Meal planning made easy!

In a perfect world, you’d sit down on a Sunday afternoon with a mug of warm tea and the latest issue of Bon Appetit and create a weekly meal plan that pleases every palate in the house. But let’s get real: this is not the life of most parents!

The more likely scenario is this: it’s 5:30 on Tuesday night and you have a house full of hungry bellies but no plan for dinner and not much in the fridge. Whether you make cheese omelets, order a pizza, or have your spouse pick up take-out on the way home from work, one thing’s for sure – you wish you would have planned better.

Here are some tips to make meal planning a more realistic part of your life, so that the time and effort required for meal prep on weeknights is minimal.

1. Commit to it. If eating healthy meals at home is important to you, make a commitment to work meal planning into your schedule. If you already have too much on your to-do list, bag it for now. Some parents have no problem regularly eating out, picking up take-out, or relying on convenience foods from the grocery store. Decide which category you fit into, accept it, and move forward accordingly.

2. Put it on the calendar. Meal planning can be pretty easy and low-key, but as with any priority, it will still require some of your time. With your spouse, decide on a time when you can have four hours to plan and purchase food for the week. Spend 1 hour taking inventory in your kitchen, finding recipes or meal ideas, and checking out what’s in season or on sale locally. Spend the remaining 3 hours shopping, unpacking groceries, and washing/chopping produce for future recipes or snacks. These four hours will buy you time and sanity during the rest of the week!

3. Limit what you buy. A fridge full of ingredients and foods doesn’t mean everything will easily go together or get used up. Reduce and simplify what you buy, so that you don’t feel overwhelmed every time you open your fridge or pantry.

4. Shop at one store. If you have to get a few things here and a few things there, grocery shopping and meal planning will take forever. Plan to shop at only one store each week. The following week, you can choose a different store, so that you can still gather all your favorite items but without the inconvenience of making multiple stops. If the store you’re at is out of a particular ingredient, ask someone or use your smartphone to find a replacement – even the most gourmet recipes can be easily altered.

5. Always keep frozen vegetables on-hand. To make a good dinner, all you need is a source of protein (meat, fish, eggs, tofu, or beans), a grain product, and some veggies. If you have frozen spinach, corn, bell pepper strips, and peas in the freezer; beans and canned tuna or salmon in the cupboard; and eggs, cheese, and bread or tortillas in the fridge – you can make a wide variety of meals in minutes.

6. Utilize online tools. There are tons of great websites and apps now that take almost all the work out of meal planning. All you have to do is sign up for a newsletter or phone alert and you’ll get meal plans (catered toward your family’s dietary preferences) delivered right to your inbox or phone. My favorites are Food on the Table and Ziplist.