Meal Planning Ideas for Busy Families

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Inside: Try these meal planning ideas for busy families to simplify your life and take the stress out of dinner.

This is a guest post from June at This Simple Balance.

meal planning ideas for busy families

Maybe there’s a mom somewhere out there who adores meal planning. If so, I haven’t met her yet. This is why moms need meal planning

Let’s face it: most of us are looking for ways to make the entire meal planning process less painful and tedious. It’s why meal subscription boxes have become so popular – we want someone else to figure it out already! 

Can’t someone else find the recipes, shop for the ingredients, and prep the food, too? We have busy families and don’t have time to reinvent the wheel every week or even every month.

We desperately want need meal planning to be “set it and forget it” kind of easy. Because most of us can’t afford to get take out every night.  

I’ve been meal planning for close to 10 years now. I honestly feel like I’ve tried it ALL.

Since I’ve added more kids (we now have 5), homeschooling, and working from home, my family has only gotten busier, as you can imagine. 

I wish I had mastered meal planning BEFORE my first baby came along. Finding an easy meal planning system that works for you before you have a newborn eliminates two huge stressors for new moms: knowing what’s for dinner and eliminating extra spending. 

Thankfully, I found a meal planning strategy that works for me. The other meal planning ideas I tried weren’t bad ideas necessarily – they just didn’t work for our family. 

But they might be the best idea for yours! That’s why I’m going to share with you the various meal planning ideas I’ve come across over the years. 

I’m confident you can find an idea on this list that can work for your busy family.

5 Meal Planning Ideas for Busy Families 

1. Minimalist Meal Planning

I’m going to start with the meal planning idea that finally worked for our family. 

Minimalist meal planning is choosing 7-14 basic meals your family enjoys. Typically, minimalist meal plans avoid recipes with multiple, expensive, one-time use ingredients that will end up going bad from lack of use. It also advocates for choosing meals for any given week that have overlapping ingredients to avoid food waste and to save money. 

To avoid boredom, you can eat out periodically, and choose cuisine you don’t typically cook at home.

This meal planning idea could work well for you if:

  • You can tolerate eating the same meals over and over.
  • You love keeping things super simple.
  • You don’t have the time or patience to find 30 recipes to fill an entire month.

2. Monthly Meal Planning Index Card System

This is probably the simplest meal planning system besides minimalist meal planning. Simply choose 28 recipes, one per index card. 

Lay all the index cards out and arrange them by week in any order you like. Now you have a monthly meal plan you can repeat every four weeks! 

This meal planning idea could work well for you if:

  • You crave more variety than a minimalist meal plan.
  • You want a “set it and forget it” meal plan.
  • You have 28+ recipes you enjoy eating on a regular basis.

3. Meal Plan Using Theme Nights

To use theme nights for meal planning inspiration, you need to choose a “theme” for each day of the week. Then only choose recipes that go with the theme.

For example, on “Mexican Monday”, you only plan recipes for Mexican food.

Theme nights offer more variety and flexibility for your meal planning, while still sticking to a loose system to narrow your recipes choices for any given day. The downsides to this meal planning idea are the fact that you need to meal plan every single week, and that you still need a list of recipes within the theme categories to choose from each week. 

If this meal planning idea appeals to you, but you want to cut down on the work of recipe hunting, my friend Elisa Giorgio created an amazing (and cheap) resource with TONS of recipe ideas for more than 30 theme nights. Every recipe in this PDF resource has a clickable link to the online recipe, too!

Check out Ultimate Theme Nights HERE

This meal planning idea could work well for you if:

  • You want a lot of variety in your meal plans.
  • You enjoy choosing new meals each week.
  • You still want a little structure in the form of themes.  


4. Freezer Meal Planning

If you want to get most of your meal prep done all at once and have ridiculously easy meals ready to go during the week (perfect for busy families!), freezer meals are for you.

You might assume that freezer meals require you to have a crockpot and use it regularly. Personally, I really can’t stand crockpot meals, so I steered clear of freezer meals for a long time. But you don’t actually need a crockpot!

