Meal Planning Success for Working Moms

Meal Planning as a working mom is on a WHOLE DIFFERENT LEVEL.  

Jo discussesWhen you work AND parent you’re juggling two full-time jobs.  You have no room left for sleep, much less cooking and grocery shopping.  

This was a fact that initially devastated me.  I LOVED cooking and trying new recipes.  Scouring Pinterest for hours finding fun twists on old classics.  Buying exotic ingredients to try new cuisines.  

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Once my first baby came all my positive associations with cooking went away.  I didn’t have time to do it all anymore!  I was so tired from waking up all night and every time I reached for a pot to cook something he would start screaming.  

Fortunately, I’d read about this.  I was prepared (or so I thought).  I had a freezer full of “easy” meals for when I went back to work.  But the problem I found? Maybe I’m an idiot, but I didn’t find most of the freezer meals easy at all.  

I guess I had this vision I could just get home from work and throw the meal into the oven.  Turns out that was not true.  At first, I tried thawing them in the fridge the morning of, but it often still wasn’t ready for cooking in the evening.  Then I tried putting it in the night before, which worked slightly better.  The problem then was that most of the dishes I had (enchiladas, lasagnas, etc.) had to bake for an hour.  This put dinner to 7:30 pm on some nights – which was bedtime for the kid.  Even after cooking that long, there were always spots that were overdone and parts that were left cold.  To top it all off, so many of the meals had small pieces of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or ice patches stuck to them when they came out of the freezer.  This was particularly bad when a freezer meal fell between the cracks and I forgot to use it in a timely manner.

After we used up the freezer meals I tried to use my crockpot but had equal “meh” success.  Even on my “keep warm” setting I found that many of my crockpot meals were dry and burnt by the end of the day.  I also struggled with finding recipes that had enough flavor.  Everything that came out of the crockpot tasted kind of the same… and bland.  

Are you having the same issues?  I’m here to help!  Let me tell you my successful meal planning strategy.

First and foremost, this means you have to set aside some time each week to (1) PLAN and (2) SHOP

The shopping is the easy part (once you find the time for it).  The planning is the tricky part and should be done in careful steps.  

Step #1 – Get Your Your Calendar Out

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the very first thing you should do is figure out how many days you need to meal plan for.  

Do you usually have dinner at your mom’s house on Friday nights?  Are you meeting up with friends for dinner on Tuesday?  Do you have the restaurant Groupon you were planning on using this week?  

Also, I usually only plan for meals on weeknights because on Saturday and Sunday we’re usually out or eat leftovers.  Or if for some reason our weekday plans changed, we can make that meal on the weekend instead.  

Korean bulgogi - such an easy and fast dinner. Plus, a great way to introduce kids to new flavors.Go one step further by figuring out what prep time you have to work with on the days you need meals for.  For instance, I have afternoons off on Wednesdays and Tuesdays, so meals that need longer prep or baking times can be done on those days.  Thursdays and Fridays are my late days where I get home around 6:00 pm, so dinner has to be on the table in 15 minutes or less.  

Figuring out how many meals you actually have to plan is a great first step, as sometimes when you’re scouring Pinterest you can get carried away looking at all the yumminess on there.  

Step #2 – Open Your Fridge

To minimize waste, a great next step is to check your fridge for items that need to be used. 

Maybe you have half a rotisserie chicken or carrots that aren’t getting any younger.  Find recipes that strive to use as many of these ingredients as possible.  Then figure out if this is a meal you need lots of day-of prep time or if you can turn it out quick.  

NEED to start meal planning - these are some great reasons why!

Step #3 – Check Out The Freezer (and list)

Every week I try to use at least one item from my freezer, from chicken thighs I bought in bulk to recipes I doubled in the past and froze.

This is important because it reduces prep you’ll have to do for at least a night.  Plus, it rotates that food in the freezer and prevents it from sitting there for years.  

I like to keep track of meals I put in my freezer (admittedly I don’t keep track of individual ingredients, just pre-made meals).  I use a magnetic list on my fridge like this. (Pssss. I also use this to write out meals for the week, more on that later).  

