 6:24 pm

I finally had to start meal planning in self defense once the kids got to middle and high school. Now I wish I had started years ago!

I sit down on Sundays and check the calendar, the weather forecast (no sense planning to grill on the day there’s a 90% chance of rain!), and the ads for the week. Even with our crazy schedules, the 5 of us manage to sit down together about 3-5 nights a week. On the other days, it is usually at least 4 of us.

The hubs gets home from work around 6:30, the same time as my high school kids. I try to have dinner ready right about then, with a few minutes built in to wash hands, ask about their day, etc. I find that coming home after a long day to the smell of dinner makes everyone in a better mood. The nights that we don’t get to eat together are usually because my middle schooler has a late practice (6:30-8) or one of the older kids has a game.

Obviously since they are older, they go to bed much later – between 9-10 PM – so we have more flexibility in the evenings.

Remember that this is just a season. It’s like that newborn nap schedule – just when you think you have it down, it changes. Roll with it and just enjoy the time you can carve out with them. Trust me – my oldest is leaving for college in 5 months and I’m hanging on to every minute!

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Tee March 11, 2013 at 6:52 pm

I’m a sahm & a wfhm! I keep very busy with my working schedules. I’m also on parent council, I volunteer at my child’s school, I do all her therapy myself, I take care of all the household duties as well. I do all the cooking & baking from scratch. Literally nothing is prepackaged, at all! In the summer, I grow a garden. This’ll be year 2. I grow potted herbs year round as well. I shop at our local farmers market year round & in the summer at visit our local farmers market & usually at least one other. I shop road side stands for local markets & I stock up on summer stuff for the freezer for the rest of the months. Fruits for smoothies, jams, sauces, baking, etc. Vegetables, for a change, during the winter months. Things like that! I do large freezer/batch cooks. Smallest is 2 weeks at a time, largest is 6 months. I always have all of my freezers fully stocked with meals or items to make meals. Everything from breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, baked treats, meals for elderly people, new moms, etc. I’m prepared for everything! I also keep a part of my freezer filled with non seasonal foods…..winter soup for a cold rainy summer day, etc. I pick one day to go through my coupons, my stock pile, pantry, fridge & freezers. Then, I go through the menu requests. Then I make my menus! I don’t bother with fliers much because we shop mainly t speciality stores & farmers markets! It’s RARE I shop in a grocery store (no joke!)

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jjenny March 12, 2013 at 11:00 pm

I get home about 5:20 and start dinner.. tuesdays we gave girl scouts and thursdays ballet. Starting karate soon mon – thurs so i really need to get orginized. We usually do crock pot meals on thursday and sometimes little ceasars on tuesday since its customer appreciation. And only $3.00 :) i love to meal plan otherwisw i feel like i go grocery shopping, spend a ton! And still have nothing to make :/

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Harmony Hasbrook March 24, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Great post. Coincidentally I did a similar dinner related post on my blog. It’s called Fixing Dinner. http://harmoniousmess.com/2013/02/28/fixing-dinner/

We have time on our side, but sometimes that can be problematic as well.

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Betty Vivas March 26, 2013 at 2:25 pm

First of all, I LOVE the name of your blog, lol!

I finally had to face the fact that, despite my best intentions, I was spending way too many night ordering my kids dinner the the local drive thru. As a single mom, with three kids and two jobs, I was at a loss. I had time to cook dinner (as long as it was fairly quick and simple) it was figuring out WHAT to cook that was healthy, but didn’t break the bank, and finding the time to look up and compare recipes.

I use a meal-planning service to take care of the research and stuff, so all I have to do it shop and cook. There are several out there, I use hautemealz.com, which is run by a group of chefs. Love the food, all of the recipes are simple, but unique, and I actually having time to cook for my kids again. Plus, they’re always available to answer my questions (I’ve actually messaged them from the grocery store!)

The fact that they organize each weeks recipe to use similar ingredients has really cut down on the weight of my shopping cart, too.

