By blog team member, Kiran. To learn more about Kiran, check out our team page or check out her blog!
It’s official. I’ve hit that “next stage” with my kids. My oldest just turned 12. I also have a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, and my youngest who just turned 5 (sniff, sniff). I’m no longer in the baby or toddler stage but instead have not-so-little people to manage, who happen to have very busy activities on their calendars. Seriously, it’s almost a full-time job trying to manage their lives. The problem is, I also have a job (hello!) and like to try to keep balance in all of our lives.
I’m quick to tell you about areas that are not my strengths (you’ll never hear me sing karaoke, and I wouldn’t have a clue how to put on any “real” makeup), but I am proud of areas where I do have some strengths. And I’m so thankful that one of them happens to be time management. Any parent can attest to the fact that this is essential when managing the family social and recreational calendar, along with the other demands of life.
How to Feed Busy Families Real Food
Included in our family calendar are 12 hours a week for gymnastics, 8 for dance, 3 for track, 1 for swimming, and I’ll spare you the rest. Needless to say, afternoons and evenings are a full-on rush from the time the kids are out of school until they go to bed, and I’m sure that many of you can relate. I very strongly value the notion of feeding my kids well and not resorting to fast food places simply because I “have to.” I’ve found the following ideas help me feed my busy family real food without having to compromise. If you’re in a similar position, I hope that these ideas can help you. I also hope you’ll share what works for you in the comments!
- Food prep the weekend before.
This part is absolutely essential for me. As I shared in another post, on the weekend, I do my shopping, some chopping, and fully prepare one meal so that it’s ready to go come Monday. I also try to make some items for their lunches that can double as great after-school snacks or after-sports snacks, depending on their schedule for the day.
- Cook dinner first thing in the morning.
You’ll often find me cooking dinner at 7:00 in the morning. Yes, I know it’s not quite traditional, and sometimes things do taste better when they are fresh, but this works for me. If the meal was not already prepped the weekend before, I’ll get my kids’ breakfasts served, and while they eat, I’ll prep and cook dinner so that it’s ready whenever their schedule permits. As a bonus, I find myself in the kitchen at the same time as them. So while I’m not able to sit with them to connect face-to-face, we still have conversations – me cutting and stirring, them eating.
- Be unconventional.
Dinner at 4:15? Sometimes a mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do. My oldest has practice Monday through Thursday for 3-4 hours, and practice starts at 5:15 on a few of the days. Since we get home from school at 3:45, it just makes sense for her to flip/flop dinner and a snack. She’ll have dinner at 4:15 and a snack when she gets home hours later.
- Snacks need to be solid.
Snacks are essential for any parent, but they especially need to be ready and on-hand for busy families. This goes back to food prep. Make muffins, cut up fruits and veggies, and have staples like oatmeal (or overnight oats) and cereal on hand so that you can grab them and go. This is particularly good for the passengers (i.e., the younger two who have to be carted around everywhere we go) or for after sports when they need a good, solid snack to refuel.
I know I’ve mentioned them before, but Plan to Eat is a great organizational tool that I love for keeping my meals planned and in check. (Shawn on our team is a regular user as well!) In all honesty, I took a little break from it for a while (got lazy, more or less), but I’m so happy to be back at it again. I can always find “my” recipes (it’s a great place to save favorites from various sources, which in turn helps me clean out my inbox), and I love that I can plan everything and create a shopping list with just one click. Try it out for free for 30 days and see if you don’t love it, too.
Back to feeding busy families real food on the go. I’m certainly not perfect, and I don’t always get the “perfect” meals or snacks into my kids hands, but I do my best in trying. I’d love to hear what works for you in the midst of managing your kids’ crazy schedules!
56 thoughts on “How to Feed Busy Families Real Food”
Some great tips. My little ones (or not so little now!) are 6 and 10 (going on 30). Trying to decent meals in around school, clubs before school, clubs after school, birthday parties etc. is an ongoing challenge. It’s too easy to resort to rubbish food. Thanks for the tips!
Good idea on the weekend food prep!
A few things I do:
1. Make large amounts of shredded meat in crockpot over weekend-some for refrigerator to make Monday meal-the rest gets frozen for another time.
