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Make-Ahead Meal Plan for Busy Families

The Braley Family at home

For part two of our "What's for Dinner" series, Parents posted a request on Facebook for families who find getting dinner on the table challenging. The hundreds of moms who responded know that family meals are more than simply sustenance. But with kids, jobs, and cooking skills that are perhaps not Top Chef level, doing it night after night can seem beyond daunting. Not if you have a system. We paired one working mom with our cooking coach to make an easy plan.

Meet the Braley Family: Sally is a writer and her husband, Peter, is a salesman who travels often. Their kids are Meg, 8, and Phillip, 5, and they live in Montclair, New Jersey.

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Meg and Phillip

By the time Sally picks up her children from day care and school, it's nearly 6 p.m. Since the kids' bedtime routine starts at 7 p.m., that gives her less than an hour to put food on the table. Peter, loves to cook, but he travels frequently for work and usually isn't around to help with weeknight meals. Dinner stresses Sally out.

Like most of us, Sally avoids thinking about what to make until it's time to eat. "I plan dinner about five minutes in advance," she says. By then, of course, it's too late to start a complicated -- heck, even an uncomplicated -- dish. And forget shopping for any missing ingredients. "I can't get organized on Sunday to plan for the week," she says. So Sally ends up serving whatever is in the freezer -- usually frozen chicken nuggets and fish sticks.

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Sally cooks with her kids

Parents enlisted Jenna Helwig, a mom and dinner coach, to draw up a weekly menu to help Sally prepare tasty, healthy meals for her family in less than half an hour.

The Results "We haven't bought another box of fish sticks since Jenna was here!" Sally says. Using Helwig's menu as a jumping-off point, she's planning the week's meals on Sunday and preparing food in advance. "I no longer feel as panicked about getting dinner on the table," Sally says.

Preparation isn't as much of a chore as Sally thought it would be. And, even better, her family is not relying on over-processed, out-of-the-box food. "We're eating much more of a variety at every meal," says Sally. Recent dinners have included turkey meatballs, stir-fry with vegetables, fried rice, and quesadillas

And what about the kids? They've adjusted -- and are even warming up to the new dinner routine. "The truth is, if my kids don't see chicken nuggets in front of them, they're going to say they don't want to eat whatever I'm serving," explains Sally. "Once we sit down and start eating, though, they're fine. I made a stir-fry the other night, and they both asked for seconds."

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1. Take 15 minutes on weekends to map out the week's meals.

2. Create two or three weekly dinner menus and then rotate so you don't get bored.

3. Organize grocery shopping so there is always something in the house.

4. Prepare as many meal elements as possible in advance over the weekend (chop and bag veggies, make rice, stir together spice mixtures or sauces). Buy pre-prepped or frozen fruits and vegetables.

5. Start preheating the oven as soon as you walk in the door on those nights when you'll be needing it to prepare your meal.

 
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Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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