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How to nail family meal planning

Stuck in a recipe rut and not sure how to successfully plan a week full of family meals? Here are some top tips on how you can nail family meal planning, courtesy of parents who have already found their mealtime groove.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jul 13, 2021

family preparing a meal

Meal planning can often feel like a chore, which is why having a system that you can rely on each week will allow you to meal prep like a pro.

Whether you have a large family or small, a house full of fussy eaters or children who enjoy a wide variety of food, a good meal plan can help you get through the week with minimal stress.

So, as the kids go back to school, here’s how you can nail your family meal planning, plus some failsafe recipe suggestions for a weekly meal plan.

1. Use social media for inspiration

If you only use Instagram or Pinterest for one thing it should be this: food inspiration. While the end result may look less Insta-worthy than the original, you’ll be able to use social media as a gateway to create a bank full of quick, easy and delicious recipes that you can use again and again.

What parents say:

“I sit down with recipe books and Pinterest and make a list of recipes to try.”

2. Plan out your recipes for the week ahead

As the saying goes, it pays to be prepared. Spend half an hour to an hour on a Saturday or Sunday planning out your meals for the week ahead. Think about what ingredients you’ll need and try to get as much out of them as possible so that there’s minimal waste. Buying all your shopping in one go will also mean less pressure on those purse strings.

What parents say:

“Each week I sit down and make out a menu for the week. I usually have some idea what's in the freezer, so will include things from there if I can. The menu goes up on the fridge so that each day I can see what, if anything, needs to come out of the freezer for the next day.”

“We plan on Saturday and decide what we want to eat over the next week, eg this week it's ribs, curry, steak, risotto and chilli.”

“I start with: who is where each day? Can we feed everyone one meal around the table together or are the DC eating separately to DH and I? Who is at an activity that makes prep time short? How long will it take to cook? Will it keep for another day?”

woman eating vegetable

3. Lists are your best friend

Meal planning and lists often go hand in hand, which is why parents on the Mumsnet forums are very enthusiastic about them. Having a set list of ingredients will make grocery shopping easier, guarantee that you have all family members’ preferences covered, and ensure that nothing (not even the peas) goes to waste.

What parents say:

“I write a shopping list, making sure I have all the ingredients for each meal. I check the cupboards and freezer to see what I have, and put what's missing on the list.”

4. Download a family meal planning app

Need a helping hand? Get an app to do your meal planning for you! Mumsnet users swear by meal planning apps to help get them through the week. They can be used to set up family profiles (especially good if you’re catering to fussy eaters), provide recipe inspiration and be set to create handy shopping lists. You’ll just as easily find free apps as you will paid-for versions.

What parents say:

“FoodPlanner could be your new BFF. I've been using it for ages and it's great. You can store recipes, meal plans and shopping lists. There are ads in the free version, but it's not too costly to upgrade to Pro and get rid if you do like it.”

“My personal favourite one is Mealime. You can create profiles for all your family members and find recipes that are appropriate too. I recommend it. Every month I type up a shopping list and personal family meal plan on my phone based on it.”

“I use Evernote. You can take photos directly on the app. It recognises text on photos, upload files, you can organise it easily, use tags and keywords, and you can share. It's free and it syncs with every device.”

“I use Pepperplate for meal planning and copy and paste my recipes into there.”

mini burgers

5. Know your go-tos

Vital if you have fussy eaters or children with food allergies or intolerances, having a handful of go-to recipes will make weekly meal planning much easier for everyone involved. Whether it’s a selection of lunchbox meals using your favourite vegan cheese alternative or a simple recipe that you can alter for each member of your household, knowing what works for you and your family will mean stress-free meal planning and happier mealtimes all round.

What parents say:

“I do have a list of meals I cook regularly, and that all or most of us in the family like, and sometimes I refer to that, when I am making the menu, but often I just sit and rack my brains to come up with seven different meals!”

