By Amy Marlow, MPH, RD, CDN
When my friends are talking about how hard parenting is, I like to joke that the worst part is that “these people want to eat dinner, like, every single night!?!”
Getting a healthy dinner prepared and fed to my three kids every night, on top of work and afterschool activities, is no small task. But there is one thing that has helped me over the years: a smart meal planning routine.
Meal planning is deciding in advance what you’re going to serve for your meals. It helps you ask “what’s for dinner” less often and helps you avoid extra trips to the store. You can thoughtfully plan to use your resources wisely, avoid take-out and remove some of the stress from family mealtimes.
Here a few helpful tips:
- Begin with a list of ideas. Don’t start from scratch every time you plan. Instead, have a file of ideas. What do you like to cook? What do your kids like to eat? Gather ideas and recipes in a central location. For example, I keep a binder with copies of my go-to, no-fail recipes and a robust Pinterest file of additional ideas. Need help? I find kid-friendly ideas on the websites weelicious.com and superhealthykids.com. Happy Family’s Organic Cookbook for Babies & Toddlers has several recipes my whole family likes and that your kids can help prepare.
- Get into a routine. Like most things, meal planning is easier if you practice it on a regular basis and stick to a routine. Choose a day when you can sit down with your family’s calendar and organize the coming week. I plan out my menu for the next week each Friday and then shop on the weekend.
- Always check the fridge, freezer and pantry. You may have ingredients on hand that need to be used, leftovers you can eat again or repurpose, or time-savers that will help you the following week. Incorporate these into your menu to cut down on food waste and to save time. For example, leftover roasted chicken can be shredded and put into a taco or soup. Vegetable scraps can be added to a stir-fry. Frozen vegetables come in handy on nights when you don’t have a ton of time.
- Be flexible. On the nights when something unexpected comes up, don’t make yourself crazy by forcing yourself to stay on the plan. Consider how to salvage the night first. I keep rice, pasta and beans in my pantry for when I need to throw something together quickly, and there are always frozen veggies and fish sticks or meatballs in my freezer. Rejigger the rest of the week to use the fresh foods that you didn’t end up eating that night. Almost anything can be frozen for future use, if needed, to keep it from going to waste.
Amy Marlow is the nutrition adviser for Happy Family. She is a registered dietitian and New York State certified nutritionist, with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics, and a master’s degree in public health. Amy worked as a pediatric dietitian at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and has consulted for youth development programs and the National Cancer Institute’s 5-A-Day program. Amy is published author and major contributor to Happy Family’s Organic Cookbook. She has presented on a variety of nutrition and health topics to professionals and the public. She lives just outside of NYC with her husband, three kids and a big goofy Labrador named Gus.