Last week I shared how meal planning + meal prep simplifies my life as a mama. With two small kiddos, a husband who goes away for work often, running a small business and leading the MOPS ministry at our church, life is full. It's wonderful and I love everything I am called to do, but I've had to learn how to balance everything with my desire to feed my family nourishing, real foods. One of the ways I do this is to plan ahead. I know, and I discussed this before- for those of you creative types whom planning makes you cringe; there is a way! I love to create new and different recipes, but for our day to day life, planning and prep ahead ensures we always have healthy food to put on the table, no matter how crazy life gets. But I know it's easier said than done, sometimes- so I thought it might be helpful to share exactly how I meal plan for our family, especially during the busy seasons (like back to school, coming up!).
How I Meal Plan (step by step):
1. I check my calendar.
This is the FIRST thing I do, ALWAYS. We use a shared google calendar in our family, but I also have a paper planner (I am totally a pen-and-paper girl, if you can't tell). Checking your calendar to see what's coming up is CRUCIAL in planning meals (and prep!) that works FOR you and simplifies your life. Sure, that 30-minute-in-the-oven casserole with 16 ingredients LOOKS good on Tuesday, but not if you work til 5 and have soccer at 5:30, and the kids go to bed at 7. A crock pot meal that's ready as soon as you get home or a meal pulled together with prepped ingredients will work much better, here. How often you meal plan is generally based on how often you grocery shop and how far out you plan events- in our current season I do a rough plan for the month, with lots of flexibility (this also works for recipe testing for cooking classes and the blog) and sit down each week to plan then upcoming week based on our day-to-day schedule. You might plan two weeks at a time, because you grocery shop every other week; or life might be crazy so you might be a weekly planning gal. It doesn't matter how often you do it; it's how it works for YOU and your family.
2. I check into my pantry + freezer inventory lists.
I do my best to update my inventory lists once a month, so I know what I have on hand to work with before going shopping. This ends up being a HUGE budget lifesaver, because although we systemize a lot of our food shopping with Butcherbox and Thrive Market, if I see a sale on grass-fed ground beef, I've been known to buy 10 packs to freeze. Same with going to Trader Joes, you know I'll be buying a few bags of their wild Alaskan shrimp because my girls love it so much, and I'll pretty much buy them out of cauli rice. I leave some wiggle room in my budget to make these type of purchases, because they save us in the long run- and make meal planning SO much easier.
3. I reference my family favorites list. This is such a game changer for meal planning for a family! Having a list of meals (and sources) on hand that you know the family loves gives you a great head-start on planning for the week (or longer). It can also help you scan through and choose recipes that have similar ingredients, the first step to simplifying meal prep (and dinners throughout the week).
4. I plan dinners.
Time to plan dinner! As dinner is our big family meal of the day, and usually requires the most prep (and also contributes to lunches), I plan dinners first. I use that family favorites list, along with Pinterest and some favorite cookbooks to choose recipes for the week. I plan FIVE recipes- yep, that's it- each week, because that gives me some leeway to be flexible, have a leftovers night, or grab takeout. We're real humans with busy schedules! ;) This allows for mixing it up when we aren't feeling on meal on a particular night, mixing and matching and still having the basis for healthy meals throughout the week, and even stretching meals for two nights.
5. I plan lunches. Leftovers are a HUGE part of our lunch planning- so knowing what we're having for dinner, first, is a necessity, then I can plan for leftovers for myself, and sometimes my husband and kiddos, as well. My husband is a creature of habit and tends to take the same deli meat and cheese roll ups with veggies and a bunch of snacks daily, so as long as he's stocked up, he's good. When S is in school, I choose two 'main dishes' for lunches to rotate through for the week (whether it be deli meat, homemade chicken nuggets, leftover stew or sunflower butter sandwiches; I like to provide variety) and make note of ingredients I need and prep I need to do.
6. I make a rough plan for breakfast and snacks. I drink a smoothie pretty much every single morning. So for me, all I need to do is have a few smoothie bags on hand for busy mornings. My older daughter often drinks a smoothie, as well, but she's a kid and gets bored- so I make sure to always have a second option on hand. Egg muffins are a big hit in our house, so is homemade granola and yogurt or healthy muffins. The little one usually shares my smoothie, or has some yogurt and fruit, or some leftover meat, so she's easy. Just having a plan so we have the options on hand is key. Same deal for snacks- I try to meal prep at least one snack option every week so we have a homemade option (like power balls) along with some of our favorite clean packaged options.
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7. I create my grocery list + plan out my meal prep for the week.
The final and most important part of my prep is actually putting it into action! I create my grocery list based off my plan (remembering staple items I buy each week, and noting where I need to put pantry essentials on the list), go shopping and plan out my meal prep for the week. Depending on the time I have, this could be as simple as cutting veggies and fruit for lunch and snacking, hard cooking some eggs and making homemade salad dressing. Or, it could be more complicated like cooking up a big batch of protein, chopping (and perhaps steaming) veggies for multiple meals, putting together bags to toss in the slow cooker, and making up a soup or stew for the week. Again, mama, it's what works for YOU- and I go over ALL these methods in my Healthy Mama Meal Prep online course.
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