Want to involve kids in the Thanksgiving meal… without going crazy? Read on for my favorite tips, broken up by age appropriateness!
Thanksgiving calls to mind a few important themes: families and friends gathering together, eating a ton of food, and gratefulness for the blessings in our lives and country.
But if we’re being honest, kids are usually an afterthought to the whole “cooking and gathering” thing. Right? They’re cute, and their little turkey-themed crafts are adorable, but other than that they are often underfoot when in the kitchen, which relegates them to other areas of the house.
But in the spirit of Thanksgiving, this year, I’m going to take a deep breath, set aside my perfectionist tendencies, and involve my kids in the meal.
I wanted to gather some ideas for age appropriateness, so obvs I turned to the web and Pinterest. Turns out, there’s tons of ways kids can help that don’t involve the possibility of them stabbing themselves or each other with sharp knives or touching a hot stove.
Here are some of my favorite ideas to get kids helping at Thanksgiving, broken down by age:
Cook items in a crockpot or Instant Pot
I highly recommend any busy cook utilize one or both of these awesome timesaving devices in their Thanksgiving prep! Crockpot garlic mashed potatoes is one of my favorite, and little kids can easily turn it on or even monitor the doneness of the ingredients.
Whether you made them in the crockpot or on the stove, kids are great at mashing potatoes- both white and sweet.
Stir stuffing before it’s added to the bird
If you’re making stuffing from scratch, little hands are great at mixing the bread cubes and other seasonings and additions to the stuffing.
Set the table
Kids can lay out plates, silverware, glassware, and even bring some of the lightweight dishes to the table before everyone sits down to eat.
Decorate the table
Pinecones, (unlit) candles, placemats, place cards, pretty branches and flowers- let the kids go wild with creativity when it comes to decorating the holiday table.
Help clear the table after the meal
Use those short legs to ferret items from the table the the kitchen in double time.
Meal prepping makes your whole week easier, but it’s not always easy to fit meal prep into an already busy week! The slow cooker makes it easier, and here’s why I love it!
Here’s a secret to getting ahead on your week: Effective meal prepping is where it’s at.
Meal prepping, when done right, can save you tons of time in the kitchen- but I’ll be the first to admit, it’s sometimes really tough to get it done!
My kids are 2 and 4, and lately my 2-year-old is in that lovely whining stage where he needs to be held, usually in the evenings.
My husband usually works nights or gets home from work late, so it’s often just me doing that crazy dinner hour juggle,. The hardest part of it is I need both hands to make dinner- but I rarely have a hand free to do so!
<h2>On top of all that craziness, it’s usually a struggle to get meal prep effectively; that is, get all my meal prep done in a small window of time.
I buy pre-prepped ingredients as often as possible, and I try to take shortcuts that make sense both for my budget and our health (not a lot of processed soups or anything around here, but I’m a big fan of pre-mixed frozen veggies!)
But there’s one thing that never lets me down in the kitchen during meal prep, and that’s my trusty slow cooker.
I may sing the praises of my Instant Pot to the heavens, and for what it’s worth, I use my IP in meal prepping on the regular. That baby saves me a ton of time in, say, presoaking beans and simmering rice.
But if I didn’t have an Instant Pot, or if it’s in use with other ingredients, the crockpot can be a lifesaver for meal preppers- and just about any busy parents, meal prepping or not- as well.
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Here are 17 reasons why the slow cooker is my trusty sidekick in the effective meal prep battle:
Double the batch. You can easily double up the recipes you’re making in the crockpot, and then save half in the freezer.
Stuff to freeze. Or, instead of doubling up, put the crockpot recipe straight into the freezer and pull it back out when you need it most (ie on the nights when everything is collapsing down around you)
Makes food while you sleep. Or work, or pick up the kids from school, or sit on your couch watching Netflix.
No searing actually required. Trust me on this one: I know many recipes recommend searing your proteins before adding them to the crockpot, but most recipes taste just as good without that step.
