Is your family’s schedule never the same two days in a row? If so, meal planning around busy schedules may seem like an impossible feat. For us, in any given week, the hubs may work late one night, we’ll have a practice the other, this mama might want to have a cocktail with someone over the age of 6 on a third night…all within a 4-day period.
Each of those plans on our schedule TOTALLY impacts how much time we have available to prep and cook dinner. If I had planned to cook a meatloaf, because I LOVE a good meatloaf, on the night we have practice, I’d be setting myself up for total disaster. They typically cook for 30-45 minutes and, if not mixed ahead of time, take at least 10-15 minutes to prep. So, how in the world are you supposed to plan meals around this kind of variation? Easy, I tell you, easy.
1. Write down your family’s schedule.
Shocking, right? Honestly, the biggest challenge I find most folks have is that they don’t tie their dinner choices to the time they have available to prep and cook. So, first things first, look at your schedule. And, look at the schedules of the other members of your family. Coordinating schedules is important, in general, but it’s non-negotiable when planning meals. Who wants to plan and cook a nice meal like baked chicken with all the fixin’s when mom is the only one who’ll be home to eat it? To see all of our schedules in one place, I use our weekly planner and jot down anything we have on our calendars after 4pm, so I can factor that into our plans. If you want a copy of the one my family uses, fill out the info below and I’ll send it your way.
2. Consider who will be home.
Doing this will often make some nights’ dinners easier than others. I don’t eat a ton of pasta so, when I know I won’t be home for dinner, I throw a pasta night into the mix. When my husband isn’t home for dinner, I go a bit simpler–maybe breakfast for dinner or quesadillas stuffed with leftovers. If you have a meal that you know one family member doesn’t particularly love, plug that in on a night they’re gone. Or, maybe there’s a night where family members are coming and going at all different times. On those nights, a slow cooker meal would be a great option. Doing just these 2 pieces of pre-planning will often get your weekly meal plan off to a pretty solid start.
3. Keep a list of meals, organized by time.
This seems far crazier than it really is. Seriously…some nights are crock pot nights because dinner needs to be done at a certain time with little to no prep and minimal cleanup. So, have a list of the slow cooker meals your family loves. Then, make a list of meals that you can get on the table in 30 minutes or less. Another category that I’d suggest is a ‘set it and forget it’ list, either oven or grill recipes, where you simply put the food on to cook and it’s done in a certain amount of time without much fuss. And…there’s the ever popular 15 minute and under meals.
Some of these are main dishes only, which is often the hardest part of meal planning, for me. If you want to add some veggies to your dinners (and, let’s be honest…you probably SHOULD), check these simple ways to include veggies in your quick dinners. So, here are my top 4 categories of meals, organized by time. I’ve included a sample list of ideas under each category, just to get your juices flowing. 🙂 Go ahead and make a quick list of 4 or 5 meals per category that your family loves.
Slow cooker MEALS (Time: 5 minutes)
Ranch Chicken Chili
Slow Cooker Lasagna
30 minute meals
Set it and forget it (Time: 30 minutes)
GRILL: Italian Marinated Flank Steak
GRILL: Marinated Chicken and Veggies
OVEN: Ranch pork chops
OVEN: Baked Salmon
15 minutes (Time: 15 and under)
Rotisserie Chicken Tacos
Marinated Chicken Tenders
Sweet & Sour Shrimp
4. Match your meals with the time you have available.
If you’re looking at your family’s schedule for the week, you should be able to easily identify how much time you’ll have each night to prep and cook. Here’s a sample of what one of our weeks looks like with my estimate of how much time we have to get dinner on the table. Now, if you’re thinking writing down the actual amount of time is a bit over the top, stick with me. This is super helpful when you’re first starting. Eventually, you’ll probably be able to eye your schedule and know, BUT, I do believe that, as busy moms, any system or process that we can follow to cut down on the amount of thinking and deciding that we’re doing, the better. Just sayin’….
Then, take that list of meals you made and choose a dinner from the time category you’ve estimated. If your Meal Planning Style is ‘Themed Nights’ like Taco Tuesdays, Meatless Mondays, etc., then you start there and narrow based on the time you have. For instance, on nights you have 5 minutes to prep and cook tacos, you’ll want to choose a Slow Cooker recipe that you can just add to taco shells. Have more time available? Try grilling some taco-seasoned chicken and vegetables and turn it into Fajita Night. Here’s what we did this week:
It really is THAT simple. You’ll see I’ve incorporated the leftovers into ‘NEW’ meals that won’t feel, or taste, like the same meal from the night before. I love doing that because 1) it takes less brain power than coming up with something brand new each night, 2) it makes the prep/cook time far quicker and 3) we waste a lot less.
So, let me know what you think about this approach to meal planning around busy schedules. For folks that are either crazy busy OR have schedules that change frequently, I’m hoping this can provide a game plan for getting dinner on the table. I’ll be updating a lot of the recipes over time, so, if there’s one, in particular, that you’d like me to post first, just let me know in the comments below.
And, if seeing is believing and NOW you want your copy of that weekly planning page (+ monthly planning page), then enter your email address and I’ll send it your way. 🙂
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