The Essential First Step to Make Meal Planning Easier - Especially if you have kids!

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by Robin

Meal planning saves!  Meal planning will save you wallets full of money.  It will save you time every day.  It will flatline your stress level.

Big promises, huh?  But I firmly believe it.  

In my work as a Registered Dietitian, I have taught more families than I can count how to meal plan.  I always start with this essential first step.  And I'm often surprised at how most meal planning advisors skip it.  It's only the most important - in my opinion.

Until I got this true first step figured out I'd had many starts and stops with meal planning.  It just took so much time!  And then making all these new-to-me recipes took even more  - reading through long ingredient lists and instructions took the amount of time I had set aside to do the actual cooking!  And THEN the little tyrants loves-of-my-life at the table would refuse to eat it or complain loudly/glare at their plates.

And then I'd give up.

Then I figured out this essential first step to meal planning and meals became more manageable and pleasant....

Step One for a good meal plan is to make your own Master List of Meals.  It's pretty simple and if you do one thing for Meal Planning, this is it.  We keep our list readily accessible and add to it when we hit on a successful recipe.

This step has been key for our family to take the anxiety out of the supper hour.  We eat better and we enjoy our time at the table more.

What defines a "successful recipe"?  Around our place it's one that has:

  • Quick prep: it should take about 15 minutes (or maximum 30 minutes) 
  • Healthy ingredients
  • Lower cost, and 
  • Minimal complaints from the children.

Minimal complaints from the children.  That one's worth repeating, because THAT's the one that has tanked our meal planning in the past.  

Part of the reason is that kids thrive on familiarity.  And if you start with a week of brand-new recipes - my bet is that that will be the last week you meal plan.  They won't like it and they'll let you know. 

Just having your Master List of Meals will give you peace of mind.  It will trigger ideas of what to make - even if you never sit down and plan out a week ahead of time.

Before you read further - grab a pencil and a scrap of paper and do this:

1) No really, I wasn't kidding, get that pencil and paper. 😉  I can wait - I've got nowhere to be.

2) Now write down the meals that your family likes enough, and that you don't mind making.  No judgements here - include the boxes of frozen meals that you make - they count too.  It's a list that works for you - not one for a photo shoot or "mom of the year" application.

3) Is there 5 there?  Less?  More?  It doesn't matter, this is just a place to start.

4) Plan to make those meals this week - when appropriate to your schedule.  You don't need to even plan which day you make what - some people find that too limiting.  

5) Make sure you have the ingredients in the house to make those meals.  

6) Add one more meal idea, when you feel ready.  If the family seemed to like it enough, and you didn't hate to make it - then add it to your list.  (Notice I said: "the family seemed to like it enough" - with low-pressure repeated exposures, they will come around.  They really will.  Kids very rarely LOVE a new recipe at their first exposure to it.)

Below is our current Master List of Meals - maybe you'll find some ideas here?  All of our meals are easy and quick to make and kid friendly.

Here's our family's Master List of Meals:

  ~ there are links to all the recipes, too! ~

We usually serve a simple salad with each meal: prewashed baby spinach or spring mix.

1. Sweet and Sour Meatballs (with rice)

2. Jelly Chicken with carrots and warm "5 Minute Bread" or mashed potatoes

3. Fried Rice  with Planned-Over (aka leftovers you plan to make) Jelly Chicken (#2 above) and Planned-Over rice (from #1 above)

4. Easy Homemade Chicken Fingers, peppers and "Dad Fries" (aka potato wedges - renamed by our kids)

5. Peachiest Pork Chops, veggie and rice or potato

6. Diego Sandwiches (aka bean burritos, as marketed to my kids) with Easy Guacamole

7. Our Fish Sticks (another recipe hack) with Broccoli, Couscous and Cashew Side Dish

10. Hamburgers or Hot dogs (or both) and salad

9. Easy Pasta with Veggies and Meat Sauce

10. Oven Fried Fish, peas and 5-Minute Bread3 Minute Coleslaw

11. French Toast with Peach Sauce and vanilla yoghurt

12. Pork Tenderloin peas and rice or mashed potatoes

13. Cashew Stir Fry with rice noodles

14. Dump and Dash Slow Cooker Chili with Healthier Skillet Cornbread

15. Boba Fett-ucini (as marketed to my kiddos) with peas and ham

16. Roasted Chicken Dinner (with carrots, onions and potatoes)

17. "Sauce Chicken", a butter chicken- like stew (that my daughter thinks she invented) with cous cous (and Planned-Over chicken from the Roast Chicken Dinner), served with 5 Minute Naan

18. Kids Pizza Chefs - we all make our own pizza's - using "5 Minute Bread" dough.  In the summer we do pizza on the BBQ.

19. Ikea Hack meatballs with peas and rice

20. Better-Than-Takeout Baked Chinese Chicken with Lemon Sauce with Broccoli, Cous Cous and Cashew Side Dish

21.  Shepherd's Pie with Planned-Over mashed potatoes and LGB Helper and warm homemade Baguette

22.  Soup and Make-Your-Own Sub Night.  Some nights it will be Anna's Taco Soup, other nights it might be a low-salt canned version.

23.  Healthier Lasagne or Mexican Lasagne (though on some busy nights it will be one from the frozen food section)

24. One Pan Chicken Fajitas in Oven by Us!
25. Taco Night

26. Souvlaki with Rice and steamed veggie (often it's prepared Souvlaki from the frozen food section other times we make it from scratch)

27.  Steak, roasted potatoes and corn

28. Panzerottis with Caesar Salad

29. Simple Marinated Pork Chops with corn and peas

30. Beef & Broccoli with Dumplings

31. Pasta Bar - with choice of tomato or alfredo sauce - and Meatballs

32. Beef Stew with potatoes and carrots and Dumplings

33.Salmon Cakes (from this cookbook - with some tweaks) with rice and veggies

34. Slow Cooker Peanut Butter Chicken

35.Ribs with roasted potatoes and peppers

Know this: our Master List did not start out this long!  

Nowhere near it.  I think there were maybe 6 meals on our very first Master List.  But we kept repeating those meals and adding one or two more as we went along.  Now our list is long - and much more varied - but we built to this over years.

We will keep building on the recipe links for you.

Writing this post made me realise there are lots that we haven't shared yet!  We will also keep adding to this list when we hit on successful recipes - which is helpful for you - and essential for ourselves!  (If there's a recipe that you're especially interested in, leave a comment and we'll start there!)

I find sharing recipes with friends the hands-down best way to get great family meal ideas. So I'm curious:

What recipes are on your "Master List"?


  1. I would love recipes for all of your master list items! I am in need of some inspiration to get back on the menu planning track :) Love your blog by the way!

    1. Thank-you so much for the compliment, TL! We are gradually adding all the recipes, it's taking a bit of time, but the plan is to have them all up here in the next couple months. :) Robin

  2. Thank you! I don't mind waiting for the recipes. I just wanted to let you know I would be interested in all of them!

  3. Just discovered this--I love this idea. So simple--as smart ideas often are. You've got me thinking about what our master list would be.

  4. This is a great list! I see you have added some recipes, but not all. Are you planning to add any more?

  5. Thank you for the list. Just making one made me feel better and realize how many meals my family does eat! My family also likes quesadillas, chipotle barbacoa (on tortillas), minute steak sandwiches, sausage & peppers (with rice), and chicken shwarma (with quick pita bread).

    1. Yes! I’m so happy it helped you, Sarah! We keep ours on the fridge and never run out of ideas. The meals you shared sound fabulous - I need to find a barbacoa recipe stat. :)


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