Almost 20 years ago, I sat in the kitchen of my sister-in-law, staring at the calendar on her wall. Their meals for the week were written on the corresponding days. I was a sophomore in college, eating cans of chili, packages of ramen, and pancakes from a giant, Costco-sized bag of pancake mix. The idea of planning out the week of food seemed like some serious, next level organization skills. My sister-in-law is only a few years older than me, but this elevated her to another level.
Since that day, my opinion of family meal planning (and my diet, thankfully!) have changed completely. Why? Because I now have a family, too.
Benefits of Family Meals
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that family meals matter. They reported statistics and 5 reasons that eating dinners together helps kids be healthier. If you’re able to gather everyone at the table several times each week, it makes an impact on your kids. Here’s how:
- Helps prevent excessive weight gain (12% lower chance of being overweight).
- Teaches healthy food choices (20% less likely to choose junk food).
- Prevents eating disorders (35% less likely to have anorexia, bulimia, or other disorders).
- Improves social-emotional health (they talk about their day and tell stories which lead to better academics).
- Helps deal with cyberbullying (handle it better and are less likely to abuse substances or develop psychiatric health concerns).
Family meal planning means you’re more likely to have those sit-down dinners together. It does for me! However, the execution hasn’t come easily. Through much trial and error, I’ve tried different systems and found one that works for me (mostly!).
Here are options for a system that might work for you.
Simplest: Put It on Your Calendar
If you have a family calendar, write your dinners for the week alongside your schedule, just as my sister-in-law did. One of the big benefits of doing this is that your busyness for the week is right in front of you as you decide what to make and when. Do you have an evening where you’re driving from soccer to gymnastics to piano? Make that a freezer meal or leftover night. Do you have an afternoon where you’ll be away from the house until nearly dinner time? That sounds like a good day for a slow cooker meal. Grab some great recipes for busy moms on our post of best crock pots!
As you write down meals, keep a pad of paper next to the calendar and write down your shopping list at the same time. If you’re like me, you forget what you have on hand.
Cutest: Use A Chalkboard
Not long after my first child was born, I used this chalkboard to write down our meals for the week. My husband cooked back then, so all I had to do was ask him what he was going to make, then I wrote it down. I guess this is really the “simplest” system, isn’t it? Put your spouse in charge of it all and volunteer to write it down on a cute chalkboard for him! Our chalkboard fell into disuse when we moved. Why? Because that’s what happens when you move. Things get left in boxes, kids find the chalkboard markers and draw on the board, you never get around to cleaning it, you take a long time to find a new spot to hang it, and then you have to remember to hang it! However, it’s the perfect system for my sister and one of my good friends (pictured).
What I like about the chalkboard, is that it looks cute! I’m not a great, “Pinterest Mom”, but I have a lot of love and respect for those with the gift of craftiness. With a system that looks good/cute, it takes some of the stress out of it, too. If it looks good, you feel good about it, simply put. Meal planning can be hard and daunting so putting in a little creativity with it can make it fun.
Most Tactile: Corkboard and Cards
We have a family kanban board in our kitchen. It’s similar to the family command centers you can find on Pinterest only ours is based on principles from lean project management (because I worked for a decade in IT and lived in that world). The board is split into sections that list chores and projects for the house. At the top of our task board, there’s a daily schedule used for one purpose: listing the meal for the week. A big benefit of this system is that I can move the cards around when we decide on a different meal for Tuesday. Do you ever have those days where you realize you forgot to pull the meat out of the freezer to thaw and suddenly, your plans are tossed out the kitchen window? I just switch the card to the next day and pull a different meal over. When my kids are older and better readers, they’ll be able to see the plan and can even write their own requests on cards and hand them to me. I really look forward to that day!
Most Techy: Slack Board
Slack is a cloud-based (online) communication tool. They brand themselves as a tool for companies and teams, from sales and marketing to IT and engineering, but my husband and I use it for our communication. When our kids are older, we could add them and make it a family communication tool. Slack is like a chatroom for us. We organized our “chats” into categories: family vacation; Christmas gift ideas; calendar (linked up to our Google calendar); daily-notes; random (because every marriage can benefit from sharing animated gifts); and meals. The format for the meals is simple: Make one weekly post with the plan for each day. One of the past posts looked like this:
Monday: roasted veggies stew
Tuesday: halibut tacos (p150 Andrew Weil)
Wednesday: Eggs in a cup (plus add sweet potato hash, p173)
Thursday: thai green curry
Friday: Pasta in cream sauce
Some of these came from recipe books on hand. Some came from online recipes. Some (like the pasta) didn’t require recipes.
The benefit of this format is that I did it at my computer and as I wrote the meal for the day, I added the items to my shopping cart for an online order with my local grocery store. I did this on Sunday night, scheduling the order for pickup on Monday morning, right after a gym class and before picking up my son from Kindergarten. This is Mom Bliss, right?
What System Do I Use?
We combine the Slack board with the cards. As I’m making the list for the week, I’m at the computer, putting it into a Slack post and creating my online shopping cart. Later, I write the meals out on cards for the board.
Even with a good system, planning your family meals can be hard. Here are a few bonus tips to help you sail through it a little more smoothly. Plus, you can get this from this fabulous printable and put them on your fridge!
- Have theme nights: Taco Tuesdays, Meatless Mondays, Slow Cooker Sundays, Pasta Night, We Love Leftovers, and Brinner (breakfast foods for dinner).
- Do it at a set time each week. If I don’t remember to put together the plan and shopping cart on Sunday night so I can pick it up on Monday, I’ll likely miss planning the ENTIRE week!
- Don’t forget to review it often! Talk about what you’ll be having with your kids. This will help you remember if there’s a meal you need to get in the slow cooker one morning, or if you need to pull meat out of the freezer for tomorrow’s dinner.
- Have some go-to meals that you can fall back on. Below is a recipe of one of our fall-back meals: enchiladas. My husband ate this often in his home growing up. We often serve it with sides of refried beans and Mexican rice. Add some pico de gallo and it’s practically gourmet!
Easy Enchiladas Recipe
2 cans of chili (no beans)
- Preheat oven to 400F.
- Heat oil over medium heat.
- Submerge each tortilla in oil for approximately 10 seconds, then remove and gently pat with paper towels.
- Sprinkle cheese in tortilla, roll tightly, and place in oven-safe dish; repeat for as many enchiladas as desired.
- Heat chili over stove or in microwave.
- Pour hot chili over rolled tortillas and top with shredded cheese.
- Bake in the oven until cheese is melted.
- Serve with your favorite sides and toppings (sour cream, pico de gallo, salsa, etc.).