Everything’s better when slow cooked. Ok, that’s not totally true, but it’s close!
These crockpot lentils. Meal prep side dish dreams are made of these easy, flavorful lentils.
Keeps the oven free. So you can cook other things at the same time!
Keep kids and pets safe. No gas flames (and no references to This Is Us, please guys)
Takes up less energy than the oven. Hello, cheaper energy bills.
Taste your veggies in a different light. Roasting is awesome and raw is delicious, but slow cooking changes the sugars and flavors of vegetables in a new and different way.
One side, 2 dinners. This works especially well with vegetarian meals; most veggie-centric crockpot recipes (like this one and this one and this one) work great as a big meal or two days worth of sides.
Different diets and allergies and eaters in the family means you can use the crockpot for one family member and make something separate for another.
Keeps the kitchen cool when it’s hot outside. So you can enjoy this summertime tomato and corn chowder without sweating to death.
Looking for a fun resource on meal planning? I’m breaking down how I do it on the weeks I’m not feeling it, tricks and tips for doing it fast, and how you can “meal plan” without all the hardcore planning.
When you’re not in the mood to meal plan, do any of these sound familiar?
“I know I need to meal plan but I hate it!”
“I know I need to meal plan, but we like to go with the flow.”
“I can never stick with what we’ve planned to eat so I just stopped doing it.”
If so: I get it, girlfriend.
Meal planning is not fun.
Well, for me it’s fun. I like nerding out with calendars and pretty colored pens and thinking about food.
But for like, normal people, meal planning is just not the most fun thing ever.
Plus, who has the time to do so? It just feels like it takes so much time, the whole planning thing.
You gotta look in the fridge.
Check the pantry.
Double check your grocery budget and make sure you husband didn’t blow it at the deli.
Then you gotta actually plan the thing and make sure what you’re making is something the kids’ll eat, or you may as well just throw those hunny bills out the window because god forbid they decide they hate chicken this week.
Then you have to find the time to shop, cook, and actually execute it or all that time planning will be for nought.
It can be exhausting.
But you know what’s awesome about meal planning? It can be molded to fit your life, not the other way around.
Here are some of the common complaints I hear about meal planning, and how I stop those complaints in their tracks:
”I’m just too busy to meal plan.”
Try this instead: the meal plan rotation plan (and yes, I said “plan” twice. Just go with it.)
I fall back on this one during busy spells in our lives, like the start of a new school year, or a month where there’s a lot of travel.
Simply put, you figure out 5 or 6 days of meals.
Then you buy the ingredients for these meals.
Then you do the same meal plan next week.
And the week after.
And the week after, until you’re totally sick of the whole thing- and that’s when you change it up.
Meal planning this way will take the burden of thought off your plate, freeing your busy mama brain up for more important stuff. Or just, you know, time to chill in front of Netflix and turn your mind off for a bit. Because we need that, too.
This is the internet, where there are thousands of meal plans out there for you to get inspiration from.
My personal favorite place to do it is from Pinterest. Just type “meal plans” or “weekly meal plans” up in the search bar, and here’s what you’ll find:
See the tiles at the top, that say “On a Budget”, “Printable”, “Family”, etc? If you’re unfamiliar with Pinterest, that’s where you can narrow down your needs and find blog posts, websites, and more that are related directly to your needs.
👉Your husband’s on the keto diet (high fat, low carb).
👉Your one kid hates rice.
👉Your other kids is allergic to gluten.
👉You and your husband both work full time, so you all basically live on granola bars and Chick-Fil-A, and it’s driving you insane.
I get these sorts of families coming to me all the time, and after an initial consultation, I create a monthly meal plan for them that works for everyone- and their budget.
But you don’t need to hire me to do what I do. With a little creative planning, you can get on top of crazy dietary situations, too!
First, carve out time to meal prep. In these situations, you’re not just meal prepping ingredients, but you’re meal prepping sides to swap as well.
