Meal planning can be SO overwhelming. In fact, it used to be my #1 worst fail as a housewife. While I could create a great grocery list, I had a terrible time following through. I didn’t enjoy cooking and I felt seriously overwhelmed at the thought of putting together meals that I didn’t think I would follow through making anyways.
However, over the years I have grown so much in my determination and organization when it comes to meal planning. I feel like I’m ready to share my secrets so that hopefully you can also get to that place of feeling great about what you’re feeding your family!
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The #1 thing you need to remember is to KEEP IT SIMPLE!
Yeah, we’ve all seen that mom blogger who has 5-course meals for all three meals every day.
If you are extremely wealthy and have no life, or just REALLY love cooking, then hey – go for it!
But if you’re like me, that is only going to overwhelm you. Start small!
The thing that overwhelmed me the most when I started meal planning was the expectation of myself that I was going to need a different, exciting meal for every night. But that was just way too overwhelming!
If you have 5-10 different healthy, balanced, easy meals that you love – learn how to make them well. Meal prep them and stick them in your freezer. Your family won’t mind eating the same meal 2-3 times a month.
For lunches, pick 2-4 EASY meal combos that your family can take on the go. Pack lunch bags on Sunday, write names & days on them and stick them in the fridge.
For breakfast, 1-2 healthy options are really all you need. Set out some granola bars, fruit, yogurt cups, hard-boiled eggs, or other ready-to-go items. Then everyone has something filling and easy to take with them in the mornings.
One of the biggest tricks to making meal planning easy is to have foods that your family likes and that you use often, and keep them around! If a recipe has a weird ingredient, sometimes I just take it out of the recipe completely, or I use something I have around instead. So much of the time it really doesn’t make much of a difference. But better yet, find recipes that include things you eat regularly and always have around.
Yes, you want to have variety. But you don’t have to be all over the place. Pick a couple dark greens, a couple starchy vegetables, a couple whole grains, a couple protein items, a couple dairy… and just keep those around as your basics. If you want to spice things up every once in a while, by all means DO IT and you may find another item to keep around that your family loves! But add things slowly so you don’t get overwhelmed. Simplicity is seriously the #1 trick to successfully meal planning and not getting overwhelmed.
Make a few goals that are really important to you.
What would you love to see change in your regular family meals? Here are some ideas:
- Eating together once a day. There is so much to be said for sitting down together, at least once a day, for a full meal. In this day and age, most families are so busy that there may just be one (or some days none!) meal that everyone is actually home together. Whether that’s breakfast, lunch or dinner… figure out which one works best for you, and make an effort to create a habit! You will be surprised how much this blesses your family.
- Eating at least one balanced meal a day. Life happens. Sometimes breakfast has to be a granola bar on-the-go, and sometimes lunch has to be the McDonald’s drive-through. This is the life we live, mamas. Just ONE meal a day that has a hearty serving of veggies, meat & healthy fats (we get PLENTY of carbs without even trying… so don’t even worry about those) will bring the health of your family a long way.
- Adding more veggies. You might be one of those unusual families that just love veggies, and if you are BRAVO! But I’m willing to bet that most of you at least have some kids who struggle with eating their veggies. If it’s just a matter of putting them out, make sure you find some delicious recipes that include veggies (my favorite one is here!). If you have kids (or a hubby – gasp!) that just refuse them, try to look up some ways to hide them in casseroles, pasta, bread, and more. Pinterest is a great resource for these recipes.
- Budgeting. I’ve definitely been guilty of having those seasons where I make last minute dinner plans, then am running to the local (ahem… expensive!) grocery store for those ingredients I didn’t have. This runs up our grocery bill SO quickly! A good goal is to cook with what you already have on hand. Have a basic grocery list that you get every week, plus a few extras for your specific meal plans. I try to shop twice a month, and beyond that only use what I have.
- Having a plan. If all you really need is to make a plan and stick to it, make sure to get our free printable for meal planning!
Create a balanced diet.
Probably the most difficult part of meal planning is deciding WHAT to include. It can seem overwhelming to try to get everything we need into our family’s diet. But rest assured that as long as you have a bit of variety in colors and food types, your family will be healthy and have all the nutrients they need. Here are some guidelines to help you plan your meals.
Recommended Weekly Veggie Intake:
Dark Greens (2-3x): Spinach, Kale, Arugula, Asparagus, Mixed Greens
Non-Starchy Veggies (3-4x): Celery, Cucumbers, Broccoli, Onions, Sugar Snap Peas, Cauliflower, Eggplant, Mushrooms, Radishes, Cabbage, Green Beans
Red, Yellow & Orange Veggies (3-5x): Peppers, Squash, Carrots, Tomatoes, Sweet Potato, Pumpkin
Starchy Veggies (3-5x): Potatoes, Peas
Recommended Daily Intake:
Dairy Products (2-3x) – I aim for 1 dairy product at each meal.
