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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, the pace of life just never seems to slow down. There are work obligations, school projects, extracurricular activities, community events, friends to see, errands to run, house projects to get done, the list goes on and on. Sometimes life gets so busy that the things we value 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 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, we have lost some of our evening meals, but we still average about 4 or 5 family dinners a week.

While family dinners may sound like an added “to do,” in my experience they serve much more as a respite from the insanity. It’s a time when we all settle down, without electronics, and talk. It’s a special time for all four of us, so much so that when I recently had to be away for evening meetings three nights in a row, both of my boys 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 over-scheduled? My answer: Meal planning.

family cooking

Easy Meal Planning for Busy Moms and Dads

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’ve learned over the years is that if I have a plan, or even just 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 that also demand my attention.

So, I wanted to share how I make this weekly task less onerous and also the two types of meals that I include almost every week as a way to maintain my sanity.

Meal Plan

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 have to come up with new ideas every single week.” Guess what? Neither do I!

For me, meal planning doesn’t mean that I create a detailed plan for every meal. And it also doesn’t mean that I prepare seven unique dinners. In fact, my general rule of thumb is that I come up with 3 to 5 dinners that I will make and then leave the other days with a rough idea of what might fit in.

This past week, for example our meals looked like this:

  • Sunday: Roast chicken and vegetables (leftovers were used for lunches all week)
  • Monday: Hot dogs and salad for my three guys (I was out at a meeting)
  • Tuesday: Improvised meal of leftover pasta from Saturday night with fried eggs on top
  • Wednesday: Greek Chopped Salad
  • Thursday: Grilled cheese and salad
  • Friday: Delivery pizza for the boys (my husband and I had an event)
  • Saturday: A quick pasta with leftovers for my husband and myself (the boys were out)

So, as you can see, I don’t let my family go hungry, but I also don’t cook every night or make a completely new meal each time.

Note: if this still feels like too much, give my weekly meal plan a try! You’ll get a ready-made meal plan delivered to your inbox each week so that you don’t have to plan at all.

Grilled Quicki Souvlaki Sandwiches

Why Sandwich Nights and Leftover Nights Are Key

There are two fundamental components present in last week’s meals 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 my growing boys have been eating us out of house and home!).

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 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 Apples

Sandwich Nights

A lot of times people will tell me that they feel like serving sandwiches is some sort of cop out. I disagree.

Sandwiches are delicious, provide endless variations, and can be a great way to include all kinds of healthy ingredients in your family’s meal. Let’s take grilled cheese sandwiches as an example. There are so many ways to change up your grilled cheese sandwiches:

  • use 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
  • add spreads and sauces – pesto, marinara, etc.
  • throw in vegetables – bell peppers, tomatoes, baby spinach, and leftover roasted vegetables are all favorites in our house
  • add extra proteins – deli meat or leftover cooked meat or tofu are both great
  • use different kinds of bread – whole wheat, sourdough, rye, ciabatta, and French (if you’ve got a panini press) are all fun options

Sandwiches can also provide a fun, interactive element for the whole family when you invite them into the kitchen to build their own sandwiches.

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. Pro tip: 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 Chickpeas

Using 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 become more complex with time.

But, I also love using components from one meal to create a new one. Whether it’s putting fried eggs on top of pasta or incorporating leftovers into sandwiches or wraps, I try to keep it simple but also different enough from the original meal that it feels fresh. For ideas on how to do this, check out my post on how to repurpose leftovers into new meals.

Keep it Simple, Give Yourself a Break

In short, meal plans should be about simplifying your life, not making it more difficult. So this week, instead of feeling like you have to fill every day with a from-scratch meal, try planning out just a few nights and then incorporating 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?! :)

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