Meals are one of the most overwhelming parts of pregnancy and parenting. Even when you serve one successfully, there are more coming in just a few hours… not to mention snacks! And, of course, you want to make sure you're serving nourishing foods that will grow your baby, boost your milk supply, and keep your family healthy. How do you manage to do that?
I personally find getting good food on the table to be stressful – unless I take a few minutes to do some planning and take a few steps to take the stress out of supper time 🙂 Here's what I've learned in my 15+ years of making meals for tiny tummies:
Get Back to Basics
Sometimes when we think “nourishing foods” we think “too hard for me.” Granted, we're not talking about being able to open a box of mac ‘n cheese and call it good, but eating good foods doesn't have to be complicated.
It's more a matter of learning a few simple cooking skills then using those. I have friends and family who swear they could never learn to cook and that they're just not cut out for it, but if I learned to cook, anyone can.
The biggest things to know are:
- How to slice foods
- How to saute vegetables
- How to roast or steam vegetables
- How to brown meats
- How to roast meats
- How to put together a salad
- How to assemble a wrap or sandwich
That's really not very much to learn. If you can do those things, you can prepare healthy, nutrient-dense meals for your family. Nobody said they have to be fancy!
Many vegetable sides can be cooked easily on the stove top. I recommend a cast-iron pan because it gives a little iron boost to your foods and it's pretty hard to burn vegetables when you cook at cast iron's low, even heat 😉 It's not hard to learn to care for cast-iron, but you can really use any pan you want to.
Next, learn how to brown meats and you can put together simple meat soups, stews, or sauces very easily. I actually think that roasting meats is pretty fool-proof, too. Just rub on some seasonings and put them in the oven. You don't even have to learn to use your oven's timer anymore… just set a timer on your phone to check the meat after its cooking time is done!
Sliced meat with cooked veggies and a salad on the side makes a nice, nutrient-dense meal. It's even low-carb for mamas and daddies. If you have ravenous kids, you can add some potatoes or rice on the side for them 🙂
This is a “fancy” meal that was really easy to put together – I roasted a turkey, the broccoli, and the asparagus. One of my kids put together the salad, and another mixed berries for the fruit. My mother-in-law brought the deviled eggs, and I put together a couple of simple sauces. For a “normal” meal, we'd probably have the meats with a salad and one veggie side, plus rice or potatoes for the kids. Nothing fancy, even for the “fancy” meal!
You can use leftover roast meats to make sandwiches and wraps. Or you can dice the meats and mix with some onion and mayo to make a meat salad. Nut butters also make quick, healthy sandwiches and wraps. Put some veggie sticks or a salad on the side and you're good!
As you get more confident with cooking you can move on to other things, like cooking eggs, beans, and more complex dishes. You'll find those are all pretty easy once you've mastered the basics (and you never really have to go beyond the basics if you don't want to… there are endless easy recipes!).
Plan Your Meals
In fact, I really think what's overwhelming about getting food on the table is not the actual cooking. It's knowing what to cook.
This is what gets me. I've been cooking most of the meals for more than 15 years now – I know how to cook (and my family tells me I'm pretty good at it). But I still feel overwhelmed when it comes to getting a meal on the table…
…unless I've planned out what we're going to eat.
When I've planned, I know exactly what we're going to have and when it's time to start a meal, I just get going. There's no agonizing over it, or looking in the fridge and trying to figure out how I'm going to bring this “stuff” together into a meal that fills up my family.
That's a big stress point for me – how am I going to fill up the 9 bellies in my family (well, Sadie is pretty easy right now, but you know what I mean!). And I think even pregnant mamas or mamas with only one or two worry about this, too. How do you satisfy everyone's hunger?
Again, planning is key. You plan enough for everybody when you decide what you're going to cook!
Planning meant I had this delicious and filling protein-pancake breakfast (topped with Greek yogurt and blueberries!)
There are different ways you can go about meal planning. Pick what works for you:
- Just before a regular grocery shopping trip
- Once a week
- The evening before
- Standing Menu
Some mamas really like to organize, and plan on a monthly basis. I used to do this every month. I actually planned for two weeks, and we repeated the same menu. I do something similar with lunches – I plan out a month's worth of lunches, and we repeat those lunches every 4 weeks (so I really only had to plan it once).
If you coupon or plan your food shopping around sales and loss-leaders at the grocery store, you can plan your meals out when you take your regular shopping trip every week or two weeks (loss-leaders are the very low priced items in the sales circular the grocer uses to try and get you into the store!) Base your recipes on the loss-leaders for savings.
Other mamas have a once-a-week planning session where they take stock of the fridge and cabinets, then plan out what they'll cook for the week.
The evening before is similar – you just take stock in the evening and plan what the next day's meals will be. I have found that even if I plan further out (such as monthly, weekly, or even use a standing menu plan), I need to review what I'll make the next day every evening. This saves tons of stress because I make sure I actually have what I need to prepare those meals, and it also reminds me to thaw things I might need to have on hand (in other words, not a solid block of ice when it's time to cook… ask me many times I've had this happen. heh.).
