A Simple Guide to Family-Friendly Meal Planning
If you’re one of the thousands of Americans that recently shifted to telecommuting, you may have noticed that essential tasks around the house like cooking, laundry and cleaning are not, in fact, easier to accomplish now that you’re home 24/7. While those of us who can work from home are very fortunate to be able to do so, it does come with its own set of challenges – especially when you’re caring and cooking for kids throughout the day. When at the office, I could go out for lunch every now and then which made things a bit easier, and my son’s breakfast and lunches were provided at school. But now that we’re all home together, I quickly realized that making every single meal (and snack!) from scratch was not going to be sustainable while also working full-time. I was prepping, cooking, eating, and then cleaning up ALL day long. It was exhausting, so I knew I owed it to myself (and my sanity) to find a better way. Here are the tips that have worked for my family during the COVID-19 crisis, and hopefully, beyond.
(the author and her family)
Tip #1: Get (a little) Organized and Plan Ahead. On Saturdays, my husband Chris and I take the time to map out every meal for the week which helps inform our grocery list and what to get from my rotation of meal kit subscriptions (Home Chef included, of course!). I make it a point to start with taking stock of what we have left in our pantry and the fridge so nothing goes to waste. Since we’ve been ordering essentials in bulk lately due to valid concerns over empty store shelves, we definitely have a lot to work with, so I try to let the ingredients we already have inspire the recipes.
Tip #2: Stick to a few Formulas you know Work. I incorporate tried and true flavors into our menu that we all love so everyone’s happy, but also leave room for exploring new ideas, especially since we’re always encouraging my son to try new foods. We also plan for at least one big-batch meal that will yield leftovers for a few days so we don’t have to cook every single night. Chili and casseroles are always a great idea, as they reheat well. We try to use common ingredients so we can eliminate food waste. A bunch of cilantro can pull double duty in Mexican dishes as well as Asian, for example. Ingredients in larger dishes, like carrots or bell peppers can often also moonlight as toddler snacks.
Tip #3: Weekends are still for Meal Prep. It’s tempting to think that you’ll be able to multitask more during the week in order to get things done that you used to reserve time on the weekends for…tempting, but wrong. So we stick to our pre-work from home routine, which means we do as much prep as we can for the week ahead on Sundays. My husband tackles washing and chopping all the produce (which definitely comes in handy with a toddler that can only manage tiny bites), I’ll cook chicken or beef in our slow cooker to shred for easy assembly lunches like tacos or for casseroles, along with a large batch of rice or quinoa to use during the week. I also make and freeze these egg muffins, which makes for an easy breakfast for all three of us.
(image via Show Me the Yummy)
Tip #4: Rely on Meal Kits when you can. One of the things that takes some weight off my shoulders is ordering three Home Chef meals a week for my husband and I, usually their Oven Ready meals or Ready in 15 options. Since life can be a bit chaotic with a toddler and our days can get away from us, knowing we have easy, ready to cook meals in the fridge is a huge relief when it’s time for lunch or dinner. I love Oven Ready meals because I don’t have to prep anything, they come with a tin I can just recycle afterwards, and there’s no cleanup. Some days it feels like I’m always cleaning up under the highchair so I’m grateful for any break I can get! Speaking of highchairs, I also order Yumi occasionally for my toddler. The purees and finger foods make for an easy go-to snack or even a side dish for him with lunch or dinner. It’s nice to be able to grab something that’s ready to go when he’s really hungry that I know he’ll enjoy. (FYI: toddler hangry cries are NOT fun!)
(image via Home Chef)
I’ve found that meal planning and prepping really is a learning process, and ultimately it’s a skill to be honed over time. I’m constantly tweaking recipes, evaluating how much food gets used, and trying to be more efficient based on how the previous week went. We’ve made some smart investments in new food storage which has made a huge difference in keeping everything organized. Since we’ve started this process, I’ve found meal prep to be extremely helpful in re-establishing some order in an otherwise uncertain and chaotic time in our lives. It’s made our day-to-day life so much easier during the pandemic and beyond, and I hope some of these tips will help you, too!