When I was young, I only ever dreamed of being older. The independence, the freedom… I couldn’t wait! But little did I know that a huge portion of my life would be planning for and preparing food.
Seriously. There are three meals (plus snacks) every single day for the REST OF MY LIFE.
I don’t have it all figured out, but I have managed to find a sweet spot of cooking (almost) all of our meals within a $100 per week grocery budget.
I’ve had friends ask me how we do it, and I’m always looking for new tips and tricks. So this is my contribution to the working mom community out there. I personally have a 3.5-year-old, a 2-year-old, and am 8 months pregnant with my third.
I hope you find something in here that helps you make more meals from home without losing your mind! And I really hope you leave your own precious tips in the comment section below. I’m always looking for new tips, tricks, processes, and recipes!
1. I plan for 5-6 dinners per week.
When I start making a meal plan and adding things to my grocery list, I don’t set out to come up with 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, and 7 dinners. We’d never eat that much food, and it would take WAY too long!
Instead, I focus on planning 5-6 dinners per week. The other night or two are filled in by leftovers, a date night, or some kind of fun family event.
As for lunches…
2. We eat leftovers for lunch.
Lunches are very simple around here. My kids, our nanny, and I typically eat last night’s dinner leftovers. I do get my husband a pack of deli meat, sliced cheese, and tortillas. He takes that to work and makes himself two mini wraps for lunch each day. (He’s not a fan of leftovers, in general.)
I also try to keep very basic lunch items stocked in case we don’t have enough leftovers, such as:
- Mac & cheese
- Chicken nuggets
And for breakfast…
3. I keep breakfast staples on hand but don’t necessarily plan out the week.
When it comes to breakfast, I keep essentials stocked so that I can whip up a simple breakfast on the fly without ever having to plan. My brain can only handle so much planning, you know?!
These are common breakfasts in our rotation:
- Banana bread: I always buy an extra bunch of bananas so I can use the overripe ones for banana bread. I’ve made banana bread probably 100+ times and have perfected the recipe. You can get it here: Parr House Banana Bread (Moist, One-Bowl Banana Bread)
- Pancakes or mini waffles (I usually double the recipe when I make these and freeze a bunch for quick toaster pancakes/waffles later on)
- Overnight oats (chocolate chia is our favorite)
- Scrambled or hard-boiled eggs
- Steel-cut oats (we like apple pie steel cut oats in the Instant Pot)
- Toast with avocado
I could make any of these breakfasts right now because I keep the items stocked. If I’m feeling fancy, I might add some buttermilk to my grocery order so I can make buttermilk pancakes, but other than that, I don’t plan too hard for breakfast.
Now, occasionally, I do find a breakfast recipe that looks interesting, and I will plan for it. But most days, we’re just whipping up a breakfast staple using things we have in the pantry and fridge.
4. I write the meal plan down on a whiteboard that everyone can see.
I used to write down our meal plan on my reMarkable paper tablet, but I’ve since transitioned to writing it down on a physical whiteboard I keep in my kitchen. I love that my husband knows the plan, and I can make notes for our nanny as far as lunches and snack ideas.
I also write down anything going on during the week that might affect the meal plan. For example, if we have a really busy day on Tuesday, I’ll know I need to plan a quick and easy meal (or perhaps pull out a freezer meal, which I’ll explain later in this article!). If we have a date night planned, I know I need to get a frozen pizza (or something easy) for the kids and the babysitter.
This has helped us avoid days where I’ve planned a more involved meal but am way too tired to even think about making it.
Another bonus of having the meal plan in a visible space is it reminds me to pull meat or chicken stock out of the freezer so it can thaw in time. (I make my own chicken stock and freeze it.)
If I have a chicken recipe planned on Wednesday, I need to pull the chicken out of the freezer on Monday or Tuesday. You can set alarms in your phone if you’re super forgetful, but looking at the whiteboard has worked well enough for me.
5. I keep a running list of recipes our family loves.
One of the most common complaints I hear from friends and others in mom groups is they’re tired of eating the same things. When you’re in a rut, it’s so tempting to order something to-go.
