Learn all about easy flexible meal planning for busy moms. You absolutely CAN create cozy dinners for your family, even while balancing work and hectic kid schedules.
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If you’re like me, you probably love food. You love scrolling through Instagram feeds, looking at pictures of food, leafing through cooking magazines, and maybe even choosing to curl up with the latest best-selling cookbook over a novel. (Because, honestly, after a day of work and keeping up with the latest gossip from your kids, who needs another storyline to follow.)
You probably even LIKE to cook, or would if you could ever find a couple of hours to enjoy the chopping and the mixing and watching absolutely delicious meals come together at your fingertips.
I like to cook and, most days would much rather feed my family something out of my own kitchen as opposed to picking up a meal that’s likely not good for our health and definitely won’t be good for my pocketbook.
(Seriously, I’m not sure if I just remember $2.99 value meals from when I was a kid or if having a teenage boy in the house has just blown my misconception that “fast food” equals “cheap food.”)
Download Your Free Printable Weekly Meal Plan Worksheet
Cook at Home Vs. Eating Out
The fact that many busy working moms choose to eat out or order in is hardly surprising. Of course, it’s easier to stop off at a restaurant or order delivery when:
- You feel like you’re living out of your car between school pick-ups and driving multiple kids to multiple sports practices and after school activities;
- Work is busier than ever, and you’re trying to manage last-minute meetings and projects;
- You may have a refrigerator full of food, but you’re not motivated to cook anything.
And, while there are days when eating out is the only option (both time-wise and for your sanity), most days, I’d bet you can find the time to make your meals at home. It does take a bit of prep work – making sure your kitchen is stocked for meal prep and some planning. But, the rewards are totally worth the effort.
My Meal Planning Journey
The issue I used to face was that I’d often find myself without the time or a plan to get everything together in the evening.
And it’s not like I didn’t try just about every single meal plan you can think of to get home-cooked dinners on the table for my family.
I did. And I failed at Every. Single. One.
Le’s go through a few of my failures:
Rotating Meal Plans
I really need more flexibility. And, other than “Taco Tuesday”, I really couldn’t get behind themed meals every day of the week.
Food that tastes just as good frozen and defrosted is the exception, not the rule.
Cook Once, Eat All Week
We are just not leftover people, and find that a make ahead meal that reheats decently to, again, be the exception and not the rule.
“Done for You” Meal Plans
This has got to be where I failed the hardest. After recreating the menu and shopping list to get rid of all the things my picky eaters won’t eat, I’d finally make it to the grocery store and buy all of the groceries to make the meals for the week.
And then I’d make a few of them and throw away a TON of food because they didn’t take into account that plans for an evening can flip on a dime:
- From a practice that runs late;
- To a school project, you just learned is due tomorrow;
- To a text at lunchtime from a child who “just remembered” they have a band concert tonight.
In theory, a meal plan is great, and I think everybody should have one. But, I also know that as a working mom with a picky eater at home, it needs to be flexible and take into account the ever-changing landscape of our busy schedules.
How I Found Menu Planning Success
The system for meal planning I finally came up with allows me to scour magazines and cookbooks and easily note the recipes I’d like to try in one place. It also allows me to select 3-4 recipes (new and family favorites) I’d like to try that week and allows for flexibility and last-minute changes.
Later in this post, I’ll walk you through the exact meal plan I’ve been using in my home while working full time and raising two kids.
What Is Meal Planning?
Very simply, meal planning is the system of planning your meals in advance. You create a plan for the entire week and create a rough outline of what you’ll eat on each day of the week.
Then, you make a list of food items you’ll need to make your recipes, add in some healthy snacks and fresh fruit, and purchase your groceries.
By planning your meals in advance, buys moms can take the guesswork out of what you’ll be having for dinner tonight. Plus, planning in advance is the best way to know how much time each meal will take to prepare.
Most of the time, when we turn to fast food, it’s because of a lack of energy, not having the right ingredients at home, or simply not knowing what we want to cook.
Here’s How the Meal Plan for Working Mom’s Works
Create a “Go With the Flow” meal plan for the week
Because even the best-laid plans can go awry, creating a meal plan that is able to go with the flow is key.
- Begin by looking over your schedule for the week and determining how many nights you will need/want to feed your family dinner at home
- Next, take the number of nights you’ve determined that your family will be home for dinner and subtract 2 or 3.
- This is the number of recipes you are going to want to plan/shop for this week. These can be recipes from your own recipe box, a cookbook, magazine, any dish you want to plan out.
- For example, looking at the upcoming week, I can see that we will be out of town on Saturday and Sunday for a soccer tournament. Because I’m going to need to create some semblance of dinner Monday – Friday, my number here is 4 or 5.
Start Off Slowly
If you’re like me, when you decide to start something new, you’re super excited to jump in and get started.
You may be ready to create a meal plan for the next seven days, make a grocery list, go grocery shopping, etc.