I utilize the heck out the crockpot and Instant Pot for these meal prep sessions. Make a quinoa pilaf in the crock pot and a chili for lunch in the Instant Pot while you’re chopping and bagging veggies to roast later in the week.
Then, make sure that the recipes you choose are easily customizable to your needs.
Chicken and Olive Burgers. Swap buns for lettuce wraps and cheese for mayonnaise and everyone gets roasted veggies on the side.
See? It takes a little extra planning, but it’s totally do-able. And as usual, and awesome place to start looking for these recipes is Pinterest.
Totally not into doing this yourself? Maybe want a meal plan to get you going, and you can take it from there? My Customized Meal Plan clients come to me for all different types of reasons!
Each plan comes with a full grocery list, meal prep suggestions, and a month of dinners and sides (with room for leftovers). Monthly discounts and the option to purchase online grocery cart fills (where I do the online shopping for you) are also available.
Meal planing doesn’t have to mean sitting down every week and writing a list! There’s a “secret” way I use when I’m too busy to do it the old-school way. Read on and see what it is!
Psst; lean closer and I’ll tell you a secret: There’s a way of meal planning for busy moms that’s so unbelievably easy you might not even believe it.
Or maybe, because it’s so easy, you have tried it but you haven’t even realized that’s what you were doing. Which is why today, I’m going to tell you all about my favorite, easiest system of meal planning for busy moms that gets the job done without putting in a whole lotta legwork.
Because sometimes we get all caught up in the “plan” of doing things, of following along a specific set of steps. And we miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.
Because you want to know the real truth of meal planning? It’s that you know how to do it, girl. You got this on lock. Even if you don’t think you do.
What is this magic form of meal planning for busy moms, you ask?
It’s called the Meal Plan Rotation Plan, and yes, the title of it has the word “plan” in it twice. Just go with it.
I even feel a little silly talking about this in a blog post because it’s SO EASY. It’s SO NORMAL.
Basically, the Meal Plan Rotation Plan can be chopped up into two “types” of meal planning.
Ok. Here are the two types of meal plans, when using the Meal Plan Rotation Plan:
Type One: Just plan dinner and “wing it” for breakfast and lunch. Type Two: Plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner, BUT! You’ll have the same thing (or close to it) for breakfast and lunch every day, and have a different dinner recipe to serve each night.
The secret sauce? That once you create this meal plan, whether that’s Type One or Type Two, you stick with it. For WEEKS.
Utilizing the meal plan rotation plan means you “settle in” to a meal plan. You can vary this by making a 2-week plan, or even a three-week plan, and rotate those.
But by keeping it simple, by cooking and eating the same things for a period, you’re putting your decisions on autopilot for a while.
Putting a rotating meal plan for busy moms on autopilot accomplishes a lot more than saving the time it takes to sit down and meal plan.
Number one, you’ll save money at the grocery store because you can comfortably buy in bulk, or semi-bulk, and take advantage of sales, space in your cupboard, and conquer food waste a little easier.
Number two, removing the mental strain of decision making, as minor as it may seem, can do wonders for your busy mom brain.
Have you ever heard of ‘the mental load’?
If you’re a mom, you probably know exactly what I mean: it’s the extra load of responsibility for the family that is typically carried by the mother.
It’s remembering doctor’s appointments, switching out winter clothes for summer, organizing the babysitter for date night. It’s the little things that fathers, as important and helpful as they are and can be, often don’t even think about.
And that mental load is draining, right?!
But guess what: creating a solid, simple meal plan for busy moms like implementing a rotation system can ease that mental load.
Instead of meal planning being something you need to take care of every week, you can just cross the meal plan figuring out right off the list. It’s taken care of for a while.
You might be asking: But what if I get sick of what we’re eating? Then I say: change it up! A meal plan is not written in stone. The beauty of using a rotation plan is that YOU DECIDE IT. And the freedom it gives adds more space for wiggle room.
Below is an example of a simple Meal Plan Rotation Plan I wrote for my family recently.
