Streamlining Dinner Time with a Meal Plan

by Amber Strocel*

Hey ladies, this is Amber here.

I am a mom, which means that I don’t have a lot of free time. And the free time I do have is usually spent doing things like picking up toys, wiping surfaces and doing load after load of laundry. It may not always be the most glamorous life, but it’s mine and I love it. Every sticky, sticky minute of it.

All the same, I am always looking for ways to streamline my day. My idea is that if I spend less time doing the things I have to do, I can spend more time doing the things I actually want to do. Maybe I’ll even find a little more balance in my life. A girl can dream, right?

This year, I’ve started a project to streamline one of the toughest parts of my day: dinner time. Or as I often call it, “everyone is crying o’clock”. We may have just gotten home from a long day out. The kids are tired and hungry, and so am I. But on top of that, I have to cook something nutritious with whatever I happen to have on hand.

For the longest time, I spent at least 30 minutes every night opening and closing the fridge and freezer as I tried to decide what to make. Around me, the kids were whining and crying and fighting and asking for snacks, which I declined because I was about to make dinner. No, I didn’t know what it would be. No, we don’t have the stuff for macaroni and cheese. Hey, stop hitting your brother! Stop hitting your sister! Oh no, now you spilled a whole jug of juice!

Fun times.

This is what I wished dinner time actually looked like at my house

I toyed with the idea of making a meal plan, but I didn’t think I had the time to do it. Eventually, though, I realized that if I spent 20 minutes making a meal plan and a shopping list, I would save 30 minutes every evening, and possibly a whole jug of juice. The light came on in my head, and I set up a system with my husband.

We have a Google spreadsheet that lists what we’re having every night of the week, plus ingredients we need to buy for that meal. We also set up a shared shopping list which automatically appears on my iPhone using the Remember the Milk app. As I walk around the store, I can tick stuff off the list. I actually get the stuff we need, and I’m all set up for dinner with much less fuss and fighting than it used to take. Plus, there’s less waste, because I’m not just buying whatever looks good and then not cooking all of it.

Of course, my meal plan system doesn’t always work perfectly. There are small hiccups here and there, but on the whole my evenings much smoother since I started this project. I have successfully streamlined one area of my life, and it feels pretty good!

Now, I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a meal plan? Do you create it yourself, or do you use a meal planning service or software? Or do you have some other tricks for streamlining dinner prep? Weigh in with your comments!



Email Author    |    Website About Amber Strocel*

Amber is a crunchy granola mom of two, a suburban superstar and an incorrigible dreamer. She spends her days trying to organize chaos, and eating chocolate on the sly. You can read about her daily adventures on her blog at Strocel.com or check out her quest to help other moms live with intention at Crafting my Life.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ellie Hirsch April 5, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Great article! I cook for my family about 4 times per week. My husband travels so it’s just the three of us (me and my two boys -4 and 2) but I still want to provide them with homecooked, healthy meals. I try and cook something that will last more than just that one meal. For example, if I make grilled chicken or grilled salmon, I make sure to cook enough for lunch the next day or dinner. Some of our activities in the afternoon make it tough to cook by 5:30 since that is when we eat. If I know I have tasty leftovers, it’s a great feeling and stress reliever! I also prepare dinner during naptime so I can just throw it in the oven or something when I need it. Sometimes I even cook the meal during naptime. While it’s not piping hot, I come home from swim class and I have a fresh meal ready for us. Come visit at http://www.mommymasters.blogspot.com and http://www.facebook.com/mommymasters. Thanks.

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2 Jacquie April 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I have pretty much always been an avid menu planner, since that’s how my mom raised me! :) I even planned my menus when I was single. I’ve used several different methods – a simple list on a notepad on my fridge, to a complex spreadsheet with meals & ingredients for an entire month, to a customized grocery list form that was made just for my own grocery store and included a place for my menu that week. Well, now all of those have gone out the window now that I have an iPhone and I strictly use the MealBoard app, which I LOVE! I plan my menu & grocery list every Friday so that I’m prepared to go grocery shopping on Saturday morning. The app contains all my recipes & ingredients and helps populate my grocery list for me & has everything organized in the right aisles for my grocery store, making shopping a BREEZE! My husband recently got an Apple Touch, so if he got MealBoard on his device, we could sync it with mine as well & he can easily pick up groceries for me if I need him too – I would Highly recommend it!