Most of these companies are pretty cheap, around $5/month…less that one cooking magazine, especially considering the time (and fast food money, lol) it saves me!

-BV

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cassandra March 29, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Well our schedules for work are crazy! My husband is a manager and works 4 days a week and its 14hr shifts I work the other 3 days at 7hr shifts. The only night we actually eat dinner together is sunday night. So mon, wed, fri, sat i cook around 5 and then our two boys ages 2 and 3 yrs go to bed around 7-730. Tues,thur,sun my husband cooks around 6 and the boys still go to bed around 730. My husband and i both close at our jobs so we are home late. And heat a plate up and eat.

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Lyn June 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm

My kids are older (19 yo dd and 13 yo ds), but I do meal plan every week and prepare all of my meals ahead of time. I work part time at this point, but you could do the same prep if you work fulltime.

I prepare as much as possible of the meal beforehand. if it’s a casserole, I put it together and it only has to bake when someone gets home. If it’s spagetti, I prepare the sauce and cook the pasta, so it only has to be warmed up when someone gets home. Same with sloppy joes; mixture is cooked so it only has be warmed and put on buns. Things that have to be cooked and then eaten right away (like pork chops), we eat on weekends. Chili, tortellini soup, etc all can be cooked ahead of time and heated up when somone gets home and is hungry. Tortellini soup is cooked without the tortellini; it’s added when heated up.

I have a three ring binder of our favorite recipes and use it every week when I meal plan. Some weeks I throw in a new recipe (but only once a week) and if it’s a hit, it goes in the binder.

My husband’s arrival can be anywhere from 4:00 to 6:00, unpredictable. My 13 yo ds rides the bus home from school and arrives at 3:00; quite often has sports practice, games, Boy Scouts in the evenings plus homework. my daughter is in college but living at home, she tries to take her classes in the mornings and works part-time in the afternoon, arriving home by 6:00. I work from 1:00 to 6:00 every afternoon.

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Ann July 2, 2013 at 9:22 pm

I find it hard to meal plan. I did it for a month this year and really liked it. Then we went on a vacation and I can’t get back into it. I have been just trying to do it for a week at a time and that is easier. I try not to have the same thing in the same month. I have always read that people go by that weeks sales. I don’t because we don’t get a paper and things in our area are usually expensive even with a sale. We got a membership to Sam’s Club this year and ended up getting 80 pounds of hamburger for under $2.00 a pound which is really cheap for around here. I cooked half of it up and separated it all. It is so nice just getting it out of the freezer and thawing it. I am a stay at home mom. My husband is home by 4:45 in the summer and 5:15 in the winter. I have dinner on the table by 6:00. If it is summer our four kids ages 8, 6, 4, 2 stay up until 8:00 or 8:30 but when school starts the 2 oldest are in bed by 7:30 and the 2 youngest are up until 8:00 or 8:30.

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Sabrina December 11, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Thanks so much for this helpful post! Every day, dinnertime comes as a surprise. Every day. Oh, right! Have to feed the family.

I have no culinary inclinations, but when we bought a house (4 years ago), part of the deal was that my better half would do the house projects and I’d figure out how to feed us. I have a 2yo and another on the way (due at the end of March, sometime near you, I think!). Six months ago, I decided we were losing too much time to divided meals and that we would all eat together as a family before the little guy goes to sleep. It’s been great, but some days are pretty rough for me!

I usually get home with the 2yo by 5:15p. My better half tries to get home from work at 5:30p (this isn’t always an option, but he’s 85% successful and I’m really grateful for it!). He washes our babything if the little dictator needs a bath, otherwise the little guy will often play on his own, with his daddy or help me cook. We try to eat by 6:15p. We leave the table to read books and change into pjs. He’s generally in bed by 7p. It’s a lot to get in, but we try to make it fun!

