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Easy Family Meal Plan (with PDF)

Mary Beth Johnson is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. She is currently writing her first book in between school drop off and laundry piles. She can be found every day on Instagram and at the local coffee shop.

A family meal plan is one of those tasks that sounds good in theory but becomes difficult to consistently pull off when the witching hour collides with the dinner hour. There have been many times I’ve flipped through cookbooks on a Sunday afternoon with a plan for the week, only to find the demands of motherhood sabotage my best intentions. It was only when I took a good hard look at what was and wasn’t working that I found the secret to a successful family meal plan: keeping it simple. I had to release my expectations, create a system that worked in real life, and get back to the basics of building a meal. Here is the meal plan that is working for our family of six.

What a family meal plan is

A family meal plan should have these three basic elements:

  • Recipes for the week: I choose very basic weeknight dinner recipes that are great bases I can customize and build upon depending on how much time I have and what ingredients I have on hand. I’ve gotten so consistent with this that I’ve memorized my recipes and what general ingredients I’ll need for the week.
  • A list of ingredients: Because I stick to simple dinners, I buy the same ingredients every week, mixing it up occasionally if I’m trying a new recipe or if we’re having company over. This may sound boring, but honestly, you can make tons of new dinner combinations with just a few key ingredients.
  • Meal prep in advance: I think this is the most understated, but important part of meal planning. I promise it gets easier with a little practice and some pyrex bowls. Make it fun by setting aside one afternoon of the week to pop in some earbuds, listen to an audiobook while you chop veggies, make a homemade sauce, and store your ingredients in containers for the fridge.

What a family meal plan shouldn’t be

A family meal plan should never be:

  • Expensive: Part of the advantage of meal planning is that it should save you from spending money on ingredients you don’t actually need. If you find yourself overspending in your grocery budget, take a good hard look at what you’re throwing in your cart that you end up wasting or that could be replaced with a less expensive option. I focus on just a few key ingredients that pack a powerful punch of flavor and work with many different types of meals. For example, I keep fresh basil and parsley growing in small pots and I always keep fresh limes, lemons, garlic, and cilantro on hand for seasoning and homemade sauces. 
  • Complicated: French parenting shows us that by feeding the kids what the adults are eating, you not only expand a child’s palette but also create a less complicated dinner routine. If your children don’t like a particular food, try serving them that same food in different ways with different meals. 
  • Completely homemade: Some of the best meals I’ve made have been through borrowing a half homemade approach. I love to use premade curry sauces to pour over veggies, chicken, and rice. We are obsessed with Trader Joe’s refrigerated pizza dough and keep it in the fridge for pizza night. I also love keeping premade gluten-free pancake mix or muffin mixes in the pantry for breakfast night.
  • Inflexible: If your family meal plan isn’t flexible there’s a high probability you won’t stick with it. Focus on implementing a loose family meal plan that you can pivot according to your own unique needs.

The five buildable family dinners you need in your back pocket

I focus on planning five dinners a week, all built on a base with ingredients I regularly keep in my back pocket. With this loose structure, I buy similar ingredients every week. I get so used to the structure that I don’t have to write lists after a while, I just buy the pantry staples I’m running low on that week. Here’s what I’m talking about: 

  • Monday | Pasta Night: Pasta serves as a great base dinner year-round because you can make the dish cold or hot and toss with seasonal vegetables. Some of my favorite combos include tossing the pasta in a gravy sauce with fresh tomatoes or with a lemon cream sauce and green peas. During the winter months, I may sub this night out for soup night since I love a warm bowl with crusty bread on the side.
  • Tuesday | Chicken Night: I stock up on organic chicken when I can find it marked down and then I freeze it. You can do so much with chicken as your base, but I really really love a basic reduction sauce like this honey garlic balsamic.
  • Wednesday | Breakfast Night: This is our favorite night of the week and one I usually save for when we’re running out of fresh ingredients and the pantry is sparse. I fry up some bacon, mix up some gluten-free pancakes (the Trader Joe’s mix is my favorite), and whip up a quick berry sauce with fresh or frozen berries. My kids don’t love quiches yet, but this is also a good breakfast night option that you can cook ahead and pull out to warm up just before serving. This quiche crust is my favorite, but I make it with a gluten-free flour blend. I then stuff the quiche with protein-rich eggs, spinach, mushrooms, cheese, and roasted tomatoes (if I’ve thought ahead and have taken the time to cook them in the oven). Quiches are wonderfully customizable.
  • Thursday | Rice Bowl Night: Making a big pot of steaming white rice is an economical dinner base with so many possibilities. Make it Mexican themed and top with lime, chopped cilantro, seasoned chicken, and black beans and then stuff into warmed tortilla shells. Or, you could go in an Indian or Thai direction, saute chopped veggies and chicken and then stir in a premade sauce. Pour over a bowl of rice and top with chopped cilantro. 
  • Friday | Pizza Night: This is a meal that can be made in under 30 minutes if you have a Trader Joe’s nearby – their refrigerated premade pizza dough is the best. I get my kids involved in stretching the dough and choosing their favorite toppings. We pair these pizzas with our movie night and try to make enough for leftovers on the weekend.

Working off of base dinners takes some practice as you get comfortable in the kitchen, but it is honestly the only type of family meal plan that has worked for us because it’s so flexible and budget-friendly. Here are a couple more tips that have helped set me up for success:

  • Get good at making a couple of versatile sauces. I make this green sauce and this vinaigrette and keep them on hand to take meals up a notch. These homemade sauces provide flavorful dips for veggies and naan bread, rice bowls and salads.
  • Learn how to flavor and roast vegetables. Roast any type of vegetable you can think of in a preheated 350-375 oven on a sheet pan drizzled and tossed with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Throw on additional spices and seasonings if you need it. I like roasted veggies in quiches for breakfast night, thrown on top of salads or rice bowls, and as a side to a traditional chicken dinner. 
  • Keep some “cheat” items in your pantry. I like to have premade mixes for muffins, cornbread, or pancakes in my pantry so that I have a quick backup plan on those nights I just don’t feel like doing much cooking. I also keep a few premade sauces and canned beans stocked so that I can dress up some rice really fast and turn it into a dinner bowl.
  • Buy proteins on sale and freeze or cook ahead. Two out of four of my children are vegetarians so we do not eat a lot of meat, but I buy tons of eggs and will hard boil them and store in the fridge for a quick snack, breakfast on the go, or a topping for a salad (they’ll stay good for a few days). I also look for markdowns on chicken and will stock up and store in the freezer. 

No one ever really tells you that as a mother part of your job description is becoming an in-home chef to little eaters with liberally honest reviews. Sometimes, we just need a little encouragement to not give up and make a family meal plan. To help, I’ve put together a downloadable pantry list and a base dinner night meal plan that you can customize with your own ideas. I hope you’ll find it helpful. 

Mary Beth Johnson is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. She is currently writing her first book in between school drop off and laundry piles. She can be found every day on Instagram and at the local coffee shop.

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July 26, 2019

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