Let me warn you – if you decide to take this approach, there’s a good chance you’ll end up throwing a ton of food away and maybe even give up on meal planning in general. Allow yourself the time to ease into this plan.
That being said, if you’re new to meal planning and cooking at home, I’d go with subtracting 3. Start out slowly, so you don’t burn out, and work your way up to subtracting 2.
Create a list of “Backup Meals” and Stock your Fridge/Freezer/Pantry
“Backup Meals” are quick meals you can throw together very quickly and requires little thought, effort, or planning. This can literally mean frozen pizza or chicken strips. (No judgment if sometimes you decide to scrap your dinner plans simply because you really WANT chicken strips and tater tots!)
A Few Examples of “Backup Meals” for Busy Weeknights:
- Eggs and bacon/sausage (affectionately called “brinner” in my house)
- Sloppy Joe’s
- Refrigerator pasta and sauce (If you have a BJ’s membership, the grilled chicken stuffed ravioli is AWESOME)
- Salad – if you’ve got lettuce, produce, and leftover chicken or steak, you’ve got the makings of a quick meal
- Sausage and Perogies – this is one of our favorites. I just boil chicken sausage and perogies at the same time (different pots). Once they are done, drain the perogies and slice the sausages into ½ inch pieces. Add a little butter to a frying pan and sauté until brown.
- If you keep a supply of Crockpot Shredded Chicken on hand, you can use it to make super quick tacos, homemade pizzas, soups, pasta dishes, and sandwiches. It’s a lifesaver if you want to make meals that look like a lot of effort went into them, but that can be made in under 20 minutes. Shredded chicken can be used just a rotisserie chicken and cuts the prep time for weeknight meals.
You get the idea. A “Backup meal” is something you have on hand in your refrigerator/freezer/pantry that you can very quickly turn into dinner for your family.
Create a Master List of Easy Meals Your Whole Family Loves
Creating a “go-to” list of recipes your family enjoys is a busy mom’s secret weapon when it comes to weekly meal planning. Make sure to include:
- Recipes you’ve made that your entire family raves about
- Main dish recipes
- Everyone’s favorite meal
- Easy dinner recipes you’ve made before and know you can throw together quickly
- Simple side dishes you can easily rotate into your menu
Start a List of Easy Recipes You’d Like to Try
As you’re looking through cookbooks, magazines, or websites and see delicious recipes you’d like to try, jot down the name of the recipe and where you found it.
When you’re creating your weekly meal plan, it’s a great idea to reference this list. That way, you can keep your weekly meals rotation new and exciting. Plus, a family member might love it so much that it makes its way onto your master list.
Grab Your Free Weekly Meal Planning for Busy Mom’s Printable
Download your Free Weekly Meal Planning Sheet. (When you download the worksheet, you’ll be subscribed to my emailing list. And, while I promise not to bog you down with a crazy amount of emails and hope you’ll stick around, you can also click “unsubscribe” at the bottom of your welcome email.)
How to Fill In Your Meal Planning Worksheet
- First, make notes on the days you know you won’t be home (dinner with your parents, out of town, already know you’ll be dining out, etc.).
- Count the number of days that you do not already have plans and subtract 2 or 3. This is the number of nights you’ll want to plan meals for and shop for the ingredients from the recipe.
- Based upon your schedule, fill in the night’s you’ll likely be cooking dinner from a recipe. (At this point, you’ll have 2-3 nights of the week blank)
- Next, fill in 3 ideas for easy “back-up” dinners.
- Finally, fill in any reminders you need for the week. This could range from remembering to pick something up from the grocery store, to defrosting a roast, to a reminder that you need to bake something for an upcoming event.
Below is an example of a meal plan I filled out recently. Remember, you get to be totally flexible here.
- Because I know that Monday and Friday will be hectic, I did not plan a menu for those days. I can use any one of my back up meals on Monday or Friday.
- If for some reason I wasn’t able to make Instant Pot Italian Beef on Tuesday, I can easily shift that to another day (or even the next week) if I needed to and fill in with one of my “back-up” dinner ideas.
The very best advice I have for making this mealing planning worksheet usable is to purchase Frixon erasable pens. They are awesome and keep my meal planner from looking like a scribbled-on mess.
Do I Need to Meal Plan For Breakfast & Lunch?
I do not create meal plans for breakfast and lunch.
We keep breakfast “grab and go” by having Clif Bars, breakfast bars, and a small selection of cereal on hand. I also keep frozen breakfast sandwiches and burritos in the freezer in case someone is craving something a little bit heartier. On the weekends, if we want to have a larger breakfast or brunch, we’ll cook traditional simple meals
like bacon and eggs, pancakes, or French Toast.
My kids usually eat lunch at school and I’ll make an easy lunch of soup, a salad, or a sandwich on most days.
Do I Need to Plan Side Dishes?
The easiest thing to do is create a list of simple sides your family loves and rotate them into the menu on your new meal plan.
