If dinner is the most stressful time of your day, meal planning and food prep might help. We all eat, and most of us do it at least three times a day. Let’s find a few ways that we can make it a more satisfying part of your life.
You might feel frazzled at 5 p.m. every evening, when you walk into the kitchen and realize – yet again – that you forgot to pull the chicken out of the freezer to thaw, or that you’re out of tomato sauce for the spaghetti sauce you planned to make for dinner. Maybe you’re bored with the same rotation of meals you’ve been eating for months and you’d like a change. Perhaps you’ve been spending too much on eating out because a lack of time, energy, or planning makes cooking difficult. Or maybe you’re dissatisfied with what you’ve been eating, knowing you’d like to make some healthier choices. You might feel like you’ll lose your ever-loving mind if your kids whine or complain one more time about dinner.
Regardless of which scenario above is plaguing you, meal planning and food prep can be part of your solution. Let’s get started.
Identify Your Pain Points
Which scenario above can you identify with the most? They can be broken down into some basic pain points related to meals:
- Lack of planning
- Lack of time to cook
- Spending too much on food
- Health concerns
- Feeding a family (especially kids)
The good news is, meal planning and food prep can help with each of these problems!
Maybe your main problem is lack of planning for meals. Perhaps you make a plan, but when five o’clock rolls around, you don’t have the energy or desire to cook. Or you might be missing a key ingredient for the meal you hoped to make. The other scenario could be that you don’t plan at all, and every day you’re left puttering around the kitchen at 5 p.m., trying to decide what to make. Either way, you might end up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – again.
Now, don’t hear this as judgment – I love a PB&J as much as the next person. But if you’re tired of the PB&J as a last resort, that’s where meal planning and food prep can swoop in to help you save your own day!
Once you identify the problem, it’s time to think about your ideal solution. (I shared this basic method of problem solving here.)
You eat three times a day, give or take. You likely spend a fair amount of your time thinking about, planning for, shopping for, preparing, eating, and cleaning up after your meals. What do you want out of your meals, and mealtimes?
In the case of poor planning, how would you ideally like to approach the dinner hour? Would you like to walk in the door after a long day of work and know exactly what you’re going to make? Taking it a step further, would you like to walk into the kitchen at 5:30 p.m. and already smell dinner cooking? If you’re a stay-at-home mom, perhaps you’d like to avoid the mad rush of putting dinner together during the Witching Hour. Perhaps, ideally, you’d like to avoid cooking altogether and have a personal chef deliver a gourmet meal to your house every evening at 6 o’clock sharp. If your budget allows for that, go right ahead! But if your ideal situation isn’t financially feasible, then it’s time to adjust your expectations and find a workable solution. (Enter: Meal planning!)
How to Meal Plan
There are a million ways to meal plan. At its most basic, you simply make a list of the meals you are going to eat and what you need to make them.
I’m going to share with the nitty gritty of how I meal plan. Glean from this what you can, but also know that what works for me may not work for you. For context, I’m a stay-at-home mom of three kids, one of whom eats mostly gluten-free. I live in a small town and do most of my shopping at Aldi and Kroger. I generally like to cook, but go through seasons where I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve faced literally every one of the problems I listed above. I’m also organized, and I love routines, almost to a fault. 😊
The When, Where & How of Meal Planning
For the season of my life, the rhythm that works best for me is to grocery shop once a week. I grocery shop on Tuesdays, so on Mondays I plan my menu for the coming week. Using a spiral Steno pad (link), I list my meals for the week down one page, then putting my shopping list (divided by store) on the flip side of the notebook.
I like to meal plan at the kitchen counter, so that I can jump up and check the fridge to see if we need more cheddar cheese for Taco Tuesday, for instance. I also meal plan with my calendar by my side, so that I can account for whatever is going on each week. On Fridays, when my husband takes the kids to jiu-jitsu, I know I need to plan a simple meal that can be ready in about twenty minutes and eaten quickly.