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3 Amber April 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm

That sounds like a great app – thanks for the tip!

Also, I can only imagine all the time you’ve saved in your life by starting your meal-planning early. :)

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4 Sandra April 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm

I have actually recently discovered a service online that works much like the system you have created, but they do it for you – the menu and the shopping list with projected cost. So far, we love the system, the meals (and variety of these meals), and the time and money it saves! It’s a great solution to the last minute and probably more unhealthy meals that I always tried to come up with (and of course, as you mentioned, helps with the bewitching hour that comes over my children at dinner time).
I think this idea is great!

I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention it here? but the site I use is e-mealz.com. It’s been great and really inexpensive – only $5 a month.

Thanks for sharing. I know many moms that have dinner hanging over their heads most days and a plan like this would relieve some stress for sure! :)

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5 Amber April 5, 2011 at 7:22 pm

I’m glad you found a system that’s working for you! :)

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6 Jen April 5, 2011 at 5:19 pm

My husband and I couldn’t live without our Google Calendar. I have a calendar specifically as our dinner calendar and I do try to plot out a week or more of dinner at a time. Theoretically my husband helps me plan the meals, but it was becoming marginally problematic in our marriage when I’d call him at 4pm and ask what he wanted for dinner. I also do freezer cooking and try to have meals that I can cook easily if I’ve forgotten to plan. But, yes, I do believe in meal planning….it makes my life so much easier and 2 weeks worth of meals and a grocery list can be made in less than 30 min!

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7 Amber April 5, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Although I don’t use my Google Calendar for meal-planning, I live and die by it for pretty much everything else!

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8 CaroleM April 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

We do meal plan, on our own. I have for a long time as I find I can’t grocery shop without a specific list knowing which ingredients I need. This is obvious as by the time Friday rolls around the fridge is pretty bare. We’ve found this keeps us from eating out more, especially if there is something in the crock pot already for when we walk through the door. We also tailor it to our activities – need to get back out the door in 30 minutes? We have a few 10 minute meals we can whip up and be eating super quick (breakfast for supper always goes over well).

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9 Heather April 6, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I use the Publix E-Mealz for 2 menu plan and love that it budgets for me, plans my menus for me and best of all I just have to take the list and go! I work late at night so already having a plan in writing for my husband to be able to start something is priceless. Our faves so far include Asian Turkey Slaw Wraps, Bourbon Chicken, & Eric’s famous meatloaf.

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10 Krissa April 6, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I use Plan to Eat (online) and I love it. It also generates your shopping lists for you and you can share recipes with friends that are also a part of it. It’s less than $5/mo. and works for me!

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11 Charisse April 6, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Hey Amber! First time reader here! What a great post. If it were up to the hubby, dinner would be microwavable stuff 7x a week! I am in LOVE with the Remember the Milk app on the iPhone :D I’m curious what your menu is like for the week though. Please share! :D

I usually have a weekly meal plan and try to make it fun: Taco Tuesdays, Spaghetti Saturdays, etc.

Thought you might want to know that Yes to Carrots has something called the Yes to Seed Fund thats giving away $10,000 grants to schools to help plant gardens. Def going to help my son’s school apply for this! I’m a big believer in educating kids on where their food comes from. :D

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12 erin g April 7, 2011 at 12:42 am

Hi amber! I am a sahm with a hubby gone all week. I am a wildtree rep and use their menu planners and recipes. I have also started doing freezer meal workshops to help people, even if we are states apartn I can help. “Et me know!!! I am also on FB. Wildtree to you with erin

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