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  • Writer's pictureLiz Elam, RD, LDN

Meal Planning Tips for Busy Families

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

Meal Planning Tips for Busy Families:

The benefits of family meals and how to make them easier

When most of us think of a family meal we think of everyone sitting peacefully around the dinner

table, chatting about our days, and passing bowls of hot food to one another in “family-style”

fashion… sounds lovely, doesn’t it! Truthfully, dinner with young people is probably the most

volatile meal of the day. And, if your kids are older, after school activities might trump everyone

sitting down together at the table. The scenario above is, in my opinion, the gold standard for

family meals. So many benefits come to mind when we sit down together and eat this way.

  • Table manners: practicing please, thank you, and patience

  • Upholds division of responsibility: where the parent chooses what to eat and when, and the child decides if they want to eat and how much

  • Enhancing exposure: if not tasting food, then looking, smelling, possibly touching food as they pass…simply “experiencing the food”

  • Language and vocabulary development: table conversation teaches new words and how to hold natural conversations about interests and ideas

  • Learning to share: asking others before eating the last of certain foods

  • Enjoyable mealtime: builds confidence and promotes trust of child’s capabilities when it comes to understanding their own hunger and fullness cues

  • Motor skill development: opportunities to practice balance, passing platters, holding bowls, and scooping food

But, given our busy schedules and hostile moods around the “witching hour,” how do we do it? How do we actually put food on the table and have a positive experience. As a mom of a five-year-old, three-year-old, and nine-month-old, I get it. And as a registered dietitian, I prioritize what we eat and our eating experience. So, here are five meal planning ideas that I use that might work for you and your family.

1.) Be Flexible

Rather than making dinner the family meal, could it be breakfast? Maybe lunch or brunch together on Saturday or Sunday? Or maybe dinner is the meal you eat as a family, but it’s not around a traditional table. In the summer, we often sit at the pool together and have a “snack tray” dinner complete with fruit, veggies and dip, cheese and crackers and a few types of sandwiches cut up in quarters for everyone. Even more simple, Domino’s pizza by the pool. Maybe in the spring or fall you pack a family picnic for the baseball or soccer field. Heck, I’ve seen some chauffeuring moms with crockpots in their trunks, ready for a tailgate-style dinner between multiple after-school activities! So what if we aren’t passing bowls of hot food around a table, we’re together and we’re connecting and that is what’s important.

2.) Get into a rhythm

When I speak of rhythm, I am referring to a specific “plan, shop, cook” rhythm. This rhythm can look different for each family depending on schedules, the size of your family, how many times you go to the grocery, and your personality. I found a good rhythm last fall and have stuck to it religiously because it works for me right now. I expect it to change as my family or as seasons change, though. In a rhythm planning must come first. Without a plan, I can’t make a complete grocery list, and without a grocery list I’m mindlessly putting items in my cart that I may or may not use (thus wasting money when food goes bad). My current rhythm is this. On Thursdays, I plan for the week ahead and make a grocery list. On Friday, I shop. Why don’t planning and shopping go on the same day, you ask? I like to give myself time to inventory the fridge, cabinets and freezer and I can do that in short chunks of time throughout the day on Thursday. The beauty of having all my groceries home on Friday afternoon is that I have time on the weekends to get ahead. I can marinate and batch grill meat on Sunday. I can chop veggies for fajitas and pasta dishes on Saturday. Weekends are when I have time to get ahead, and when everything is already there for me, it’s easier.

3.) Focus on more than the food

When planning your meals don’t just focus on the food. Scrutinize your week ahead. Get out your calendars – if you’re like me you have a paper calendar, appointment book, Google calendar… get them all out. Note what nights are going to be crazy with activities. This might be a good night for a crock pot meal or something really easy (for us, that’s nuggets or quesadillas), or even easier… Chick-fil-a. Note what nights you are all at home. This might be a great night to try a meal where the kids can help in the kitchen, or maybe you try a recipe that takes a little more time and effort. Note if you’re having company over for dinner. Next, take a look at your weather app. Is it soup weather, taco weather, can you grill? There’s nothing worse than planning to grill and there is a 95% chance of rain at 6:00pm that day.

4.) Use the “Dinner Queue”

The “Dinner Queue” is a term coined by Kendra Adachi from “The Lazy Genius” (a blog, podcast, and book). It’s simply a predetermined list of recipes to pull from when deciding what to eat for dinner. Your dinner queue can have as little as 7 options (if you’re okay with a lot of repetition) or 40 plus (if you don’t like a lot of repetition). It’s a quick reference for dinner ideas without getting lost in the world of cookbooks, old recipe binders, Pinterest or Instagram and it makes planning super-fast. The recipes in the queue will likely change by the season (as in winter, spring, summer, or fall). Naturally, there might be more soups and stews in the fall and winter and more grilling in the spring and summer. Recipes might also change with your season of life. Are you living with toddlers or older kids with lots of activities? Is this a busy work season where you can’t devote a lot of time to cooking? Do you have an empty nest? My queue is a typed-out list of about 20-30 meal ideas that lives in my meal planning/recipe binder. Every Thursday when I meal plan, I pull out my meal planning binder, plug in meals from the queue into my calendar and then turn to the recipe in the binder to make a grocery list. Unless I’m dying to make something new, I’m not searching for dinner ideas because they’re already in the queue.

5.) Prep when you can

There’s nothing worse than arriving home at 6pm from work with a houseful of hungry people and no plan or no start on dinner. Sometimes it works (like if the plan is frozen pizza or sandwich night), but not if you have more elaborate plans. To make things move along a little faster on these busy nights, I try to have things ready to go. Here are some examples:

  • Utilize slow cooking: On Thursday morning, I put “Slow Cooker Chicken Stew” in the crock pot so all I had to do was make a side dish (I literally microwaved a rice pouch.)

  • Make a soup or casserole ahead of time: On Saturday I had some free time so I went ahead and made the “Enchilada Casserole” for Tuesday night’s dinner because I know Tuesday nights are busy.

  • Chop all of the things at one time: On Monday, I was chopping veggies for fajitas and thought, “What the heck, my knife and cutting board are already out, let me go ahead and chop the broccoli and sweet potato for our sheet pan meal on Wednesday.”

  • Grill multiple meats: On Saturday we grilled steaks and I threw on some chicken breasts too. It’s nice to have them on hand for salads, wraps, and quesadillas.

The last thing I recommend prepping is a pre-dinner snack plate for hungry kids. Whenever I start prepping dinner there seems to be a magnetic force between my kids and my kitchen. “When is it going to be ready… I’m hungry… What are you chopping… Can I have a bite…” This is where the pre-dinner snack plate is a life saver. I keep a container of chopped fruit and veggies stocked in the fridge and pull it out when I’m making dinner. It’s usually an assortment of cucumbers, peppers, carrots, celery, sugar snap peas, berries, melons, oranges, grapes, or kiwi – whatever we have that week. The only downside is that sometimes they fill up on fruit and veggies so they may not eat as much for dinner, but ninety percent of the time they’re still clamoring for what I’m making.

The moral of the story is, not every meal needs to be a “family-style” meal, but the more opportunities the better. What’s more important is that you are connecting through a meal. It doesn’t matter if you’re eating pizza, pancakes, or spaghetti and meatballs or if you’re eating at the table, a picnic bench or the trunk of your car.



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