We have a few things that work for us.
1) I usually make a big salad or a bean, couscous or quinoa veggie salad at the start of the week. That ends up being a side for most of our meals or lunch for us.
2) We have a few “old reliables” that are always on hand in case everything falls apart. These are things that take less than 20 minutes from start to finish and are generally frozen. Ours are fish tacos, “indian food” from trader joes (samosas, madras lentils, naan and some veggies), macaroni & cheese with broccoli, grilled cheese w/ tomato and of course, frozen pizza. We always have all of the materials for each of these meals…just in case.
3) I have to make lunch for the little guy to take to school every day. I always do it the night before. We don’t have time in the AM. I thought this would be the end of me, but it’s turned out to be a 10-15 minute quick thing at the end of the day.

My new years resolution for 2014 is to do monthly meal plans. I’m sure it’ll change my life and I’ll wish I started sooner. I look forward to hearing more about your book and really appreciate hearing how some of the other mothers operate!

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Harmony Hasbrook December 12, 2013 at 9:48 pm

So true! I had a great system going for a while that was basically this in a different order every week based on our schedule.
-Crock Pot Night
-Grill Night
-Soup/Sandwich/Salad night
-From the Freezer night
-Mom’s night out (Dad’s in charge and has autonomy)
-Family night out
-Momma’s Foodie Monster night (usually a Sunday)
I even wrote a whole post about it on my blog: http://harmoniousmess.com/2013/02/28/fixing-dinner/
Then I lost my chalkboard when we moved and we are totally lost! I need to get something going again.

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Rosie January 20, 2014 at 10:30 pm

I can’t survive without meal planning. I plan once a week before the grocery shop and I also plan lunches at the same time. My weekly menu runs like this:

Monday: Stirfry
Tuesday: Pasta
Wednesday: Curry
Thursday: Sausages
Friday: Risotto
Saturday: BBQ
Sunday: Roast
Lunches for the kids are normally sandwiches with other bits, but I’m trying to be more adventurous. Lunches for my husband and I are soups or salad (ie spicy Thai beef salad, or chicken, bacon and avocado).

I’m at home with our 4 children (7, 5, 4 and 2), so the evening meal generally falls to me to cook. I’ll prep during the afternoon if necessary, but normally I start around 5pm and have it on the table for is all to eat together at 6pm as my husband walks through the door. Bathtime happens directly after dinner, so around 6.30pm. The little girls are supposed to be in bed by 7pm, the biggies in bed by 7.30pm with lights out by 8pm. Things change a little during holidays as we’ll often have been swimming during the day (we’re British, but on a posting in Australia), so I’ll already have done bath (I am writing this sat by the pool watching them swim!).

The one thing they I really rely on for my meals (as I cook practically everything including naan bread and curry sauces from scratch) is my Thermomix. Couldn’t really do without it now!

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Sarah January 24, 2014 at 3:10 am

I love meal planning! I use it as a way to stay on top of my grocery budget and to avoid the pitfall of “I don’t know what to make for supper…” As for our evenings, my husband works from 6am-6pm and then he has a half hour drive to get home. I try to have dinner on the table between 6:30-7. We eat as a family, then my hubby does the dishes while I get our son in his pjs, teeth brushed, etc. We then spend an hour or so playing together, cuddling, etc before putting our son (he’s 2) to bed around 9:00. I know that that is a little late, but I feel that it’s really important to have some time with daddy in the day and he sleeps until 8am and still takes a 2-3 hour nap in the day.

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Cathy January 26, 2014 at 7:50 am

My husband and i both work till 5:30; I pick up our 3-year old and he gets the 8-yr old. I plan 2 weeks of meals at a time, so the first one home (6:10 or so) can start cooking without having to ponder what to make. Bedtime for the boys is 7:45 for the little guy, 8:00 for the bigger guy, so we have to be eating by 6:30 in order to start washing up, brushing teeth, etc in time for a story or two before lights out. Every Friday night is Family Game Night and we have pizza, so that’s one consistently easy night. Sat and Sun nights, when I have a little more time, i like to cook “real” dinners (that take linger than 15-20 mins). These weekend dinners are great times to get the kids involved in dinner prep – chopping, measuring, etc – as well.

