10 Stress-Free Meal-Planning Tips That Are Near Genius

Kristen McCaffrey is the author of Stress-Free Meal Planning: Healthy Recipes for Busy Homes — and she is not joking around. We asked Kristen to whip out 10 vital meal-planning tips on the fly and she delivered these priceless time and sanity saving ideas like it was no big deal. Take a few notes and a big deep breath… 

1. Advice for the meal-planning averse..?. The best advice I can give anyone just starting meal planning is to start small.

Too many people try to go from barely cooking to cooking every single meal every single day. That’s overwhelming if you aren’t used to being in the kitchen.

Instead start small, try planning three dinners and use the leftovers for lunches. See what works and doesn’t for your family and then add on the following week. Soon you’ll see start to see how much easier meal time can be when you aren’t staring into the fridge at six trying to figure out what to make. For many, that is motivation enough to start planning even more meals.

2. the Fastest meal ever? Following in my mother’s footsteps, when I need a super quick meal, it’s always a stovetop frittata using whatever I can find in the fridge.

Spray a pan with cooking spray, add your toppings and beaten eggs, sprinkle some cheese on top, and cover the pan. Cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes until the eggs are set. While that cooks, I make toast and grab some fresh fruit. Everyone is happy, it’s made from fresh ingredients I always in the fridge, and it’s so quick and easy.

3. your Grocery shopping MVP’s? There are a few staples you will always find in my grocery cart…

For mornings, rolled oats are the star. I use them to make oatmeal, hearty smoothies, pancakes, and a batch of the low sugar granola found in my cookbook.

For lunches, I always buy a rotisserie chicken. It works for salads, quesadillas, wraps, sandwiches, grain bowls, and even things like store-bought vegetable soup.

At dinner time, you’ll always find boneless skinless chicken thighs in my cart. From a quick and easy stir-fry to tacos to homemade chicken strips, chicken thighs are a versatile protein that can work in so many different dishes. Plus, they have more fat (and flavor!) than chicken breasts, so they are harder to overcook.

And for all the parents out there with picky eaters, I always stock up on frozen cauliflower rice. It’s a veggie I can sneak in everything – mac and cheese, smoothies, pancakes, eggs, oatmeal, and rice bowls. Its mild flavor is virtually undetectable for even the pickiest eater and it requires no chopping or extra prep work.

4. How to deal with snacks… With everyone at home, it feels like my kids are constantly raiding the pantry for snacks, leaving them less than hungry for meal time. In our house, we limit snacks to twice per day – one between breakfast and lunch, and one between lunch and dinner.

To make things easy, I put healthy snack options on a shelf everyone can reach in our pantry. Then, at snack time, they can choose one snack — a lower sugar granola bar, cheese sticks and crackers, pita chips and hummus, yogurt with granola, or trail mix. Everyone also grabs some fresh fruit. If anyone needs a little something extra before the next meal, fresh fruit and veggies are the only option.

5. One meal that converts into 3 (Cook once, eat three times): If you need something easy to feed your family all week, look no further than your slow cooker. Start by adding boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs to the slow cooker with about 1 cup of chicken broth, salt, and pepper.

On night one, toss it with your favorite store-bought green salsa to make tacos with all your favorite fixings.
The next night add it to pasta with sautéed veggies, garlic, lemon, and Parmesan cheese.
For your last meal, toss the chicken with barbecue sauce to make BBQ chicken sandwiches with baked fries and salad.

If you are really pressed for time, this can also be done with a rotisserie chicken.

6. Time saving side dishes…
 One of the things I hear most often from people is that preparing and cooking side dishes is a battle. To save time on side dishes, I always have frozen rice, frozen veggies, canned beans and lentils, and pre-washed greens ready to go. Within minutes, you can have sides on the table that go with any meal..

7. Dealing with Picky Eaters
(aka how to NOT be a short order cook): There is nothing worse than cooking a meal for your family, only to prep two to three other meals for the picky eaters in your home. Instead, get creative and think about how to serve the meal that works for everyone. Deconstruct it, leave the
sauce on the side, serve it in a familiar way like in a sandwich, quesadilla, or mixed into rice or pasta. Almost every meal can be served in a way that will work for even the pickiest eaters. Plus exposing them to new foods is the only way to expand their palettes.8. The five minute breakfast I couldn’t live without… Starting the day off with something filing is the key to setting everyone up for success. Almost every morning at least one person in my house is having this simple, healthy, and filling microwave oatmeal.

Start by mashing a ripe banana (all the sweetness you need!), add ½ cup of oats, ½ cup of milk, and a pinch of cinnamon. Microwave for 3-3:30 minutes in a large bowl. Then add all your favorite toppings – nuts or nut butter, fresh or dried fruit, chocolate chips, or yogurt.

We also always have freezer quesadillas, baked oatmeal muffins, and mini frittatas (recipes for all in the cookbook) ready to go in the fridge and freezer.

9. The best meal shortcut ever: turn snacks into a meal. Sometimes the idea of putting together another meal feels like too much. Instead get inspired by charcuterie boards and turn a snack board into a meal. Start with a protein – cheese, leftover cooked chicken, and/or lunch meat, add some fresh fruit and veggies, then add snack foods like pretzels, baked chips, crackers, and more. Finish your snack board with some hummus, salsa, or yogurt. My kids think this is the most fun meal and I love that it’s minimal prep work with no cooking involved.

10. Keep packing lunches. Between busy work and school schedules, finding time to make lunch in the middle of the day can feel impossible, and serving it late leaves everyone cranky. Instead, continue to pack lunches even though you are at home. I pack my kids lunches right in their school lunch boxes and then pack up leftovers for the adults. When lunch time hits, everyone is ready to go. Older kids can even help pack their own lunch as part of their morning routine.

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