I am a busy person and there are lots of things that I want to accomplish in a day. But in order to have time for the personal pleasures I want to pursue like painting, reading, gardening or exercise, in addition to a full-time job, I have to simplify the many other tasks that take up my time; like meal planning and preparation. How many hours do I spend on grocery lists, shopping, planning, prepping and cooking meals! And how many times do I come home from work to be met at the door with the inevitable, “What’s for dinner?” If I didn’t happen to have a plan or prepared something in advance, we would end up eating less healthy and more expensive takeout meals.
Here are a few ideas that I have incorporated into my life to simplify weekly meal planning and preparation so that I have time to pursue more rewarding activities, while still preparing healthy, wholesome meals for myself and my family.
Keep it Simple
As much as we think it is important to come up with new ideas for meals and try new meal items, most families have a particular set of favorite meals that they enjoy and are quite happy to eat on a regular basis. So other than the special weekend night where meal preparation becomes a family event or a romantic date night with your partner, why reinvent the wheel!
Although a weekly routine would work for some, I recommend creating a four to six week plan and filling in each day with an evening meal from your family’s favorite meals. This will allow for sufficient variety without becoming too complicated. Collect input from your family members on your meal plan and incorporate any favorite meals that you have missed. Do not forget to fill in eat-out nights or special “Your Choice” nights as per your family’s tastes and schedule.
This becomes your master meal plan that you repeat every four to six weeks. You can maintain the same plan all year or switch out to a new plan on a seasonal basis. For instance, during summer months you may want to incorporate meals that involve outside grilling or fresh in-season fruits and vegetables. You may also need to make adjustments for family events or schedule changes.
Post Your Meal Plan
Post your meal plan for week one on your refrigerator or designated work space using a weekly planner post-it pad. Although you could post the entire month at one time, I post only one week at a time so that I can easily adjust and update if our schedule changes during the month. If you prefer, you can post a month plan using a dry erase magnetic calendar which can be updated as needed.
One of the things I like the most about having a posted plan is that my husband always knows what I have planned for dinner. If he knows what to make and that all the ingredients are available, he is quite happy to start preparations if I am running late, or to prepare meals for the family if I am away for business. Without a plan, he will revert to the tried and true delivery pizza.
Once-a-Week Grocery Shopping
Using your meal plan as your guide, generate your shopping list once per week. Since you have everything on a plan, you should not have to return to the grocery store for forgotten items during the week.
I prefer to use an iPhone app to record my grocery list so that it is readily available. There are numerous grocery list apps available for your smartphone or iPad. Look for one with convenient features such as Siri compatibility, bar code scanning and family sharing. Your local store may also have their own app which allows you to select items from the weekly flyer directly into your grocery list. Your store may also offer online ordering from the app. If you prefer to write things down, use a magnetic grocery list and meal planner pad. This one separates the grocery items from the meal plan so you can take the list with you.
Order and Pick Up Service
If your grocery store has an order online and pick up service, use it. The $3 to $5 fee is well worth the time it would take to pick up all the items in store. If you prefer to pick up your own meats, fruits and vegetables, you will still save time by ordering the non-perishable items online and visiting the meat and produce department when you arrive. Or support your local economy and eat healthier by purchasing fruits and veggies at your local farmers market.
Buy a Slow Cooker
Slow cookers are invaluable for providing hot, nutritious meals with minimal effort. Just add all your ingredients in the morning and your meal slowly cooks during the day. I have the original Crock Pot brand that has worked seamlessly for about 20 years. Crock Pot now offers 4 and 6 quart versions to suit the number of family members. My original unit has high and low settings, but I tend to stick to the low setting and leave it on all day. Newer models also have programmable functions so that you can set the time to start and stop cooking and maintain your meal on a warm setting once cooking time is complete.
If you are super busy during the week and struggling to find time to prepare even a planned meal each evening, try freezer meal recipes. Scheduling one two-hour preparation session on the weekend can yield five freezer bag meals for the week. If you double the recipes, you end up with ten meals without adding too much to the prep time.
You prepare all the ingredients for each meal during one preparation session, freeze each meal in a large freezer bag, then place the meal in a slow cooker or scheduled oven to thaw and cook during the day. I recommend removing each meal from the freezer the night before you are planning to serve it so that it can partially defrost before placing it in the slow cooker. Because you are not cooking the meals before freezing, your dishes are fresh and do not taste like leftovers.
There are hundreds of freezer meal recipes available. Go through your six week meal plan and check to see which recipe can be replaced with a freezer meal recipe that you can prep ahead of time. There are various websites dedicated to recipes that have freezer meal ideas. Some of the ones I have used are NewLeafWellness.biz, allrecipes.com and auntbeesrecipes.com. You can also check Pinterest boards like Freezer Meals or Freezer Crockpot Meals for ideas and suggestions.
To make prep time more efficient, set up your freezer bags like an assembly line using these handy clips to keep the bags open and place each ingredient in the bags as you cut, peel and chop. To ensure your chicken or meat lands at the bottom of your pot or slow cooker and your sauces and spices on top, place your meat or chicken in the bags last. Seal your bags, removing as much air as possible and then freeze flat.
With a meal plan in place, there will be plenty of opportunities for other members of your family to participate in meal preparations and cooking chores, whether you are there or not. Encourage their participation and accept the help. Alleviating the stress of meal planning will be felt not only by you but all members of your family.
If you have other tips and suggestions to simplify meal preparation and planning, please drop me a note.