Feeding Your Family: Meal Planning for the Exhausted Parent
How many times a week do you just wave the white flag and order take-out dinner for the family? Or maybe dig into the underbelly of your freezer and pull out a frozen, highly processed meal for your kids? There is that momentary relief of knowing its one less thing to think about, but you know that feeling that comes shortly after…. Guilt. Uggggh, Parent guilt. It’s the worst.
Meal planning can feel like a daunting task when you’re feeding a family, because, really, who has the mental energy to keep meals interesting after a long, stressful workday??? Don’t beat yourself up, even us dietitians are guilty! My kids have eaten more than their fair share of Dr. Praeger’s Littles. Listen, there will always be nights when cooking just isn’t possible, or, honestly, you just need a break. That’s OK. That said, I think the path to more home cooked meals is shorter than you may think. Not every meal needs to be a made-from-scratch masterpiece. Half the battle is having a plan, and if your kids are older, recruit them to get involved!
I know I don’t have to sell you on the value of a home cooked meal. Less salt, preservatives, and sugar, and more opportunities to expose our kids to real, good food as it is meant to taste. The question is HOW. How to make it an easy, quick process that you’ll be able to follow through on. Well, if you are able to dedicate 30 minutes each week for planning (c’mon… you know you can reallocate that time at work that you’ve been giving to social media… like… maybe even at this very moment, lol) and the amount of time you spend waiting for Uber Eats to deliver your dinner, than you got this! Thirty minutes of meal planning each week will pay out in dividends in your family’s health and relationship to food. I am an avid believer that when a child sees how their meals are made and what goes into it, it fosters a respect and awareness for food that will carry into their adulthood.
So... WHERE DO I START? You have some options. It’s 2018, there’s an app for that. There are lots of cool and versatile apps like Mealime and MealBoard, which allow you to select food preferences, choose healthy, simple recipes and prepare grocery lists. They are a great option to make meal planning super fast and stress-free. The downside is that they generally aren’t free (Mealime has a free option, but this limits your access to recipes) and don’t account for your food budget, or what grocery items are available locally or in season. For me, I prefer to go the non-app route. This allows me a lot of freedom in meal options, and better yet, keep food costs within budget.
- PLAN VARIETY: To avoid a weekly menu full of too much meat, I plan for 2-3 meatless dinners, 1-2 fish dinners, and 1-2 meat dinners. This also helps organize and narrow down recipe options.
- BUILDING RECIPES: I like to start by reviewing my grocery store’s weekly circular online. As I find items of interest, I start building my meals. This is good not only for budget, but also because produce is generally cheapest at the peak of its season. Full flavor for less $$. Win win. So, for example, wild salmon and fresh corn are both on sale – this becomes a super easy BBQ night of cedar plank salmon and grilled corn salad. Make it more fun by experimenting with new ingredients or cultural cuisines. A quick Google search of any ingredient provides a plethora of awesome recipe options to keep me inspired.
- KEEP IT REALISTIC: Generally speaking, I try not to plan for more than 4-5 dinners per week, because I know something always comes up and I’m left with food waste. Cooking double portions and storing them in the freezer is a simple way to have quick, homemade dinners ready in a flash on those nights when you don’t have any meal planned. Even better, store them in aluminum trays for fast clean up. Believe me, you’ll be feeling like doing victory lap any time you pull this off!
- KEEP IT SIMPLE: Keep in mind what nights you plan to make each meal. I don’t plan a meal that requires lots of prep on a night I know I won’t be home before 6:30pm... Despite the best of intentions, after the kid’s baths, etc (honestly, why do evenings always feel so insanely busy??), that meal ain’t gettin made. For these nights, I plan a simple veggie pasta dish, or use shortcuts like microwaveable frozen vegetables instead of fresh. Fish is also a great option for a quick weeknight meal because it requires little prep and bakes up super-fast. You’ll be much more likely to cook if you can whip it together in 20 minutes.
- PREP MEALS ON THE WEEKEND: Ok, I’ll be honest- this one appeals to me in theory, but when Sunday rolls around, chopping 5 nights worth of veggies is about the last thing I feel like doing. Personally, I choose to do everything the night of, butttt… I do know a lot of people who swear by this. My point is, know what will realistically work for you, your schedule and your preferences. Meal planning isn’t, and shouldn’t be, one-size-fits-all.
- DON’T WORRY IF IT’S NOT PERFECT!: This one is basically my thesis for diets in general. Aim to IMPROVE on your current baseline, not go from zero to ten overnight. If you don’t cook at all, maybe you just want to start by planning 2 meals per week. No worries! Or if you’re not ready to give up take-out, consider keeping healthy appetizers on hand… a quick, homemade salad before dinner arrives can help curb hunger, and keep everyone from over-eating calorie packed restaurant food. And lastly, don’t get too caught up with trying to plan super “healthy” meals. Chances are whatever you prepare at home is going to be WAY healthier than your usual go-to takeout or frozen meal, and its likely taste better, too.
If you are feeling stressed just thinking about an additional chore, just think about how great it feels to come home from work and already have a plan in place for dinner that you can feel good about! Avoid the mistake of comparing yourself to what other families are doing; instead, decide what will work for yours. Focus where you are in this process now, and where you’d like to be. Usually, it is just a matter of creating a few steps to get you there.
I’d love to hear how other people approach their family’s meal planning; feel free to share your suggestions in the comments below! HAPPY EATING!!