2. Our version of egg mcmuffins: I make about 12 at a time and then refrigerate-they keep really well and the English muffins are still a bit crispy
3. Homemade sliders-these are awesome to grab and go and they aren’t so filling-serve and a great snack with protein-we use grain fed beef, chopped onions and green peppers and some bread crumbs…then grill and put on little buns
4. My kids love bean burritos…super easy and I wrap individually
These are just some of the ways we keep fed with 2 high school athletes and a middle school baseball player, whose dad is also the coach
Thank you for this! Better tumbling, girl scouts, softball for the girl, tee ball for the boy, PTO meetings for me, plu being a full time student who is TRYING to workout 5 days a week… I’m at a loss some days. Now what type of meals do you prep on weekends? Muffins are a great idea! What other easy snacks do you do?
I always bake one or two foods for the week. This is handy for breakfast, after school snacks, throw-ins for lunches, etc. I’ll also make up a few smoothies – by this I mean putting ingredients in a bag and throwing it in the freezer. This is easy to pull out, throw in the blender and mix up. I also always do hard boiled eggs and bacon. These are great for snacks but also make great salad toppers!
Hope some of these ideas help:).
Any creative suggestions for dinner on the go without the ability to heat anything? we did many versions of meat and cheese in a tortilla last year baseball season but polling for some variety.
I like frittatas for this purpose, since there are many varieties and you can load them with veggies. I also rely on my thermoses a lot during baseball season, feeding the athlete leftover pasta, stew, whatever in the car on the way home, and letting the other one eat it during practice/games.
I do a pasta salad with whole wheat noodles, leftover chicken, whatever veggies i have, some cheese, and a homemade Italian dressing. My kids like it on the go.
Thank you for sharing your strategies! In addition to those you mentioned, my crock pot is my reliable best friend!
We also shop and chop on the weekend. I put all of our meals is gallon size freezer bags and freeze the meals pre-cooked. I keep out 2 for Monday and Tuesday. Pull out 2 on Tuesday for Thursday and Friday and have left-overs on Wednesday. It definitely makes life easier with kid and parent activities keeping life busy through the week!
I loved our 4pm dinner season! It really became a special time together as a family. My husband would go in early and try to make it home a few nights a week for our after school 4pm dinner before the crazy evening sports/activity schedule. We have 3 kids and even when 1 or 2 didn’t have anything on the schedule, we still all sat down together at 4pm for dinner, then went off to evening activities and had a snack around 7 or 8pm. Now that two are teens with different school schedules, it is much harder to get everyone together for a meal, but we still try at least a couple times a week :)
I can just about all of our regular meals… including meats. It is easy and cheap. It doesn’t take much more than the normal cook time to prepare about 7 or so meals, as compared to one. Real food without the added preservatives, etc. that store bought canned foods have. And in the end it is quick to fix, quicker than take out! All I have to do is heat it to boiling, then eat, which takes about 5 minutes or less.
I do all 4 of these. In addition I plan my meals according to after school activities so that what is made for Sunday dinner will be Monday leftovers. This gives me 3 dinners to plan and make not 7. We have one day where dinner at home is impossible so that’s our freebie eat out night or we pack a Sack Dinner. Also crockpots (& ponytails) are my best friends!
Maybe I’ve been misunderstood. I only have to plan one meal, stew for instance. I just buy enough for about 7 or so meals. I cut up enough potatoes, carrots, and meat for 7 jars that I want to can. It doesn’t take a whole lot longer than cutting things for one meal. I put everything into jars and process, which cooks everything. Again, this is less time than it would take in a crockpot, so again, a plus to me. After processing, I have 7 finished meals. That will take only 5 minutes or so to reheat. No left over meals because we can eat them whenever we want. And it is like eating “fast food” only it is done at home… and even quicker than any fast food restaurant can have it to us. Though I don’t have all that paper and trash to throw away, I do have to do dishes… the only minus.
Yeeesh…..what kinda job do you have where you can cook dinner in the mornings and still be home by 3:45 pm!?? I need one of those!! I’m up at 5:30 out the door with all 4 kids by 7am and don’t get home until 6pm, which is when we change into practice clothes and head to our after-school activities, which start at 6:30. Sorry, these tips just arent that realistic for working moms.
Exactly what I was thinking. Great for an at-home mom, which I was for many years. Now that I work outside the home, there is no time in the morning or on the weekends to follow these tips. I can barely get laundry, groceries, church and kid activities, and cleaning, let alone a little family time, accomplished on the weekends (usually one or more do not get fully accomplished). Crock pot meals have been my best bet, but it’s difficult to find healthy, tasty recipes. Kudos to all of you who can make it work.
