5 Tips for Planning Meals with Freedom – the Non-System

Photo by  Alyson McPhee  on  Unsplash

“Meal Planning” is a HOT topic among… well, MOMS! It’s all over blogs, YouTube, online courses and discussions in moms groups. And with good reason! As a newer mom, I’ve found it to be at the top of my and other moms’ lists of priorities. WHY IS IT SO HARD?! For the longest time I felt like I was struggling in this area. I felt like I was spending too much money and time getting dinner on the table and the meals didn’t impress anyone. They weren’t as healthy as I would have liked them to be. Or they were just boring. I often threw them together in the late afternoon while struggling to keep my young children happy and out from under foot. My husband is just happy to sit down to a warm meal when he gets home, but I still felt like I was failing because I wasn’t enjoying what I was eating. And I wasn’t enjoying cooking, which is maybe the most disappointing part because I really like to cook!

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

I am in no way an expert on this crazy thing called Motherhood, on home-keeping or parenting. But I am a systems person. A list person. An Enneagram type 1. I was an administrative assistant for 15 years before I started my family. I thrive on making whatever task is at hand the simplest and most efficient and most successful method it can be. This hat I wear as wife and mother at this time in my life is my FULL TIME JOB. So I’m going to share some of the things that I’ve learned about how to feed my family well.

1) Use what you’ve got.

So simple, right?! But how many times have you found yourself picking out recipes based on what sounds appetizing at the moment and going to the store for ingredients? By using what you have on hand FIRST, you’re using up what you’ve already paid money for before it expires or goes bad. You’re emptying out your cupboards and fridge so it’s easier to clean (or notice how crazy dirty it really is). YOU’RE SAVING MONEY AT THE GROCERY STORE THAT WEEK.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to periodically take inventory of the food we already have. I’ve created a worksheet that you can get here to help categorize and organize what you’ve got, but any sheet of paper will do. In the video below I go into more detail about how and I why I inventory our food.

2) Use your time wisely

Cutting down on prep time is easy with a little planning. Are you cooking something that will freeze well, like soup? Make a double batch! Nothing is easier than taking out a container of frozen soup the night before and calling the next day’s dinner DONE (unless you’re married to MY husband who requires grilled cheese with his soup, but that’s easy enough). If you’re cooking up ground beef for tacos, make extra to freeze for nachos (or more tacos!) on another night in the coming weeks. If you’re planning on using the same veggie in 2 meals that week, keep on chopping for the next meal.

Do you have a busy day or evening on the calendar that you just won’t have time to cook for? Utilize the pressure or the slow cooker. The Instant Pot (or most multi-cookers on the market) is great for those times that you forget to thaw your meat for dinner. Many recipes can accommodate just by adding cooking time. It’s also great for cooking a large cut of meat like a roast or pork shoulder to be stretched out and used in multiple meals.

3) Don’t be a slave to a schedule

I don’t know about you, but I find planning my meals too tightly to be restrictive and stressful. WHAT IF I DON’T FEEL LIKE EATING SPAGHETTI TOMORROW?! I’m fickle like that. I want the freedom to change my mind on a whim. By loosely planning, listing really, what we’ll eat for the week, I give myself the freedom to move things around. Whether leftovers are piling up in the fridge or I just plain change my mind, I can bump the meals back a day or switch them around. I’m able to do so because I only plan about 4 meals a week. The other 3 nights are comprised of leftovers, freezer meals, dinner out or snacking dinner with our extended family on lazy Sundays.

4) Keep things interesting

When I feel at a loss for what recipes to choose I sometimes go with a theme. For a while we ate pizza every Friday. I always make it myself and do different toppings. Sometimes it’s Mexican pizza. But usually it’s pepperoni and a boat-load of veggies. Because that’s what we like. But pizza is a great meal to keep in rotation because you can do it SO MANY different ways to keep it interesting.

Do you have an ingredient in bulk that you want to be purposeful about using up? Or a healthful ingredient like fish that you want to serve more regularly? Make it a point to incorporate that ingredient weekly or biweekly. Challenge yourself to prepare it a different way each time to keep it interesting. But don’t make it TOO challenging.

When I choose recipes, I like to keep a Pinterest board of recipes that look or sound good. Once I’ve prepared it once or twice, if we like it, I make a recipe card and add it to my box. I generally stick with recipes that aren’t too complicated, don’t use too many pots or pans, and that can be prepared in a short amount of time or with a few uncomplicated steps. I want the most flavor with the least amount of effort.

5) Fill your plan with foods that serve your family well

Now I’m not here to tell you that you should feed your family chicken breast, sweet potatoes and kale every night of the week (my husband would protest if I did that in my own home). I’m writing this with the understanding that every one of us is on our own journey toward improved health. And yes, that does start with our food choices. I also understand that what serves my body and my family’s bodies well may not be the same food choices that serve yours well. I think it’s safe to say that we all know what we could be doing better in that department. By preparing and making a plan, we are able to set ourselves up for success with healthful choices rather than grabbing what’s convenient and often not very healthful. Don’t get me wrong… I definitely keep a box of macaroni and cheese in my cupboard for emergencies. It’s OK to eat these things every once in a while! It’s a special treat for my kids. Because it’s not a staple in our diet.

By preparing our meals from as many whole foods as possible and minimizing the amount of processed ingredients that I use, I’m able to greatly reduce the amount of additives and preservatives that we eat. I try to vary our vegetable choices by stocking up on frozen veggies when they are on sale and buying fresh when things are in season and/or on sale. Canned vegetables that we use frequently, like diced tomatoes, sauce or black olives, I buy in bulk. For more info about how I shop on a budget, check out the video below.


Planning your meals can be as simple or detailed as you like. Everyone has different ways of doing it. I have a couple friends that plan a month at a time! But what we all have in common is that we have a PLAN. By planning ahead, I’ve alleviated the stress of throwing something together at the last minute or throwing in the towel and saying, “Let’s go out instead!” We have done that! Not because I was too frustrated to prepare something, but because I’ve allowed us the freedom to do so and we enjoy it. I just push that night’s dinner plan to tomorrow.