Meal Planning for Families: A Brief Survival Guide

Gone are the days when I could just get home from work and make my tired self some toast with peanut butter, a banana and a glass of milk. Those childless days of feeding myself were so much easier. When I just wanted to collapse on the couch after work, I could do so...and make myself a simple meal 2 minute meal. What’s more,  no one would complain.

And when post-work culinary inspiration hit, I could do it up right, as well. Those days of whipping up a spicy curry for dinner are also a distant memory. Leisurely cooking sessions while sipping some wine have been replaced with hurried post-work chopping while being surrounded by a different (and less satisfying) kind of whine.

Oh, how things have changed.

I know I’m not alone in getting overwhelmed with dinner planning, especially when kids are involved. Those little creatures that bring us so much joy can be a real source of frustration when it comes to meal time. That constantly changing list of likes and dislikes that little ones possess (you know the list I'm talking about) can sometimes be hard to keep straight.

It may not always be easy or even work out like you had planned it but there are a few things you can do to take the stress out of dinnertime. And while you may never be a Martha Stewart-like sensation or a Pinterest superstar (who are these people, anyway?), doing a few of these following things can make your life just a bit easier….


Plan Ahead

What I’ve come to learn in this game of balancing work and family is that planning ahead is a must. While it often seems like sitting down and planning out the week ahead can be a bit of a hassle, it does actually save time and prevent headaches later in the week.

Take some time to sit down with a pen and paper (or if it's easier, the calendar in your phone) to write down upcoming meals you plan to make. At the same time make a note of any groceries you’ll need in order to make your next shopping trip as effortless and efficient as possible. Remember to take an inventory of those ingredients you already have in your pantry, too  You may even find doing this decreases your amount of household food waste.

If planning the whole week in advance seems a little daunting, try dividing the week up and planning 3-4 days at a time. Planning your weekly meals in segments has the bonus of adding a little flexibility into your week, if needed. Who knows, maybe some kind soul wants to drop off a ready to bake lasagna for you mid week...we can dream, can’t we?


Create a List of Meals You (and Your Family) Enjoy

Ever feel like you are in a meal rut? Are you sticking to the same old cycle of 4 meals over and over again? Well, you are not alone. Many of us stick to a few ‘tried and true’ recipes, even if our meal repertoire is much larger. Some of this can be attributed to habit, and partly to lack of imagination or poor energy after a long day of work. And while there is nothing wrong with those standard meals we fall back upon, it can take the joy and excitement out of mealtime if variety is lacking.

Sometimes after a long day, it is hard to think of something new to make or even that dish you know how to make but have only made a few times. We all have a few dishes we’ve made that were a hit, but we’ve forgotten about. My advice is to keep a running list of meals, whether this is just in a notebook you keep with your cookbooks or as an electronic file, to remind you of all the things you actually can make but may get forgotten in the chaos of weeknight meal prep. The beauty of this list is that it can keep growing and can easily be referred to when you plan your week ahead and start to run out of ideas.


Plan a Leftover Day

While leftovers aren’t glamorous, they can be a lifesaver. Plan a night of the week to either finish up the accumulating leftovers in your fridge (pasta dishes are notorious in our house for unintentionally lasting at least two days) or deliberately plan to overcook portions one night to feed the fam the next.

While I’m a big fan of the old reheat and serve leftovers (especially after a long day of work), leftovers don’t need to be boring rehashes of the previous night either. You can be creative with our leftovers - for example, leftover chicken, beef and/or cooked veggies make great fajitas or fillings for omelettes. Leftover curries make great fillings for wraps. Use last night’s rice to make some tasty fried rice with the quick addition of frozen veggies and egg. A big, beautiful veggie filled salad can be double as a healthy side or a fabulous main with the addition of some chickpeas or canned salmon.


Prep Food Ahead of Time

Preparing some foods ahead of time can be a great stress reducer. Pre-chopping veggies for upcoming meals doesn’t take too much extra time. What's chopping up a few extra carrots or peppers, if you already have them out? Cooking larger portions of grains to be used up in several meals can be a real time saver, too. Cooked rice can also be frozen and thawed quickly for a super easy meal addition. Throwing a few extra chicken breasts in the oven to be used in the next day’s meal will also ease future meal prep. You’d be amazed how putting a little thought into what can be done ahead of time can de-stress your post work hours.


Fall in Love with Fast Food


No, I’m not talking about reconnecting with your favourite fast food joint. Although the occasional drive through meal won’t kill you, it’s probably best if you keep your distance from this type of fast food. The fast food I’m talking about is food that can be prepared fast, without a lot of thought. Think foods that can go from fridge, freezer, or cupboard to plate in less than 30 minutes.

For example, frozen or fresh fish filets, ground or pre-cut strips of chicken or beef, lentils, and even eggs all provide a quick, protein-base for your meals. Low sodium canned goods such as legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans and black beans) or fish, like salmon, tuna or sardines also make great quick proteins for sandwiches, salads or pastas. For veggies, don’t be afraid of using the frozen variety (you may be surprised how good they actually are for you). On the whole, canned vegetables are generally inferior to their fresh and frozen counterparts. This is mainly due to their high salt content which really is in your best interest to avoid. The only exception, in my opinion, are canned tomatoes (again, search out the low sodium varieties). Canned tomatoes make great additions to soups or pasta sauces. Grains or pseudo-grains, like quinoa, amaranth and millet are quicker cooking alternatives compared to that of brown rice, barley and wild rice. There are many healthy “fast foods” out there, what are your favourites?

If you want some ideas for quick recipe ideas, you can always do a simple online recipe search for just that. There are plenty of “30 minute or less” recipes out there just begging for you to try.


Many Hands Make Happy Mealtimes

While too many cooks in the kitchen can certainly be a bad thing, getting those around you to help out with meal prep can definitely make dinnertime easier. If partners or bigger kids are home before you, why not get them to lend a hand in the meal preparation. Peeling or cutting up veggies is a great way to lessen the time between when you step in the door to when you sit down with a hot plate of food in front of you. Whatever the recipe, there are bound to be a few things that can be done in advance by the other members of your family. For the younger members of your family, this is a great way to get them building cooking skills.


what are your tips to keep your family meals sane and manageable? Feel free to share them below...