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The busy mom's guide to meal planning

Jenn Folsom, whose guide about modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall, lays out what has worked for her family for nearly two decades.
Jenn Folsom serves Friday night dinner to her three sons and their friends.
Jenn Folsom serves Friday night dinner to her three sons and their friends.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve grilled the last four hot dogs from the Costco case you bought at the beginning of summer. And now you’re staring at the empty freezer wondering what the heck to make for dinner.

It can be a real juggling act to get good, healthy food (that your kids will actually eat) on the table. It’s especially hard amid the after-work, after-school scramble that is now upon us. As the mom of three t/weenage sons, I can tell you: The struggle is real.

Meal planning and preparation can really affect your already heavy “mental load.” But food is important. It’s more than just fuel; it’s about connecting with your family — which is even more critical when you’re at the office most of the day.

My foolproof process

I’m going to break this down to a very granular level on what has worked for our family for nearly two decades.

The day of the week and the process may change based on your schedule, but essentially, it’s this:

1. On a recurring day of the week, assess what you have in the pantry

2. Build a meal plan for the week based on what you have, and what events are on your calendar

3. Make a shopping list of missing ingredients

4. Prep dinner the night before or morning of, NEVER at dinner time

5. Post the weekly meal plan, including that night’s dinner directions, so that the first person home (older child, spouse, babysitter) can get dinner going at a reasonable hour

My go-to meals

Meat that’s easy to grill, bake or broil

We have food allergies and sensitivities in our household, so there's a lot of broiled salmon or grilled chicken, along with veggies and fruit. I typically buy organic meat in bulk from Costco or my local grocer when on sale. As soon as you get home from the store, use kitchen scissors to divide a salmon fillet and divvy up portions of ground meat and economy-sized portions of poultry. Pour marinade right in the gallon zipper bag, freeze and label with a Sharpie. The night before, put your meat in the fridge to thaw and at dinner time simply sauté or grill.

Your goal is simply to get an easy, healthy meal on the table. That said, if you make the same three or four meals every week, you and your family are going to get sick of it. Find a couple of easy website resources you like (I like and try to add in one new recipe a week to keep things interesting and expand your children’s palates.

Slow & go

Don’t judge, minimalist moms, but I have four slow cookers. And I use them all! While chili and stews get big billing, I’m a big fan of cooking a whole roast chicken (or two!) while you’re I’m work. Eat one for dinner tonight and shred the second for enchiladas later in the week. Or, wrap pricked, oiled, potatoes or sweet potatoes in foil and cook for four to five hours on low. Your house will stay cool in the summertime and it’s ready to eat with pan-broiled fish when you get home.

Taking the pressure out of dinner timing

My mom bought me the Instant Pot pressure cooker for Christmas last year. I immediately thought, “I don’t need this, I have four sizes of slow cookers.” But you know what? Mom is always right. I love this thing. It makes chili from frozen ground turkey in 20 minutes that tastes like it simmered all day. It makes perfect hard-boiled eggs for breakfast-on-the-go. Ten minutes for the perfect rice that, paired with a frozen, bagged stir fry and chopped up meat, creates a meal that gets to your table faster than take out, and it’s a heck of a lot healthier.

Sheet pan dinners

Sometimes the most helpful kitchen device is the humble sheet pan. I have a half dozen, nothing fancy, and they are the workhorses that make easy weeknight dinners possible. Prep is organized and clean up is limited to one or two pans.

Keep it simple: A shee tpan dinner of roast turkey tenderloin, diced sweet potatoes/onions/carrots topped with chopped parsley and goat cheese
Keep it simple: A shee tpan dinner of roast turkey tenderloin, diced sweet potatoes/onions/carrots topped with chopped parsley and goat cheeseCourtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

While the internet is abound with delicious recipes, the basics here are to thaw marinated meat, add prepped veggies and cover with foil the night before. Write cooking instructions on foil with a permanent marker for the first person home to throw in the oven (“Preheat oven to 350 degrees, cook 35 minutes, flipping once. Save some for Mom!”)

