Monday, September 16, 2019

Working Mom Meal Planning Routine

It's definitely taken some time to figure out a meal planning routine that works for our family, but I *think* we've arrived at the optimal routine so I thought I'd share it with all of  you in case some of you are looking for ideas on how to improve meal planning.

I think meal planning is challenging no matter what your household looks like, but it's extra challenging, in my opinion, for moms who work outside of the home. I'm gone about 50 hours a week between work and commuting, so I really need to make it as easy as possible to make dinner on week nights. I do 99% of the cooking in our house as it's just not Phil's thing (he grills and will do some basic things but it mostly falls on me). But we've made some adjustments since having Paul to make meal prep more equitable.

Here's what meal planning looks like in our house.

Step one: what's for dinner??

On Wednesday or Thursday night, we look at the weekly grocery ad from our local store to see what's on sale and then I page through my binder of recipes. Together we come up with 3-4 meals to make for the coming week. 3-4 meals is enough to get our family through the week as Paul doesn't each much of what we make and we usually have 2-3 servings of a meal left over to eat later in the week.

Pre-Paul, I pretty much always picked out the meals but since having Paul, I have asked Phil to help come up with meal ideas. The mental fatigue of coming up with meal ideas without someone's input was just too much for me! I've talked about this before, but I have a binder full of recipes, organized by course. I only put recipes in there that we tried and liked. The recipes are in plastic protectors so they don't get dirty. I love this approach to meal planning. I am such a tactile person when it comes to meal planning - using something electronic, like a google doc, would not work for me. But I know it works for others!

For this coming week, we decided to make Turkey Meatloaf, Cheesy Ham and Broccoli Rice Skillet, and Smoky Lentil and Potato Soup in the instant pot. The meatloaf and soup are tried and true recipes; the ham and broccoli skillet was a new recipe I got from Iowa Girl Eats One Pan Recipe post. We are trying several recipes from this post this fall as I'm all about easy one-pan recipes! The soup recipe yields a TON so that will be my lunches for most of the week. I usually bring lunch 4 days and let myself eat out one day/week.

Step two: grocery list and grocery shopping

Next I use the recipes to finish up our grocery shopping list, which we save in a shared iPhone note so that Phil and I can both add to it. Then Phil goes grocery shopping, usually on Saturday morning while we are at swimming lessons. Pre-Paul, I did the grocery shopping but now Phil has taken over this task which I LOVE.

Step three: prep-work planning

For the next step, I use the "Prep Dish" approach to meal planning. If you aren't familiar with pre-dish, it's a meal planning service. They send you the recipes, a grocery list and a 'task list' for the recipes. Having as much of the prep work done ahead of time makes it so much easier to get dinner on the table at a reasonable time. Pre-Paul I would do all the chopping the night I made a recipe but that just doesn't work anymore. So these days, I figure out what all needs to be chopped ahead of time. It's probably hard to read my writing, but I basically cut up all the vegetables/meat ahead of time.

Step four: do the work

Next up, I get to work chopping everything. I try not to do this during nap time as I would prefer to relax and do something I enjoy during nap time, like read. Phil is usually home when I do my prep work so he can help out with Paul but Paul tends to like to hang with me in the kitchen. When I did my prep work on Sunday, he took his kitchen toys (3 plastic containers and a wooden spoon) and took them out/put them back into the cupboard over and over and over again. He must have done it 50+ times! But hey - whatever entertains the toddler works for me!

I didn't keep track of how long I worked but it was probably less than an hour. During that time, I cut up the veggies and sausage for the soup (the lentil soup is vegetarian but we add sausage), chopped the broccoli and ham for the rice skillet, and cup the onions and chex cereal for the meatloaf in a small food processor (I use chex cereal in place of bread crumbs to make it GF). Later that day when the meat had thawed out, I mixed up the meatloaf and put it in a glass bowl. That way I just have to put it on a baking sheet, top it with the sauce, and put it in the oven.

It's so satisfying to see my glass containers full of chopped veggies/meat. My future self is very glad that my past self did all that prep work!

Step five: make dinner!

On Sunday night I made one of the 3 recipes - cheesy broccoli and ham skillet. I joked that this was a totally 90s mom kind of meal. But hey - it was easy and relatively healthy.

I started dinner at 5:20 and we all sat down to eat around 5:50. So it was truly a 30 minute meal. And the toddler actually ate some of this. Probably only 3 spoonfuls but I'll take what I can get. Next time I'll cut up the broccoli smaller so it's less detectable. He spit out the ham (Paul is not a fan of meat in general) and any large pieces of broccoli. But he did say 'yum' when he ate it so I guess it was somewhat successful!

How do you handle meal planning in your house? Do you fly by the seat of your pants or plan things out in detail like we do? Some day I won't have to plan things with such a level of detail but I think we are years away from that!!


Leigh said...

We are total meal planners in our house- otherwise it's a gong show of trying to figure something out and go to the store multiple times! One of us (usually me) meal plans on the weekend and we grocery shop then too. We use an app called Anylist that we can put items for the grocery list into. We also put the meal plans on a shared google calendar (no more pen and paper for us). Brian does the cooking as he's home first in the evenings, so I usually do dishes/tidying up.

