Meal planning for super busy families

It's All About Menu Planning

by Sandra "Sam" Moffitt

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No one has to remind you that with the school year in full swing and the holidays around the corner, there's more to do and less time to do it. The family schedule is filled with after-school activities, homework, dinner, family time, and (egad!) getting the kids (and yourself) to bed on time so you can get up and do it again tomorrow! Everything seems to take longer and cost more. How can you manage to get it all done and save a little, too? Planning! But that takes time, and time is what you're running out of in the first place. No one can tell you how to add hours to the clock, but this article can help you with one time-consuming challenge you face night after night and that's what to cook for dinner.

It's More than Cooking

It's not just cooking, but it's deciding what to cook, seeing if you have the right ingredients, and then shopping for the ones you don't, none of which you want to handle at the end of a busy day. Even if you have decided to run by the grocery store on the way home, if you're like most shoppers, you go to the store without a list. More than 40% of people purchase on impulse when shopping if they do not have a list with them ( That means you probably spend more time in the store. Did you know that after the first half-hour, you spend an average of 50 cents more for every minute you spend in the store (

If you're like many busy parents, you avoid all of this by simply loading the family into the car and heading to the nearest fast food stop. Nearly half of our meals are eaten out and half of our food dollars are spent eating out and a good portion of that on hamburgers, French fries, pizza and chicken nuggets! The statistics are alarming. The bottom line is that families eat fewer meals at home, spend more money at the store and eating out, eat less nutritious food, and spend less family time together at meal time. Not too encouraging!

Monthly Menu Planning (Simplicity, Variety, Flexibility)

In spite of all that, there is a way to improve and simplify things. I learned through my own experience as a working mother of four to put together a monthly menu plan. One day a month, I gather a variety of easy-to-prepare recipes. Then I check for ingredients already on hand that I can incorporate into my recipes, and I make a master list of items I can shop for in bulk (at the local outlet or food clubs) and lists of fresh items to purchase weekly.

I experimented with many recipes and learned that a menu plan doesn't have to be elaborate and good meals don't have to be complicated. I focus on simple, wholesome foods and fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, which create great variety throughout the year. This way, we try new flavors we might not try otherwise and find new family favorites.

With our busy lifestyle, flexibility is also important and I don't plan meals for days when the children have activities. Instead, I double one or two recipes during the week and plan leftovers for the busiest nights.

It Really Works

There are terrific benefits. When I started posting the menu calendar, I didn't hear, "I want pizza!" Now, the children know what's for dinner, the complaint level has diminished and the approval rating continues to go up as we try new dishes. The old feeling of panic when I walked through the door at night has gone since all I have to do is go to the calendar, pull the recipe and ingredients, and in about 30-40 minutes, a nutritious, home-cooked dinner is on the table. Evenings are much less stressful for me and more enjoyable for everyone in the family. And, I am especially pleased about seeing a savings of about 30% per month on groceries!

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Put a Plan into Action

If you're like most busy parents, you don't have time to sit down and make a plan for yourself. There are resources to help (online and in magazines) and ways to alleviate the stress. Here are a few suggestions for beginning a menu plan at your home:

  • Commit to a menu plan and post the plan to share with your family.
  • Discuss the meals and encourage suggestions for favorites.
  • Be realistic with your plan. You probably won't cook seven days a week, so adjust the plan to fit your family's needs and schedule. Also adjust recipes and shopping lists to match your family's size.
  • If your family has a lot of evening activities, cook ahead by doubling recipes and freezing extras. Weekends can often be a good time for doing extra cooking so that you don't have to cook every night of the week.
  • Look for meals with easy-to-follow instructions and manageable preparation and cooking time. If you want to experiment with more complex meals, plan these for the weekends when you have more time. Keep it simple and manageable during the work week.
  • Don't grocery shop without a list! Having a prepared list will help you cut trips to the store, saving you time and money.
  • Involve your children. Let them assist as they can (depending on their age) in the cooking process. Cooking together can be fun!

Once you put your plan into action, you'll see some remarkable changes. Best of all, you'll spend more quality time together with your family at the end of a busy day, sharing stories and enjoying a good meal.

Updated September 2013

Sandra "Sam" Moffitt is mother of four and grandmother of two (and another on the way). She is also founder of Mamma's Monthly Menus , a website dedicated to menu planning, saving time and money, and helping families get back to enjoying dinnertime together again.

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