For most of last month, my husband was plowing through three long weeks of double shifts at work, and I was solo parenting more than usual.
Times like this, extra busy times, the Meal Plan Rotation Plan really shines. It takes a big weight off my shoulders to not have to think about meal planning, but still feel confident we’re eating healthy and with easy meals.
Breakfast: every day, my kids had whole grain waffles spread with peanut butter, and I had egg salad in lettuce cups. My husband grabbed breakfast at work.
Lunch: I had leftovers, the kids had homemade “lunchables” of cold cuts, cheese, and crackers. Occasionally I changed it up with PBJs and roasted veggies. Dinner: I kept the ingredients for these dinners on hand and a list of them on the fridge. Then I made what we had time for or were in the mood for that evening.
Meal 5: Thai Green Curry (my daughter hates spicy food, so she’d get ravioli or similar while my son eats the curry with us)
Meal 6: pizza in the park with friends, we do this most weeks
Meal 7: takeout or freezer clean out (this typically means frozen ravioli or Dr Praeger’s bites for my kids, and I make sheet pan nachos with leftovers)
We had something to this effect every week for about three weeks. I’m getting sick of it all now, so I’ll spend about 10-15 minutes (longer than I usually do when I’m making the 5 Minute Meal Plan, but it takes longer to decide on new stuff!)
So what do you think!? Does this sound like a plan that might work for your family during busy periods? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
If you’re new to the idea of meal prepping for your workweek, have no fear! I’m breaking down the first steps any meal prep beginner should make sure to follow.
Listen up, working parents: today, I’m all about meal prep made easy, and why utilizing this “trick” can save you a ton of time during the workweek.
Last month I got the chance to chat with Danielle over at Project Meal Plan, where she shares easy meal plans, simple weeknight recipes, and banging ideas for meal prep made easy throughout the week (She has a guide for Adult Lunchables, people. Adult. Lunchables. #genius).
I was on vacation with my kids at the time and she super graciously navigated our Skype talk through whining, spills, fighting, and a glass breaking in the background, plus the pause to clean that disaster up.
But through it all she dropped some major knowledge on how she discovered the simplicity of meal prep made easy, why it’s so important for maintaining sanity throughout the week and staying close to what you’ve meal planned, and what she does when it all goes out the window on a busy day.
(our conversation has been edited a bit for clarity and for aforementioned pauses to clean up spilled milk)
Me: Hi Danielle! So talk to me about how you got into meal planning and prep as a weekly thing.
Danielle: A few years ago, I was working at a rehabilitation job and every day we had about 30 minutes for lunch. It wasn’t quite enough time to go to a restaurant, and I hated wasting time on my break, so I started getting into meal planning to make the best use of that time. Meal planning and meal prep meant that I didn’t have to leave the office to eat, I got my whole lunch break, which was great.
At the time I just started off slow; I’d bring a chicken breast and maybe a little salad, which was good. But I started to get tired of that, so I began looking into other things I could prep and plan on the weekend, and it took off from there.
And then about two years ago, I started my blog, where I began sharing my meal plans for that week. I’d make the whole meal plan, share that with my readers, and while it was fun, it was a lot of work. So I started breaking down how I meal prepped instead, and it kind of evolved from there.
Ruthy: You started feeling like you were meal planning for the blog instead of your life. So you flipped it.
Danielle: Totally. So I started focusing on the meal itself and sharing how people could put these recipes into their meal plans and see if it traveled well. And it became the whole thing, how to prep for all meals, including dessert.
Ruthy: So do you do mostly bulk prep? Or more day by day, a little prep each day?
Danielle: I used to do bulk prepping, but then I moved more to day by day for photography purposes for the blog. I typically do recipe testing during the week and then prepping for our own household meals on Sundays.
Ruthy: How and where do you get your ideas for recipes testing? And how does that usually fit into the meal prepping portion?
Danielle: That’s a good question. I do my meal plan on Fridays for the week ahead.
