Meal-planning tips for busy families

As a parent, you want your family to eat healthy. But on those busy nights when you’re shuffling straight from work to after-school activities, it’s hard enough to find the time to cook, let alone make sure you’re choosing the right foods. (Hint: the key is planning!) Make healthy meals more manageable when your family’s schedule is packed with these strategies and tips.

Page from meal planning journalAssess and plan

Before you begin grocery shopping, review your schedule for the week. Ask yourself: How many nights does at least one person in the family have an activity that goes until dinnertime or later? How much time is there, realistically, to prepare a meal between getting home and bedtime? Is there any time during the week when you could spend a little more time to prepare ingredients or meals in advance? Add up the number of nights you won’t have more time to make dinner and you’ll need quick meals.

Then with pen and paper, or a weekly calendar, create a 7-day meal plan. Pull out some favorite recipes to help you determine which meals will work with your schedule and ingredients you’ll need to buy. This will help you be prepared for the busy week ahead and resolve any decision dilemmas when you’re in a pinch.Grocery list

Now it’s time to write your grocery list—and stick to it. Having a list will help you save time, stay within budget, prevent food waste and ultimately, encourage you to stay on track with your health goals. Once you’ve got the goods, you’re ready to get choppin’!

Quick meal tips

  1. Prepare ingredients in advance—wash and chop vegetables and fruit, mix marinades and sauces, boil eggs, and cook whole grains (such as rice and quinoa)—and toss them in the fridge or freezer to use later in the week.
  2. Stock up and store pantry foods such as pasta, beans, tuna, canned tomatoes, canned soup or broth, as well as freezer foods such as stir fry veggies to make quick, last-minute meals.
  3. Use a slow cooker to create one-pot meals in advance so you can come home to a prepared meal, or use a pressure cooker for fast meals.
  4. Cook a whole chicken, or buy a rotisserie chicken, and use it in meals for the next few days. For example, the grilled or roasted chicken you eat the first night can be chopped up for salads or casseroles the second night, then shredded for tacos or barbecue the next. To prevent food poisoning and food waste, you can also freeze leftovers for later use.
  5. Batch cook on days when you’re not busy and make separate meals for the week.
  6. Get older kids involved with cooking or other dinnertime tasks such as boiling water, cutting vegetables, etc. Younger children can help set and clear the table. Bonus: Involving kids with meal prep builds positive life skills and relationships and teaches them responsibility.
  7. When considering recipe ideas, look for simple recipes to use that don’t require too many ingredients or too much work or time to cook. Save recipes that require more work and time for those rainy days and take advantage of tip #6…
  8. Use canned soup or broth and “doctor” it up with some extra veggies and other leftover items you have on hand, and voila!
  9. Computer button with plate and silverwareDinner doesn’t have to be fancy. There’s no reason to feel guilty about making something as quick and simple as deli sandwiches or eating breakfast for dinner, such as eggs, cereal, or pancakes.
  10. Have a back up plan! Sometimes it’s just not possible to prepare a meal. Create a go-to list of restaurants—especially ones that have healthy choices—that you can call for delivery, pickup, or carry-out.

Bottom Line

By planning meals ahead of time and preparing them together with your family, you can promote healthy eating habits and reduce the risk for obesity and eating disorders—even on a busy schedule. Be flexible. Like anything in life, there will always be challenges and obstacles in the way, and that’s okay. Read HPRC’s “Turning mealtime into family time” for more useful tips.

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Musick, K., & Meier, A. (2012). Assessing causality and persistence in associations between family dinners and adolescent well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(3), 476–493. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00973.x