Meal Planning for Busy Families


“What do you want to do for dinner?” Does this question sound familiar? Between work projects, driving kids to and from soccer practice, and household chores, determining your meals in advance might not be a high priority. If your family struggles deciding what to make for each meal, a solution could be weekly meal planning.

Why Meal Plan?

There are many reasons why meal planning can be very beneficial for busy families. To begin, meal planning may help you save money as restaurants and delivery charges add up quickly.

Cooking at home is more cost effective because you can plan meals around ingredients you find on sale or ones that are in season. Be sure to scan the circular ads, coupons and signage at the grocery store. This will help steer you in the right direction and save money on your bill.

The meals you make at home will also likely be healthier as you can control what ingredients are used to prepare it. Restaurants typically use more oils and fats to flavor their foods and the calories can add up quickly.

Meal planning also saves time and reduces food waste. Families have busy schedules so by planning meals ahead of time, it takes the guesswork out of the “what’s for dinner?” dilemma. Now, you just have to remember to defrost the meat! By planning around what is already in your kitchen, you can avoid tossing away leftovers and/or spoiled food.

When you take the time to think ahead for meals, you can ensure a well-balanced plate of food. It is best to aim for a protein, starch, and fruits and veggies at every meal.

Meal planning also allows you to avoid getting stuck in a rut. Kids are creatures of habit, as are adults; however, those habits can get boring and repetitive. Change things up by adding a little variety. This will help broaden children’s palates by introducing new foods and dishes, while keeping your cooking interest intact. Start by trying out one new recipe per week and go from there.

How to Meal Plan:

Meal planning can seem like a daunting task, made even more difficult with the added stress of a busy family schedule. Start out small by only planning out one or two meals per week. Once you get into the swing of things, you can work your way up to three, then four meals per week.

The most time consuming part of meal planning is figuring out what you’d like to put on the weekly menu. You can go old school and write down your menu to not only help you remember what is planned, but also to hold you accountable. If you’re more tech-savvy, there are plenty of meal planning sites and apps that can help you with the process as well.

Once the menu is set, you should put together a grocery list to ensure that you will have all of the necessary items on hand. This will also give you a chance to choose items that are on sale and help avoid any impulse purchases at the grocery store.

One very important part of meal planning includes meal prepping. They are often used interchangeably; however, they are two very different processes. Meal prepping involves looking at each recipe and making a mental note (or real one!) of what needs to be done in advance. Maybe there are veggies that should be chopped or meat that should be marinated beforehand. These things can be completed earlier that way the dinner-making process can be more streamlined and time-effective.

An easy way to help you decide what to put on the menu is to take stock of what is already in your fridge, freezer, or pantry. This will also help avoid spending extra money and reducing food waste by using up any ingredients you have on hand.

With a busy and unpredictable schedule, it is not always feasible to cook a great meal every night for the family. Pick a family favorite and make a double batch so you can freeze the extra or use some as leftovers for the next night. Easy recipes to double up and freeze include homemade tomato sauce, soups, stews, and burgers. Make-ahead breakfast options are egg muffins and overnight oats. These are perfect for rushed mornings or evenings when there is little time to prepare a healthy meal for the family.

A fun twist for families, especially kids, would be to plan theme nights. This will help make meal planning easier since you will know which kind of recipe will work for each night. For example, you could go for a Meatless Monday or a Pasta Thursday.

Going along with having a theme night would be the idea to get the kids involved in menu planning. Kids are more likely to try new foods when they are somehow involved in the meal process. This could mean they join you while grocery shopping, assist with preparation or cooking activities, or even help choose new recipes.

Make meal planning easy by downloading our free Weekly Family Planner printable!

Download Family Planner

Written by Sarah Brunner, RDN, CD

Sarah is certified in food allergies/intolerances and nutritional counseling, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; has a certificate in Dietetics from Mount Mary University; and a BA in Education and Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.

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