Meal Planning Tips for Busy Families

by Jean Lomas-Hamilton

Between work, school, daycare, sports, and whatever else you have going on, family life can be challenging to choreograph. As working parents with a toddler and now a newborn, meal planning has been our saving grace to ensure everyone is fed and happy in the small window between getting home and bedtime. Here are my top tips for coming up with a weekly meal plan that works for your family:

Plan your meals to fit your life, and not the other way around. When planning what to eat, consider what else you’re doing that week. For days when your schedule is packed, choose simple recipes that will come together quickly. Save more elaborate meals for less busy days, or plan to make some components in advance so you’ll have less to do at dinnertime.

Post your plan somewhere visible. The whiteboard on our fridge is my favourite kitchen acquisition of the past two years. I use it to map out all our meals and activities for the week, along with any advance prep needed (for example, a reminder to take chicken out of the freezer or mix long-rising dough a day in advance) and a grocery list. I also save everything into my phone for easy access from work, but the whiteboard has been a game changer since it decentralizes responsibility for the weekly schedule – so whoever gets home first can see the plan and get dinner started.

Plan a little every day. With two small kids, I rarely have time to sit down for long enough to dream up a week’s worth of meals all at once. Instead, I chip away at it daily, jotting down ideas as they come to me. That way when our grocery shopping day rolls around the plan is ready to go, without the need for extra “thinking” time.

Make extra portions. I often make a large batch of whatever we’re having so we can either take leftovers for work and daycare lunches, or freeze them for an easy dinner on nights when the plan goes off the rails. Comfort foods tend to freeze well, which makes fall and winter ideal times to do this – and with the busy holiday season approaching it’s always nice to have a few quick meals on hand (pro tip: freeze soup, chili, or curry lying flat in a Ziploc bag so it’ll defrost quickly when you need it).

Minimize waste and maximize your pantry. Some items are sold in larger quantities than we’d normally use in one recipe (looking at you, fresh parsley). In those cases I try to plan multiple meals with that ingredient to use it all up. Otherwise, I’ll either omit the ingredient entirely, or substitute something I already have on hand. I also keep a list of “to use” items on our whiteboard so I can incorporate older pantry goods in my planning.

Be flexible. I initially worried that meal planning would be too regimented for me – what if I worked late and didn’t have time to cook? What if we just didn’t feel like eating what was on the schedule for that night? But the beauty of planning your meals and shopping in advance is that you already have all the ingredients on hand to make last-minute changes without the hassle of heading to the store again. Just switch things around and have something you planned for another day – et voilà! Problem solved. For added flexibility, I try to plan at least one dinner that can easily be carried forward to the next week without the ingredients spoiling.

Learning how to meal plan effectively was definitely a process of trial and error for us, and while the fact that I’ve never met a list I didn’t like definitely helped, it still took some time to figure out what worked for our family. Meal planning isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavour but the above guiding principles have helped keep our bellies full and our sanity (mostly) intact – and I hope they’ll do the same for you and yours.

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