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Sunday, January 31, 2016

making my busy mom life easier with meal planning

So many moms have been asking about the easiest ways to meal plan and prep dinners for their busy weeks and busy families. I feel like finally I've gotten into some type of smart routine that is working for my family and leaving me less stressed when it comes to dinner time.

For me, I get out of work reasonably early, typically home by 4:30, sometimes 5:30 with after school activities. I consider myself lucky with this working schedule, BUT it's STILL hard to get dinner on the table and have enough time to spend with my kids. So for me, it's not a choice I want to make to be in the kitchen for 45 minutes or even 30 minutes whipping up dinner while my kids watch TV or something and I don't get time with them. So I try as best as possible to have things ready ahead of time so I'm just boiling water or setting the table or reheating something instead of cooking from scratch at dinner mid-week.

I'm hoping this helps give you some ideas! What I've found with meal planning is that it's different for everyone since we all have different family dynamics, sizes, ages, number of people, as well as different schedules and financial aspects to consider. So do what works for you!

How to make serving food in your house EASIER:
  • Meal Planning - This is HUGE. I started doing this a couple of years ago and it's transformed how things go at night for dinner. There's no more guess work or staring at a fridge for 10 minutes wondering what's in there. On Saturday or Sunday I make a list for the week of what we'll have. I write this on my white board in the kitchen. This way it's easy for my husband to see if he happens to get home before me, and it leave one less decision for me to have to make during busy nights. It's already laid out for me. 
  • Scheduled grocery shopping - I have been going every 2-3 weeks after work, before picking up the kids. I make sure my list is ready ahead of time and I head out right after work instead of staying late. I zip around the store like it's my exercise that day, and so that makes it efficient and quick, as well as gets my heart racing so it's good all around! It's less stressful without kids talking and asking for things. I refuse to go with kids if I can help it! This also ensures I don't forget food items. If I have kids, I ALWAYS forget something! 
  • Write a grocery list - When planning out meals, I need to write a grocery list at the same time. My sister got me this awesome grocery list magnet from Etsy where it divides out the grocery shopping based on categories - produce, dairy, meats, frozen, canned, etc. and it makes shopping so easy!
  • A big salad for home for the week - This is something we're trying the last few months and it's working well! I'll buy every two weeks enough salad items to make one type for lunches, and then another for the house for side salads with dinner, as dinner even, or for weekends as a side with kids' lunches. Luckily my kids love salad so this works for us. It's a good healthy option for a side for the busy nights when I'm making standby macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese or even leftovers. We toss in different things like cranberries or cheese so make it a unique salad. 
  • Salad for lunch - I'm on a mission to find new salad ideas this year so that we don't get bored eating salad at lunch time. I created on Instagram the #MomSaladAdventures that you can follow me @themommystories to find new salad ideas I'm trying. I prep our salads for the whole week on Sunday afternoons. I get out a bunch of tupperware containers and the salad ingredients and just mix it up. I try to have some fruit (pears are great!), some cheese (feta, sharp Italian!), and then a range of veggies, and two types of lettuce. I get various dressings and sides for the salads to make it interesting each week. I keep the veggies simple so we aren't spending a ton of money. This way at least lunches are covered and ready to go in the mornings, just grab and go from the fridge. 

  • Cooking once a month- I am a big fan of my huge freezer! It allows for me to whip up many meals once a month and toss them in the freezer so that I have less cooking to do each week. At the end of each month since August I've been making about 6-8 meals from cookbooks like Rachael Ray and Pioneer Woman (my favorites!). I get a lot of ziplock bags and aluminum trays and toss the food in the freezer. It's a lifesaver! This has totally changed how I do meal planning during the week. I'll take out about two freezer meals a week and then I'm good to go. On the weekend that I make the freezer meals, I'll take out a couple of servings from that meal before freezing it, to use as a meal that evening or to use as a lunch the next day to stretch it further. This has been amazing! 
  • Have parts of a meal ready to go. My sister told me she'll get chicken breast and freeze in ziplock bags with various dressings or sauces. So at least the chicken is ready, she can figure out easy sides later. This helps! A little planning goes a long way.
  • Have standbys around at all times - We are too busy on nights when we have ballet and then basketball to come home and cook anything, even freezer meals that need to cook in the oven. So that night is something easy. I make sure this is not just crap food by keeping standbys in my kitchen and fridge. Here are some ideas: bread, cheese and pepperoni, pancakes, fruit, macaroni and cheese, pasta and sauce, etc. 
  • Take something simple and dress it up - So lately my husband has been making homemade pizzas. He gets the dough and sauce and cheese at the store, then we add barbecue chicken, chicken sausage, mozzarella cheese, basil, tomatoes, ETC. to make it interesting. We love this and it lasts us a few days! Or whip up some chicken nachos. So easy and simple, kids LOVE this, and takes only a few minutes to get it ready. You can even prepare the chicken the night before. My kids LOVE taco night. These are SO easy to make, and again you can make the burger ahead of time and cut all the veggie sides too. Pair with rice or steamed corn and you're good to go. It doesn't need to be elaborate!
  • Plan for easy / busy nights - I plan these into my meal planning for the week. We always have a leftovers night to clean out the fridge and use up food before it goes bad. We always have something easy like salad with mac n' cheese or sandwiches. There's nothing wrong with doing this! Don't set the bar so high when meal planning. It's not realistic - at least in my busy working mom world - to plan a gourmet or even nice cookbook meal from scratch 7 nights a week. I'm laughing out loud re-reading what I wrote. Not happening in my house! I aim to make 2-3 meals a week, the rest are simple and leftovers. It works for us! Pancakes are our FAVORITE, or even waffles that we made on the weekend and then froze the extras. Easy!

Other tips:
  1. Plan ahead! You cannot fly by the seat of your busy mom pants when meal planning. You need to take 30 minutes out of your week - or less once you get going - to plan things out. It won't take that long, you just need to DO it. Write it down. Find recipes online during your work lunch hour or during kid's nap time. 
  2. Go through your cookbooks early. I do this when I get a new cookbook. I go through with post-its and go through the entire book marking recipes I think I'd like to try, with ingredients that I know I'd be buying anyway, nothing elaborate or with ingredients I won't use up somewhere else. This way when I'm meal planning I can simply go through the post-it pages and find something I know I'll make. If you find a cookbook that you won't really make a lot from, copy the few recipes you will use and get rid of the book to de-clutter and save you some time.
  3. Have go-to snacks ready. Something I found that stresses me out and takes time is when I get home and the kids are STARVING and whining about wanting food, while I'm trying to whip up a dinner meal. This slows me down, is frustrating and not a good way to spend our only time together that day after a busy work/daycare day. So... a few days after grocery shopping, typically on the weekend, I'll cut up carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. so we have veggies and dip ready to go for when we get home. It works for me, too, when I'm starving! We always have fruit like apples and bananas, and yogurt like Chobani individual kids' serving pouches, or apple sauce - all things that won't fill them up before dinner but will tie them over until I can get the meal done. 
  4. Budget! When I am making a bunch of meals at once at the end of the month I need to budget for that for about $100 extra. That means that week we're decreasing what we are purchasing elsewhere in the house and just getting staples. You need to plan not only the food you want, but the money to go with it so that everything lines up. This is the hard part, that was not always feasible for us in the past. Having freezer meals already made helps out on those weeks when you can't get to the grocery store or you don't have enough money left in the paycheck because of other things that came up.  
Hope these ideas help your mom job feel a little easier in the kitchen.

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