Meal Planning for the Overwhelmed Mom

When I first got out of college, I worked in an office with (wonderful) women. Most of them had small children at home.  One of the ladies would say almost every afternoon, “OK, girls, what are we going to have for supper?”  The dread of the evening meal was already on her mind.

And I (22 years old, unmarried, no kids), would think to myself, “Really? What’s the big deal?  All you have to do is just go home… and cook something!  You could cook anything! There are a million delicious recipes out there!  It shouldn’t be that hard!”

My Last Days as an Idealist

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For the first few years of my married life, I lived for cooking dinner for myself and my husband.  I loved trying new recipes and my husband was almost always very complimentary of my efforts. We tried all kinds of cuisine, and I certainly didn’t make the same meals over and over.  It was fun! It was an adventure!

Little did I know that in 10 or 15 years, I would be standing in my refrigerator door at 5pm, surrounded by 4 kids with growling bellies tugging on me, and I would be crying, “What am I going to fix for supper!?!”

Failed Attempts at Freezer Cooking

With every child added to our family, it seemed that just getting a simple meal on the table each night became more difficult.  While I was pregnant with our twins, I decided I was going to make lots of freezer meals and have them ready when my little guys came home. This would make our nightly dinner time so much easier…. I thought!

That was great in theory, but I soon found out that freezer cooking wasn’t really for me!  There are several reasons that this plan failed.

First, I didn’t really pick meals that we had A) eaten before, and B) liked.  So, it ended up that the largest part of my efforts ended up being thrown away because we just didn’t like the meal. Another reason that my freezer cooking didn’t succeed is, I didn’t realize how much we really like fresh food.  We weren’t crazy about anything frozen, even frozen veggies at the time!  And the final mistake?  I made quite a few casseroles… but our family still doesn’t care much for casseroles!

What was I thinking?  That was a lot of time, energy and ingredients wasted!

Pinterest Perfect Meals? Meal Planning Overwhelm!

The”planning” phase of almost any project is my favorite, and meal planning is no different!  I would spend hours looking thru recipes and wonderful dishes on Pinterest.  Then, I would compile a list of all the ingredients that I needed. And off to the grocery store I would go to get all of the supplies!

Simple Meal Planning Ideas to help get dinner on the table fast! Free printables included!

That week, I would spend each night working for several hours in the kitchen making a new meal from scratch.  Even simple recipes often took a lot of time since they were new to me! By the time I had cleaned up the dishes, I was exhausted!  And before the week was over, we would have so much food leftover that I stopped cooking and sometimes our well stocked fridge would sit full of food we couldn’t eat! So much for planning!

A New (Simpler) Strategy

Now, even though I still love pouring thru Pinterest for meal ideas, I try to save that for special occasions when I have extra time.  I have found a dozen or so go-to meals that I make regularly.  Sometimes I miss the variety, but having a few easy meals that I can make quickly is a lifesaver!

Simple Meal Planning Ideas to help get dinner on the table fast! Free printables included!

If you will take a little time to brainstorm, you will be able to find those perfect meals for your family.  I have made a free printable that you can use to organize you family’s favorite meals. With this printable, you will have a place to go back to when you are planning your week and your mind goes blank!

Thinking Ahead in Meal Planning

Take a minute to think thru your week.  I know this isn’t rocket science, but many of us are a little overly ambitious when we make our plans for the week and we don’t take into account our busy evenings.  My son takes violin once per week about an hour from our house.  Knowing that on those evening we won’t be getting home until at least 6pm, I will either plan to pick up pizza, have leftovers in the fridge, or eat sandwiches.

Don’t make things harder on yourself than you have to!  Recognizing that Monday night is busy because everyone has the beginning of the week homework, will help you plan a simpler meal that won’t keep you in the kitchen for hours!  And if you have a night that is a little less stressful than others, use it to try new recipes if you want!

Our Family’s Favorites

Here is a short list of meals that my family enjoys and that we have on a fairly regular basis.  Maybe it will help you think of some of your own favorites!

