The mom-of-six behind the popular website Wellness Mama shares how she manages to get a homemade dinner on the table most nights of the week. 

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Wellness Mama chicken piccata recipe
Credit: Helene Dujardin

Meal planning is the most important factor when it comes to adopting and maintaining a real-food diet. It’s easy to cook a quick convenience food or head to a restaurant when everyone is hungry and nothing is defrosted, but a little planning can prevent this afternoon conundrum! If you have kids, you can involve them in the planning as well, which will help them get excited about (and willing to try) the healthful foods you are cooking. Meal planning has literally changed our lives, reduced my stress, and made healthful eating not just doable but also easy.

Method 1: Use a daily template each week.

Rather than starting from scratch each week, I have a template of the general types of foods I cook each day of the week and the number of times I use each main food. For example, each week for dinner I cook:

  • 1-2 stir-fries
  • 1 salad
  • 1 slow-cooker or soup meal
  • 1 fish/seafood meal
  • 1-2 prepared-ahead oven meals

I try to use no meat more than twice, so in a given week I might have two beef meals, two chicken meals, one fish meal, and two pork or egg meals.

Method 2: Focus on core recipes.

As you find recipes your family enjoys, make them core recipes that get reused every few weeks. Try to build up about 20 of these and you won’t ever be bored with your meals.

Each week, use these core meals for five of your dinners and try something new for two dinners. If you get really motivated, build 20 core meals for each season: Find favorite dishes that use seasonal produce and rotate with the seasons. This will also save money on produce.

Method 3: Stretch the protein.

Protein is typically the most expensive part of the meal, so if you can use less expensive cuts of meat and stretch them, it might allow you to buy organic and grass-fed rather than conventional meats. This is another reason I love stir-fries and casseroles: You can add more veggies and stretch the meat more than if you were just serving baked chicken alone. The slow cooker is a great way to make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat tender.

Method 4: Mix it up with spices.

A basic easy recipe can taste completely different just by changing the spices. Add some cumin and chili powder and you have a Mexican-style dish or some curry for an Indian flavor. Basil, thyme, oregano, and garlic give an Italian flavor while Chinese five-spice lends an Asian flair. I buy all my herbs in bulk or grow them myself since it saves money and I’m able to use fresher and higher-quality herbs.

Method 5: Travel the world in the kitchen.

One of my dreams is to travel the world and try the different cuisines in each country. Since that isn’t possible right now, I try to create the same experience in my kitchen. With a little research and some healthful adjustments, you can recreate recipes from around the world. You might be surprised to find that your kids enjoy the flavors of Indian or Thai food or that you have a passion for French-style cuisine.

Method 6: Don’t be a short-order cook.

Want to raise picky eaters? Let your children eat whatever they want and cater to their food preferences. Want to raise children with a diverse palate and an enjoyment of real food? Expose them to healthful and diverse foods from a young age and don’t make any specific foods for them. My 1-year-old gladly eats curries, cooked vegetables, liver, and avocado because she’s never had crackers, toast, processed chicken nuggets, or juice. Not only is this more nutritious for kids, but it will really be a benefit to them in the long run.

Method 7: Eat leftovers for breakfast and lunch.

It can be tough to break the cereal-and-sandwich mindset, but an easy time-saving way to eat healthfully is to make extra food for dinner and serve leftovers in a reimagined way for breakfast and lunch. Most foods (except soups) can also be added to an omelet for breakfast or put with a salad for lunch. Leftover meat wrapped in nori or coated in barbecue sauce, for example, makes a delicious breakfast or lunch.

Another trick is to use mason jars to make mealtime easier. Make mason-jar salads for easy breakfasts or lunches (liquid ingredients at the bottoms for salads, then meat/toppings, then lettuce) and store them in the fridge. You can also store leftovers like soups and stir-fries in the jars so they can be reheated easily or dumped onto a plate to serve.

Wellness Mama cookbook cover

Excerpted from The Wellness Mama Cookbook by Katie Wells, courtesy of Harmony Books. Photos by Helene Dujardin.

Katie Wells is the author of The Wellness Mama Cookbook and an award-winning blogger, author, podcaster, and real-food crusader. You can find her at her website, on Twitter, and Instagram.