“Start off by making a list of the meals you regularly eat. Separate them into groups, such as chicken/beef/veggie or pasta/mash/rice/chips. Then pick one from each group for each day of the week to get a good balance of types of carbs/sides and meats. As you get better at it, you can start trying to introduce a new recipe once every couple of weeks or so to expand your repertoire.”

6. Opt for one-pot meals

Only one saucepan to wash up at the end of a family meal? Count us in. Mumsnetters love one-pots meals for the diversity they offer, while also allowing families to keep things simple. And best of all? They really save on the washing up.

What parents say:

“I'm a lazy cook but still want to make decent food for the family. I love making bung-everything-in-pot-then-shove-in-the-oven type dishes.”

“I would suggest Perfect Pot Roast. I have tried it several times and my kids really like it. Aside from it being delicious, it’s also easy to make.”

creative sandwiches

7. Cook in bulk then use up your leftovers

There’s nothing quite like a bit of batch cooking to revolutionise your weekly meal planning. Whip up a large batch of one of your family’s favourite dishes and freeze half so that it can be enjoyed again at a later date. Top tip: slow cookers can come in very handy here.

What parents say:

“Pasta sauce is easy. You can freeze batches and then heat it up and add things like olives/capers/basil/anchovies/chilli and so on. Fish pie is a good one to freeze too.”

“I used to make big batches of Bolognese, chilli, lentil or chicken soup and sweet potato curry. It's very satisfying if you remember to take something out of the freezer the night before.”

Which brings us to…

8. Make the most of your freezer

While space may come at a premium, making full use of your freezer is a must if you’re a fan of preparing meals in advance. Plus, when your kids are tired and irritable from a long day at school and you’d rather do anything than cook a full meal from scratch, your freezer will most certainly be your lifeline.

What parents say:

“I did this on maternity leave. You will be so glad. Baby is five weeks old and I still have a few meals left.”

9. Have a meal prep system

What works for one family may not work for another, so it pays to have a system in place that you can fall back on. We’d recommend starting with the easiest meal first, which may mean preparing lunches in advance. Also make sure you use all the kitchen tools at your disposal and encourage your children to help with meal preparation. You never know – it could turn out to be fun weekly activity that the whole family enjoys.

What parents say:

“It's fun to get the kids involved with cooking the dinner, getting them used to different ingredients and how they can all work.”

“I try to make sure that there’s a balance, over the course of the week – using different main ingredients (beef, chicken, sausages, bacon, fish etc), and a balance between really healthy meals, fairly healthy ones and one or two indulgent ones.”

“We only plan six meals a week and have a leftovers day.”

10. Up your storage game

When it comes to meal planning, the more storage hacks you have in your arsenal the better. Some Mumsnetters find having a mixture of storage containers in all their kitchen cupboards works like a dream, while others are fans of labels and freezer bags. Whatever floats your boat when it comes to storage, we reckon this last tip might just save you.

What parents say:

“I have two square plastic boxes – one fits a single portion and one does family-sized. I line the tub with a freezer bag, fill and freeze until solid. Then I pop out the frozen cube wrapped in the bag and write the contents on with a Sharpie. The cubes stack nicely in my freezer and I reuse the boxes again and again.”

“In the kitchen, I have plastic storage containers in all the food cupboards. Really helps to find things easier. It’s also easier to keep the cupboard tidy and clean.”

Weekly meal plan recipe suggestions

Are you after recipes for kids’ lunchboxes or dishes for the whole family to cook together at home? We’ve got you covered.

  1. Monster mini burgers – bite-size versions of the classic burger with monster faces to garnish.
  2. Mini pizzas – great for getting the kids involved in the kitchen.
  3. Funny sandwiches – a lunchbox essential with lots of greens.
  4. Mac ‘n’ cheese cupcakes – not actual cupcakes, but a quick and easy take on the ever-tasty macaroni and cheese.
  5. Easy shepherd’s pie – the ideal dish for batch-cooking. 
  6. Spaghetti Bolognese – a Mumsnet favourite for any mid-week meal. 
  7. Vegetable stir-fry – one that can be whipped up in less than half an hour. 

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