Meal Planning Basics: A Busy Moms Guide to Taking Control of the Kitchen

As a busy mom, you’re probably interested in learning more about how you can save a few hours of your precious time each week.

And what better way to do that than by reducing the amount of time you spend in the kitchen on a daily basis? How? By incorporating some simple meal planning techniques into your weekly routine.

Let’s be honest, the dinner time routine (especially with kids) is one of the most stressful and time-consuming parts of the day. If you haven’t done any planning for the week, when 5 PM rolls around, who doesn’t dread the question “what’s for dinner?”

It can make you feel like a failure in the kitchen, as if you have no ability to plan ahead. Why, oh why, does spending time in the kitchen feel like such a chore?

Without a doubt, procrastination plays a role in our inability to plan ahead. And that’s to be expected I guess. There are times when the last thing anyone wants to do is think about cooking, let alone come up with something unique.

But this makes no sense. Because meal planning, in reality, is so darn easy.

You almost certainly waste more time trying to throw something new together every night of the week than it would take to make a weekly meal plan. Additionally, heading into the grocery store without a plan often ends in budget-busting impulse buys and unnecessary stress. Blech!

For many families, dinner is the only meal during which the whole family can sit down together and talk. It should be an enjoyable experience, not a hectic one.

If you’ve planned, shopped, and prepped ahead of time, your weeknight dinners don’t need to consist of microwaved canned soup in front of the television. Or Ramen noodles, gah!

What is Meal Planning?

Before we jump into the “why” and “how” of meal planning, let’s talk about what it is (and isn’t).

Although it may seem simple, meal planning is actually a process, one that will save you from having to contemplate what to cook and what recipes you need each day. In simpler terms, it involves selecting your dinner recipes, shopping for ingredients and preparing those ingredients as much as possible in advance.

It also involves being more efficient in the kitchen – both in terms of time and food costs.

If you have kids, meal planning requires even more dedication and discipline, but it’s worth the effort. I can virtually guarantee that it’ll result in the following:

  • Saving money
  • Living a more healthy lifestyle
  • Spending more time with family

No matter how you slice it, planning and even prepping your meals at least a week in advance is a good idea that will have a positive impact on you and your family.

As you jump into meal planning, try to remember that this isn’t an exercise in perfection. It’s more a process of gradual improvement.

You’re bound to get off course every now and then and it’s not the end of the world. Simply get back on track when it works for you. Remember, even if you only manage to plan your menu for two weeks of the month you’ll still see a dramatic impact.

What Are the Benefits of Meal Planning?

Meal planning offers a lot of benefits for everyone – especially if you have kids and a busy household. You’ll experience less stress, better nutrition, a lower grocery bill, more time and as a bonus, greater variety. 

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits.

You’ll Save Time — So Much Time

By my calculation, the time spent in the kitchen on a weekly basis – most of which is at dinner time – is enough to train for a marathon.

Now, maybe you don’t have a goal of training for a 26-mile road race but what if you could find a way to recover just 50% of those hours?

How might that impact your life?

Achieving this goal is easier than you might think.

How? Well, if you know what you’re going to make for the week, you’ll only need to make one trip to the supermarket. After that, you can come home straight from work, giving you more time to do the stuff that really matters.

Next, there’s a process that a lot of entrepreneurs use called batching and it’ll be one of your biggest sources of time saved. Batching involves completing as many versions of a repetitive task as possible, all at the same time. It has a massive and cumulative effect on your productivity in the kitchen.

Here’s an example:

Let’s assume that for each breakfast, lunch and dinner that you prepare, you spend time cutting vegetables and a protein. As part of that process, you do the following:

  • Set up a cutting board, maybe two
  • Take items out of the fridge or freezer
  • Clean your cutting board, clean your knife
  • Load the items into to dishwasher
  • Unload the items from the dishwasher and put them away

All told, the repetitive steps involved in meal preparation take 8 minutes of your time each and every day. If you multiply that 8 minutes times 7 days per week, you’re looking at a grand total of 56 minutes.

If instead, you completed the meal planning and preparation only on Sundays, you’d be saving 49 minutes of time each week. Now, multiply that across a variety of tasks and it’s easy to see how quickly the time savings can add up. Add in five fewer trips to the grocery store and you can quickly start to see time savings multiply.

