I am really big on three things when it comes to meals for my family, they have to be Healthy, Easy, and Inexpensive. Sometimes this takes a lot of planning.
I am going to begin by focusing on dinner. This can be the biggest challenge for parents. The kids are usually hungry and tired and make it a stressful time of the day. I start by creating a meal plan every week (I will just use my Notes app on my phone). I do this on thursdays before I go shopping on Friday. Some people do it by the month, but I prefer to do it by the week. Weekly is the more realistic for me, and easier to stick to. It takes into account the schedule changes that can occur the few days before the start of a week. I try to use things we have on hand when planning, we have a bunch of frozen meat from our animals that we raise on the farm. We have fresh eggs from our chickens, and we have a large garden with veggies, and fruit trees. I also have fresh herbs growing in my garden. I also use what’s currently in season, and readily available. In the winter months I use veggies that I have frozen or canned. I realize this is not realistic for everyone, but if you have the freezer space, I recommend buying ½ of a cow or pig from a local farmer. This is healthier and will save you a bunch of time and money in the long run.
When planning meals I will use crock pot cooking a lot. It makes things much easier when I know dinner will be ready when I come home with 3 hungry kids at 5:30. I also will have a few “go to meals” such as tacos or spaghetti once a week. This is something quick, easy, healthy, and kid friendly that will fit into my menu. We tend to do a lot of grilling in the summer months, and soups in the winter months. These are healthy, and easy options for meals. When it comes to sides I will almost always have salad (My kids claim that they don’t like salad, but If I put one in front of them while i’m cooking dinner, they will almost always eat it), I also do a lot of baked potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, or baked squash (I have a potato bag that allows me to microwave these to save time).
Once I have my menu and shopping list finalized, I go to the store. I am in the habit of going every friday for two reasons. This is because we want to be able to have a lot of fresh options for the weekend, and because my husband and I both get paid on fridays. My two favorite stores to save money and eat healthy are Meijer (I save a lot of money with their coupons and online Mperks program) and Aldi (they offer reasonably priced food, produce, and have a bunch of organic foods now). It is important to stick to the list! Do not go to the store hungry, or with hungry kids! If I am hungry, I will grab a lot more food that I dont need. If the kids are hungry, they will be fussy, and whiny, and I will be in a hurry and not have time to read food labels, prices, etc.
Once you have all the food you need for the following week, along with the recipes, it is time to do some prepping (or chopping). I usually will do this in the evening after the kids are in bed. I will usually knock it out friday night, but sometimes I will do it over the weekend when I have some free time. I will chop, peel, measure, and separate all the ingredients that will be needed for each meal throughout the week. I put them in baggies or food storage containers in the back of the fridge, and I will usually label them also. This is great because it saves you a ton of time when it comes to making dinner all week. If you have any frozen meat, it’s important to put it into the fridge to thaw as well. If I need potatoes for a recipe, I will chop them and peel them and put them in a storage container in a water bath and refrigerate until needed. This will keep them from turning brown.
Another healthy eating tip: I also like to chop and wash all veggies and fruit that I buy for snacking. If my family is looking for a snack they are a lot more likely to chose a piece of fruit or veggie that is sitting in a bowl already cleaned and cut up for them. Even my husband will grab pieces of fruit to snack on instead of chips, if they are front and center in the fridge, and all he has to do is grab it.
Some other tips and tricks that I have: You can have all your meals and snacks planned and prepped and ready to go, but sometimes life will get in the way. I like to have a couple “back up” meals just in case. This will help avoid the temptation of stopping on the way home to get pizza or fast food. Some of these back up meals that my kids enjoy are: organic mac and cheese and peas, Cheese quesadillas, tuna salad sandwiches, and sometimes we will do a cheese, salami and veggie tray and just have that for dinner. It can be a challenge to eat healthy and keep everyone happy when you have a bunch of mouths to feed, and limited time to do it. Planning ahead makes a huge difference in my opinion. What are your biggest challenges when finding healthy, easy, and cheap meals for your family? What tips do you have to share about meal planning? I would like to hear from the readers and we can learn from each other.
-Sarah MS, ATC, SFN