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Meal Planning Hacks for Busy Families

Posted on: January 31st, 2017 by Bri DeRosa

notebookWhen it comes to planning meals in advance, it’s hard to make an argument against the practice. After all, logically speaking, meal planning makes life easier in a number of ways:

  1. If you know what you’re going to cook for the next several days, it’s easier to construct a thorough grocery list and get the right ingredients into the house.
  2. Meal planning makes it easier to get the cooking done efficiently, because you’re not wasting time digging around trying to pull something together.
  3. A little advance planning will ensure that a post-soccer-practice meal is waiting in the slow cooker or that a pre-assembled casserole can be popped into the oven by your teens while you’re at that late work meeting.
  4. Meal planning can also serve as a protection against the temptation to grab fast food or bust the budget with too many restaurant meals; after all, if you’ve got all the ingredients for a pre-planned dinner waiting at home, it’s harder to justify letting them all sit in the fridge while you swing by the drive-thru.

Yes, planning your meals ahead of time makes a lot of sense. So why can it feel so hard to accomplish?

Some people meal plan (seemingly) effortlessly, while others struggle and ultimately give up. For all those struggling planners out there, we’re coming to the rescue with two meal planning hacks you may not have seen before:

The “Shared Calendar” Approach.

Whether on paper or via tech, this winning strategy is especially great for families with picky eaters and for families with older kids and teens who like to have input into dinnertime. Post a big printed calendar somewhere central in your home — perhaps right in the middle of the kitchen table? — or, if you’re a techie family, create a shared online calendar and invite everyone to use it. Tell each family member to choose a favorite meal and add it to an open day on the calendar. Before you know it, you’ll have a week’s worth of dinners planned for you, with minimal whining about the menu.

The “Slow Build” Approach.

If you find yourself continually overwhelmed and frustrated with meal planning, an all-or-nothing strategy might not be best for you. With the “slow build,” you’ll gradually work up to a rotating meal plan that can be used over and over again:

  • Week One
    Plan one meal in advance. Try to stick to a family favorite to avoid stress.
  • Week Two
    Plan another meal.
  • Week Three
    In the third week, plan another meal — and add your Week One meal to another day of the week.
  • Week Four
    Plan another meal, adding your Week Two meal on another day.
  • Week Five
    Plan a meal, and add your Week Three meal on another day.
  • Week Six
    Plan a meal, and add your Week Four meal on another day.
  • Week Seven
    Now add your two meals from Week Three and Week Four together. You’ve got four days planned!
  • Week Eight
    Add the two meals from Week Five and the two from Week Six together for another four days of dinners planned.

You can keep working with this every-other-week rotation for as long as you like, adding in new dinners occasionally to keep it fresh and to help fill in extra days of the week. Over time, you’ll develop several full weeks’ worth of dinner menus that you can choose from — making meal planning a no-work task!

Of course, even with these easy strategies, you may still need a little extra help. Check out our free Dinner Tonight subscription series, which will send a recipe, conversation starter and game to your email five days a week. Subscribers can also create shopping lists, save favorites and keep track of their progress towards their dinner goals!