I’m sorry that this comes off as judgy, but has anyone considered that you and your children are over scheduled? Athletics and social activities for my children must fit into our family life, not the other way around.
And what about down time?
Don’t worry, Zoe; you’re not the first to say it;). The thing is, with 4 kids, if each has even one activity, you are busy. It’s not like I have each of my kids in 3-4 activities each … unless we say no activities at all, I’m pretty sure we signed up for busyness.
My thoughts exactly
Amen!! I have 4 kids and *gasp* they’re in ZERO activities right now! My oldest son has violin lessons on a Saturday that my sister teaches. 3 out of 4 of them were doing art classes twice a month but are out for the semester now. And we homeschool. I refuse to believe that every kid has to have an activity to do on top of going to school and doing homework and trying to fit in family time. We are completely missing our kids, and it is all our fault. My kids are happy, healthy, good eaters, and very well adjusted and we’re not running around like crazy people with no time for anyone but ourselves because everybody “needed an activity”.
Was thinking the same thing, because 15 hours a week of gymnastics is a lot, 2 hours per day or 3 hours per day if only on weekdays. Our society has put these kids’ sports/hobbies on a pedestal & it just keeps getting more competitive & time consuming, practices getting longer & more frequent. I personally think I would just go with a weekly tumbling/gymnastic class instead of daily, especially with those ages of kids none are even HS age. Obviously to each their own, but you hit the nail on the head with the “down time”-which is very important for kids to have to creatively play & explore without rigid rules & structure all of the time. Good luck & thanks for the tips!
Thank you so much for this!! Just the inspiration I needed to get back on track! I had given up, I couldn’t see it how it was possible anymore with our schedules! Amazing how similar our lives are! My four are 13, 11, 8, and 5. we spend 15 hours a weeks at gymnastics, 8 at track and 4 at soccer!
So true, Nikki! Sounds like we are in similar boats. I hope this gives you a little inspiration;). Good luck!
Our schedule was very similar Nikki! Once I switched afterschool snack and dinner, things came together and my kids loved the afterschool 4pm dinners. We could all sit down and chat over dinner right after school before leaving for all the crazy sports & activities. . . My husband evening went in early a couple days a week to get home in time :)
Love this post! What a great idea to cook in the morning.
I have 2 kids in sports and 1 of them is gluten-free and dairy-free. Couldn’t live without our Plan to Eat app! We do lots of slow-cooker meals — which I make double-batches and freeze prior to cooking. I also pack 2 days of lunches on Sunday night, and another 2 days of lunches on Monday night so that we’re done packing lunches until Thursday night. And on Thursday night my kids (9, 10) know they pack their own lunches for Friday. We call that “kids choice” day on the meal planner. Did I mention that we’d starve without the Plan to Eat app?
When you say plan to eat app, do you mean their site or do they have an actually app for your phone?
Hi Lee! Yes I do mean their be site, but they do have a mobile version that you can make a shortcut for on your phone or tablet
Good tips. I clicked on the link to the meal prep post you wrote and that was extremely helpful! Now I just have to put some of these strategies in place! I guess that’s the hard part…but with two busy boys and baseball season upon us it sounds like my best option.
This fall/winter the older son practiced until 5 while the younger practiced starting at 5:30. Our dinner was ready at 3:45 for the younger and heated up at 5:30 for the older. Non- traditional but it made sense for us. I am also one of the few parents that brings my kids real dinners to meets- so they can eat before or after their event(s).
I know that sounds crazy, but soup is quite quick to make. I’ll store hot soup in a leak-proof container, stash it in the bottom of an ice chest, place some bread/biscuits/cornbread on top of the container in the ice chest, and by the time we get to the swim practice/music lessons/orchestra rehearsal, the bread is warmed, the soup is serving temperature, and I can scoop the soup into cups from which the kids can eat in the car or while they’re waiting for a sibling’s event.
When our kids were little, I was a huge fan of family meals. But it really surprised me how chaotic things got once the kids got older and there were a variety of sports, activities and carpools involved. Sometimes, I find myself packing dinner into a thermos or container and feeding my daughter in the car after track practice, when she is famished. Not something I thought I would ever do – but you have to go with the flow sometimes :-)
I am a big fan of #2. I make all my meals during the week in the morning. I make my breakfast & lunch quickly and throw ingredients into a slow cooker so that it is ready for when I get home from work. The key is to multitask. I usually only have 15 min to make my meals so every second counts!
i would add that a “solid” snack would also contain protein whether that’s a cheese stick, yogurt, or slice of meat. i like to consider snacks as another small meal. i find that when i eat 5-6 small meals/day it helps me stay more emotionally stable and physically energized. my children need that same type of nutritional support.
