Mums and Dads who plan ahead for their family meals, tend to have children who make healthier food choices as they grow up.
This is because having a plan is one of the foundations for positive food parenting. It allows you to use your knowledge of food and nutrition so that your child has a good chance of eating a well-balanced diet.
However, many of the Mums I chat with dread planning family meals. They see it as a chore.
So here are my 6 steps to make it as easy as possible for you, and hopefully save you some money too!
What is family meal planning?
It’s all about organising meals in advance for you and your family, usually for the week ahead but some families might prefer to plan for two weeks or monthly.
It’s also about shopping ahead of time for everything you need for those meals.
Some families like to plan all meals for the entire week and some plan just for the evening meal.
If you’ve ever found yourself staring into the fridge, trying to ‘conjure up’ dinner ideas or making too many last minute supermarket dashes, this could be for you.
When you meal plan, you will no longer be standing in front of an open fridge wondering what to cook for dinner tonight!
It will also stop you asking your children what they want for their dinner. They don’t know!
Young children aren’t good food decision makers yet so this needs to stay as your job for a while longer. You can give them simple choices such as peas or cauliflower but that’s all the responsibility they can take at this stage.
For many people, meal planning makes them feel more organised and helps them spend less time thinking about how to answer the dreaded ‘What’s for dinner?’ question.
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What are the advantages of family meal planning?
Nutrition and variety
If you ever feel like you’re eating too much of the same meals, you probably are!
Eating a wide variety of food is essential as different foods helps you get the wide range of nutrients that the human body needs.
When we don’t plan ahead we often stick to the same list of meals. This not only gets a bit boring but less variety means less nutrition.
When you plan out healthy family meals, it helps us all get the nutrition we need from our food.
Children have 40 different nutrients they need to meet every day and the way to do this is by having a wide range of different foods to eat.
Variety also helps our children learn about and explore new foods and helps them become familiar with a wider range.
Remember, children are learning about food and continue learning until the day they leave for University (and beyond!)
Reduces food waste
Planning ahead reduces food waste as all you have in your fridge is what’s needed for the meals ahead.
This means less is thrown away because it didn’t get used. In 2018, it was estimated that the UK threw away 6.6 million tonnes of household food waste (1).
If you do find that you have a few carrots at the bottom of the fridge, my step-by-step meal planning guide will make sure that these don’t go to waste by using them up the next week.
Saves you money
Cooking from scratch is often cheaper than buying convenience foods and much cheaper than takeaways or eating out.
Planning ahead can allow us to be very ‘price savvy’ and choose meals with cheaper seasonal ingredients.
It will prevent you from buying too much at your weekly shop but also stop you having to go to the store mid week where you might only be going to pick up a bag of pasta but come out with a full basket of goodies!
It’s the cornerstone of positive food parenting
Planning family meals supports the gold standard parenting style known as ‘diplomatic food parenting’. The first element of this style is all about providing structure where you organise your child’s meals and snacks in a non-controlling way to facilitate their ability to get sufficient nutrients from food in order to grow and be healthy.
In order to do this, you need to plan.
It saves time
Although you need to make time to plan, having a family meal plan will certainly save you time during the week.
You’ll no longer be trying to decide what’s for dinner and you won’t be browsing the supermarket shelves trying to make decisions or taking those emergency trips to the corner shop.
My 6 steps that make planning family meals effortless
1. Stock check the fridge, freezer and cupboards
Start with what’s in your freezer or cupboard and go from there.
Are there leftovers in the freezer that could be bulked out to make a meal or do you have an open jar of sauce in the fridge that needs to be used up quickly before it spoils?
Do a ‘stocktake’ and make a list of what you already have.
2. Check the calendar
If your family is anything like mine there will be clubs and activities, evenings with friends or family and date nights (if you’re lucky)!
Any of these might mean that you need a quicker meal or only need to cook for the children of the or maybe you don’t need to cook at all!
Being aware of these dates now will mean that you’re not buying too much food that will just go to waste.
3. Look for inspiration online, in cookbooks and from family favourites
One of my favourite places for recipes are the supermarket websites! They have really useful sections on 30 minute meals, meals on a budget or for recipes that are a bit more special.
Think about visiting your local library where they often have a great selection of cookbooks to suit all different special diets and cuisines.
Or if you want this to be done for you, you can subscribe to my weekly meal plans where you get a new menu each week, with recipes all for just £9.99 per month.
