Complete guide to Meal Planning for Large Families

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Meal Planning and Meal Prep advice seems to frequently be directed at individuals, or families with just one or two kids. Any parents with large families know that sometimes that advice just doesn’t transfer over well for large families. This guide will help you see how you can make meal planning for large families work for you too!

woman meal planning with food on table.  Text overlay: Complete guide to meal planning for large families

I always tell people that I was about 3 kids in when suddenly none of my systems were working anymore.

woman meal planning with food on table. Text overlay: Complete guide to meal planning for large families

As a dietitian, health and home-cooked meals were always a priority for me and I used to LOVE it. In fact, when I was working full-time I got off around 3:00 PM. After work I would come home and the kitchen was my playground.

I cooked multi-course healthy meals and found so much joy in experimenting and feeding myself and my husband.

Aside from the copious amounts of my dishes to do, the system worked well for us. My husband who does the dishes might say differently.

I was able to maintain this for one, and even two kids, but with 3 it felt like all my systems and routines we had just came crashing down!

But the cool thing about life is that when something comes crashing down. We have the opportunity to build something even better in it’s place, (I’m picturing the last scene in encanto. The part where the whole village comes together to build a new home for the Madrigal family. I can’t get through that scene without crying).

So if you’re realizing that suddenly none of your systems are working, or if you never had working systems, I am here for you. Consider me one of the villagers trekking up the road to help.

As a type A personality, I’m all about a step-by-step system.

I also don’t believe in one-size fits all approaches for anything including meal planning for large families. However, I believe you can find a lot of freedom within this template to do things your own way.

Step-by-step guide to meal planning for large families

Let’s dig into the steps for meal planning for a large family in a way that reduces stress and anxiety around meal-time!

Step 1: Start with a Family Planning Session

I feel like a broken record with this one phrase.

Let me just say it again.

Plan your meals around your life, not your life around your meals.

One of the biggest issues with feeding a large family is scheduling. It’s so hard to get meals on the table when everyone has a busy schedule.

It seems like between sports, instruments, homework, and other extra-curricular activities that there’s rarely a free night around here. This is even with some solid boundaries around how many activities each of the kids is doing. Big families mean lots of activities and lots of things to do.

This is why the first step of the planning process with a family planning session. This might seem hard or time-consuming, but in the long run it’s the perfect way to get everyone on the same page. It can help you get meal ideas in a fun way and makes meal prep less of a daunting task.

Some topics for discussion at the family planning session that will help with meal planning include:

  • What appointments/practices/commitments does each family member have this week that you will have to work around?
  • What large projects (with deadlines) need to be completed this week and when?
  • What nights can kids/partners be assigned as kitchen helpers?
  • What meals do family members want to have this week?

Doing this up front will give you a clear picture of what kinds of meals you can plan that are do-able and realistic.

After this is done you are ready for the next step

Step 2: Finalize plans with a Personal Planning session

After you’ve gathered this info it’s time to get planning for you and meal planning for your family.

Personal planning is another important part of meal planning for large families.

This planning step can be done however you like to plan. You can use a big calendar on the wall, a planner, your phone, whatever!

The most important part is mapping out your week in a way that’s visual. You will want to include all of your own personal responsibilities as well as those of your kids and partner that will affect you.

Once this is done, meal planning is going to seem a lot simpler.

You are going to be able to clearly see that a difficult and labor-intensive meal on wednesday when you have 5 other must-do items on your list isn’t going to happen.

And that’s okay! It’s much better to come up with a realistic plan up-front then to feel overwhelmed trying to fit something unrealistic in.

Color coded-system to meal planning for large families

This is one of my top tips in the meal planning process, color-coding your days. You can consider coding busy days where cooking anything will be difficult one color, lighter days where you can make a big meal or even meal prep green, and medium days yellow.

This system makes it so much easier to get an easy large family meal on the dinner table during a busy week when you don’t have much time.

When it comes to meal planning, I like to have a plan for all different kinds of days.

On green days, most meals are available to me so this might be a day that I double my meal, make a more elaborate meal, or chop some vegetables or cook some grains for busier days to come.

On a yellow day, I will have 20-30 minutes to put together a meal so I’m going to choose fast and easy meals like grilled cheese, cheese quesadillas, or spaghetti OR I will put together a meal from items that I have prepped earlier in the week.