Love your tips! Thanks for sharing! I already do number 3, but I love the idea of meal prepping in the morning while they eat breakfast. I work out at 5:3o am (the only time I can do it is when they are sleeping) and so I usually have loads of energy while they are eating breakfast! Going to put that time to good use!!!
Thanks for the tips. I use to prep but really need to get back to it as soccer season starts and that’s three days a week. Plus gymnastics team a couple days too, and with three it can be difficult to juggle it all. I do a lot of crockpot meals, fine for the winter/fall but need to get recipes for the spring/summer together.
I love your idea of the 4:15 dinner not sure if we could do it though, takes us away from family at the table since Dad isn’t home yet. However, would make it easier on me as a working mom. Will have to play with that one. Thanks again for a great blog!
Thank you for the great ideas. I have heard of people chopping and doing some prep once a week. Do you know if there is much nutrient loss or oxidation issues when veggies are chopped a few days before cooking and eating?
Very interesting blog. A lot of blogs I see these days don’t really provide anything that I’m interested in, but I’m most definitely interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.
I was a stay at home mom off and on when my daughter was a baby/ toddler and I felt just like the author. After awhile I decided that I needed to work a couple of days a week for my own sanity. My few hours a week paid for the part time preschool and little else but it made me a better, calmer and more attentive mom to my daughter. It’s so hard to be the constant caregiver. Hats off to those who can do it, I could not.
We did early supper – a hot meal as soon as the kids arrived home – whenever possible when they were in elementary school. They would come home so hungry and I much preferred they fill up on a hot meal than a snack. We lived abroad for some time, and for our friends in Europe, this was the norm. I thought it was brilliant, so we started following along! Now that the kids are in high school and there are numerous nights in the week when they have evening practices, they are usually found in the kitchen, right after school, cooking food, heating leftovers, or getting their food from the crock pot. I love that they’ve developed a healthy habit of craving real food.
I love this idea! I just wish I was home at that time… we don’t get home from work/preschool until after 6 :-(
Hi everyone and thanks for the fabulous ideas and confirmations of what we have already tried — the crockpot and grill, cooking/ freezing on weekends, starting dinner at 7 am, eating supper at 4:30, etc. We only have one child who doesn’t respond at all well to busyness, so we are very selective about after-school activities. STILL … with two full-time jobs, one of us in grad school … it’s an insane challenge to eat healthy. One idea that has worked really well for us is to make breakfast the new “dinner/ night meal.” We’re all home, I’m a morning person, and the balanced meal supercharges our brains. So, for example, we warm up hearty leftovers, have a crock-pot of veggie soup put on the night before, make pizza or oven-grilled cheese sandwiches, do high-protein crêpes, and hot homemade ricotta with a spoonful of blackberry jam or honey. My husband has food allergies, so he has long eaten “dinner for breakfast” anyway, and joining him has been fun! After the morning chaos clears, I freeze leftovers or get them ready for another round. It’s taken some time to reverse that “I only want a piece of toast” morning tummy, but it’s been well worth it.
As the mom of ice skaters, 0500 is a very busy time. So I make breakfast for my family while washing the dinner dishes. Three egg and ham muffins set aside in the fridge, then those few prep dishes are washed. Coffee is set on auto timer and at 0415 everyone is up, fed, and on the way to the ice. When my son has an evening hockey practice I make dinner at lunchtime, so it’s ready when they get home.
I wish I could get my gymnast(9) to eat before practice. Practice starts at 5 and we have to leave at 4:20. But if she eats a full meal her stomach gets sick during conditioning. We don’t get home till 830ish. It’s 3 nights a week she eats crap. But usually it’s cereal, pbj, or eggs. But she takes little snacks she munches on every time they get a water break or she gets Hangry!
The conditioning is no joke, right?
What about feeding her half of her meal before you leave – that way she has 40 minutes in the car to let it settle, and she can finish the meal (+ a snack if she is still hungry) afterwards?
Hi Lisa. Any chance you’re willing to be “friends” on Plan to Eat? Most of my recipes come from your blog anyways. LOL I understand if the answer is no. I just figured I would ask :) Thank you SO MUCH for everything you do! I love your recipes!!
