A Busy Parent’s Guide to Meal Planning
Weeknights can feel like an all-out sprint until bedtime…the baby missed naptime, the dog is waiting to be fed, you hit every stoplight on your way home, and your older child has tracked in who-knows-what from soccer practice. Oh, and everyone has just one dreaded question on the tips of their tongues: What’s for dinner?
If the mere thought of getting a meal on the table in the middle of the evening chaos is enough to make your blood pressure rise, you’re not alone. Figuring out what to eat every night—something nutritious and kid-friendly, no less!—and then conjuring it in the brief window of time between the end of the work/school day and light’s out, can feel like it takes super powers.
Fortunately, there is one magic trick that can help…and that’s meal planning. Even if you’re not the most skilled home chef or can’t commit to hours of chopping and bagging on Sundays, even a little bit of meal prep can go a long way to make dinnertime run smoothly. Here are 10 tips and meal prep hacks to help you get food on the table faster!
Mark your meal calendar.
Whether you use an app, white board, or good-ol-fashioned pen-and-paper, it’s time to whip out the family calendar! You already schedule work meetings and play dates into your calendar, so why not meals too? A good rule of thumb is to plan at least three meals. Before you hatch a plan, consider everything you’ve got going on for the upcoming week so that you can be realistic. For example, a jam-packed Monday isn’t the right time for a finicky risotto. Maybe your child has gymnastics Tuesday…that could be a good day for a slow cooker meal. Solo parenting on Wednesday? Sounds like the perfect night for a freezer meal. A blissfully open Thursday? There’s where you can commit to a more involved recipe.
Reuse the same ingredients for multiple meals.
Here’s a time-saving tip: Choose recipes that use similar ingredients. If you plan to have grilled chicken and broccoli for dinner one day, make enough so that you can have grilled chicken and avocado flatbread pizzas with spinach salad the next night. Lean ground beef or ground turkey works well in soups but can also be remixed into pasta bakes, tacos, or burritos. One night you may have salmon caesar salads and bread rolls; the next, you may do salmon spring rolls and rice.
Build meals with in-season veggies.
Buying seasonal produce stretches your dollar and adds more flavor to your meals. If there’s ever a time to introduce a new fruit or vegetable to your little one, it’s while it's in season because it’ll taste better, and they’re more likely to accept it. (Imagine introducing a tomato in the middle of winter at its dullest in taste compared to a juicy red tomato in the middle of summer!)
And keep in mind that buying in season doesn’t mean you have to use the food in that season. You could peel and chop sweet potatoes into cubes, place them in a freezer bag, and save them for the spring if you wanted to. Prepping veggies this way gives you quick ingredients for a casserole, soup, or stir-fry. (Check out our favorite ways to serve winter produce to babies!)
Take inventory before heading to the store.
Have you ever bought the same ingredients multiple times because you didn’t realize you already had some on hand? Taking a minute to check your fridge, freezer, and pantry before hitting the supermarket can help save you time and money so you don’t pick up unnecessary extras. Another perk of taking pre-shopping inventory is that it could spark ideas for quick meals you can whip up (those tinned sardines could be pretty tasty in a pasta…or that frozen veggie medley could make a yummy stir fry).
Prep ingredients ahead of time.
Prepping ingredients in advance is a major time-saver because it gets you a few steps closer to having food on the table. Plus, it makes it less likely that all that fresh produce will languish in a plastic bag at the bottom of your crisper. A best practice is to wash your veggies, chop them up, and store them in mason jars, so they stay as fresh as possible. Place them in your sightline in the fridge so you won’t forget to use them. Ingredient prep isn’t just limited to produce. You can pull meat from the freezer to thaw in the refrigerator, pre-soak dry beans, boil eggs, or shred cooked chicken.
Double your recipes so you can have freezable leftovers.
Your future self will thank you when you make your recipes in bulk and freeze the extras for another time. You’re already putting a ton of effort into the recipe you’re preparing; doubling it will only work to your benefit. Store the extras that you made in a freezer-safe sealable container and label it with the name of the meal and the date you made it. This will help build a dinner stash you can depend on when life gets even busier. If you have an infant at home, you can cook, puree, and freeze the foods you’re prepping as you go so you have quick purees ready to eat when your baby needs them. (These are some purees babies love!)
Have one themed night a week to keep things fun (and predictable!).
We know how hard it can be to simply think of what to serve…so halve your effort by putting at least one theme night on the weekly calendar (bonus points if it’s something kids can help with!). You could try the traditional taco Tuesday, meatless Monday, or a family-friendly charcuterie board meal on Friday night…whatever works for your family!
Take advantage of your kitchen gadgets.
Remember all those gizmos you got as gifts? Don’t let them collect dust! Kitchen gadgets are your friends! There are countless kitchen helpers that can accelerate your meal prepping and give you more hands-off cooking time, so you’re not sweating over a hot stove for hours on end. Handy kitchen equipment can also help with clean-up time since you won’t have to clean lots of pots, pans, and skillets. Air fryers, slow cookers, microwavable steamer baskets, and veggie choppers are some must-have items that can take some stress (and time) out of dinner prep.
Take a shortcut.
Listen, there’s no medal for making every meal entirely from scratch! There’s no shame in buying a rotisserie chicken, instant rice, or pre-cut veggies to move things along quicker in the kitchen. Here are some meal prep staples that’ll cut your cooking time by leaps and bounds:
- Microwavable grains
- Microwavable legumes and pulses
- Frozen, steamable bags of vegetables
- Rotisserie chicken
- Canned fish
- Pre-cut fresh veggies and fruit
- Pre-cooked frozen meatballs
- Chopped salad bags
Keep pantry essentials stocked for busy weeknights.
Stay ahead of your meal planning by keeping a stash of cooking essentials. This way you don’t have to waste time running to the store when you could be using that energy to make your meals.
Here are some pantry items to keep on hand:
- Low-sodium chicken or veggie broth
- Whole grain pasta
- Canned vegetables
- Canned beans
- Canned tomato sauce/paste
- Pasta sauce
- Minced garlic
- Olives or capers
- Cooking oils
- Vinegar (apple cider, white wine, rice)
- Canned coconut milk
- Dried herbs and spices
More Meal Planning Inspo:
- Baby-Led Weaning Ideas
- Easy Dinners for Babies
- Toddler Dinners That Even Picky Eaters Will Love
- Tips for Dining Out With Little Ones
- How to Include Babies at Family Meals
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.