You can learn more about how to simplify the meal planning process and save even more time here.

You’ll Save Money

Being spontaneous is fun, but when it comes to food, spontaneity rarely pays dividends in terms of your household budget or spare time.

If your lack of planning is causing you to eat out more often, that’s not economical either. If you’re a parent, I think you’d agree that you already have lots of expenses. It’s not unusual for food costs to be one of the biggest line-items.

A simple truth: Budgeting your money is no easy task, but meal planning can have a dramatic impact and is a great place to start.

Here are just a few ways that some basic planning can benefit your pocketbook:

  1. You’ll avoid spending on things you don’t really need. That extra-large jar of pineapple salsa may have been on sale, but it’s not a smart purchase if it just sits around in your fridge until it goes bad. Fewer impulse purchases result in huge savings.
  2. You make better use of leftovers. I don’t know about you but our family does a horrible job of managing leftovers – we often forget about them or the kids feel like eating something different. It’s such a waste!
  3. You’ll run fewer dishes through your dishwasher which results in using less hot water, less soap and less time (time is money, so they say).
  4. You’ll be able to buy things that are on sale and use coupons more often because you’ll be planning ahead.

If meal planning allowed you to save an extra $200/month (easily achievable btw), you’ll have more money to put towards fulfilling your financial goals.  Investing, saving for your kids’ education, traveling, and building your emergency fund – all these things become easier to achieve when you start to reduce your food cost. We wrote a whole post on the different ways you can save money with meal planning.

You’ll Reduce Your Stress Level

Day to day life is already stressful enough. And having to stop at the grocery store on the way home plus prep and cook a meal just adds to the mix.  Oh, and don’t forget to factor in kids who “don’t like” what’s on the menu.

Meal planning may not seem exciting, but once you start doing it, you’ll be amazed at how much less mental energy you’ll spend on cooking and eating.

The entire dinner hour becomes more relaxing and less stressful. Even though you may be tired when you get home, you don’t have to worry about what to cook because you already prepared beforehand.

Planning ahead equals happiness.

You’ll Eat Healthier Meals

No matter how much you want to prepare nutritious meals, a busy schedule and lack of planning almost always get in the way of doing so. It’s truly difficult to make healthy choices when you’re short on time and energy since it’s far easier to pick up fast food or reheat a TV dinner than it is to start from scratch. You can give yourself a head start on balanced nutrition by committing to recipes that are good for your body and mind.

Eating healthy is essential. Kids need all the nutrition they can get from food while they are growing, and it’s never too early to start teaching them healthy habits.

Planning meals can help to enforce all kinds of positive habits for your kids. When they see you making a plan and sticking to it, they’ll develop their own sense of discipline and learn how much easier almost everything can be with a little planning.

Greater Opportunities for Food Variety

You’ve probably found yourself cooking the same recipes over and over again.  I can hear my kids complaining now. “BBQ chicken…again?!?”

That’s what happens when you don’t take the time to plan your meals. If you don’t start thinking about preparing dinner until you’re hungry, you’ll just reach for the same things you always do. Over time, this can make even the best meals seem dull and uninspired and it also increases the temptation to “eat out” so you can experience something different.

If you’re looking for new ideas, there’s no shortage of recipes online. Maybe consider using an app like Trello or Evernote to collect tasty recipes. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a list of you and your spouse’s favorite childhood meals
  • Put together a list of international dishes from countries you’ve visited
  • Let your kids create the menu for a week

How To Get Started

Getting started is easier than you might imagine. And don’t think for a second that things have to be perfect the first time around. Even if you planned out meals for 3-4 days of each week, you’re gonna see a huge difference!

At the start of the week, allot a half-hour of your time to decide on meals for the week ahead. Pick recipes and make two lists of ingredients – those you already have and those you need to buy. Sure, it will take a chunk of time on the front end, but during the week, you’ll be amazed how much time you’ve saved.