I always start by looking at what I actually have. We don’t follow a specific diet, with the exception that I don’t eat red meat, but we do stick to more produce. And I really focus on making and cooking what we eat.
I always check the calendar first to see if we have dinner plans to see what we have going on, or potlucks, or anything else. Otherwise, I usually see what will work with our seasonal produce delivery box.
(Side note, Danielle uses Imperfect Produce, a produce delivery company that sends you ‘ugly’ produce for up to 50% off the normal price. Check to see if it’s available in your area)
Since I get to choose what’s in my box, I know what I’ll be receiving, so I break the week into two and plan from there, and I get the workweek first and then the weekends. Saturday is always a wild card. On that day, I try to plan for something, usually leftovers or whatever.
Ruthy: When you’re having an evening when the ish hits the fan, what’s your fave ‘grab from the fridge’ meal for a busy night?
Danielle: Quesadillas, since literally anything can go inside! It’s amazing, just anything you want, it seems (laugh). We don’t have a big freezer, so I have to make sure I plan for the things that go in our freezer, so that usually leaves me with leftovers that are perfect for a quesadilla.
Ruthy: We eat quesadillas all the time, too! Do you usually pan fry them or oven?
Danielle: Pan fry, almost always.
Ruthy: We do pizza quesadillas as well which is basically pizza toppings spread on a tortilla. My kids love it.
Danielle: We do that a lot too! We use a lot of tortillas, for burritos, enchiladas, breakfast tortillas, chop them up and put them for nachos. They’re so versatile.
Ruthy: So other than a quesadilla, when it comes to leftovers, do you typically play around and make something new with the old? Or when you have those leftovers you mentioned you plan on, do you just eat them as is?
Danielle: I like to make a quick casserole. There’s a version I do that includes leftover meat, leftover veggies, cooked noodles like egg noodles. Then I mix one egg, some greek yogurt, pesto or seasonings, and add some milk. And then just take a big bowl, throw it all in. Mix it all together, put it in the oven, and it’s a casserole! Though to be honest, sometimes it’s a crapshoot and we’re just going to see how it goes. Sometimes it turns out amazing!
Ruthy: So is the egg used as a binder or is it a cooked egg?
Danielle: Raw egg, as like a binder. Put it all in a bowl, put it in the oven, bake it and see what happens.
Ruthy: I love this! I don’t think I’ve ever done that concoction before, but I make a lot of casseroles. But I always make like, a bechamel sauce or something that takes a lot of time, and that sounds like it would be a lot faster.
Danielle: It is! You gotta try it.
Ruthy: Another thing a lot of my readers say they deal with is that they feel really overwhelmed with the idea of meal planning. Like, they have a hard time just starting. What would you say to that?
Danielle: I would say to try and meal plan on a different day from the day you start, if that makes sense. Start small. Don’t meal plan and meal prep on the same day because that makes it feel huge.
Honestly, it’s hard to demonstrate until you’ve tried it. And I try to say this to my readers too, is that, if you don’t follow the meal plan one day, don’t stop there. You just try again the next day and get something together.
I loved this chat with Danielle! And I am fully, fully trying that casserole mixture she talks about. What do you find intimidating about meal prep and meal planning? I’d love to hear your issues and thoughts in the comments!
For more on Danielle and to see what she shares on her blog in terms of meal planning, meal prep, and simple recipes, head to Project Meal Plan. Thanks, Danielle!
Meal planning and meal prep can feel overwhelming if you’re new to it, and believe me, I’ve been there! Here are 7 easy steps any meal planning beginner can sink their teeth into, without feeling totally lost in the process.
When I first started out meal planning, I was confused. I felt ‘tied down’ to some random list of recipes that I had arbitrarily decided on earlier that week. I’d write my meal plan on Saturday, and then by the time I got to Wednesday I would just throw the whole thing out the window and pick up the phone for takeout.
