Back to School: Meal Planning 101

The lazy days of summer are behind us. Looking ahead, a full schedule looms: school, sports, work, music lessons, homework, performances, field trips, school volunteering, holidays, etc. Maybe dinner (and meals in general) have gotten a bit lax during the summer—no one wanted to leave the pool, or do any work after such a relaxing afternoon—so dinner was take-out… again.

But with all these upcoming activities on top of schoolwork, you know you want to fuel your kids with healthier food, which usually means cooking more meals at home.

Don’t be afraid, though! Just follow these simple steps for Back-to-School meal planning, and you’ll be set.

Schedule It


The first thing you need to do is sit down and evaluate your schedule. No, not the most glamorous task, but it must be done. The good news is that once you hammer out a meal plan around your schedule, it should be good to go until the schedule experiences major change.

Grab or print out a blank, weekly calendar. Put everything that occurs on a weekly basis on the calendar. And we mean everything—whether it occurs morning, afternoon or evening! Now that you can see what days are more busy and what days are less busy, decide what days are going to be “normal cook” days, “low cook” days and “no cook” days.

Plan It


  • Normal Cook Days

    A normal cooking day is just that. There isn’t much going on that day to get in the way of normal meal preparation. The only preparation ahead of time is making sure that you have the ingredients.

  • Low Cook Days

    A low cook day means employing methods that are more hands-off. These methods require a small to medium amount of planning, but little to no-evening prep work.

  • No Cook Days

    We all have these days. Days where the schedule is so jam-packed there isn’t even time to think about dinner. While you may want to schedule time in your meal plan for eating out, a packed schedule should not equal eating out every night.

Alright, so now you’ve identified your days. Here is an example:

Sunday – Normal Cook
Monday – Normal Cook
Tuesday – Low Cook
Wednesday – No Cook
Thursday – Normal Cook
Friday – Low Cook
Saturday – No Cook or Eat Out

Take this new schedule and do something to make it accessible. You can simply write or print your list and keep in on the refrigerator for easy visual reference. If you want something you can manipulate for a weekly menu, purchase a small whiteboard; on one side, write your schedule using permanent marker; leave the other side blank to write in that week’s meals.

Don’t worry; that permanent marker will come off if you write over it with whiteboard marker. Or try rubbing alcohol, acetone-based nail-polish remover, or a Magic Eraser.

Cook It


Now that you have a schedule delineating your available meal prep and cooking times, let’s take a look at what these meal options are going to entail.

Normal Cook Meals

Since you have 30 to 60 minutes before dinner is served to chop, cook and wait for the oven timer (barring any homework meltdowns), pretty much any meal that you want to make is game on a normal cook day.

If you have a bit of extra time, instead of making just one meal, double or triple the recipe. You can freeze those extra portions before or after cooking (depending on the recipe) for an easy-peasy, future freezer meal.

Hate freezer meals? Or will that meal not freeze well? Multiplying the recipe might still make sense; just put the cooked leftovers in the fridge for an easy lunch or dinner meal later in the week.

Low Cook Meals

While your evening might be a bit busy on a “low cook” day, you probably have a bit of time earlier in the day to get something going like…

Slow Cooker Meals: Set your slow cooker earlier in the day and come home to a ready-made meal with little-to-no evening prep work. Perfect for soups or roasts and other tough or fatty-cuts of meat.

Freezer Meals: Requiring some advance work, freezer meals may be slow cooker based (like pre-marinated chicken breasts), oven based (like lasagna), or stove-top based (like soup). All you have to do is cook it appropriately. You can take a weekend day or two when you are not busy and prepare several freezer meals, or use the method mentioned above and incorporate freezer meal preparation into your normal meal prep.

No Cook Meals

These meals require little to no evening work and no planning or preparation ahead of time—except to have the items on hand in the first place.

Leftovers: If you have no time to prep something earlier than actual dinner time, leftovers are the way to go. A few minutes of re-heating and dinner is done. (And no more moldy, mystery containers in your fridge.)

Sandwiches: You probably already have the ingredients for sandwiches from school lunch preparations. Lay all the items out and have a sandwich bar. Super simple, quick, and easy.

Smoothies: A liquid base, fresh or frozen fruit, oil, and some protein powder (like Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides) make a quick, healthy, meal—with all the macronutrients—that is also highly portable. 

[yumprint-recipe id=’12’]Quick Fix Meals: These meals are mostly ready-made, and use items that have a long shelf or freezer life and are quick to throw together right before dinner.

  • Soup: Prepackaged soups have come a long way. Keep a look-out for canned soups that are organic and packed with vegetables, or try tetra pak soups which tend to be higher quality. Just heat and serve.
  • Pancakes: You can find multi-grain pancake mixes, gluten-free pancake mixes and mixes that are just-add-water. With any of these choices, it only takes a minute or two to mix up the batter, and just a few more minutes to be eating delicious pancakes.
  • Hot Dogs: For an extremely hands-off preparation, just plunk the hot dogs in cold water in a pot over high heat. When the water boils, the hot dogs are done. If desired, put the hot dogs in a bun and add condiments. For a longer shelf life, freeze the hot dogs and the buns—separately of course. And try Applegate or Fork in the Road brands for higher quality hot dogs.

Grocery Store Meals: Let the grocery story do the cooking for you. Grab a Rotisserie Chicken and a bagged salad kit (includes dressing and toppings) on the way home and dinner is done. Alternatively, nix the Rotisserie Chicken and head to the deli section for pre-chopped deli meat (like chicken or ham cubes) to make the salad kit a complete meal.

Now, to meal plan, all you need to do is drop the appropriate type of recipe into your meal planning for that day, week, or month.

If you want to make your planning even easier, add a theme to each day. The theme can revolve around cuisine (Pizza on Sunday, Chinese food on Monday, Mexican food on Tuesday) or can revolve around the meal base (Wednesday chicken, Thursday vegetarian, Friday roast).

Enlist Help


Don’t forget, you are probably not the only one in the house who knows how to cook. Enlist the help of your spouse—maybe those Saturday night ribs become his responsibility. If you have children that are old enough to cook, involve them in the meal preparation. Learning how to cook is a valuable life skill, so don’t feel sorry putting your kids to work in the kitchen!


Hopefully these tips will help you avoid the 5pm-what-the-heck-are-we-eating blues that frequently result in excessive, unhealthy food choices. Plan your meals, and leave more space in your schedule and your brain for more important things.

Want more information to help with your meal planning?
Check out Tips & Tricks for Preparing Freezer Meals and Prepping Dinner for the Week Ahead.

Photo Credit: Alessi Kitchen TimerCutting Shallots on Epicurean Board, Measuring with PadernoHeath Ceramics Chez Panisse Dinnerware by Didriks (CC BY 2.0), and Chas loves his Mommy by Stephanie Sicore (CC BY 2.0)

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Stefani

Stefani was raised in California; with her husband hailing from South Carolina, they've settled in the middle and are now raising three Texans. She loves classical homeschooling, great books, period dramas, modifying recipes, simple living, deep thinking, and cuddling up with her family to watch silly YouTube videos.

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