I get tired of coming up with ideas for the meal plan, so Brian will help too. We tend to try a lot of new recipes, but also have a bunch that are standard and know they work.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

We change up how we meal plan all the time depending on what's going on. Currently, I am doing week by week meal planning based on what sounds least disgusting in the meat department to me. :) I only buy meat when it is on sale so I think of what we have in our freezer too. I do the majority of the grocery shopping, but we have a shared google doc with our shopping list for when my husband stops for something random at Kroger, he has access to what else we may need. I do not meal prep on the weekend. I will cut and prep the morning of, so when it's time to make dinner it's quicker. I've never been able to motivate myself to cut things days in advance. I remember when I was making meals for toddler Isla I would have separated some brocooli and ham for her to eat plain as well as the mixed together dish. Because in toddler view those were different items.

Gracie said...

I meal plan, also using grocery store sale ads. I cook seven days a week, but on weekends we do one meal out and one meal take-out. So if I cook lunch, we might go out for dinner. This keeps me from getting burned out on cooking, since I usually also cook a fancier breakfast on weekends. I also plan about four weekday breakfast options, and we use leftovers for work lunches. Occasionally I use recipes, but I mostly cook from my imagination or memory. Right now I'm not doing a lot of prep work, but I do have to plan ahead for Monday nights. We have a late karate class and I need something on the table QUICK as we often don't get home until after 9pm!

Jeanie said...

I definitely fly by the seat of my pants but then I'm retired so don't have the work issue and close to the store if I change plans midstream. At the lake when I'm with Rick I tend to plan more so I'm sure I have everything I need and we don't have to keep going into town. But this looks like a good system.

Marlys said...

I should be a better meal planner as we no longer have a grocery store in town, except for Dollar General, which helps, but not ideal.
I usually cook on weekends and have left overs to use for several meals in the week, especially in the winter. For summer, we grill quite a bit, and I try to plan for sides ahead of time.
I'm impressed by the meal planning you and some of the others in the family do! It is so hard to come up with a meal plan if you don't have any ideas!
I'm sure you'll learn what Paul will and won't eat as he eats with you more. I'm happy he said YUM to that dish you made! :)

Stephany said...

I need to figure out how to meal plan better! My life is weird right now, as I often have plans in the evening so I'm only at home a few nights out of the entire week. I need to find some quick, healthy meals because I rely on freezer foods WAYYY too much right now. I just don't make the time to meal plan & grocery shop & meal prep. It's just easier to pop a frozen pizza in the oven, ha. I'd love to have a set of 5-7 quick meals that I can rely on during this season of my life so I can still eat healthy even when life is as busy as it is.

I love your meal prepping style, though! I love the idea of a recipe binder!

Jolene - EverydayFoodie said...

I love posts like this!

Many times I will plan the meals, but sometimes Christopher and I will do that part together. Then we use our planned meals to make our grocery list. On Fridays, after work, we get groceries (but during the summer I usually do all the meal planning and grocery shopping myself). Then the prep and cooking are usually done all in the same evening, although sometimes Christopher makes the entire dinner, sometimes I do, and sometimes we both work on it together.

I need to do a better job of organizing my recipes. They are all piled up in a drawer, and it's such a pain going through the pile each time I am looking for one. You'd think I'd have this down to a science by now, but nope, haha! I like your binder idea!!!

sarah (SHU) said...

I love that you use the "Prep Dish" approach even without Prep Dish itself :) Brilliant!

San said...

That's a great approach to your meal planning and I love that Phil does the grocery shopping.

I guess I could ask J to do it (as he's home more than I am) but I also love grocery shopping, so we often do it together on Fridays.

We basically have a similar approach: we plan out 4-5 meals every week, shop accordingly. I do not chop up or cook anything in advance, but I also don't have toddler at home. LOL

dailycandy said...

I take a similar approach.
I use my freezer, produce and pantry to see what I have that I could put together for a meal. Then I try to think of meals I might want based on our schedule for the week. If I cant think of anything off the top of my head, I go on my Pinterest board to look. Any tried and true recipes I add to a "keepers" board. I plan my meals Sunday and grocery shop for the week on Sunday. I try to prep lunches so I can just grab and go during the week.

One thing I have found enjoyable is rotating what type of meal is being served..
Breakfast for Dinner

katielookingforward said...

Thank you for writing out your process! I'm sure as life changes for me I won't be able to operate as I do now. The person I am seeing likes to grill, and is a decent cook, but we have different ideas on good meals. But I am determined to discuss likes and dislikes in case something more does develop, I don't want the expectation to always be that I always cook.

Amber said...

I love your system, you really have it down pat! I need to do more ahead of cooking meal prep as that does seem to really streamline things. I do meal plan and grocery shop based on the meal plan. I would say a key difference in our house is Eric prepares a lot of his own food. Because he works 14 days in a row, he'll usually pre-make lunches and a few dinners for the 14 days. And when he's on night shift he is not home to have dinner with Olivia and I.

My process is similar to yours in that I meal plan a week at a time and I too have a binder full of recipes. I need to get more plastic folders though as I've run out so just have a bunch of new recipes crammed into the back!! I also should go through and take out any we've tried but just weren't huge fans of. I do our grocery shopping - but I use online ordering and grocery pick up which I LOVE! I have started trying to meal plan and grocery shop for 2 weeks at a time if I can!

I really do want to start implementing the PREP step like you do. I think that would take my current process from good to great as sometimes meal preparation during the week can take longer than I thought it would and that can be stressful and has resulted in us throwing together a random dinner for Olivia and then just eating the actual dinner I was making ourselves after she goes to bed.