My kids are back in school, soccer is in full swing, and finding time to make dinner seems impossible. Gone are the lazy summer days of grilling some hot dogs in the fire pit or having an hour or two to whip up a salad, husk the corn and invite all the neighbors over for an impromptu cook out.
These days I’m rushing kids off the bus to wash hands, do homework, have a snack, change into soccer clothes and eat dinner before piling into the minivan to drive to practice or to a game or to watch someone practice or play a game. Then it’s time to come home, shower, double-check homework and head to bed before it starts all over again the next day.
In our first week back-to-school, we had to resort to carry-out meals more times than I care to admit. I just couldn’t find my back-to-school, meal-planning groove.
Like any mom struggling to find balance, I called on my friends, neighbors and the Internet to figure out some great tips and tricks for planning meals now that school is back in session, so that you can sit down to a great family meal during busy weeks. And as a Together Counts™ ambassador, I’m sharing these tips with you.
Back-to-School Meal Planning Tips and Tricks
1. Make a plan
There’s basically no chance of success without a plan. I’ve started planning out my meals for the week and writing a grocery list that goes along with it. We no longer have the luxury of opening the fridge and deciding what we want for dinner, or swinging by the store on our way home from work. Make a plan and stick to it.
2. Go to the store
This seems obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Over the summer, our family would go to the farmer’s market for our produce, our favorite specialty market for our meat, the bakery for our bread… you get the idea. We had the time and the desire to head to the store several days a week. Now that school is back in session, we don’t have that kind of time.
So use tip #1 to make your plan, make a list and go to the store once a week (or less if you possibly can.)
I even joined a wholesale club last week – after years of resisting. And you know what I learned? There’s something really comforting about knowing that I have two extra bags of pretzels and 8,000 rolls of toilet paper in my basement.
Find a system that works for you and stick with it.
3. Figure out your favorites
My husband and I sat down and listed out 10 meals that everyone in our family seems to like. I wrote each meal on a recipe card, with the ingredients on the back. Now it’s super simple for me to choose our meals for the week and make my weekly grocery list.
And on the weeks when we have a little more room in our schedule, we try something new.
Whether you do a recipe exchange, scour Pinterest or sign up for a weekly meal plan service – finding your favorite meals and sticking to them on your busiest weeks can save you a lot of time.
4.Get out your crockpot
I’ve made it my mission to make at least one crockpot recipe a week. There’s nothing like coming home from work and finding dinner ready and waiting!
5. Make a plan for eating on the go
If you’re anything like me, you’re eating on the go at least one night a week. Try to plan meals that make great sandwiches as leftovers, so you can pack them and eat at sports practice or while you’re driving to or from piano lessons.
One mom friend of mine even brings her crockpot along to the soccer fields and serves up a hearty meal to all of her kids between their practices and games. Impressive, right?
Get creative in how you serve your meals on the go, and you won’t find yourself resorting to takeout every night of the week.
Once you have 1 – 5 mastered, use these tips from the pros to take things up a notch.
A few of my friends are absolute masters at meal planning and are taking things to a whole new level. I haven’t personally tried these yet, but I’m hoping to in the coming year.
Cook for a month
Yes, I said a month. Grab your recipes, go power-shopping, and make a month’s worth of freezer meals in one day. It can take you 5 – 8 hours in that day. You may feel like it can’t be done. Until you don’t have to cook dinner for an entire month – and then you’ll think it’s worth it.
Ask your friends and hop on Pinterest to find favorite freezer meals to add to your monthly rotation.
Set up a meal exchange with friends or neighbors
There are several ways you can set this up, but basically you work with your friends to make meals for each other.
Maybe you get together and whip up a batch of freezer meals as a group. Everyone brings one of the main ingredients for the group and everyone leaves with their own bags of freezer meals.
Another option is to prepare enough green beans for four families. You meet up with your friends, and they each take a family-size serving of your green beans. And you get a family-size serving of everything they brought too. Usually you take turns providing the main dish, and obviously you don’t really need to make green beans – but you get the idea. This potluck-style meal sharing is a great way to guarantee you’re eating a quick and balanced meal at least once a week.
Or – my personal favorite idea – every time you make a meal, you double it. And exchange leftovers with your friend who’s doing the same. As long as your families’ have similar favorite recipes, this is a great way to help each other out.
Whether you’re cooking meals for your family a month at a time, or your goal is to cook at least one meal at home this week, these tips should help with your back-to-school meal planning adventures.
What are your favorite meal-planning tips?
Anna Luther is the mom behind the blog, My Life and Kids. She loves to share her stories, make you laugh and help moms feel better about their crazy, messy, fabulous lives. She lives in Ohio with her husband and three little kids.