Cheat Sheet: The Busy Mom’s Guide To Menu Planning

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A few years ago, in an effort to get my family's grocery bill under control, I started planning our meals for the month - all of them - breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It was a big undertaking. I'd grab my calendar, spread out my cookbooks and food magazines and then go through the sticky tabs and see which recipes would make it onto our plates that month. I'd try to then combine the recipes for a comprehensive recipe list, but then I would inevitably forget something, or the store wouldn't have it and I'd spend a bunch of time driving around to find the one ingredient I needed.

Then I'd get the groceries home and the ingredients for later in the month wouldn't stay fresh, so I'd have to go back out to the store to buy more.

As a mom in graduate school, with her own business and two little children, it is still important for me to save money but also I need to save time. Spending half my week making sure we would be able to eat didn't seem like a good investment.

I asked around and got some suggestions on how to make menu planning work for me. Here's some of the advice I got—see if it will work for you:

1) Plan for the week. While I had good intentions on planning for a whole month, it can be overwhelming, particularly when you don't know what your schedule will look like, or what will come up. Planning for one week allows you greater flexibility, and also gives you a chance to switch a few meals around without worrying that your food will go bad.

2) Grocery shop only once! It sucks going to the grocery store multiple times a week. Take 15 minutes to make a careful list and once you're in the store, stick to it!

3) Prep once, cook twice. By making meals that blend into each other, you save yourself from making seven meals each week, all starring a different main ingredient. Have chicken enchiladas on Monday and with the leftover chicken, make chicken chili for Wednesday.

4) Look for meals with 5-ingredients or less. A quick Google search for "5 ingredient meals" yields thousands of results. Not only does a meal with a few ingredients save money, it also saves you a lot of time from having to pull out and prep a million ingredients before dinner's ready.

5) Two words: Slow cooker. Also called a crockpot, the slow cooker is a busy mom's best friend. You can pick one up from the store for less than $20. (Heck, while you're at it - buy two.) Throw your ingredients in the pot and 5-8 hours later you have a delicious meal ready to go. Not keen on having your food cook while you're at work? Well, cook the food at night while you're sleeping. In the morning, simply cool it down and put in the fridge. Reheat at dinnertime.

Do you plan your meals for your family? What works for you?

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