Red days have to be stupid easy. I might plan to get takeout these days if it’s convenient. I might also use a hand’s off freezer meal or throw something in the slow cooker in the morning that will be ready to grab whenever we have a free minute.

If you need ideas, but are stuck try this mega-list for great recipes!

Step 3: Get your grocery shop on

Jumping back for just a second to the last section, I like to pick a day for shopping in my planner. In fact, I like to just have a grocery shopping day on repeat so it’s a habit. You can write down your grocery shopping day in your planner or on your calendar.

Utilize in-store pickup for grocery shopping when meal planning for large families.

Another tip that I feel like is a must for large families is utilizing pick-up options. Most stores offer free pick-up when you spend over a specific dollar amount (which isn’t usually an issue for large families).

Here’s a few reasons why in-store pick up is so useful.

  • Shopping with no kids-This alone makes it a no-brainer. Shopping for the entire family is a time-consuming event and pick-up is a great way to minimize that.
  • You can easily add items you forgot-I always grocery shop about 24 hours in advance so I can continue to add items that I forgot throughout an entire day
  • The app remembers your favorites making shopping so much faster-The app often knows what I forgot better than I do!
  • You can make adjustments easily based on your grocery budget-It’s hard to keep track of how much you are spending at the grocery store which can lead to serious sticker-shock and over-spending. When shopping online you can easily see your total as you shop and stick to your food budget.
  • You don’t have to make a shopping list n fact, whenever you think of something you will need for the upcoming week you can add it to the app and it will act as sort of a grocery list. This has been the best way I have found not to forget things!

My favorite grocery shopping productivity tip

My favorite way to make grocery shopping “work” is to always shop for one more day then you need.

It’s a little difficult to explain this concept so I’ll try an example.

So let’s say your grocery shopping day is monday. Instead of shopping for your weekly meal plan monday-sunday buy meals for tuesday-monday. This way, when you do grocery shopping the following monday you already have everything you need for dinner that night. This way if grocery shopping doesn’t happen, you have some built-in wiggle room!

Step 4: Create a Meal Prep Plan

Meal prep makes a lot of people nervous, and don’t stress. This is going to be a quick overview (but I have talked extensively about meal prep in the past so check out the following for more.

Meal Prep Resources

Complete guide to freezer meal prep

How to meal prep fast

Meal Prep with confidence with these food safety tips

Meal prep can get a bad rap, but really it’s all about making a quick meals, frugal meals, meals the whole family will enjoy in less time any day of the week.

The point is, meal prep is ANYTHING you do in advance to make your life easier. If you are used to thinking of meal prep as the perfectly matched containers of health food you see on instagram and you are thinking that won’t work for your family you would be totally right. It won’t work that way when you are meal planning for large families. But there are lots of meal prep tips that WILL work for large families.

Let’s explore some ideas

Best meal prep tips for large families

Make a double batch of freezable recipes and use the “eat one, freeze one” approach

When chopping onions, chop enough for any recipe that uses onions that week. You can use this same technique for fresh produce

Cook Ground beef when you get it and freeze it cooked instead of raw to easily add to meals

Make shredded chicken in the crockpot and freeze it for later

Cook big batches of sauces and freeze them for later

Prep rolls or baguettes and reheat them using the parbaking method so they taste fresh

Combine storebought staples with fresh sides or vice-versa for partially homemade meals (consider buying meat for taco night and combining it with produce and shells for a simple meal).

Step 5: Build your emergency Reserve

The best laid-out plans have back-up plans.

Especially where large families are involved, things happen.

The last (important) step of meal planning for large families is to have a plan for when your plans don’t work out.

I like to do this by creating a list with 3 categories.

  • Category 1: Is meals you can make with no/little time-an idea could be french toast or pancakes
  • Category 2: Is meals you can make with no/little energy-this is the great time to utilize a freezer meal that might take awhile to heat up, but is mostly hands-off
  • Category 3: Is meals you can make with no/little ingredients-this is a good time to use shelf stable or canned foods. Think canned black beans, peanut butter, tomato sauce, etc…

After you have made your list, start working on building your emergency reserve. Buy some shelf-stable staples like pasta and spaghetti sauce for times when you need to grocery shop.

Make freezer meals for when you have no energy. Do a little at a time week by week, and then when you need an emergency meal, get out your list and pick something!

Meals can be so overwhelming, but breaking it down into steps can be so helpful.

I hope this has helped show you how to get started with meal planning in a way that works for large families!

Happy Planning friends!

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