To combat that, I’ve slowly developed a huge stash of recipes our family loves. Here’s what I do:
- I use Pocket (getpocket.com) to “Save” recipes that look good. I have a massive collection of saved recipes on this website that I can look back on when I need inspiration or ideas. Some people do this exclusively on Pinterest, but I find Pocket to be more versatile since the recipe doesn’t HAVE to be on Pinterest to save it for later. (It’s free.)
- If our family loves a recipe and wants to make it again, I print it, laminate it, and add it to our family recipe binder, featuring colored plastic dividers. You have to be a GOOD recipe to make it into our binder.
We’re always trying new things, but we also have this massive binder of tried-and-true recipes in every category imaginable – seafood, chicken, pork, beef, vegetarian, desserts, you name it.
Making a meal plan is often as simple as getting out my binder, picking a few recipes from different sections, and writing those down on my whiteboard.
As far as places to go to find good recipes, I do have some favorites:
- America’s Test Kitchen: you do have to pay for a membership, but it’s 100% worth it to me. I don’t think we’ve ever tried a recipe from ATK that wasn’t amazing. They test recipes dozens or even 100 times until it’s perfect, and you can tell! I started out by watching their recipe videos on YouTube and copying down the ingredients and instructions. Once I realized how incredible the recipes were, I bought the annual membership. (I am not affiliated with ATK whatsoever, by the way.)
- eMeals app: I don’t use this meal planning app exclusively, but there are some really great family-friendly meal ideas on it. If you find one you like, you have to favorite it or it will disappear.
- Pinterest: I do love going onto Pinterest to find good recipes. Just start searching and you’ll be in the rabbit hole in no time.
- Allrecipes: I like using Allrecipes to search by ingredient. We buy half a cow from a local cattle ranch, and we often get unique cuts. I can go to Allrecipes and search for recipes that include Oxtail, for example. Or, if we have something we need to use up, like some avocados, I can search by ingredient and gets tons of recipe ideas that include avocados. Very handy.
- Downshiftology: if you like healthy meals using whole ingredients, this is the website for you. I love watching her YouTube videos and she has some incredible recipes that are not only tasty, but they make you feel great, too.
- Love & Lemons: I’ve saved a ton of recipes from this website! There are hundreds of ideas here, and the recipe filters are really helpful.
- Julia Pacheco (YouTube): Julia has a ton of incredible meal idea videos that are especially great for busy moms. She does a lot of slow cooker and one-pot meals, and she often posts very budget-friendly recipes. Highly recommend!
If you have any go-to websites for meal ideas, please share them in the comment section below.
6. I rely on Walmart grocery pickup.
Ever since I started using Walmart grocery pickup, I honestly cannot imagine ever going back into a grocery store. As I select recipes for the week, I add what I need to my cart. I can also see what my total is as I shop, helping me to stay under my $100/week target.
I also find it quite handy to add items to my cart when I run out of them during the week. Just used the last of the vanilla extract? Add it to my cart.
I load my toddlers up in the car and get my groceries without ever having to unload them or go through aisles looking for that one hard-to-find ingredient.
I honestly don’t know if I’d be so efficient at planning our meals without a grocery pickup option like this.
Depending on where you live, you may have other grocery stores like Kroger or Whole Foods that offer a pickup option. If you haven’t already, try it out! You’ll probably never go back!
7. I shop my fridge, freezer, and pantry before I select my meals for the week.
I learned this tip from YouTube mom Jordan Paige, and I’m SO glad she taught me this! It’s genius, really, to try to use up whatever you have in your house before you start buying more things at the store. I believe she calls this shelf cooking.
If we have a lot of frozen beef, I’ll make sure we have recipes on the plan that include beef. If we have a can of black beans, I’ll try to find a recipe that has black beans. If we have a lot of carrots and celery that will probably go bad soon, I’ll try to plan a pot roast or soup recipe to make sure we use it up. Whatever the case may be, it saves us a ton of money to use up what we have.