Step #4 – Consider the Starches

This step is really personal preference on my part.  I HATE ending up with all rice dishes or all pasta dishes in a week.  When I’m on step #4 I see what starches  I have planned with the other meals.  In a week we’ll usually serve one meal with rice, one with bread (like a sandwich, roll, etc.), one with potato, one with pasta, and one with another grain (like quinoa).  

At least for me, chicken 3 nights in a row can taste pretty different depending on how it’s cooked up…. But they’ll taste pretty similar if they’re all over rice.  

Step #5 – Put It All Together

Put all of the results and notes from the previous steps together – and fill in the gaps.  Make sure you have a protein, starch, and veggie for each meal.  You know you have tons of saved recipes on Pinterest.  Maybe you have a few family favorites you like to squeeze in there regularly.  Or sometimes I just ask my kids what they would like for dinner in the upcoming week (spoiler alert: they’ll say mac n’ cheese).

I’ll give you an example of planning my week goes:

Step #1 – Get Your Your Calendar Out
Monday – Dinner at Nana’s House
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursdayneeds to be quick meal
Fridayneeds to be quick meal

Step #2 – Open Your Fridge
Monday – Dinner at Nana’s House
TuesdaySome sort of sandwich using leftover buns
Wednesday
Thursdayneeds to be quick meal Chili with quinoa and cheese (to use up leftover peppers and carrots)
Friday
needs to be quick meal

Step #3 – Check Out The Freezer (and list)
Monday
– Dinner at Nana’s House
Tuesday
Some sort of sandwich using leftover buns Chicken thigh sandwiches with carrot sticks (Chicken from the freezer)
Wednesday

Thursday
– Chili with quinoa and cheese
Friday
needs to be quick meal Korean bulgogi  (from freezer) with rice and bok choy

Step #4 – Consider Starches
Monday – Dinner at Nana’s House
Tuesday
– Chicken thigh sandwiches with carrot sticks
Wednesday
potatoes
Thursday
– Chili with quinoa and cheese
Friday
Korean bulgogi with rice and bok choy

Step #5 – Put It All Together
Monday – Dinner at Nana’s House
Tuesday
– Chicken thigh sandwiches with carrot sticks
Wednesday
Maple-dijon wild salmon, roasted potatoes, and peas
Thursday
– Chili with quinoa and cheese (make double to freeze)
Friday
Korean bulgogi with rice and bok choy

A few notes on this…

  • Make sure every detail is planned out, including the veggies you’re going to be serving (this way you avoid buying too much for the week and wasting). 
  • Plan to make double on recipes that freeze well (just always keep track after you’ve put a meal in the freezer)
  • We have fruit for dessert every night, but I rarely plan that out (since fruit rarely lasts long in my house anyway, I have a low-risk for over-buying fruit)

Step #6 – Write It Up and Shop!

Then I write out my plan for everyone to see and add any ingredients I need to the shopping list for the week.  

So from the example above, here’s what my fridge planner looks like now:

Note that I keep a running list of what meals I have in the freezer currently.  As you can see, I made a few notes around some of my meals for the week (usually a “snowflake” around things I’m using from the freezer, “zzz” for things I need to prep the night before when the kids are sleeping, x2 for things I’m doubling).  I also like to make a note of how long some of my meals take to prep so I know when to start.  

So there you have it!  These are specific yet simple tips that I use for meal planning as a working mom – but I think ALL moms can definitely benefit from meal planning.  I’ll be #TeamMealPlanning forever because it makes dinner time easy and delicious.   

The wonderfulness of meal planning is that there are NO RULES.  You can tailor it to your family’s specific diet and preferences.  There are so many approaches you can take – try it for a week or two and you’ll find a system that works for you.  Plan on!  

Have you read about WHY I love being a working mom??

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Comments

  1. Jessica says:

    This is amazing !! Exactly what I needed someone to tell me. I just had my second child and am on maternity leave and my husband is in busy season so I have for figure out meals without help. I also don’t get home until 6pm from work when I’m there, so that was an issue too. Thank you!

  2. Caitlin says:

    Have you ever tried any of the home meal delivery services?

    1. I did! I loved it for when it was just me and my husband, I thought the meals were yum and it gave a lot of variety in what we were eating. But the meals just took too long to cook on late days home from work. Also, it usually only planned out 3 of the meals that week… so I still had to hit the grocery store anyway.

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