A standing menu is essentially what I do for lunch – it's a menu you've planned out that you can use over and over again. The beauty of this idea is that you can also have a standing shopping list. You keep the cupboards stocked with the ingredients for these recipes all the time. This may cost more (unless you buy in bulk and freeze/store everything but weekly fresh veggies), but it means you'll always have ingredients for recipes you know your family likes. You can also swap recipes from time to time, or use the standing menu some nights but try new things on others.
Menu planning itself can feel overwhelming when you're getting started – but remember, you don't have to be fancy. You really can plan “roast chicken, salad, broccoli, and potatoes (for the kids)” for supper and “peanut butter and blueberry wraps” for lunch and “oatmeal” for breakfast. That's simple and there's nothing wrong with it.
And you really can re-use the same meal plans if that works for your family! Or use one of the many meal-planning services available online to have a “done for you” solution at your fingertips.
It's easy to learn how to roast meats (this is a turkey) – just rub on seasoning, put it in the oven, and check from time-to-time. A proven recipe will help you get it right 🙂 Center your meals around a serving of protein (like roast beef or chicken, or even beans) and fill out with a couple of veggie sides.
Fill Your Freezer
So what happens when you've carefully planned out your meals and life gets in the way? You're exhausted… or you're in your first trimester and the thought of even looking at the kitchen makes you queasy?
This is where having extra meals in the freezer is a lifesaver. You can generally pull one out of the freezer, put it in the oven, and have a hot, homemade meal in a couple of hours. Or, if you know things will get crazy tomorrow, take it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw overnight. The picture to the right shows our grain-free “Scott pockets” – made in advance and frozen for quick lunches!
Some freezer meals are made to go right from the freezer bag to the slow-cooker. You just dump them in, turn the slow-cooker on, and get going with your day!
It takes some advance planning to fill up your freezer, but it doesn't really take much more work. You can get 4-6 extra meals in there easily just by doubling 2 recipes per week. This is simple to do with soup or casseroles or lasagna… and it doesn't really add anything to your work to double a recipe you were making anyways. If you're making a slow cooker meal, bag a second batch of ingredients while you assemble the first. Easy!
You can also do bigger freezer cooking session if you want to load the freezer all at once. I typically do this around 34 weeks pregnant when we're expecting a new baby. I've also gotten in the habit of doing this when I first get a positive pregnancy test. I'm typically pretty tired in the first trimester, and just pulling out meals is a boon! I also always double lasagnas when I make them, which is “fancy enough” to serve even if we have company drop by or for a Friday night dinner!
Freezer cooking prevents one of the biggest issues for tired mamas – running to the store or fast-food place to get something prepared to eat. This is usually pretty expensive, but more importantly, it's usually pretty unhealthy. If you have healthy meals in the freezer, they can be pulled out in a pinch.
Having a list of simple, quick-to-assemble meals can also really help with this problem. I've used both strategies well over the years, but even now, I sometimes forget. So if you've had a lot of “eating out” lately, be gentle with yourself and get back in the habit of having alternatives for those hectic or exhausted days when you know you're just not going to be able to cook!
Our freezer stocked and waiting for Honor's arrival! I go all out before a baby comes, but even having just 3-4 extra meals in your freezer will really relieve stress and make your life easier!
Use Your Slow Cooker
I have already touched on the slow cooker several times, so I won't say too much. But finding a few proven slow-cooker recipes that work for your family is a good idea. Chili is a simple one that tends to be well-liked by many family members. I'm not a big pot roast fan, myself, but my family likes them so we have that sometimes, too. There are many good slow-cooker recipes books.
The slow-cooker is nice because it does all the work for you while you're busy. We have a 4H Robotics club on Wednesday afternoons right now, meaning we get home late and still have chores around the house and goats to milk – so having the slow-cooker loaded with a hot, delicious meal is a great idea!
Many mamas also like the slow-cooker during their first trimester because you don't have to deal with many kitchen tasks and smells. You can even plug it in outside or in the garage if you need to have it far away from you!
Of course, nourishing can also mean homemade fun! Homemade pizza is easy to make and fully of tasty and nourishing toppings! Put a “fun night” into your meal plan from time to time 🙂
Stand on the Shoulders of Other Mothers
The real beauty of all of these strategies is that they were created by mamas just like you! Women have been figuring out how to get good food on the table for ages, and there are so many mamas out there who want to feed their families healthy food.
So many mamas desire to put nourishing, real foods on the table. There are even many mamas who have the same dietary requirements as you: they're pregnant, or breastfeeding, or need low-carb foods, or have kids with food allergies, or… well, you get the picture.
You do not need to re-invent the wheel, gentle mama 😉 Take advantage of the many resources other moms have created to help you – from moms who blog their meal plan every week, to moms who share how they navigated life with first trimester fatigue or toddler food allergies – the advice you need to get good food on the table is out there!
(NOTE: Trying to balance your pregnancy, life, and getting ready for baby? Use my checklist pack stay healthy (naturally), organized, and confident throughout your pregnancy! Get them here.)