If you are an overwhelmed homeschool mom, you need to add meal planning to your weekly routine. Meal planning is not one more task to bog you down and prove, once again, that you’re failing life. In minutes you can make a meal plan that really works for you, frees up extra time, and helps you put good food on the table every night. The hour before dinner will no longer be the most stressful hour of the day. Here’s how to make a realistic meal plan that can transform dinner.
Meal planning is important
I tried to convince you in my post, Four Daily Homemaking Habits, of the importance of cooking supper every night. Trying to put dinner on the table with a horde of kids running through the house is a daily challenge. You’re tired because you’ve given every bit of energy you have to educating and training the horde. If you still have a sweet baby in the house, this is when the baby is always fussy. Always. You know your husband will be walking through the door wondering what’s for dinner. And you’re on the clock, any minute one of the kids is going to walk in the kitchen facing imminent death by starvation. At 4:30 you open the fridge, asking yourself what you can make for dinner – and there’s no answer there. The lettuce is slimy, the cheese was finished off at snack time, and you remember you ate the only box of pasta last night for dinner. This is real life, right?
Ah, but what if you had a meal plan? (Cue super hero music). What if, while you were sipping coffee in the morning, you glanced at the plan and noticed you’ll be serving balsamic marinated steak for dinner (that’s what we’re having tonight – the kids are gone and my husband and I are calling it a date night). So you pull the steak out of the freezer. While you have the door open you grab the chicken for tomorrow’s Crockpot Tikka Masala (that’s what I wish I was having tomorrow). Asking your brain to remember to do it later is asking the impossible. Now your meat for two days is defrosting in the fridge. When 4:30 rolls around you make a five minute marinade and cook up some vegetables. When you wake up tomorrow you spend ten minutes putting ingredients in the crockpot and dinner is done. Meal planning saves the day – and saves it again tomorrow.
Meal planning saves the day
Let’s break down what I mean by meal planning saves the day:
- A simple plan will save time. The meat is already defrosted. You don’t have to run to the store at the busiest time of day with all your kids in tow. If you have an unexpected block of free time, even 15 minutes, you can sneak in the kitchen and make a marinade or chop some veggies. Then later, when the house is in an evening uproar, you’ll have a head start. If you’re planning a week’s worth of meals for the first time, it will feel hard and time consuming. But as you develop the skill – and it is a learned skill – you’ll love how much time it saves.
- Meal plans save money. When we run to the store at the last minute we tend to buy convenience food, which is more expensive. Your meal plan will help you use up leftovers. You’ll balance steak nights with beans and rice nights so you stay on budget. Eating out – even fast food – is the most expensive way to feed your family. Planning an evening out is one thing – using the drive thru as your fall back plan is another. Habits creep up on us and you’ll notice you’re grabbing fast food and ordering pizza far more often than you intended to. Use meal planning to break that habit.
- Healthy meals will save your life. Not today or tomorrow, but a lifetime of healthy eating will pay dividends in the long run. I’m not weighing in on the single healthiest diet on earth – you can make your own choices. I’m just saying good food is good for you. And it’s good for your family. You don’t have to be purist or a perfectionist; improve a little and you’ll be glad you did.
5 hints for planning that really works
You can make the best weekly meal plan on earth, but if you don’t actually cook the meals, the list won’t do you any good. You need to come up with a plan you can actually follow.
1. Plan meals that fit your schedule.
When you sit down to brainstorm your dinner list for the week, keep your calendar next to you. If you know that on Tuesdays you walk in from soccer practice at 6 and everyone will be starving, you need a dinner than can be ready in thirty minutes or less. Wednesday you need to be out the door to kid’s club at 5:30. Plan something that will be easy to have ready by 5. Fridays, if you’re like me, you feel ready for a break and maybe a little fun. It’s pizza night or grilled cheese sandwich night. Something easy. It is unrealistic to pretend you can spend an hour in the kitchen every night regardless of the schedule.
Plan for success by working with the life you really live. There is an ideal, but start smaller. Start real. Some days you’ll have time to put love into every bite; other days will be successful if your kids even get a bite to eat. Some days you’ll want to hit the couch. It’s okay! Just plan for it.
2. Schedule meals you can actually cook.
If you’re living on pasta because that’s what you know how to make, don’t see this as the moment to turn your life around and plan seven from scratch family dinners. Cooking is a skill anyone can learn – you can do it! – but it takes time and energy. Instead start small, maybe two nights a week try easy, new recipes. The remaining nights schedule the foods you’re already comfortable preparing. You’ll set yourself up for success. Week by week you can improve both your cooking skills and menu plans.
Do you know how to cook and the real problem is you’re too tired, or overwhelmed, or lazy to do it? The same principle applies. If you want to change your habits, you need realistic, achievable goals. So start small and change your life bit by bit. Reward yourself for every great meal you cook with an easy dinner the next night. Then aim to improve over the long term. That way you’ll stick with it over the long term.
3. Cook food your family likes.
I need to add quite a few caveats to this.
- First, some kids don’t like anything. Those kids need to learn to like new things. Or maybe you’re the problem; train yourself not to be a picky eater.
- Second, some people don’t like vegetables. Don’t plan to never serve a vegetable. Human bodies need vegetables. Try to stretch your family’s palate. Experiment and find ways people will tolerate the food that is good for them.