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Melissa January 27, 2014 at 6:18 pm

A suggestion for you I’m thinking is to cook the meal the night before that way you can just heat and eat. this is what my neighbour used to do as she had three children and with different routines dinner time wasn’t always at the same time each night. Once you put the kids to bed you can then cook the meal for the following night!

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BriGeeski January 27, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Thank you for including our weekly meal plan printable!! Your tips are really helpful for better meal plans!

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Rosie January 31, 2014 at 12:34 am

We used to do a version of Melissa’s suggestion when he used to get home later and the kids would eat before us. I would cook us a meal in the evening, then the following day I would serve up the left overs for the children (normally with fresh pasta or rice etc).

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Melissa March 2, 2014 at 8:40 pm

I just finally made a monthly meal plan. I pretty much have enough recipes to do everything once a month and a couple of things 2 times a month. This has been a huge help! I don’t have to think….what have we not had in a while….what sounds good…. I just have it all planned out and just have to do my weekly shopping. I’m still in the first month so I have had to tweek a few things like adding a “new recipe” night. And I have also started cooking double batches of anything that can be frozen, it doesn’t take much extra effort at all! Then I always have a few meals already done in the freezer if something comes up!

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Candy April 5, 2014 at 6:10 pm

I have visited this blog via Pinterest & love the discussion. You are all doing great! It’s good practice because once the kids are teens you will cook one pot meals for years. If it can’t be heated (to suit everyone’s schedule) then it doesn’t feature. It’s quite novel when they leave home to have a nice piece of salmon or steak cooked at eating time :-)
Balance as a basis is quite easy & good for health/diet too. 7 days = base food: meat, chicken, fish, vegetarian, eggs/beans, takeaway, shared meal in or out. variety comes in deciding how you will use the base food each week. The takeaway might be Indian or Thai or similar, or could be simple toasties & soup , very nutritious especially using crock pot or pressure cooker. The shared meal would be grandparents or with friends so a social bonus with a shared load. Make enough & leftovers for lunch sorted (for home or work) Also sliced meat into loaves of fresh bread on shopping day & frozen make excellent lunchbox, defrosting during the morning great for hot school days. Food can be really simple (ie bring the cooked chicken home) or complex (cook from fresh) depending on available time. Even now I still cook enough to cover two days if possible, even if leftover goes to freezer. Soups are so versatile & varied fantastic standby. Think back to when you were young, what did you eat. For me the food plan has always been about minimum time. Put a roast in oven with veggies wrapped in foil. 10 minutes prep & whole meal comes out ready, great at weekend so you can be doing other things. My husband was never home for tea time (or often bedtime) in the week, but has a wonderful relationship with our kids who are well & truly grown. Work around what the kids like or don’t – it all works out in the end so go with the flow & continue to offer everything. Keep up the good work. Sorry for the long post!

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Ann Rinker June 25, 2014 at 8:23 am

I can’t stand meal planning FOR TWO…..trying to figure out meals where we both have different likes (he likes seafood I do NOT) is also a challenge. Thanks for the tips!

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Raquel June 27, 2014 at 8:16 am

I’ve just gotten into meal planning for the week and so far I love it!
My week day evenings are crazy (I get off work at 5pm but have a 2 hr commute home & 20 month old) so meal planning is a must. I get home just before 7pm so I change into comfy clothes an started on dinner. My daughter sits in her high chair in the kitchen while I make dinner. We eat dinner together as a family around 7:45ish and then I put my daughter to sleep around 8:15pm. Then I pack lunch and breakfast for the next day and try to fit in a half hour workout before getting ready for bed at 10pm. It’s a little bit of a whirlwind but it works. Haha

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