Freezer meals simply require you to put in the work ahead of time for some portion of the recipe you plan to make during the week. So while it does require an up front time investment, weeknight meals should be quick and easy, and these meals are usually far more affordable than grocery store freezer meals. 

Check out Lisa’s freezer meal ebook perfect for postpartum and breastfeeding Moms here. It has 12 recipes plus a grocery list and guide to make getting started easy. 

If you are a little more ambitious and want to sift through free freezer meal recipes, check out this list of healthy freezer meals.

This meal planning idea could work well for you if:

  • You have a chunk of time to invest in preparing the freezer meals on a weekend or day off.
  • You like the idea of having easy, homemade meals during the week.
  • You want to save money on ingredients compared to grocery store prepared food freezer meals.

5. Weekly Meal Planning Service

Because busy families have less and less time to meal plan, several people in the past ten years decided to offer weekly meal plans delivered via e-mail as a paid service. There are a few different options depending on your meal planning goals. 

If your primary goal is to save money, $5 Dinners is the way to go. Erin Chase has been helping people reduce their monthly grocery budget for years, and she came up with this meal plan service as a way to save busy families time and money. 

For $5 a month, you have weekly meal plans delivered to your inbox. These meals “will cost about $2 per person, and in most cases less.” $5 Dinners is perfect for you if you and your family are not picky eaters and are willing to eat pretty much anything. Erin also offer a freezer cooking meal plan membership program called My Freeze Easy.

Try $5 Dinners FREE for 14 Days HERE

Prepdish is a similar service less focused on saving money and more focused on saving you time. The weekly meal plans come with instructions for prep day, so you can get many ingredients ready on the weekends, making weeknights easier.

Prepdish also focuses on providing healthier meal plans for its subscribers, and fans claim its helped them lose weight, too.

Try Prepdish – Get 14 Days FREE HERE. 

This meal planning idea could work well for you if:

  • You have no desire to meal plan every week.
  • You are willing to cook whatever is sent to your inbox.
  • You can dedicate an hour on the weekends to meal prep.
  • You want the ease of freezer cooking without the freezer meals.

How Busy Families Can Make Those Meal Planning Ideas Actually Happen

Meal planning is all well and good, but how do you eat those meals you planned? You need to cook them to make the whole process worth doing. 

Here are a few tips to make your meal plan on paper a cooked dinner reality:

1. Cut ingredients on the weekends.

Prepdish has seized on this idea in their meal planning service. They actually tell you what to prep on the weekends.

You can cut up vegetables, meats, and more ahead of time. They can be stored in pyrex dishes (I love these), ready to go for busy weeknight dinners.

2. Put a timer on your phone to remember to pull out frozen meat.

This is my meal planning Achilles heel. Around two or three o’clock, I’ll remember that I did NOT in fact, pull the frozen meat out of the deep freezer. At that point, it’s too late and the whole things I derailed.

Don’t let this happen to you! Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to pull out frozen meat so it’s ready when you need it.

3. Don’t go to bed with a dirty kitchen.

This is my one non-negotiable evening routine task. If I go to bed with a dirty kitchen, Chick-fil-a might as well take my order in advance.

Waking up to a dirty kitchen makes you FAR less likely to make dinner the following night. You’re playing catch-up all day. Having clean pots, pans, knives and counters ready to go gives you one less excuse to making your meal plan happen.

Make cleaning the kitchen a habit, and you’ll be amazed at what a huge difference it makes in your meal planning and in your life in general!

Meal Planning for Busy Families Is Possible

I know meal planning can feel SO painful, but the hard part is finding a system that works for you. That part? A slow, painful slog. 

But once you find a meal planning idea that actually works? Busy family life becomes SO much easier.

Take the time to try some of these meal planning ideas. Find something that works. Once you do, all that time you invested will be worth it.

What meal planning ideas for busy families have you tried over the years? Share what’s worked for you in the comments below!

About the Author 

June is a minimalist, homeschooling, work at home mom of 5 kids, ages 9 to 5 months. When she’s not juggling all the things, you can find her in a cozy corner, sipping a cup of something hot and reading a non-fiction book on minimalism, parenting, or homeschooling. You can find June at where she helps moms simplify their lives and their homeschools.

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easy meal planning ideas for busy families

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