In addition to planning for dinner, I also plan breakfasts and lunches. For those meals, there’s a lot of flexibility, and I’m mostly just making a list of what we’ll probably eat for those meals over the course of the coming week, so that I can make sure I have the right ingredients on hand.
How to Food Prep
Food prep can help take the pain out of feeding yourself and your people three times a day, seven days a week. As with meal planning, there are many ways to do it, but you can make it work for your life.
I meal prep on Tuesday afternoons, soon after I’ve gotten home from the grocery store. I look over my menu and decide what would be most helpful to have done in advance to make dinners (and sometimes lunches) easier, then make a list.
Rarely do I make an entire meal; instead, I prepare portions of it. I might chop and roast veggies, cook a pot of rice, or hard boil eggs for salads the coming week. I might brown the ground beef for tacos.
In addition to making dinnertime easier, I also find that I waste less food. When I’m in a hurry to get dinner on the table, I might decide to skip throwing together that salad. The lettuce goes bad and we don’t get enough veggies onto our plates.
Addressing Other Mealtime Pain Points
I promised that meal planning and food prep could help address all the problems listed above, but in this post, I’ve mostly focused on lack of planning. Let’s look quickly at how meal planning might help in other areas of stress, too.
Lack of Planning
- Sit down once a week (or on a rhythm that works for you) to meal plan for the coming week.
- Set aside two hours for food prep.
- Set a “dinner is coming” reminder on your phone for each morning before you leave the house. When it goes off, check your menu to see if there’s anything you need to do before you leave.
- Check the menu and ask the “Magic Question,” a la The Lazy Genius: What can I do now to make dinner easier later?
Lack of Time
- Look into a meal planning service. $5 Meal Plan saves you time on planning your menu.
- Find a two-hour time slot in your week when you can prep food for the week to coming – wash produce, chop veggies, brown meat, put together a casserole, cook a big pot of rice. You don’t have to cook the entire meal for food prep to be helpful. You might also decide that you want to prepare a couple of items for lunch, whether you work at home or in an office.
- Keep a list of meals that have worked for you/your family; it’ll make planning much easier next time!
- Put “eating out” on the menu for a busy night. There’s nothing wrong with eating out, and chances are you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve planned to do it.
- Save some time by placing a grocery pickup order. Use the time saved to do some food prep!
- Purchase or borrow a cookbook to get new recipe ideas.
- Order a meal kit delivery service. There are so many options available now; you’re sure to find something that fits your taste.
- Ask a friend what her family has been enjoying for dinner lately.
- Do you find food prep and cooking boring? Turn on some music or listen to an engaging podcast or audiobook to turn it into a time that is enjoyable and feeds your mind as well as your body.
Overspending on Food
- Meal plan and food prep! Sometimes you just have to do the thing. (I told you self-care wasn’t sexy.)
- Meal planning and food prep will help so much with this!
- If you need help figuring out what “healthy” means for you and your body, find a Registered Dietician who can walk with you on your health journey and give you recipe ideas.
Feeding a Family (Especially Picky Eaters!)
- When you meal plan, include your family. Make your picky eaters give you ideas for meals that will make them happy.
- If you want, make sure that there’s at least one part of a meal that your kids will eat. They may turn their nose up at that grilled honey mustard chicken, but they can fill up on rice and carrot sticks!
- If it works with your family’s feeding philosophy, have a couple of alternatives that your kids can always have if they don’t care for what you’ve made.
- Implement a no whining policy at mealtimes. My kids have to pay me 25 cents every time they whine or complain about a meal. They learned really fast!
We’ve established that self-care isn’t all bubble baths and chocolate cake. In fact, self-care is any activity that strengthens us – body, soul, or spirit – and equips us to live our actual lives. When it comes to caring for our bodies, feeding ourselves is one of the basic building blocks of self-care. When meal planning and food prep are under control, we have more freedom to pursue other things that matter.
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