Spend the time once a week to create a meal plan for your family, and you’ll save time, money, and stress when it comes to cooking dinner.
And if your child only eats that one familiar thing, that’s okay, Levinson says. “Look at the week in full, and assuming that you have enough meals during the week that your kids do eat more of, if there’s one or two nights during the week that they’re not eating as much, it’s okay because it balances out,” she says.
Write it down. While you may be the type of person who prefers mental notes, writing out your meal plan will help it stick with you whether it’s on a special meal planning chart, a simple calendar, or a chalk- or dry-erase board. Plus, your kids (and partner) can look at it and see what’s for dinner rather than bugging you about it (and maybe take initiative to start cooking!).
Get the kids involved. Older kids, tweens, and teens can help pick out recipes to set up the weekly meal plan. “Let’s say it’s a family with three kids, so you could say, [Monday] is going to be Joe’s choice, and Tuesday night is James, and Wednesday night is the third child. Everybody can pick what they want as the meal for a night during the week,” Levinson says.
A way to get younger kids involved is to let them pick an item from the produce aisle they want to try and integrating it in a meal that’s already planned. “I usually recommend planning your menu and then basing your grocery list on the menu,” Levinson says. But if you take your kids grocery shopping, “I’m a big fan of saying, pick something from the produce aisle that you want to try, and they’ll pull something from the produce aisle,” which then needs to be integrated into one of the planned meals, she adds.
Don’t forget to get the kids to help you do the cooking. Kirwan says her daughter is obsessed with pizza, so Kirwan will roll out the dough and her daughter will help with adding the sauce and toppings. “The more active you get kids in the kitchen and feel like they’re a part of the meal planning process, the cooking process, I think you have a better chance of getting them to eat the things you made,” Kirwan says.
Take stock of what you already have in the refrigerator and pantry. Before sitting down to plan your meals for the week, check out what you have in your fridge that needs to be used before it goes bad and see what ingredients you already have in your cupboards. “So if I have a bunch of cilantro that I used the week before,” Levinson says, “I’m going to base at least one or two meals on where can I use that cilantro so it’s not going to go bad and I don’t waste my money on throwing out food.”
And, as Jessica Jones, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., and Wendy Lopez, M.S., R.D., say in their FoodHeavenMadeEasy.com blog post, “The Ultimate Meal Planning Guide,” once you have your grocery list (based off your meal plan for the week), check to see if you have any of those ingredients in your cupboards already. This way you’ll avoid buying items you don’t need.
Prep ingredients for all of your meals at the same time. “Chop all of your fruits and vegetables, cook your grains, wash your greens, and store in airtight containers,” Jones and Lopez say in their blog post. They also suggest investing in good food storage containers so your pre-prepped foods and meals don’t go bad. Plus, ingredient prep time is also a good way to get older kids involved in the process.
Be flexible. Sometimes life gets in the way—whether it’s an unexpected meeting, delays on public transit, or a flat tire—so learning to take things in stride with meal planning will go a long way. “In those instances I try to teach people to learn how to pivot and have things stored in the freezer for those crazy busy days,” Kirwan says, or find a new way to use those ingredients, or just make the meal the following night.
As with all things in life: The more you practice, the better you’ll get, Levinson says. So don’t be too hard on yourself if the week’s menu doesn’t go exactly according to plan.
Main image: My parents got me and my brothers involved with the meal-planning process as kids—we each had to choose a recipe for the week, and more often than not, I helped make it. Here, my dad and I are making his famous biscuits, a recipe I still make today.