Always make another pan of roast veggies for later. You’ll love having extra veggies for breakfast, bowls or other meals. I’m a huge fan of reheating roast veggies in the morning with a runny egg or two. It takes me from post-morning-workout all the way through lunch without snacking on junk at the office kitchen

Other tips:

A note about picky eaters

You can produce the most gorgeous, healthy meals made to order and your child can still refuse it. This is not a reflection on your cooking in specific or your motherhood in general, this could be a food sensitivity or aversion, or simply a power struggle. Don’t take it personally, keep putting good food out there, and if Ms. PickyPants doesn’t like what you’ve made, have her make a turkey sandwich and let it go.

Plan for leftovers

Plan to use those leftovers in other meals. Try pork tenderloin, it's super easy to cook and comes seasoned. Slice the leftovers on sandwiches during the week. Or try a completely foolproof roast chicken. Have roast chicken one night and the leftovers for a quesadilla later on in the week and chicken salad for lunch. We had a six-pound, $11 bird a few weeks ago and ate it all week, with the best being homemade chicken noodle soup at the end of the week. Again, I'm no Jacques Pepin, but it's just homemade stock from your carcass, chopped up chicken and half a box of pasta. That's it.

Folsom's use of leftovers: Chopped Grilled chicken and extras from the crudite tray on spinach greens for a power lunch.
Folsom's use of leftovers: Chopped Grilled chicken and extras from the crudite tray on spinach greens for a power lunch.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Crudite tray

The need for healthy, chopped and prepared fruits and vegetables was born when my children were much younger. I found that if I put the good stuff right in front of them while I made dinner they would be sure to eat their veggies and I could keep the witching hour meltdowns at bay. But the truth of the matter is that it’s just as valuable for the older kids, who are hungry at different times than normal family meal times. Prepped produce makes it easier for kids to pack their own lunches, and you can easy grab-and-go for healthy snacks at the office. I serve my crudite with hummus, nut butter or a white bean dip (pureed rinsed and drained cannellini beans with olive oil, salt and rosemary).

Bus stop meal swap

Now I am really going to blow your mind. For four years during the elementary school phase, chock full of evening sports and scouts commitments, three other families of five at my bus stop formed a weeknight meal swap. Each night, Monday through Thursday, one of us cooked for twenty and we hand off meals at the 4 p.m. bus stop. I applied my management consulting process improvement know how to the simple fact that all four families were trying to do the impossible: get dinner on the table after a long work day when the evenings were a logistical nightmare.

Three of the four moms worked outside the home and the fourth had two kids under two at the time, so this was not about being hipper-than-thou, healthier meal prep or cost savings, but more about the logistics of getting dinner on the table at 5:30 p.m. when dance class is at 6 p.m. and dad isn't home till 7 p.m. Cook one night and the rest of the week is covered for you.

Cook on Sundays and double up

Make your most complicated meal on the weekend when your spouse is home to help cook or mind the little ones. If you make a meatloaf, make two. Double your batch of turkey chilli and freeze the second. It doesn't take any more time to double than to make a single and you'll have something in the freezer later on for busy weeknights. Make a large batch of a grain like rice or quinoa on the weekend to use in multiple meals. Make a base of a “big salad” (hard veggies, washed and chopped greens) to quickly add meat and toppings to for a dinner or lunch.

And lastly, the clean out meal

Every Friday night is leftover buffet at our house. We often have extra kids or neighbors milling about and I simply take out all the food and say, “have at it till it’s gone!” Take inspiration from Chipotle or your other fast casual spot and use that grain and salad bowl to put out all of the leftover bits along with a variety of dressings and sauces for create-your-own dinner success. Serve it with chopsticks or toothpicks or whatever it takes to clean out the fridge, because tomorrow you will start the cycle all over again.

Jennifer Folsom is the chief of corporate development at Washington, D.C.-based data analytics consulting firm Summit LLC. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.