  • Quesadillas–  super simple and you can fill with the meat of you choice and all kinds of different veggies.  My favorite is spinach, mushrooms (either sauteed or not), red onion diced, tomatoes (for my hubby, not me) and even some carrots or olives. Here is my recipe for delicious “Confetti Quesadillas!”
  • Tacos– to continue on with Mexican theme that we LOVE!  I will have ground beef or diced/shredded chicken, kidney or black beans, cheese, lettuce, olives (of course), onion, salsa, sour cream and tortillas or tortilla chips in case anyone want a taco salad.  I like to set it up in the middle of the table like a taco bar so my kids can DIY and they enjoy having some autonomy.
  • Spaghetti– super simple… ground beef or turkey, you can hide veggies like chopped and sauteed mushrooms or zucchini in the sauce for a little extra nutrition.
  • Sandwiches–  some of our favorites are grilled turkey and cheese, paninis, or veggie sandwiches (hoagie bun, lunch meat, peppers, mushrooms, onion, banana peppers, olives and cheese. Toast in the oven until the cheese melts). Serve with carrots, fruit and chips or tater tots.
  • Breakfast for supper–  My kids LOVE eggs!  So, when we have eggs, turkey bacon, toast/biscuits and fruit for super they eat like champs!  And I’m in and out of the kitchen in 30 minutes or less!  That is a win-win, without a doubt.
  • Soup/Chili–   My kids seem to eat soup of almost any kind better than many foods!  Maybe it’s because we top it with corn chips or crackers?!
  • Bowls or any kind– I love the idea of having burritos bowls, Korean BBQ bowls, grilled chicken and pineapple bowls…. the list goes on and on!  Bowls are SO versatile and you can customize them to your family’s liking.  Just start with rice or pasta and a meat of your choice and start adding in veggies.  Peruse Pinterest, if you can do it without getting too overwhelmed, for some really inspiring ideas.

Simple Meal Planning Ideas to help get dinner on the table fast! Free printables included!

One of my favorite ideas that I have found is called the Hawaiian Buffet.  It is set up like a bar so your kids can pick and choose their own toppings.  Start out with rice and chicken, then add lettuce, shredded purple cabbage, avocado, tomatoes, green onions, pineapple, mandarin oranges, or any combination that you can imagine.  Have some awesome teriyaki or peanut sauce to top it off and I’m sure it will be a hit!   And of course, although your kiddos may not dive right into the tomatoes, our hope is that one day they will give them a try.

Kitchen Tips (From A Pro) That Make Meal Planning a Cinch!

So, we have established that I am not a huge fan of freezer cooking.  But along the way I found this post from the Pioneer Woman (who I LOVE)!!  I think it may have changed my life when it comes to fixing my family meals!  It is about freezer cooking, but not exactly in the way I had been doing it!

What I came a way with from this post above all is how helpful having precooked meat on hand can be.  When you cook large batches of meat and freeze it, you have a MILLION different options for a quick supper!   I LOVE THIS TIP!

Every so often, I will talk my husband into grilling up about 15-20 large chicken breasts that I have pre-marinaded and then I will flash freeze them and stick them in the freezer.  It saves TONS of time.

Flash Freezing

If you aren’t familiar with “flash freezing”, it just means freezing pieces of food individually. Lay the chicken in a single layer on a large sheet pan and put it in the freezer until the chicken is frozen thru. Then you can transfer the chicken to a large freezer bag. You can then take out just what you need without it being a giant glob that you have to chisel apart!

This is also a great way to freeze berries, muffins, pancakes, waffles, and bananas (they give smoothies the most awesome creamy texture).  Flash freezing is such a great way to have food ready when you need it!

Another wonderful tip that I found in Ree Drummond’s post is to cook up a large batch of ground beef.  Ree suggests that you freeze the precooked beef in meal sized portions. This is so great because you can make spaghetti, soups, tacos and many other things super quick when you have your meat cooked and ready in the freezer.

Just make sure that you drain your beef after you cook it and allow it to cool so that it won’t sweat and cause ice crystals inside your freezer bag.  When you are ready to use it, simply pull it from the freezer and defrost it.

Keeping Your Pantry Stocked

There are things that I always try to keep in my house. For me, it’s bananas, apples, oranges, berries, green leafy lettuce, milk, tortillas, bread and usually chicken.  It I have those few items, I feel like I can keep my family fed for the week.

There are weeks (many if I would tell the truth), that I don’t do a formal grocery run.  We just happen to be by Kroger and I talk my husband in to sitting (patiently) in the car with the kids while I run in for just a thing or two! All of this in hopes that I won’t have to go back to the store until the next week!

I am trying to do a little better about planning for a large grocery trip. However, there have been times in the past few years that I just couldn’t bring myself to take 4 little guys (or really even one) into the grocery store. LOL!

The “Pantry Inventory”list will help you keep up with what you have on hand!  If you want to keep it up to date and not have to reprint it over and over, you can laminate it and use an dry erase marker!

Making Your Plan Work For You

I have paid for meal planning subscriptions before without much luck.  The reason? Because it all comes down to, “What will my family eat?”  So what if there are millions of great recipes out there, if they aren’t something that your family would like, it’s not going to work!  You can make your own SIMPLE meal plan and make it work for you!

There is nothing wrong with making breakfast or sandwiches part of your weekly rotation.  That may be what helps you keep you sanity and feed your family!  Maybe in time you will start to add new recipes into your regulars, or maybe you won’t? Dump the mom guilt and remember, you may be in a season that you are making lots of mac & cheese instead of the gourmet meals of the past.  And that one day you will miss those mac & cheese days!


Do you have any quick meal ideas or tips to get dinner on the table quickly that you would like to share?  Please share them with us!

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