Meal Planning 101

meal-prep listFiguring out what to have for dinner every night can be a daily challenge. Accounting for everyone’s preferences while keeping a budget friendly and healthy menu is a feat in itself. Actually finding the time to shop for ingredients and prepare the meal with kids in tow is a whole other ball game. Personally, I love to cook, yet I still often struggle when I’m inevitably asked,“Mom, what’s for dinner?”

Being a stay-at-home mom (with two children under three years old) and living twenty minutes from the closest grocery store has encouraged me to prepare in advance, but it will save you time (and money) no matter what your situation is.

Despite the occasional slip-up (sorry I forgot to get ketchup again!), I can confidently say I’ve gotten pretty darn good at planning meals for the entire week. Meal planning has significantly reduced my anxiety surrounding daily meals and has made cooking for my family much more inclusive and enjoyable.

Why do I meal plan?
Nutrition is fundamental to every family’s well being. Having healthy homemade meals on a regular basis can make all the difference when it comes to our energy, focus, sleep, mood, and attitude toward food. When I have meals planned for the week, I am much less likely to resort to processed foods or take out. I am usually able to make one grocery trip every 7 or 8 days which frees up time for other priorities. By choosing fresh recipes every week I have been able to practice new cooking techniques and try different cuisines. These culinary adventures create unique, fun learning opportunities not only for myself but also for my almost three-year-old, who often works beside me in the kitchen.

Get inspired by recipes your family might enjoy!
The first thing I do when I am getting ready for a new week is pick out several recipes I want to make. This truly is my favorite part of the process. I often pick out cookbooks from the vast selection at the local library, but when I don’t make it there I turn to the internet for ideas. My two favorite family friendly cooking blogs are melskitchencafe.com and skinnytaste.com, both written by busy moms who come up with simple, yet fun and interesting recipes. Everything I have made from both websites has been delicious and I check them frequently for inspiration.

After finding recipes, I bookmark them (physically or electronically) and write down all the ingredients I need to make each meal. I almost always double the recipe to allow for lunch leftovers the following day. I also try to be as specific as possible, adding quantities of each item to my list. If I find three or four recipes, then I fill in the rest of the week with easy go-tos, such as spaghetti, tacos or homemade pizza and write down what I need for those meals as well.

mom-with-toddler-supermarket-Make your grocery trip a positive experience.
After my initial ingredient list is made, I write the list that I am going to take to the store. This time, I think about where I will go shopping and group items together that I’ll find in specific departments or aisles. I usually go to Winco, so I’ll write all of my produce items together, my bulk items together, meats, dairy and so forth. It may sound a little nit-picky, but trust me — I save so much time and energy when I get to the store.

Shopping with a toddler and a seven-month-old in the Ergo carrier has potential to go downhill pretty fast, especially if I am too distracted figuring out what to buy. With my list in hand, I feel like I have a game plan and I am in control. I rarely forget items, and I can focus on my children and give them a quality experience. When I have time I even write a short list for my daughter with pictures of groceries such as “milk” and “cheese.” This way, she feels more included and has a sense of responsibility as we walk around together.

A positive grocery trip is also dependent on timing. I always try to allow plenty of time so I don’t feel rushed. Attempting to fit in grocery shopping between swimming lessons and a doctor’s appointment is never a good idea! I am also strategic about planning around nap schedules. Late morning usually works best for us, as my youngest takes her morning nap in the carrier at the store and my toddler usually falls asleep on the way home.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Tantrums happen. Sometimes we have “accidents” and need to trek back to the car for a change of clothes. Things drop or spill in the store and I have to get someone to clean up our mess. It’s just how it goes. Some trips are much easier than others, yet the more prepared I am, the more flexible I can be when it comes to the unexpected, and above all, I can take pride in the meals I prepare for my family.

By Sarah Nieminski

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