Our side dish rotation looks like this:
- Brown rice or jasmine rice
- Leafy greens I can make into a salad with whatever produce and fresh herbs I have on hand
- Cut-up Peppers and baby carrots with hummus
- Don’t be afraid of convenience foods – frozen potatoes, veggies, and even instant potatoes are an easy way to save a lot of time during a busy week.
What Are the Benefits of This Particular Meal Plan For Busy Parents?
There are a lot of benefits of meal planning. Below are a few of the stand-outs:
- It makes cooking homemade meals more convenient and takes the guesswork out of what’s for dinner that night.
- Deciding what to make on the fly can be overwhelming. With meal planning, you know exactly what you have on hand and exactly how much time you’ll need to prepare it. There’s no decision fatigue because you already have a plan for meal time.
- You’re not limited by a plan someone else put together. This plan is a great way to let your busy family try out an easy recipe you’ve been eying, begin a healthy eating journey if that’s your goal, incorporate your own favorite recipes, and even enjoy your favorite comfort foods.
- If you decide you’re simply too tired to make a meal or you have less time to cook than you originally planned, you’ve got a backup on hand that’s just as quick or quicker than eating out.
How to Get Your Kitchen and Pantry Ready For Home Cooked Meals
Stock up on ingredients
While each recipe you decide to cook will require different ingredients, there are some staples you’ll want to have in your pantry.
Stocking up on staples will make cooking from home more affordable and will reduce the things you’ll actually need when you are ready to try new recipes.
Here are my recommendations for stocking your kitchen as you get started with meal planning and cooking at home:
- Chicken and Beef Broth (vegetable if you’re a vegetarian)
- Canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste
- Penne Pasta and spaghetti noodles
- Rice – white, brown, wild rice
- Olive Oil
- Canola or Vegetable Oil
- Bottles of vinegar – balsamic, white, cider
- Soy Sauce
- All-purpose flour
- Baking Soda
- Baking Powder
- Sugar – white and brown
- Salt & Pepper
- Spices you like to cook with. My go-to’s are:
- Everything bagel seasoning
- Herbs de Provence
- Mediterranean blend
- Garlic Powder
- Onion Powder
- Celery Salt
- Red Pepper Flakes
- The more you cook, the more you’ll add to this collection
Make Sure You Have the Right Kitchen Equipment
As well as staple ingredients, you’ll need some equipment and kitchen utensils to get started. While you don’t have to break the bank buying kitchen wares, it’s usually better to go with quality over quantity.
For now, you can ignore the latest kitchen gadget fad and make sure you have these basics in your kitchen:
- Chef’s knife
- Paring knife
- Sheet Pan
- Super-Sized Sheet Pan (you’ll LOVE this the next time you bake a package of bacon)
- Cutting boards
- 10-inch skillet
- 2 or 3-quart saucepan with a lid
- Large Dutch Oven or large stockpot (at least 6 quarts)
- 9×13 inch baking dish
- 8×8 or 9×9 baking dish
- A set of mixing bowls in various sizes
- Measuring Cups
- Measuring Spoons
- Wooden Spoons
- Wire Wisk
- Metal Tongs
- Large spatula
- Mesh Strainer
- Pestal & Mortor (if you like making marinades and homemade salad dressings)
- Instant read thermometer
- Instant Pot (electric pressure cookers) or Slow Cooker (Most Instapot’s have a slow cooker function, so you can get away with just buying that if you don’t want a separate crockpot)
- Airtight containers for food storage and meal prep containers
Learning Basic Cooking Terminology
One of the first things you’ll want to learn is the different cooking terms you’ll come across. For example, you’ll start seeing terms in recipes like al dente, broil, and braise.
Eventually, many of these terms will become second nature. For now, a quick Google search will give you everything you need to know at the moment.
If you’re one of those people who love to leaf through cookbooks, I’d also recommend buying 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials. Not only does provide step-by-step directions (with pictures) for many cooking techniques, it also includes great recipes that allow you to try out those recipes. (I even learned that I have been frying eggs wrong my entire life and now produce perfect sunny side up eggs every time!)
Why Meal Preparation Can Be the Key for a Busy Working Mom to Create Easy Weeknight Dinners
Cooking from home might be the best way to feed your family healthy meals, but it’s not always easy. Finding the motivation to cook from scratch after a long hard day can be difficult. It can also be tough to know what to cook every night.
Stocking your kitchen and following my easy meal planning tips for busy moms is the best way I’ve found to feed my family (mostly) healthy food and put a simple meal on the table most nights.
More Ideas for Creating a Cozy Life
- Make Your House Feel Like a Resort for Your Family
- Your Ultimate Guide to Adding Hygge to Your Life and Home
- How to Make a Very Cozy Bed
- How to Create Cozy Meals with Hygge
- Turn Your Living Room Into a Cozy Retreat
- Decorate Your Home with Hygge
- How to Keep Your Towels Soft and Fluffy
- Create a Cozy Hygge Kitchen
- Make Your Bedroom Cozy in Less Than an Hour