When you have a family, meal plans are worth the extra effort — especially when there are different diets.
Whether the challenge is picky eaters, schedule changes, or finding time to prepare healthy foods everyone enjoys, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the kitchen.
But with weekly meal planning and prep, it’s simplified and much more doable.
With 9 kids, meal plans and prep are a must for me — for budget, sanity, and timesaving reasons. I once resisted meal planning because it felt like too much time and work.
I didn’t want to box myself into preparing the same old foods.
But the truth is, meal planning and prep offer more time for creativity and flexibility as the days flow much smoother.
Here are 3 ways I simplify and still have flexibility with meal planning.
1. Begin Your Master List With Favorites
Include the kids when making your master list.
We made our list colorful and fun in a Bullet Journal. It’s categorized by themes and categories: Mexican, Asian, Italian, soups, grills, salads, pasta, and so forth.
First, have a family meeting and have everyone give you a list of their favorites. There will be differences, but that’s okay.
It’s important to me to keep updating the master list so it stays interesting and flexible.
I also keep a Pinterest page for new meals to try on our weekly meal plan. Once I know it’s something that works, I’ll add it to the master list. But nothing goes on the master list until I know it works for us.
In our house, differences are usually based on protein choices, as some of us are plant-based, and some are not.
But there’s always a way to make it work — even with picky eaters.
Ramen is one of my kids’ favorites, but not so much mine.
But we’re able to find a compromise and have homemade Ramen with veggies. They add in the protein at the table. They can choose from chicken, an egg, or tofu, as we’ve already prepped it.
They’re happy, and so am I.
When making pasta, I make it meatless and have pre-made protein options to add in if they desire. I use the indoor grill on meal prep day.
Pizza night is the same.
Everyone makes their own pizza with their topping and crust choices. They get to create and have it exactly how they want it — and we have leftovers for tomorrow.
2. Prepare Your Meal Plan Weekly (and include the kids)
Make a chai tea, gather cookbooks, your calendar, and your master list.
I make my weekly meal plan the night before I go shopping in a relaxed environment and mood. I look through Pinterest for new ideas — it always inspires me.
Meal planning doesn’t have to be stressful.
Intentional routines are so grounding.
When making my weekly meal list, I ask the kids for their input. Some have more interest than others, but if they have a special request, they know that’s the time to tell me.
I also multipurpose foods during the same week.
Roasted tomatillo salsa: Bean and rice burritos and taco dip
Crispy tofu: Tofu and rice with ginger-miso sauce and stir fry
Black beans: chili and bean and rice burritos
I have several plans I rotate, but I also like to try new dishes, so I’m always mixing and matching. Having the master list to fall back on saves time, especially when I have an extra busy week.
Check your calendar and determine how many nights you’ll need to prepare dinner and how much time you have. Consider whether you’ll be out and how busy everyone’s schedule is. If Wednesdays are always chaotic, plan easy meals.
Adjust the meals to your schedule, not the other way around. Sandwiches are an easy go-to when you have veggies prepped. The great part about meal planning is most meals come together in under 30 minutes.
Determine how many lunches you’ll need to prepare for the week and write them on your list.
I always prepare extra food for leftovers for lunch and/or freezing. It makes for less work, and most foods taste better the next day once the flavors have blended.
Plan an easy but nutritious breakfast and snacks for the week.
Determine if you need grab-and-go type foods or if you can spend a little more time. Breakfast wraps/muffins freeze well and are easy to fit into meal prep. Overnight oats, oatmeal, and savory breakfasts are easy when you have a plan.
Breakfasts play an important role in our health — it’s how we begin our day. We’re setting the pattern for healthy or unhealthy food choices.
Snacks are the same. When we have something prepared, it’s easier to stay on track.
3. Meal Prep 1 or 2 Days of the Week (With A Helper)
I dedicate two hours to meal prep twice a week. It might seem like a lot, but it saves time, ensures we’re eating healthy, and makes dinnertime enjoyable — for everyone.
I wake each day with a plan in place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — it’s one less thing on my mind.
I also have a weekly “helper of the day” for meal prep. I need the extra help, and they love the one-on-one time. Kids are more likely to eat the food when they’re involved in the process.
And the connection is priceless.
What to Prep
Sauces are my favorite part of meal planning. They’re easy in a Vitamix and come together fast. They turn ordinary food into delicious meals. Mexican bowls are good, but when you add roasted tomatillo salsa and a cheezy sauce, it brings it to the next level.
Most of our meals have some type of mirepoix mix. I prepare the amount I need for each dish in a food processor. I separate the mixes into containers and then date and label them.
Proteins are easy on the indoor grill and air fryer. They store well refrigerated or frozen, depending. I might also have Mexican rice and noodles cooking while I’m cutting as they’re hands-off.
Sliced fruits and veggies stored in airtight containers are great to prep for sides and as a standalone.
I usually make my own snacks.
We have a dedicated drawer for grab-and-go bags. I learned this from a wonderful organizer I once worked with.
My youngest daughter and I put something fun on the television to watch together and make them. I purchase assorted nuts, dried fruits, cacao nibs, and chocolate chips from the natural grocery store. We mix everything into a large bowl and measure out 1/4 cup for each snack bag.
There’s more control over how much sugar and salt are in snacks.
It’s more cost-effective and healthier than most trail mixes and bars you buy pre-made. We make a bunch of bags each week, so we have an easy and healthy snack to grab in between or on the run.
I also do this with rice crackers and pretzels.
Meal Prep Basics
My “helper” of the week and I set up our gear.
I use a Vitamix, 3 Instant Pots (it’s a lot but such a time-saver), an air fryer, an indoor grill, a food processor, an immersion blender, and airtight containers.
From my meal plan list, I’ve already made a list of all the sauces, dressings, proteins, fruits, veggies, mirepoix mixes, and any sides I need to prep.
And then we break it down.
We start with everything that will go in the instant pots. Usually beans, grains, and/or potatoes. It’s mostly hands-off.
Place any proteins on the indoor grill and air fryer.
During that time, we prepare the mirepoix mixes in the food processor, label, and store them in airtight containers.
We chop lettuce, cabbage, fruits, and vegetables planned and store in containers.
We prepare any sides we may need, such as rice or noodles on the stove.
We prepare sauces/dressings in the Vitamix while waiting for the sides to finish cooking.
We’re usually finished within two hours.
Extra Tips for Meal Planning and Prepping
Invest in good kitchen gear; it makes a difference.
Prepare extras for leftovers and/or freezing.
We clean out the refrigerator before we go grocery shopping (so much easier to put groceries away).
Shop from your pantry, fridge, and freezer first — there might be food to use up, or you’ve forgotten about.
Buy in bulk and keep your pantry stocked with staples. I use mason jars and airtight containers for almost everything. Restock weekly.
Have a homemade pizza and movie night once a week. It’s a fun night for family connection and a treat we look forward to.
Previously Published on becomingyouwithjulie.com