Here’s what it might look like:

  1. List out the days of the week. Pro tip – create a “code” system for the days with a color, number or word that indicates what kind of day it will be. A long day with little time for food prep? A more relaxed day with a bit more time to spare? 
  2. Gather a list of recipes and meals you already enjoy, as well as ones you’ve researched or perhaps have been meaning to prepare but just haven’t gotten around to.
  3. Go through your week and plug in the meals you have on your list as they fit best with what you have going on those days. Meals you can prepare in advance, for example, will be best for those long busy days.
  4. Compare the list you made of what you already have in your kitchen with what you’ll need for the meals you’ve planned and create a shopping list of what’s left. 
  5. Pick a day that you can do as much prep for your meals as possible. Make sure you have the right kinds of containers if you need to store things in the freezer. Pro tip – label your containers with the day/meal they’re intended for. 
  6. Enjoy the rest of your week knowing you put in a little effort and can breath a lot easier!

If you’re a newbie, it might take you some time to get in this habit. However, once you do, it’s worth it. If you don’t want to forge your own path, there are meal planning services online, but it can be more fulfilling to do it yourself. Here are some tips on meal planning for beginners:

  • Use a weekly meal planning template
  • Mark the days when cooking will be difficult and make them a priority
  • Write down options for breakfast and lunch, but plan mostly for dinners
  • Always be thinking about how you can use leftovers
  • On a separate sheet, list all the items you’ll need to make these meals BEFORE heading to the grocery store.
  • Plan for meals with fresh ingredients at the beginning of the week

Let me reiterate this super important point:  Don’t forget to check what you have in the fridge before you leave for the grocery store. We’ve wasted so much food by accidentally duplicating what we already have. The next thing you know, it’s gone bad and that equals money down the drain.

Don’t Forget About Budgeting and Food Cost

For beginners, budgeting is one of the hardest things to stick with. You may have a budget of $150 for this week but end up spending $500 the following week. It just takes a little time to adjust your shopping habits.

It’s also important to make notes about when food items go on sale and which stores offer the best prices on certain items.

Tracking your food cost each week allows you to make a game of the process. See if you can beat last week’s “score” by saving on items or reducing waste.

A Few Extra Tips

Meal planning is like any other skill: The more you do it the better you get. Consider keeping notes or a food planning binder so you can track your progress. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Check Out Our List of resources

We totally get the idea that this process might seem a little overwhelming at first. To make your life just a little bit easier we’ve put together an initial list of resources that will help you kick-start your planning efforts.

Utilize Foods That are Flexible

Pasta is something you can pair with anything. If you feel like cooking spaghetti with meatballs tonight, you can always switch sauces and proteins later in the week to create a completely different dish. It’s filling, and it’s a pick that your kids will definitely love.

Use the same base for more than one meal. For example, a batch of chicken stock could be used for stew, soup or sauce.

Use One Protein for Many Meals

Just as pasta is versatile, you can also pair a single protein source with many different seasonings and side dishes to create a variety of meals. Meat is usually one of the most expensive items on your grocery list.

You probably don’t want to buy turkey, pork chops, and a rack of ribs all in one week. A single package of chicken breasts, on the other hand, can go in stir-fries, stews and casseroles.

Something we do on a regular basis is BBQ an entire package or two of chicken, sometimes seasoned different ways. It lasts 5-6 days in the fridge and can be used multiple ways. It also makes sure that you have healthy snacks on hand when you’re hungry.

Open Your Freezer

Have you forgotten what you put in the freezer weeks ago?

The only way you’ll know is by taking a look. Take stock of the ingredients that you already have and plan backward from there. If you’ve got whole dinners on ice, like frozen lasagnas or skillet meals, reserve them for a particularly busy night.

Don’t forget to rotate your food properly – first in, first out. Nothing is worse than preparing a dinner, dropping it in the freezer and then forgetting about it only to remember it five weeks later once freezer burn has set in.

Key Takeaways

Meal planning is a great idea for busy parents. Sure, it takes a little planning and you’ll need to develop better habits, but there are so many advantages!

It doesn’t just help you eat healthier and more delicious meals, but it also keeps you on budget.

You’ll stop buying ingredients that merely sit in the fridge or the pantry until they need to be thrown out. Plus the time and energy savings are a massive bonus – you’ll suddenly discover that you have time for things like family games before or after dinner.

No matter what your meal planning goal is, stay motivated to stick to your plan.

If you’re just starting out, hang in there! Meal planning is a good way to instill discipline when it comes to handling your finances and reducing excessive eating. Once it becomes a habit, you’ll thank yourself!