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Back to School Meal Planning Strategy

By Nicole Donnelly

Supposedly there are only 7 days each week, but somehow it feels like I make dinner 50 times a week. And let's not even talk about how many snacks my kids put away. Among the many never-ending tasks that a lot of us have, the one that can at times feel thankless and overwhelming is creating meals. I know there are meal kit delivery services, takeout, and other shortcuts - but here are a few of my current hacks for getting those 50 dinners on the table each week.

Plan Your Menu Some nights there's just no avoiding staring into the pantry, wondering what you can pull together with the groceries you have on hand. Maybe you'll get lucky and improvise something that turns out to be a hit. But more than likely you'll just be checking the box for that night's dinner. If you're able to spend 15 minutes over the weekend going through your recipe books/websites and planning what meals you'll have in the coming week's rotation, you'll find it's well worth it. No more guessing games at 5:30pm when everyone's tired and hungry!

Time Crunch Maybe the weekend is when you want to spend an hour cooking a gourmet meal. But on a typical Wednesday when there's homework and piano practice and late meetings and who knows what else, you just can't. Those couple of nights each week that are just crazy are perfect for crockpot meals, something you can make ahead (my fam loves Stromboli), or something quick and easy like paninis.

Group Think Months ago my friends and I randomly started sharing our weekly menu plans with each other. No doubt it was born out of desperation - one of us needed some new ideas to spice up the "same old, same old" we'd been serving for months. Now we don't even ask. We've just gotten in the habit of texting each other a pic of our weekly menu, scrawled on the side of our grocery lists. Which leads me to...

Plan Your Menu, part 2 This is the grocery list and meal planner I use, and I love it a ridiculous amount. It's obviously not anything fancy or complicated, but it makes it easy for me to simultaneously build my menu and know exactly what I need to buy for each meal. And once you know what you're cooking, and you have all the ingredients on hand, the battle is halfway won.

Shortcuts It's a beautiful thing when something you prepared last night can make tonight's dinner easier. If you're making rice for stir-fry tonight, make extra to use in stuffed peppers tomorrow. If you have ham one night, save some leftovers for black bean soup later in the week. And my favorite shortcut of all: throw some chicken breasts in the crockpot for 4 hours, then shred them up and use them all week for taco bowls, chicken noodle soup, barbeque chicken flatbreads, pot pie, or any number of things.

Grace Last but not least, cut yourself some slack. If frozen pizza saves your sanity, then so be it! There are no Olympic medals for making dinner. But maybe there should be!



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