- Third, in a family we all have slightly different preferences. That’s okay! One of my kids hates green peas, but frozen peas are the easiest vegetable to put on the table in a hurry. I serve peas, she eats them, but I try not to do it too often. Every once in a while we have to eat something we don’t care for. Someone else may love it. We’re a family; we defer to one another.
I try to work around foods my family doesn’t like, but I also try to cook food they love. Be sure to include familiar favorites on the meal plan for the week.
I also find out what people are craving. Not every week, but frequently, I ask each family member if there’s a meal they want that week. If their request is within reason, I aim to please. You should too. Make dinner around the table a delightful time to be together as a family by serving food that makes them happy.
4. Consider what kind of person you are.
Do you like to cook the same five meals over and over and hate kitchen creativity? Menu planning should be really easy for you. Make one list and permanently post it on the fridge.
Do you love to try new recipes? Make weekly plans that include both simple familiar fare, and new recipes that will keep you engaged. Maybe meal planning would be easy for you if you worked in categories: two chicken meals, one beef meal, one bean meal, a pasta meal, and an egg meal. Then you can change up which recipes you use but you have a simple framework that makes planning easier.
5. Train your children to help.
This is a long term project. If you do it well, the day may come when you only have to cook two or three meals a week (until the kids move out). Plan meals the young children are able to help with, then have one child at a time help you with dinner. Almost every age can help with something in the kitchen. Preschoolers can slice bananas for a fruit salad with a butter knife. By late elementary kids can put together a green salad. Train older kids to chop onions or saute chicken. In addition to planning meals, you can schedule a helper for the evening and be sure to include skills that child needs to practice.
How to change your habits
You can change your habits. You don’t have to live the rest of your life the way you live today. But you can’t change your whole life overnight. Focus on two or three changes at a time. Actually do them. Then do them over and over until they’re easy and don’t require any thought or effort. Now you’re ready to add a couple more changes. That’s how you form new habits that stick.
Form new meal time habits in the same way. Make a list of all the meal time hassles and shortcomings. Pick two or three areas to focus on. Then do them over and over until they’re easy.
Maybe just writing out a weekly meal plan is a big step for you. it will feel hard at first. Make it your focus until it’s easy. Once it’s a habit you’ll notice how much easier it makes your life, and you’ll miss it when something interrupts your weekly routine.
How to make a meal plan
Making the actual meal plan is very simple. Sit down with your calendar and a piece of paper. I like to brainstorm seven meals first thing. I intentionally think of both quick dinners and time intensive dinners (those usually taste better). Then I look at the calendar and schedule a day for each meal based on our activities. Now rewrite your meal list so it reads, “Monday: chicken enchiladas. Tuesday, etc.”
The next step is to make a shopping list based on the meal plan. Work one day, one recipe, at a time. Here are two quick tips for shopping list success:
- Always look at the recipe! This is one of my typical mistakes. I assume I know the recipe for chicken enchiladas, but forget a key ingredient. Then when I am cooking, and actually reading the recipe, I discover the missing ingredient. Reading the recipe is a must.
- Always take a minute to make sure you actually have the staples on hand that the recipe calls for. For example, you have two meals that require oregano. You assume you have oregano because you always have oregano. But if you were to check the cupboard you’d discover three lonely oregano leaves in the bottom of the jar; not nearly enough to cook with. Older kids can be a big help with this step. You can sit at the table and call out ingredients. Then they can tell you how full each jar or box is. You’ll fly through this part of the process.
Now you’re ready to execute the plan. The evening before, when you’re in the kitchen making dinner, peek ahead to the next day. That way you can defrost meat or work ahead in the spare moments of the next day.
Are you already a meal planner?
Hooray! Keep up the good work. As I was writing this that negative voice in my head was saying that everyone who reads this probably already makes perfect meal plans each week. But I know that’s not true. I know there are lots of homeschool moms living in chaos and dinner is a big hurdle at the end of each day. But others of you already meal plan and do a great job. Consider this encouragement.
After our last move, I was tired. I was tired for the next year. So I let some of my good habits slip. (You guys do this too, right?) Meal planning was one of those missing habits. After a year I realized I was perpetuating that exhaustion by not having a weekly meal plan posted on the fridge. I was feeling stressed by dinners. I was making last minute runs to the store because now we were so close I could call it my “pantry.” And I was spending too much money on my grocery budget every month. But I knew how to change and get back in the habit of having a weekly plan.
Meal planning printables
I did a great job making meal plans in 2018. Around New Year’s, when experts tell you to look back and pat yourself on the back, I congratulated myself on my meal plans. Having done it well, I decided to make myself new weekly meal plans that were a little cuter than the ratty scratch paper I used last year. I hired my daughter to draw me a couple images (here’s her etsy shop – if you’re a spinner – and her new shop which is a work in progress. If she could graduate from college, and her mom would leave her alone, she might create more products for it).
We have made a few simple meal planners and want to share them with you when you join my email list. I included lines to plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I recommend that as you are starting, that you focus on consistently getting dinner on the table. Then add in other meals as planning gets easier and easier.
I hope you’ll be inspired to take control of the dinner hour. Your reward will be sitting around the table with your family, eating meals that taste like love.