School Meal-Planning Tips

First Day of School

I’m fairly new to having a school-age kiddo, my daughter just started first grade, but I know enough now to know that I’m in desperate need of some serious time management hacks this time of year.

The amount of calendar juggling for activities, preparing for activities, driving to activities, REMEMBERING all the details for every activity takes up all my brain power, so I’m left scrambling each week to figure out our meals. Plus, it’s exhausting to get a daily consensus on dinner plans and expensive to make last-minute food runs every other day.

Enough of that nonsense, I decided meal planning is my mountain to conquer this year!

I spend my days as a creative strategist, mapping out effective plans for my team to succeed, why not put those skills to work making a plan for feeding my family … and saving my sanity? The framework I came up with was inspired by a few friends’ brilliant meal planning tips, paired with some amazing tips from the Plan Simple podcast to make the whole process simple, easy to repeat each week, and most importantly, BRAINPOWER-LESS.

To get started, I listed out our goals for quick reference, mapped out a weekly framework of our kid-approved meals, and created a place to organize our family recipes. Streamlining this process was instantly gratifying and is paying off big in the amount of extra time and energy I can put into catching up on my shows more productive things.

Here’s how my plan turned out, but you can easily adapt these meal-planning tips to fit your needs:

Our meal-planning goals

  • Fewer trips to the store
  • Reducing our food waste and saving money
  • More veggies, less meat
  • Focus on whole foods (less gluten and sugar)
  • Introducing diverse ethnic foods and flavors
  • Supporting local restaurants

Tips to make meal-planning foolproof

  • Keep it simple. This one is hard for me because I love cooking and eating Instagram-worthy meals. But the reality is that I’m not a foodfluencer and I’m trying to feed a kid who happily dips apples in ketchup. Find the 10-20 meals that work well for your family, with the least amount of effort and keep those on rotation.
  • Pick a theme for each week, like Mexican or Italian, so you can make the most out of ingredients and mix and match leftovers.
  • Work with the seasons by adjusting your favorites to include seasonal veggies, it adds some nice variety, and it’s usually cheaper.
  • Organize your go-to recipes into a digital database or list so you can easily find them while you are planning and shopping and keep favorites top mind. I use Notion to organize my entire life, but anything you will actually use, works; Google docs, your Notes app, Pinterest, etc. You do you.
  • Create shopping lists by store. There are certain things I buy at Trader Joes vs. Costco, so it helps to quickly divide and conquer the stores with my partner.
  • Build up your pantry so you can improvise and make new recipes less daunting. Trying new recipes is a great way to slowly add unique ingredients to your pantry.
  • Keep this ingredient substitution list handy. It’s so helpful when you are missing just one ingredient for a meal. I like to make it work “Project Runway” style, instead of running to the store for one thing.
  • Let your kids help with the details, like what toppings for the burgers, which pasta shape to make, etc. Having some ownership of the plans will help them get excited about eating it.
  • Don’t sweat it! Change takes time, so be patient as you and your family adjust and evolve along the way!

Weekly plan

Use your bank of sure-bet recipes to plan each day, and create a weekly shopping list. Feel free to edit the categories and adjust to your week’s activities. So easy! It’s like a capsule wardrobe for your meals.

Sunday: Weekly prep and a big meal

Breakfast prep: We make and freeze big batches of pancakes (I love adding protein powder as a bonus) and hardboiled eggs so we don’t have to think about breakfast each morning.

Lunch prep: I’m working from home, so I like to prep lunch salads, plus gathering all the parts for my daughter’s school lunches.

Big meal with leftover potential: crockpot recipes, pot roast, soups, casseroles, grilled meats, etc.

Monday: Meatless

Kid-approved veggie options are tricky, but you can’t go wrong with quesadillas, tator tot nachos, tacos, make-your-own pizzas, creamy pastas, grilled cheese, etc. Plus, most of these meals work great with bean and meat alternative swaps.

Tuesday: Tailgate-style

Burgers, hotdogs, meatballs, oh my! Tuesday is our chance get our burger (or hotdog or meatball) fix. We try to mix up the meats and flavors from week to week to keep things fresh. This tortilla trick was a game-changer for us, it works for burgers and hotdogs!

Wednesday: Lazy leftovers

By Wednesday I need a break, so it’s heat-and-eat meals or leftovers, for the win! I like to stock up on healthy-ish frozen meals (I’m looking at you, Costco orange chicken) and veggies, so we have some quick options ready to go.

Thursday: Pasta night

Thursday is our pasta (or rice) night. We pick a recipe based on the theme for the week (see the Tips section), and I love swapping out wheat pastas for Banza chickpea pasta, which helps me sneak in extra protein and fiber.

Ratatouille Photo
Viral Ratatouille Recipe from Tiktok

Friday: Wild card

Friday is for fun, we either try a new recipe, grab takeout from our fave local places, or have breakfast for dinner, which is always a crowd-pleaser.

Saturday: Clean out the fridge

Saturday is all about finishing up whatever is left from the week, planning meals, and shopping for the next week.

Hopefully you found a few things in here you can use in your meal-planning. Streamlining this task has been so helpful for me, it’s like building up a stash of “free-time” credits. Maybe I could use some of my new free-time to conquer the laundry next … just kidding, laundry is forever!

Rachel Sleeter
Approximately 1 day of her life, Rachel hiked on a glacier in Iceland. The other 99.9% of her days her hands are full doing creative strategy at Hallmark Cards, being a mom to Luna who is a five-year-old Queen of Sass, wife to Matt who is a funny Google-a-holic, and dog mom to Rosie, whose sweetness is matched only by her smelliness. Her favorite ways to avoid cleaning the house are leisurely strolls through Target (pre-pandemic) listening to mostly crime podcasts, spending a small fortune on curly hair products, crafting Barbie schools out of Amazon boxes, making complicated recipes with too many ingredients, playing 1 million games of Zingo, and enjoying her Westside downtown neighborhood with her family.