Planning meals is one of the most challenging tasks you’ll ever encounter. Thinking up three meals a day, 365 days a year can stretch the creative juices of even the most imaginative soul, especially when there are 101 other things to do. But you must plan your meals because a) your family will eat healthier, b) you’ll be more cost-efficient, and c) you won’t go running around like a headless chicken at 5PM looking for that one ingredient needed for a dish you wanted.
Here, some of the things I’ve learned about meal planning while chasing deadlines and raising four kids.
#1 Play on favorites
Some dishes are beloved no matter the season or the occasion. In our family, anything pasta is always a come-on, whether it’s tomato-, cream-, or olive oil-based. The all-time favorite is lasagna, but it takes quite a lot of time to make and not advisable on harried weekdays. Designate a day every week for a family fave—and if you can, do variations of it. Tuesday can be pasta night, for instance, and first Tuesday of the month can be spaghetti, second Tuesday can be marinara, and so on and so forth.
#2 Go for dishes with miles and miles on them
Some dishes just keep going and going and going. Let’s take roast chicken, for instance. Any roast chicken left-over can be made into chicken tacos, a chicken noodle soup, or stir-fried with vegetables. Another good base for multiple dishes is sautéed lean ground pork, which you can make into picadillo or tortang talong. You can also add it to stir-fried vegetable recipes (e.g. pechay, baguio beans). So if you’re roasting chicken, cook two, one to serve for dinner and the other to use for other dishes.
#3 Have do-it-yourself meals
We love do-it-yourself taco nights, and it’s very easy to pull off. My meat base actually has more vegetables than meat with lots of onion, celery, and bell pepper. (You can do the same for omelet, lasagna, and spaghetti). Plus, the respite from rice is most welcome. You can also opt for do-it-yourself pizza and sandwich. Just serve the ingredients on the table, and they can do their own heating in the oven toaster.
#4 Take it slow
Next to the rice cooker, the slow cooker is another glorious invention for harried moms who need to catch up on some of their other chores when they get home from work. Toss all the ingredients, and forget it. This is best for stews and soups. P.S. Carve the fat off meat cuts.
#5 Have a very veggie night
Going meatless on specific days of the week is a good way of introducing children to the delicious world of vegetables. How can we hope for our children to take on the habit of eating vegetables when they never see these as stars of the show, rather than supporting players? Make a veggie spaghetti, serve roasted cauliflower steaks or stuffed potatoes. The possibilities are endless.
#6 Don’t throw away leftovers
I love leftovers. They’re already cooked, so you don’t need to do a lot of prep work to come up with an awesome meal. My son makes an omelet out of everything left over. I mean, think about it – just chop menudo leftover into little bits, and toss in the pan with eggs. Yum!
My favorite leftover recipe is fried rice. Grab rice from the night before, and anything else in the refrigerator, stir-fry with garlic and eggs, and voila! you have your own version of Yang Chow Fried Rice. Or make a soup! Ginisang monggo takes well to any sort of leftover, from adobo to fried fish. Plus, the leftovers make the broth so much richer.
#7 Download an app
If you’re into all things tech, go get yourself a meal planning app. Some of the more popular ones include Paprika, Prepear, and BigOven. Apart from helping you create meal plans, these apps can save and organize your favorite recipes and make grocery lists. You may even share your favorite dishes with your friends.
#8 Shop healthy
Now that you’ve planned your meals for the week, make a list of all the ingredients you need for your trip to the grocery. Shop for the healthier option. Read nutritional labels. If you can go for non-fat instead of low-fat, then do it. If you can go organic rather than all natural, then go for it. Opt for lean cuts of meat. Take the skin off chicken. Eating healthy starts with making the right choices at the market.
Planning meals lets you create delicious, nutritious meals even when you’re busy and tired. It’s cheaper (and healthier!) than takeout. What’s your favorite meal planning hack?
About The Writer
Jing Lejano is a single mom of four, lula of one, writer, and editor. She started out as a reporter at The Business Star, became editor in chief of Good Housekeeping Philippines magazine, and now manages social media for a local government unit and a couple of communities. After a lifetime of chasing deadlines, she is trying to live slow by practicing tai chi, taking care of her garden, and playing with her tween granddaughter.