Meal Planning for Busy Families
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Strategies for Healthy Suppers

Meal planning is one of the biggest challenges for anyone juggling a busy life filled with work and family commitments. The good news? A little bit of planning and some time-saving tips take the stress out of meal planning.family meal

Article originally appeared in  Family Health Magazine

Challenges in meal planning

If you find planning healthy meals a difficult task, these common issues may ring true for you.

  • Putting together a healthy and tasty meal that your family will actually want to eat is challenging.
  • All of the conflicting ideas about what you ‘should’ eat leave you feeling confused about which foods are actually healthy.
  • Life is insanely busy. With all that you juggle at home and at work, it is a struggle to find time to plan and shop.
  • Your schedule changes often and unexpectedly, making it hard to serve the meals you have planned.
  • You want to make healthy dinners, but find yourself too tired and stressed to do so during the week.
  • You get home from school or work too hangry (grumpy *and* hungry) to put your meal plan into action.

Why plan meals?

Meal planning can help keep your budget in check, protect your health, reduce food waste, eliminate meal-time stress, and cut down on time spent thinking about what to have for dinner.

Meal planning in three steps

Book it!

  • Book a date with the grocery store. Pick one day a week and schedule an appointment to grocery shop.
  • Your grocery date should be considered equally as important as a family member’s birthday.
  • No time to shop? Consider grocery delivery service, now offered by many local stores.

Map it!

Based on the time you have in your schedule, use a calendar, journal or computer template to assign each day of the week with the following labels.

  • Fast and fresh – Fresh, single meals that can be prepared, cooked, and assembled in 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Slow – A fresh, single meal that will take one hour or so to prepare and cook. Schedule these for days when you have time to make a more involved meal.
  • Big batch – Fresh meals that can be made in large volumes, with extra to be frozen and eaten later.
  • Repurposed – Cook once, eat twice. Use leftovers or create meals using planned extras (see sidebar) from the day before.  
  • Out – Planned meals where you do not have to cook. This includes take-out, a meal at a restaurant, or a meal at someone’s home.

Save it!

  • Create a re-usable grocery list of staple and fresh foods.
  • Design your list so that it can be easily navigated in your usual grocery store.
  • If you are tech-savvy, download a grocery list app.
  • Compile all your meal plans and favourite recipes in a binder, computer folder or app.  

If you find that this three-step meal planning system is not a good fit for you and seems overwhelming, do not worry! Start small.  Any amount of planning will help. Some families find planning one day at a time works best. Others plan only a few meals for the week ahead, leaving nights open to use leftovers and planned extras.  

WATCH Andrea’s Facebook LIVE on this topic:

What are planned extras?

Planned extras come from cooking more of one part of the meal to use in a new way the next day.

    • Make extra grilled or roasted meat. Use for wraps or salad the next day.
    • Roast a whole chicken. Use extras in casseroles or chicken salad.
    • Roast extra vegetables. Add to wraps, scrambled eggs or soups. 
    • Cook a double batch of rice or quinoa. Freeze in individual or family-sized portions.

Planning a balanced supper

A healthy, balanced supper should contain three components.

1. Grains and starches include bread, pita, wraps, pasta, potato, rice, quinoa or other grains.

  • These offer the fibre, B-vitamins and carbohydrate your brain and muscles need for energy.
  • Without adequate carbohydrate in your supper, you may feel overall fatigue.

2. Veggies and fruit include raw veggies, leftover cooked or grilled veggies, vegetable soup, salad, fresh fruit, frozen berries, canned unsweetened fruit, and dried fruit.

  • This category offers fibre and health-promoting vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. In general, as an adult, you should aim to have veggies and fruit as half of your supper.
  • Failing to add enough of these to your supper likely means you do not get enough in total by the end of the day. This can affect your health, energy and weight management efforts.

3. Source of protein such as meat, poultry, seafood, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans, refried beans and more), cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, canned tuna and salmon, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds.

  • Protein and iron are key for maintaining good energy levels. As well, protein helps you to feel full after the meal, keeping you from getting hungry quickly.
  • Failing to add enough protein to your supper can cause blood glucose to rise sharply and then fall. This can lead to cravings.

Have a backup plan

In a best-case scenario, you will book time in your calendar to plan meals for the week, make a grocery shopping list, and go shopping. However, we all know that life is not perfect or predictable. Planning or being able to carry out a plan does not always happen. Sometimes you have an amazing plan, but something happens in your work or family life to steal those precious hours. Having a backup plan can help navigate times like this.

The single most important question to ask yourself each night is simple.  Before going to bed, answer the question “What is for supper tomorrow?”

  • Look at the available options in your fridge, freezer and pantry. Simply select three components of a balanced meal (grain/starch, vegetables, and a source of protein). 
  • Your meal planning does not have to be fancy. Give yourself a break. Having pancakes, Greek yogurt and frozen veggies for dinner may not be gourmet, but it meets the criteria for a balanced meal.
  • Let the vegetables drive dinner. To avoid food waste, look in your fridge first, then the freezer or pantry. Start with fresh foods that need to be used up first, and form your meal around those items.   

If you forgot to answer the supper question the night before, think about it on your drive to work, at lunch, or while waiting to pick up your kids from school.  Any amount of planning is helpful, instead of making do when you are hangry and tired and it’s time to eat.

Post a list of backup meals at home.

  • List three to five backup meals to have on standby at all times in your home. Pick meals that can be prepared in a short amount of time.
  • To be balanced, these meals should contain three things (grains/starches, vegetables and/or fruit, and a source of protein).
  • Make sure your weekly grocery shopping list always contains the ingredients for backup meals.
  • The main cook and the not-so-good cooks in the home should know how to make these meals. (Do some cooking instruction if needed, so everyone is on board.)

Having a solid backup meal plan prevents stress if scheduled meals fall apart or your trip to the grocery store gets delayed. This simple strategy allows work, personal and family schedules to change. It also prevents imbalanced home meals or eating out.  

Eight easy backup meals

While everyone has different food preferences and cooking skills, these backup supper ideas can help get you started.

  • Scramble – Scramble eggs and serve with toast (fresh or frozen bread), and carrot sticks or frozen veggies.
  • Mexican – Make quesadillas using fresh or frozen flour tortillas and grated cheese, canned black beans, red peppers (fresh or roasted red peppers from a jar), frozen corn and salsa.
  • Shrimp – Sauté frozen shrimp with Thai chili sauce or lemon, garlic and olive oil, and serve with prewashed salad and couscous (which takes only minutes to make)
  • Beans – Heat baked beans, boil potatoes (or microwave for speed), and steam cabbage or shave it in a coleslaw.
  • Fish – Dust thin frozen fish fillets with bread crumbs and seasoning, steam fresh or frozen veggies, and add whole grain garlic toast.
  • French Toast – Top French toast with yogurt or cottage cheese, and frozen berries or mango
  • Noodles – Combine pasta, tomato sauce, and ground meat or poultry (or canned drained lentils or chick peas).
  • Asian – Stir-fry fresh or frozen strips of beef, pork or chicken with fresh or frozen veggies, and serve in a wrap or over rice.

Looking for more family meal ideas?















Andrea Holwegner, BSc, RD, a consulting dietitian, creator and facilitator of an online nutrition course, who provides nutrition counselling, workplace wellness initiatives, and speaking engagements through her professional practice, www.healthstandnutrition.com in Calgary, AB.























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