On the same token, I’ll stock up on things when they’re on sale at the store. If cans of diced tomato are half off, I’ll pick up 5 cans, as an example. I also do this when certain cuts of meat are on sale. I get extra and freeze it.
That way, I have lower-cost food in my home that I can “shop” from in future weeks.
8. I use the Instant Pot a lot.
I’m a working woman, and I just don’t have several hours to prepare an elaborate meal. But I don’t want to sacrifice on flavor, either. The Instant Pot has become one of my favorite kitchen appliances for this.
Some weeks, we literally use it every single day!
It’s awesome for making meals, but it’s also great for certain side dishes. Here are some things we like making in the Instant Pot:
- Mac & cheese
- Mashed potatoes
- Steel-cut oats
- Beef stew
- Tortilla soup
- Cubed steak and gravy
- Mongolian beef with broccoli (I modify the linked slow cooker recipe for the Instant Pot)
- Short ribs (I do the short ribs in this Stroganoff recipe in the Instant Pot)
- Minestrone soup (I love this recipe because you can use dried beans, which saves $$!)
- Baked ziti
- Italian beef (I modify the linked slow cooker recipe for the Instant Pot, and I add a sliced onion)
- Salsa chicken
- White chicken chili
The Instant Pot does speed up certain recipes. But for some, it actually takes longer because of the time it takes to come to pressure.
However, I still choose it because it’s entirely hands-off. I can put all the ingredients into the pot, set it, and forget it. That allows me to do things with my kids, clean up the kitchen, or prep some side dishes without having to babysit a pot. This is especially handy for recipes like steel-cut oats, which normally require you to constantly stir a pot on the stove. Not the case with the Instant Pot!
If you don’t have an Instant Pot, the slow cooker is a close second, but sometimes I don’t remember to start the slow cooker early enough in the day. You can easily transition a slow cooker recipe to an Instant Pot one for these days.
9. I double and freeze freezer-friendly recipes.
If I’m going through the effort to make a meal, it doesn’t take much time to double it. I already have all the ingredients out – all I really need is a bigger pot or a second casserole dish.
A great way to find freezer-friendly meal ideas is to walk through the freezer section in the grocery store. Jot down any frozen meals that look yummy!
Here are some of my favorite recipes to double and freeze half for later:
- Pancakes and waffles: put these on a sheet tray and freeze for an hour before putting them in freezer baggies so they don’t stick together. The buttermilk pancake recipe from Cook’s Illustrated is *chef’s kiss.*
- Lasagna: use oven-ready lasagna noodles so all you have to do is assemble the lasagna. Freeze it before baking.
- Enchiladas: assemble these and freeze your casserole before baking.
- Tuna casserole
- Meatballs: freeze the raw meatballs on a sheet tray, for about an hour. Then pop them in a Ziploc baggie!
- Baked ziti
You’ll be surprised how over time, you’ll have developed a little stash of homemade meals you can have on nights when you’re too tired to cook.
Here are some supplies you can pick up to make freezer meal prep a lot easier:
- (Must-Have) Aluminum pans: perfect for freezing things like lasagna and enchiladas
- (Must-Have) Meal prep labels: label and date everything using these labels, which dissolve in the dishwasher for easy clean-up
- Baggy rack stands: allows you to fill up freezer Ziploc bags without spilling
- Reusable silicone bags: these are perfect for prepping and storing ingredients for smoothies
- Glass containers: these are awesome for storing individual servings
- ½ cup ice cube freezing tray: ideal for freezing chicken stock, beef stock, marinara sauce, hummus, etc.
Another great thing to do is double and freeze individual components that can be used in future recipes. Shredded chicken is a personal favorite, because it’s so versatile, and it’s quick to make large batches in the Instant Pot.
Tip: the quickest way to shred beef or chicken in large batches is to put it in your stand mixer. Life changer.
If I have shredded chicken in the freezer, I can pull it out and use it for chicken salad, enchiladas, crack chicken, BBQ chicken, chicken chili, buffalo chicken dip (a party favorite), chicken tacos, tortilla soup… the list goes on!