By balancing the week with new recipes and family favourites you’ll have a nice balance of exposure to new foods and not shaking up meals too much.
4. Fill the nutritional gaps
Do you know how many portions of each food group you need across a week?
What do you feel your family doesn’t eat enough of?
What vegetables do you not have regularly? Often we tend to stick to a couple of favourite vegetables out of habit, but it’s the variety of different ones that will help your family meet their nutritional requirements.
Do you have different protein sources? Such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, vegetarian alternatives such as Quorn or tofu, or do you just stick to chicken and beef?
How often do you have a vegetarian meal?
If you need to brush up your knowledge of nutrition for children take a look at my:
Baby Nutrition Online Course, ‘Happy Healthy Weaning’
Tips to expand your vegetable intake
- To get all the nutrition we need from vegetables, try to eat a ‘rainbow’ of different colours. If your family mainly eats peas and carrots, what else are you missing out on – how about sweetcorn, red cabbage, peppers or cauliflower?
- Make use of frozen veg. Vegetables don’t have to be fresh, in fact frozen veggies are often more nutritious. Try canned veggies too but choose those without added sugar and salt.
- Explore your supermarket. Browse the vegetable aisle or online section, and once a week try something you haven’t had before.
5. Prep ahead whatever you can
After you’ve done your shopping, see if you can get any prep work done as you’re putting the shopping away.
- Can the fruit and veggies be washed and stored ahead of you needing them?
- Can the 4 pack of chicken breasts be cut into pieces and pre portioned in freezer bags?
- Are there any meals that you can cook now for later in the week, such as a soup, casserole or pasta sauce, all of which can be frozen without spoiling their quality.
We have our shopping delivered on a Saturday morning and do this food prep on the weekend. It might seem like extra work at the time but come mid week when you are short of time, you’ll feel thankful!
Think about whether foods need to come out of the freezer to thaw overnight in the fridge before cooking. There’s nothing worse than forgetting to defrost the chicken for the roast!
6. Cook your meal and fill the freezer
At this point you might already have your veggies prepped and the meat/fish/beans ready for the pan – that will make dinner easy work!
If you have ingredients (or planned ahead and bought double), use this as an opportunity to batch cook the meal by making enough for 2 and then freezing half for another day.
Keep the extras covered and clearly labelled in the freezer and use these meals for future meal plans just like I talked about in step 1. Most meals will keep frozen for around 3 months. Here is my handy guide to food safety and storage which explains how to cool, store, freeze, defrost and reheat food for babies, toddlers and actually all of us!
My Top Tips to make meal planning easier
- A magnetic white board makes a great family meal planning calendar and encourages kids to get involved too. You can buy meal planning pads or diaries or keep it simple with the notes section on your phone. Or you could use a paper wall chart, you can download my free one here.
- Food shopping online means you are more likely to stick to your list and be less tempted by things you don’t need. The annual delivery passes that most online supermarkets offer are a money saver too.
- If you want extra peace of mind you can buy our nutritionist approved weekly meals plans here. Each week you will get a brand new meal plan with recipes that meet our nutritional criteria so that you can be rest assured that the food you offer your family meets their nutritional needs. All for £9.99 per month, suitable for 18 months upwards.
- Find out which fruits and vegetables are in season locally to save money and help the environment by reducing air miles.
- Take advantage of your slow cooker to help with your meals on busy days. There are some awesome bolognese, chilli and casserole recipes that take just minutes to prepare.
Make meal planning fun!
- How about a children’s choice night each week, where your child chooses their favourite meal (with your guidance) and if they are old enough, have them cook for you! If you have more than one child, get them to take turns. This helps children feel part of the process and allows them to explore their interest in food. Introduce some children’s recipe books or online websites for them to look at for ideas.
- Have a freezer night every week, for a super easy family meal. Use up something you’ve prepared ahead or leftovers from earlier in the week.
- Have breakfast for dinner. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to eat certain foods at certain meal times. You could have pancakes one night, or scrambled eggs and bacon or a cooked breakfast (grilled rather than fried) and there are some amazing savoury porridge recipes!
- Have themed nights and be as creative as you like, trying cuisines from different countries such as an Italian, Mexican, Chinese or an Indian meal.
- Try a plant based or vegan meal once or twice a week.
Can someone do this for me?
Absolutely! If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club.
This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.
The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.
Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or IPad insight.
Oh and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either.
And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open