Family meal-time is a wonderful thing. Primarily because it involves eating food, and that’s one of my favourite past-times. And oh yes, because we get to be together as a family – that comes in a VERY close second. It’s a great time to catch up with each other and talk about the small things (like why zucchini are so squishy), and the big things (like someone throwing a whole roll of toilet-paper into the toilet at school that day, and where babies come from). But sometimes just getting to meal-time can be a big old pain in the rear-end. I enjoy cooking, but the burden of thinking about what to cook and prepping it each day can become tedious. That’s where having some kind of meal-planning strategy can come in helpful. REALLY helpful.
In order to create the facade of being a reasonably successful adult and parent, I’ve tried a few things over the years to help me through the weekly meal provision. In this article I’ll review with you the meal planning solutions I’ve tried and their pros and cons: perhaps there’s something in here for you!
How Meal Kit Services Work
These meal kits take the thinking AND the grocery shopping out of the meal prep. A box is delivered to your door with all the ingredients you’ll need for the number of meals you’ve paid for. For each meal, you’ll have a guide that takes you through prepping and cooking the meal step by step.
How much you like the meal service might depend on your food tastes, but we enjoyed the meals a whole lot. They also helped me broaden my repertoire and made me feel quite cheffy!
Downsides – you’ll still need to do a weekly grocery trip for all your other meals (unless you’re happy eating out for lunch and breakfast), and there’s also a lot of packaging with the delivery. Each week there was a large amount of cardboard, ice packs and other containers. I was able to recycle most of it, but I really dislike unnecessary packaging from an environmental point of view. Naturally, this is not the cheapest option either. I can imagine these meal services are really well-suited to young professional couples who have disposable income but want to cut-down on eating out – in that scenario it would still be a money-saver (you’re looking at around $10 per meal.)
Online Meal Planning Services
Online meal planners are a more budget-friendly option that still take the brain-work out of meal-planning, and this was where we started back in the day with The Fresh 20. For a much smaller fee (as little as $5 per month), you’ll be given a shopping list of everything you need for your week of meals, in some cases the make-ahead steps (chop veggies, cook rice etc.) and then the detailed steps per meal.
If you’re a novice in the kitchen or just running out of meal ideas, then this can really help you get on top of things. Even the layout of the grocery list makes shopping easier as everything is organized by category, so your shopping trip should be fairly efficient. These are definitely worth a try and it doesn’t break the bank if you realize it’s not for you.
Here’s a list of some of the big ones.
The Self-Sufficient Organized Meal Prepper
With some time investment up front, you can save yourself time and stress during the week by foregoing the online services and writing out your own meal plan. Pick all your recipes for the week and write them down by day, list out all the ingredients for your shopping list, get to the store and then do as much food prep as you can for the week ahead. It’s very easy to find recipes you like online, or perhaps you have a good selection of meals you already know and love.
If you like a structured document to work from, then this link provides you with 7 free meal planning printables to help you organize your DIY meal plan.
I often have visions of being this person, The Self-Sufficient Organized Meal Prepper, perhaps with my own binder containing recipes color-coded by course – but I never quite get there (I told you, the successful adult thing is mostly a facade.)
Online Grocery Services
Some people love going to the grocery store (or supermarket for my British readers!), some people hate it. If you’re reside in the ‘hate it’ camp (and/or you have to shop with small children – errgh), then online shopping can be TOTALLY worth the money. Almost all major stores have an online shopping option, where you either pick-up the groceries yourself (drive up and they’ll load them into you car) or they’re delivered to your door.
There are even some grocery services that are purely online and can be an option if your local shop doesn’t offer an online option yet. I used PeaPod in the past and it worked fairly well for us, although again I got frustrated with a gazillion plastic bags.
What’s great with most of these online solutions is that it saves your past purchases, so if you buy many of the same things each week, you can quickly load them up into your list. You also get the chance to apply coupons, and there’s also less chance of picking up those impulse buys (who can resist the 20-pack of croissants?), so lots of opportunity to save money!
If you have little spare time in your week, spending a few dollars for one of these options can be totally worth it for the amount of time they save you spending in the grocery store. Time is money after all!
Click here for a review of some top U.S. online grocery options including GoogleExpress, Instacart, and AmazonFresh.
Click here for a review of U.K. online supermarket options including the major shops and AmazonPantry.
UnBusy Meal Planning
After having tried out all of the above, and enjoyed them at different phases of my life, I would call my current strategy ‘Fuzzy Planning’. I don’t use any services, and I don’t specifically list out each meal and ingredients – but all those prior tools got me to a place where I can make it through the week with moderate success. The following things help with my Fuzzy Plan:
Recently, Taco Tuesday has become a regular fixture in our household and it’s surprising how much easier having a theme night makes things. Using the same basic ingredients each week, I can make some simple changes to add variety (tacos, fajitas, enchiladas etc.) I also have the option to skip on the tortillas and cheese and turn it into a guilt-free salad meal for me. Another easy theme night would be Pasta Night as there are lots of easy variations on that theme. My kids seem to love knowing what’s coming each Tuesday.
Protein + Veggies
Talking of ‘healthy’, I generally plan on having protein plus veggies for each meal. So when I go shopping, I try to pick up 7 meals-worth of meat and fish, and the same on vegetables. This removes my need to create a formal meal plan, and while I may have some specific meals in mind, on days that I don’t have a plan I know I can bake or grill something up fairly quickly. Rice, sweet potatoes and sometimes pasta are easy add ons.
Fresh vs Frozen
We all want to eat fresh food as much as possible, but sometimes that can be tough. Fresh veggies can require a bit more prep work which can be difficult when you’re going straight from school pick-up to dance/basketball/swimming/Tae Kwon Do/<enter your kid’s activity here>. Always having some frozen staples on hand can be a total life-saver when you get home at 7pm and want to prepare something quick but still healthy. Frozen veggies, shrimp (which can be thawed quickly) and labelled frozen leftovers will help you cook up a quick and tasty meal in under 30 minutes.
Other Quick Go Tos
I always have a pack of fresh tortellini in the fridge as the kids LOVE them. They cook up in minutes, I’ll add in some mixed vegetables from the freezer and let the kids grate cheese to put on top, which they enjoy (excessively).
I buy a pack of chicken sausage each week – if the husband is not home for dinner, I’ll give the kids tortellini, and I’ll happily eat chicken sausage and kale sauteed together for a quick, easy and healthy dinner for me.
I love making my own tomato sauce for bolognese, but I like to keep a store-bought jar on hand for ‘in a pinch’ days. Throw it onto pasta or spaghetti squash, top with parmesan if you’re feeling fancy!
Sometimes we all need a pizza night in our lives – don’t fight it.
If you have any time-saving meal-planning tips, share them here – I’m totally borrowing them!