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My Secret to Meal Planning Success

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Life never seems to slow down. And while family dinners may feel like an added “to do,” the tricks I am sharing here make meal planning easy enough that even super busy moms and dads can make family meals happen. 

Salmon Salad Sandwich

The Challenge of Eating Together When Life is Busy

In my house and in the households of many of my friends, the pace of life just never seems to slow down. There are work obligations, school activities and projects, extracurricular activities to get the kids to, community events and activities to participate in, friends to catch up with after way too long, errands to run, house projects to get done, the list goes on and on. Sometimes life gets so busy that the things that we value the most, the parts of life that are most important to us, like time with our family, get pushed to the back burner. Sound familiar? Well, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t feel like balance to me.

When our kids were really little and life was starting to get busier, my husband and I agreed that in order make sure that there was at least some family time every day, we would make family dinners a priority. When we first started, we had dinner together pretty much every single night.

As time has gone on and the boys have gotten older and more involved in extracurricular activities that run into or through the dinner hour and I have become increasingly involved in volunteer work that I do, we have lost some of our evening meals, but we still average about 4 or 5 nights of family dinner a week.

Feeding Family on Budget

Easy Meal Planning for Busy Moms and Dads

While family dinners may sound like an added “to do,” in my experience they serve much more as a respite from the insanity. It is a time when we all settle down, without electronics, and talk. It is a special time for all four of us, so much so that recently when I had to be away for evening meetings three nights in a row, my boys both told me that they missed our dinners all together.

But how to make it work? How do we get dinner on the table even when things are so overscheduled? Meal planning. Unsurprisingly, I am an avid meal planner. If I haven’t gotten the upcoming week’s menu more or less sketched out by Saturday evening, I start to feel like the wheels are coming off the bus. It’s sad but true.

What I have learned over the years is that if I have a plan, even a brief outline of a plan, our family’s week goes much more smoothly and sanely. As a busy mom, having a healthy meal plan set up for the week takes a load off and allows me more space to focus on other things throughout the week.

So I wanted to share the secret of my success, the trick that I use to make easy meal planning for busy moms and dads truly possible.

Meal PlanMy Secret to Meal Planning Success

One of the complaints about meal planning that I hear most often goes something like, “but I don’t want to cook something different every night.” Guess what? Neither do I! For me, meal planning doesn’t mean that I cook seven unique dinners every week, it just means that I have a plan for what we will eat. In fact, most weeks I cook about 4 or 5 meals and the other meals fall into place.

This past week, for example our meal plan looked like this:

  • Sunday: Roast chicken and vegetables (leftovers were used for lunches all week)
  • Monday: I was out at a meeting so the guys enjoyed hot dogs and salad
  • Tuesday: Leftover pasta from Saturday night with fried eggs on top
  • Wednesday: Greek Chopped Salad
  • Thursday: Grilled cheese and salad
  • Friday: My husband and I had an event and the boys had delivery pizza
  • Saturday: Boys were out and I made a quick pasta with leftovers

So, as you see, I don’t let my family go hungry, I just don’t go all out. There are two fundamental components present in last week’s meal plan that I depend on heavily from week to week: sandwich night and leftovers night (although, to be honest, the leftovers night has recently been less frequent as both of my boys have both been eating us out of house and home!).

Grilled Quicki Souvlaki SandwichesWhy Sandwich Nights and Leftover Nights Are Key

There are a number of reasons that I consider sandwich nights and leftover nights to be lifesavers:

  1. they are quick to get on the table
  2. both are great for using up whatever we’ve got knocking around
  3. they are both really popular options in my house
  4. everyone gets to make their meal their own, which tends to lead to more enthusiastic eating, even though the effort put in was less—and who doesn’t love that?

Grilled Cheese with Turkey Spanish Manchego and Tart ApplesSandwich Nights

A lot of times people will tell me that they feel like serving sandwiches is some sort of cop out. I disagree. First of all, sandwiches are delicious and can provide endless variations.

Let’s take, for example, grilled cheese sandwiches. They can include different kinds of cheese (a great way to use up those little bits and pieces you know you’ve got knocking around the cheese drawer), spreads and sauces (pesto, marinara, etc.), vegetables (bell peppers, tomatoes, baby spinach, and leftover roasted vegetables are all favorites in our house), extra proteins (deli meat, leftover cooked meat or tofu), and different kinds of bread, or even tortillas to make them wraps.

You can also expand the sandwich category to include another favorite in our house: quesadillas. We love filling these with beans, chopped up vegetables, leftover meat, different cheeses, and anything else that we can think of. An added bonus: if you use two frying pans or put them all on a baking sheet in the oven, you can have dinner made in 10 minutes or less!

Moroccan Roasted Root Vegetables with ChickpeasUsing Leftovers

As for leftovers, I can’t imagine life without them. For certain dishes, like stews and grain salads with a dressing, I actually enjoy them more the second day because the flavors have become more complex. From leftover complete dishes, to remnant salads or roasted vegetables, I’ll eat it all. Sometimes just as is, sometimes wrapped up in a tortilla or turned into a sandwich. If reheating and eating the same thing leaves you feeling kind of bummed, check out this post for ideas on how to easily repurpose them into different meals.

In short, meal plans should be about simplifying your life, not making it more difficult. Easy meal planning for busy moms and dads should help you to have the time and space to enjoy your meals with your family. So this week, instead of feeling like you have to fill every day with a from-scratch meal, try to incorporate some leftovers or sandwiches into your plan!

I hope that by using this technique you find some quieter, calming moments when you can enjoy the life you lead, even if it is crazy busy.

If you’d like help with meal planning, try our meal plans, which are designed specifically to make easy meal planning a reality for busy moms and dads.

Got other tricks or ideas? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!




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Monday 20th of May 2019

A great post. I, too, do est when I plan on about 4 "new" for the week I make quesadillas the way you make sandwiches -- I feel like pretty much any leftovers (well maybe not *any*, but most) can be put in a tortilla with cheese/sauces/veggies, fried up and and comes out tasty. So I do a lot of that. Also, I have found it life changing to adopt a practice that I learned about on Epicurious: On my Google calendar, I have added a "Dinner" calendar, in red. I insert my dinner plans there, which is a way to remember dishes I want to try, and gives me a good look at the week, whether I'm making Scramble meals or something else. If we have a big company meal coming up, I put it on my calendar, even if it's weeks away. It's also easy to move things around. It has REALLY helped me in my meal planning. Thanks for the great tips you provided here as well!

Jessica Braider

Tuesday 21st of May 2019

Thanks so much, Sarah! Yes, quesadillas are another fantastic option-- so versatile and fun! And I love the idea of putting it into your calendar. Make so much sense. I'll definitely be trying that. :)

Ellen Delap

Saturday 18th of May 2019

I love the simplicity of your plan!

Jessica Braider

Sunday 19th of May 2019

Thanks so much, Ellen! It's all about making life easier, right?! :)