But alas, our budget is not to be trifled with, and this whole meal plan disaster thing wasn’t doing me any favors in the wallet or waistline. So I sat my butt down, and I read everything I could on meal planning, and eventually, I crafted myself an awesome little plan that worked gangbusters for our family. Are you new to meal planning, like I once was? It can feel archaic, and boring, I know, but that’s only if you’re using yo’ momma’s old school meal plan, and let me tell you: it’s a new century, bud, and meal planning has come up along with it. However, I also know that once there’s a solid plan in place, meal planning for beginners can usually just mean following a certain strategy of steps. And before you know it: you go from a meal planning beginner to a Master Meal Planner. Meal Planning Queen, if you prefer. Meal Planning Messiah. (Too far? Ok; we’ll stick with ‘master’)
But don’t take my word for it! I checked in with 6 other awesome bloggers and asked their advice for how to start meal planning if you’re new to it, what steps should you take first, and what to do once you’ve started to pull together a plan. They’ve all got awesome advice, some have handy printables, and they’re all in your corner. Here’s what they have to say!
If you’re a meal planning beginner, start with the basics.
(Yep, the first one is ME!) this is one of my favorite posts about meal planning on this site (and I have quite a few!). I break it down, step by step, how I started meal planning and what you can do to get your feet wet, too. Read: My Top Three Meal Planning Basics
Even if the recipes says it’s 30 minutes, figure out the real amount of time it will take.
Shelley, from Two Healthy Kitchens, knows the pain we’ve all felt when dealing with a “super quick omg!” recipe: it doesn’t always take the amount of time it says it will. So, figure out how to “read” a recipe right, work that into your timeframe, and you’ll have a better idea how to plan appropriately. Read: Estimating REAL Prep Times
If you hate writing meal plans, try theme nights.
I love this take from Tracy at Simple Living Country Gal. She says to keep a “go-to” list that she can refer to whenever she’s pressed for time. Don’t have a list written out? Ask your family’s input- they might remind you of a dish you can make super quick! Read: Make Dinner Time Easier Without a Meal Plan
Get your kitchen in order to make things run smoother
Jenny, at the Jenny Evolution, has a great list here of how to get your ducks in a row before you even put pen to paper; after all- what good is a meal plan if you can’t find your ingredients or cookware? Read: Easy Meal Planning For Busy Moms
Start with an easy-to-follow printable to write your meal plan on
Lena, from What Mommy Does, knows the basics of meal planning starts with actually writing the dang thing! I love her simple, easy-to-use meal planning printable with clearly defined spaces. Just click to save and download! Read: Free Printable Weekly Planning Template
When it comes to accommodating different family members, roll with it.
Rachel, at The Mashup Mom, touches on a pain point I think a lot of us have: what to do when your entire family isn’t down with the same eating schedule, diets, or preferences. She spells out steps you can take to mitigate the mess of trying to figure out what to feed everyone.. when everyone has different food needs! Read: How to Modify a Meal Plan for Your Family
Skip the processed stuff and work real food into your meal plan.
Elaina, from The Rising Spoon, has a list of 10 ways you can make sure your meal plan isn’t full of over-processed junk; without taking tons of time out of your week! I love her tip for leftovers (which are my fave, too!) Read: Ten Meal Planning Tips for Beginners Using Real Food
There you have it: 7 awesome tips for meal planning beginners, all designed to help you get groovin’ on your meal planning schedule!
Which was your favorite? I’m excited to get digging into my meal planning routine now! If you want to take a peek into what I’m cooking each week, then join my brand new member community: Busy Mamas Cooking In Tiny Kitchens! Each week I add in my own family meal plan so you can see what I’m cookin’ Also get access to what others are cooking, swap recipes, vent about picky eaters, and more. Leave your info below to join, and I hope to see you there!
YES! Free Meal Planning Kit!
Grab the exact sheets I use to create my meal plans with the handy Meal Planning Bundle! Includes weekly meal plan template, recipe ideas, cheat sheet, and checklist.