Congratulations, your baby is now a toddler! They are walking, talking, and getting into all sorts of trouble, and oh yeah, they now need to eat 3 meals and 2 snacks a day to meet their nutritional needs. Gone are the days of just preparing one meal for them. Their main source of nutrition has gone from breastmilk/formula to food. How are you supposed to figure out meals for your tiny human, when you don’t even have enough time to make yourself a lunch in the morning!? (mom’s who throw random fridge items into your bag as you rush out the door, I see you, and I’ve been you!).
Let’s face it. Meal planning is not easy and when you throw a toddler into the mix, it can get even harder. Here are some tips and tricks to stay sane when meal planning for toddlers.
Tip #1: Decide what meals are most important to plan
With toddlers having five meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks), planning for them can quickly become overwhelming. Evaluate where you feel a plan will help you the most.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Which meals are the most stressful or hardest to come up with?
- When do I typically have leftovers?
- Which days am I the busiest?
Once you answer these questions, you will have a better sense of the meals to plan. When it comes down to it, meal planning for toddlers should be about making your life easier. Those meals that are easy for you or you are okay throwing together, don’t feel like you need to plan them. It will make meal planning feel tedious and unnecessary instead of a helpful tool. For example, I am home with my son Friday-Sunday, and I know that I cook a lot on those days. Since I know there will be food ready to go, I don’t plan for those days.
Tip #2: Create a food inventory
Doing this has been a serious game changer. Before I came up with the idea of creating an inventory, I was up and down a million times to the pantry or found myself standing in front of an open fridge while trying to plan. This was very annoying, so I made my life easier. I created a list of all the food I had on hand with quantities that I could use for my son’s meals. Then I broke them down into categories to make sure he was getting enough variety. I reference this sheet while planning each week instead of doing the pantry limbo.
How to create a food inventory:
- Take stock of all the food items you have in the house that could be used to make your toddler’s meals and snacks
- Create a master list of these items with quantities of each
- Break the list down into categories according to food groups (this will help you make sure you are giving enough variety without pulling your hair out!)
- Utilize the list when meal planning and update each week or after each shopping trip
If you need help organizing this, check out my food inventory template. I suggest laminating this sheet and using a dry erase marker to keep it up-to-date!
Tip #3: Keep it simple
Remember meal planning for toddlers should make your life easier not harder. In order to keep things simple, narrow down your planning to include 3 food groups at meals and at least 2 during snacks (I learned this lovely piece of information from @yummytoddlerfood on Instagram). If you get more food groups than that, it is a bonus, but if you hit those you know you’re still providing your toddler with enough variety without having to sacrifice your sanity! On my toddler meal planner, I put the first letter of each of the food groups at the bottom of the meal boxes to simply circle, so that it is super easy to keep track.
Beyond narrowing down food groups, pick a few versatile meal options instead of planning a new dish for each meal. It’s okay if your toddler eats oatmeal three times a week because there are so many variations you can make for them that they are still getting variety and exposure to lots of different foods (Does your kiddo love oatmeal like mine? Check out some of my recipe ideas!).
Versatile meals include:
- Pancakes: You can make an infinite variety of pancakes using combinations of different fruits, veggies, and nut/seed butters. (Check out some my son’s favorites here).
- Pasta: You can vary the type of pasta and the type of sauce that you use to create unique, but easy meals.
- Sandwiches: Change the bread, fillings, and even shape to add a ton of variety! (Check out our favorite homemade sandwich spreads here).
These are just ideas to get you started with meal planning for toddlers. There are so many ways to take one type of meal and mix it up!
Finally, don’t forget to utilize leftovers. Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel for each meal. If you have leftovers from a meal, utilize them by packing them for lunch for the next day, or my personal favorite, reworking them into a new dish!
Want some ideas on how to use leftovers? Here are a few posts that can help you out!
Tip 4: Keep your plan handy
Nothing is worse than making a beautiful meal plan and then never using it. So make sure it is close by wherever you tend to prepare food and not stuck in a notebook upstairs or on your laptop packed in a bag (wanna know who made those mistakes? Me, it was me…). Having it accessible means you won’t end up standing in front of the fridge trying to wing a meal for the millionth time. I have laminated my planner and put it front and center on the fridge (you don’t have to go that far, but you get the idea). Keep it accessible.
Tip #5: Be flexible
Inevitably, things will not always go to plan. That is okay! Sometimes it can feel like you are failing at meal planning for toddlers, but you just have to work out the kinks until your style of meal planning works for your family. It’s okay if you don’t serve every meal that is on the plan. It can take some time to become proficient at meal planning, so keep at it!
Remember that a meal plan isn’t supposed to stress you out. It is supposed to make life easier, so don’t live or die by the plan. It’s simply that: a plan and plans can change. But if you don’t have a plan at all it might feel way more chaotic. Personally, for me, even if some of the plan doesn’t happen, I feel so much better knowing I at least had one.
To help myself on those days where I just can’t make the meal plan happen, I keep a few freezer meals on hand (and by freezer meals I mean chicken nuggets and French fries). You can buy pre-made meals, have the items on hand for a quick meal, or you can batch cook meals and keep them in the freezer. Yes, I’m telling you to plan for failure of the plan. That seems odd, right? But, it is going to happen. We can’t always control what is going on in our lives, but we know that our kiddos and families will always need to eat! So, we might as well plan for the inevitable.
There you have it. How I keep my hair from turning gray while also feeding my toddler. It might seem like a monumental task at first, but I promise if you keep at it and tweak your practices to work specifically for your family, meal planning for toddlers can make a world of difference!