Whole Grains (3-6x) – I usually aim for 1-2 grains at each meal.
Fruit & Veggies (4-7x) – I aim for 1 fruit or veggie at every meal and snack, for a total of 4-5x daily.
Protein (3-6x) – I aim for 1-2 protein items at every meal.
Make a weekly meal plan that works for your family.
Of course, everyone’s choices will be different, but here is basically what I do each week.
For breakfast, we always have eggs, greek yogurt, fresh fruit, whole grain cheerios, almond milk and homemade protein bites. We just grab whatever sounds good.
For lunch, we do a lot of smoothies (yogurt, almond milk, greens, bananas, fruit) or wraps with raw veggies.
For weekly dinners, I try to stick to this plan. I do my meal plans for 2 weeks at a time, so if you have to do every week that will look different for you. Some weeks this is what happens exactly, some weeks we don’t even eat this many times together as a family. Some weeks are a lot of leftovers depending on what we have made. But this helps me to get some balance in what I’m giving my family.
1x – Pasta Dish w/ Veggie (1x)
1-2x – Salad (w/ dark greens + meat + nuts + cheese + dried fruits + raw veggies)
1-2x – Soup or Casserole w/ veggies + beans
2-3x – Meat w/ veggies
1-2x – Mexican OR Homemade Pizza
2x – Cheat Day (Generally Sunday for us, as we try to rest)
2x – Leftovers
The biggest hazard for me is going somewhere that has too many options & is too expensive. I LOVE going to Aldi. Every store has almost the exact same options and brands (the store is also committed to 100% natural ingredients in EVERY product!), and the way things are organized inside of the store limits temptation to buy things you don’t need.
When you go shopping:
- Make a specific grocery list beforehand. If you are really good at losing or forgetting your list, write in on the notes in your phone. DO NOT sway from the list. Get what is on it, and leave the store.
- Eat before you go. Even if that just means having a little bag of nuts, fruit snacks or crackers in your car that you snack on before. Being full eliminates the temptation for things you don’t need. And if you have little children, give them a snack too so they aren’t constantly begging you for things to add to your cart.
- Have a plan for produce. Don’t just go crazy with the fruits and veggies, because they can get really pricey AND you won’t be able to eat all of them before they go bad. Try to pick one of each kind of fruit for your week. For example:
- Pick ONE type of salad, so you can have salad once or twice in the week. Mixed greens, kale, spinach, butter lettuce, etc.
- Pick TWO veggies you’ll enjoy raw, such as cucumbers, carrots, celery, snap peas… whatever your family likes to enjoy.
- Pick ONE or TWO berries. My family personally loves strawberries and blueberries. I get these two every time I go shopping. Other berries are frozen because we only use them for certain occasions.
- Pick ONE or TWO basic fruits. Bananas, oranges, pears, etc.
- Keep apples, potatoes & onions around. They keep well if you store them properly, and they are used often.
- Plan to use your fresh fruit in the first couple days after you go shopping. Plan to use your fresh veggies within the first week of going shopping. Plan on using frozen and canned fruits and veggies the second week.
- Buy frozen meats & veggies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the frozen food. In fact, most of it is actually fresher than the “fresh” produce! It’s also a serious life-saver for those of us that are bad at sticking to our meal planning.
- Choose the generic option. Sometimes the product put into the generic packaging is made by the same factory as the one in the name brand packaging. Wait… what? Did I just blow your mind?! Don’t let the pretty packaging fool you! While there may be some products that are definitely better name brand, a lot of things are just as good, if not exactly the same. You won’t know until you try, and you might just save tons of $$!
- Look at unit prices. On the tag under the product you are considering for purchase, check the unit price. At first glance, you may think that the $5 product is a better deal than the $6, but that’s not always the case. Aim for the lower unit price.
Stick to your plan.
There is no point in having a plan if you aren’t gonna stick to it! If you have trouble following through, remember these things:
- Visualize your family having healthy meals, and think about all the benefits that will come from it.
- You won’t regret making a meal today, but you may regret it tomorrow after eating out or snacking on junk food.
- Be accountable. Let a friend know that you are trying to make healthier meals at home, and have her check up on you – or better yet, do it together!
- Make your goals small. Don’t just rush into it all together. Make one small goal, then keep adding on to your goals as you get better and make long-term habits.
- Take a day off. On Sundays, sometimes we just go out to eat after church and have popcorn or pizza for dinner. It might not be the healthiest options, but if you are giving yourself one day to not worry about meal planning, it will hopefully give you just enough of a break to push through the rest of the week.