When I joined Plan to Eat, I was able to “friend” 100daysofrealfood to get access to the blog recipes. You might want to try that. :)
Here in Northern CA, I have a grocery delivery service (Instacart) which delivers staples from wholesaler Costco, which includes hard-boiled eggs, rotisserie chicken chunks and a ginormous bag of romaine lettuce heads. I also use them to deliver Whole Foods where I get 3 1/2-inch slices of uncured turkey, ham, salami and pepperoni lunch meat.
This allows me to have at least 1 ‘big salad night’ with chef salad, Italian chopped salad or chicken Caesar salad as our whole meal. I make extra for lunches and hold the dressing so it’s fresh.
I also receive delivery from a local CSA which I get eggs, produce, some sort of dip (hummus, babaganoush, etc) and homemade soup. 1 night/week is a soup night with cloud dough, or Parmesan crackers as an accompaniment.
We have Blue Apron delivered 2x/week, which my 10y/o makes semi-independently on the 2 nights when I’m not home.
1 night is a Daddy grilled or sous vide meat night (we have 1/4 cow in the freezer) along with whatever veggies were in our CSA.
Those are my dependable meal nights and the others are usually weekend nights when we have a little more time to try something we’ve Pinned, or a family build-a-meal like spring rolls, sushi, or tacos.
Not going to the grocery store saves me time and $ (on things I wasn’t planning on buying.)
I have 2 children and work FT. I get home right at dinner time, so I have no prep time and often we need to eat and dash to an activity. I make real food freezer meals. Pop them in the crockpot in the morning and they are ready to go for dinner. The leftovers are great lunches.
Crockpot crockpot crockpot. For the days when I know that my people are simply not going to be able to sit down together, (DH flies so his schedule is all over the place, 2 teens play tennis, are in a string quartet and have evening art classes and I’m a shift-worker) I set up things like a burrito bar with beans and carne asada in the crockpot so people can eat when they are able.
About once a month, I make about 10 crockpot meals that I can keep in the freezer so I have them on hand for days I know will be crazy.
Agreed! The crock pot is a lifesaver for us.
Love your guest posts, they are so relatable. I work full time out of the home and have 3 kids 7,5,3. We have after school activities, meetings, appointments etc. I love to meal prep/plan on the weekends but find myself drowning during weeks when the weekends were busy also or we were out of turn. That’s when we end up eating out or making less than ideal real food choices. What strategies do other readers use when the weekends are packed full, leaving no time for prep, batch cooking, etc
When I don’t have the time on the weekend, I do what I call my essential prep– 3 things that make my life a little easier. Right now it’s hard boiling eggs, washing greens (my goal right now is to eat more of ’em), and making overnight oats for snacks. All of this takes maybe 20 min and it helps (every little bit counts!)
Also, my meal planning “secret” is to plan 3 weeks at a time. I then repeat that 3 week chunk one or two times. So, I spend 30-45 minutes planning, but because I repeat the plans, meals are planned for either 6 or 9 weeks. For my family, 3 weeks is enough time to not feel like we’re repeating meals too much. Hope it helps! Keep going– you’ll find your planning/cooking/prepping rhythm!
I have 3 kids – 9, 5 and 3. We have something going on every night of the week, and often have weekends out of town. Prepping for a week of meals is often a luxury. I found life easier once I dropped the notion that meals must contain an entree. Especially for my younger kids, a lunch box with cheese sticks, yogurt, applesauce and maybe some crackers or nuts that they can munch on at a sibling’s soccer practice can pass for dinner. Enough healthy snacks can make a meal!
I can so relate with the “drowning” feeling. Anytime that I’m out of town for a weekend, I feel like my week is set up for failure. All I can say, is do what you can. I also try to do the basics – hard boil eggs, cut some veggies, and have some fruits on hand that are easy to grab and go. And give yourself some flexibility that week on the complexity of meals; I realized a while back that my entire family actually LOVES when we have eggs for dinner. So while I felt like it wasn’t enough of a prepped meal, it is an easy option that everyone loves. Score!
You can always get back to it the next week;).
Thanks for the ideas and I always try to get something prepped but mom guilt is no joke and I beat myself up about what we could have eaten if only I’d been more organized
Ideas for quick meals that don’t involve eggs or Mexican flavors? Allergies and a picky husband don’t help!
I often need to feed my kids in the car so they can get to bed at a decent hour. At least once a week they eat a meat and cheese quesadilla. I use whole wheat lavosh from trader joes as the wrap and left over meat. They eat their dinner out of their lunch be to boxes.