When people ask questions like “How do working moms make dinner every night?” the answer often comes down to having a good Plan B. That Plan B, for me, is pulling out a freezer meal that I’ve made in the past.
10. I keep sides simple and always have frozen veggies.
If the recipe I’m making isn’t a one-pot meal and needs some sides, I keep things really simple. I rely on very quick, no-fuss sides, like jasmine rice in the rice cooker and frozen broccoli that comes in the steamable bag.
If I don’t have any veggies coming in from the garden, I definitely keep a good stash of frozen veggies in my freezer. My kids are partial to frozen broccoli, so I tend to get that the most. And all you have to do nowadays is put the bag in the microwave for 5 minutes – can’t get easier than that!
If my oven is available, I’ll also cube up potatoes or other veggies (like squash and zucchini) and roast them for a very fast side dish.
11. I buy beef in bulk from a local cattle ranch.
I love buying high-quality meat in bulk. I’m really not impressed with the meat available at my local grocery store (especially Walmart). We have an incredible local cattle ranch just a few miles from our home. We buy half a cow, which lasts us over a year.
It’s so nice to have the freezer full of different cuts of meat that I can pull from at a moment’s notice. It makes meal planning easier, and in a pinch, I always know I have ground beef ready to be thawed for a quick spaghetti or taco night.
During the pandemic, we didn’t have to freak out over short-term supply chain shortages, either. Plus, buying it in bulk allows us to save a ton of money, and we’re supporting a local farmer.
12. I involve my kids or allow screen time while cooking.
The hardest part of cooking dinner every night as a mom with young kids is keeping the kids occupied. My 2-year-old son would pull at my leg while cooking, and for a while there, he’d actually bite my leg until I picked him up!
It can be stressful to cook dinner when your kids want your attention the whole time (especially if you need to open and close the oven).
To combat that, I’ve done two things:
- I got a kitchen helper so I can involve my kids with simple meal prep tasks, like transferring, pouring, or chopping with kid-safe knives.
- I allow screen time while I’m cooking (the only time during the day where we do allow it).
If I’m not mentally prepared for the mess my kids will make while helping in the kitchen, I turn on a movie and get to cooking.
Lately, I have been able to occupy my kids with different activities while I cook, like playing with playdough or making a fort in the living room, but the point is: you do what you have to do!
Related Article: Kidstir Review: Is This Cooking Subscription Box Good For Toddlers?
13. I prep individual ingredients if I have extra time.
Another time-saving tip is to prep individual ingredients when there’s extra time. For example, I usually get my groceries on Sunday. While the kids are napping in the afternoon, I try to wash and prep any fruits and veggies I’ve purchased.
That way, the carrots I need for my beef recipe on Tuesday are already washed and peeled. It speeds up weeknight meal prep and makes cooking every night a little less daunting.
I also love washing and cutting up all of my fresh fruit so that it’s ready to go for the kids throughout the week.
14. I order HelloFresh if we have a really busy week ahead.
I don’t order HelloFresh meals every week by any means. It’s just too expensive to fit into our grocery budget on a regular basis. However, I’m not afraid to get HelloFresh every now and then if we have a really hectic week ahead of us.
I also save the recipe cards if it was a family favorite. We have a little stash of past HelloFresh recipes, which is nice!
This does require a little planning – and using good coupon codes – but it can offer a nice mental break on occasion.
You can use my personal referral link to get $120 off your first six HelloFresh orders ($40 off your first, $30 off your second, and so on).
The only way I’m able to cook all of our meals is because I plan ahead. It sounded like a lot of extra work before I started meal planning every week, but now, it’s too much work NOT to meal plan! It saves our family so much time and money.
Think about it: I can spend $100 and have homemade food for an entire week. Or I can spend $100 at a restaurant for a single meal.
Yes, there are weeks where I get HelloFresh for a few dinners so I can take a break. But in general, meal planning is quick and easy, and all of these little tips have helped me become more efficient.
Now, it’s your turn! Please share your meal planning and dinner cooking tips in the comment section below.