How to Plan your Meals

Large families — and smaller families — can be crazy busy. When you have small children around, the question of “what’s for dinner” can make you crazy. But meal planning for large families, or families of any size, doesn’t have to be a big deal. All it takes is a little planning ahead.

I started meal planning as a survival strategy. As a mom of many young siblings, I got pretty desperate. I had 4 babies in 5 years, and between pregnancy brain, baby exhaustion, and toddler fatigue, I was done by 4 pm.  Figuring out what to make for dinner was beyond my abilities.  And when you don’t have the time, energy or focus left at the end of the day, you end up defaulting to whatever is convenient. And that left us spending extra money and eating crappy food. 

Master List Meal Planning

We needed a plan for meals, so I started off with a simple list.  My master lists have stayed with me over the years, only changing as we added meals we loved, and as we adapted old favorites to match my growing children’s needs.

But when I started meal planning, I was up to my knees in small children, so dinner had to be quick and easy. So my first list began with 10 of our favorite go-to dinner meals. I made sure that my freezer, fridge and pantry were always stocked with the items I needed for those meals. 

If I felt energetic enough to try something new, I planned for it. And knowing that I always had those 10 meals helped me find more energy in my day. 

Dinner Meal Planning for large Families

Dinner tends to be our biggest meal, as full tummies make for better sleepers. I also needed quicker meals (and still do), to accommodate extracurriculars. Here’s my go-to list for dinner ideas. We have no food allergies and no real issues with picky eaters, so adapt as you need. I tend to keep to the basics.

  • spaghetti
  • salsa chicken (chicken breasts covered in salsa, baked 30 min, served with rice)
  • chili
  • hamburgers
  • BBQ pork chops (pan fried in BBQ sauce)
  • chicken wings (homemade honey garlic sauce, baked)
  • meatloaf
  • lasagna
  • beef stew
  • chicken fahitas

Breakfast meal planning for large families

When my ex and I were together, he often took care of breakfast for the kids, since I was usually nursing a baby, and unavailable. But when we separated, I needed a plan for that too. So I created another list of easy, quick, child-prep-friendly breakfast ideas. Usually things my girls could get on their own, since I still had a nursing baby when I started meal planning.

As my children have grown, breakfast still tends to be simple and easy to make. And that means breakfast isn’t quite as varied as my other go-to lists. We usually have one of 6 main choices:

  • cereal
  • oatmeal
  • toast
  • eggs (scrambled, fried or hardboiled)
  • pancakes (or toaster waffles)
  • sweet bread or muffins

Expanding our meal plan lists

We’ve added ideas as we tried new things, until we had a stock list of 31 different meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I created a meal planning system to keep track and simply pulled meals from it to create a weekly or monthly menu and shopping list.

For a while, I menu planned and shopped monthly, because one large trip with 4 children under 5 was a lot easier to do than many smaller, weekly trips, and because I had to storage to do so.

As my storage changed, our shopping habits have changed to daily or weekly — also because my oldest is now old enough to babysit. (Can I say that’s a huge huge help?) And with the availability of grocery delivery, it’s even easier to track, order and just put away the staples.

Almost all my dinner plans can be prepped and cooked in 30 minutes to an hour, making dinner prep easy. Most of these ideas I’ve taught to my teenagers, so now it’s not just me cooking — they are that easy to do. That’s one of the nice things about meal planning for large families. There’s more than one person who can cook.

Making Lunch simple

For lunch, we use a theme of soup, sandwiches, picnic and casserole. We have variations on these themes, of course, but at least one of them is on our menu weekly.

Here is our basic lunch ideas:

  • sandwiches
    • tuna
    • egg salad
    • ham and cheese
    • pb & j
    • grilled cheese
  • soup
    • tomato
    • mushroom
    • chicken
    • hamburger
  • potato casserole (diced potatoes baked in a mushroom-cheese sauce)
  • “snack” lunch (crackers and cheese, cold cuts, cut veggies and dip, hardboiled or deviled eggs)
  • hamburgers or chicken burgers
  • popcorn chicken (made ahead and frozen) or chicken nuggets
  • mac and cheese
  • homemade mini pizzas

Lunch is usually something portable, so that my kids can take it with them wherever, as we break from school. We do school around our kitchen table, so no one wants to eat lunch there. We use a smaller table in the living room for soups or plated foods, but we love to be able to just grab-and-go.

Prep for your meal plan

I do a lot of baking or prep beforehand so it’s there waiting for our busy mornings. Eggs are boiled a dozen at a time, and the extras just left in the fridge (to be heated up later, or eaten cold). Pancakes and waffles can be frozen, and so can muffins, pastries or sweet breads like banana bread or cinnamon loaf.

My kids and I will sometimes spend a day baking up a bunch of different things, and just having them in the freezer to pull out when needed.

It’s usually part of my evening prep to check the menu for breakfast the next day, and set up whatever is scheduled, whether boiling extra eggs or setting out the bowls and spoons for cereal.

What’s for dinner?

Meal planning, for large families or small families, doesn’t have be a long, drawn-out, complicated process. Start small, and make a list of your family’s favorite, easy-to-make meals, and keep your pantry stocked with those ingredients. Add to them as you try things out, think of something else, or experiment.

Then make your weekly menu off of your list, taking all the stress out of figuring out “what’s for dinner?”

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