It isn’t easy, but I cook dinner for my family of 5 every night. That wasn’t always the case. Like most families who are busy and have a lot going on, we relied on take-out and quick dinners out. But after moving to a small Midwestern town, we no longer had many options for eating out. So we changed how we ate, and the benefits have been more than just nutritional. We sit at the table together every single night, and it’s improved the quality of our lives.
As much as I love to cook and be in the kitchen, getting dinner on the table every night is no easy feat. It takes some serious organization and planning, not to mention some creativity to please five different palates. My husband is a recovering picky eater, and our children are young (ages 3, 6 and 7). You can imagine the challenges I face!
My husband and I established some rules early on and have stuck with them. The most important rule is that I make one dinner and one dinner only. If the children chose not to eat it, they are out of luck. While that may seem harsh, it gives them the control, and most of the time, they eat what I serve them. Every night, we turn off the TV, sit at the table and don’t answer the phone. It’s nonnegotiable. The children set the table and clear afterwards. Everyone has some ownership, and it makes getting dinner on the table every night easier.
I try to have a varied menu and rarely make the same thing twice in a month. But if I freeze something, I do like to serve it within 3 weeks. Otherwise, I forget about it and end up throwing it away. I get dinner ideas from a variety of sources: magazines, sites like Betty Crocker, Pinterest and other food blogs. But a lot of my good dinners come from friends. I always ask them what they are making for dinner. I am becoming boring, because all I seem to talk about is food!
I begin every month by printing out one month’s worth of my meal planning sheets. I add the dates and get out our family calendar. Almost every week, there is some activity that affects our dinners, so I write it down on the meal plan. I plan meals in 2 week blocks, but I like to see what is going on in my month ahead of time. I also start a month’s worth of planning sheets in case I make something early in the month that I freeze. I add that meal to the end of the month so that I don’t forget about it.
The next thing I do is ask my family for any requests, especially the kids. It is important that they have a say. I find it leads to less disappointment when they are served something that they do not love. Including them in the meal planning also makes my job a little easier since I am not making all of the decisions. Sometimes the kids give me really good ideas!
I also take inventory of what I have in my pantry, fridge and freezer. If I have a ton of chicken breasts in the freezer, I know that I need to add some chicken recipes to my plan.
Another thing I find helpful is to I group recipes with like ingredients. For example, if three recipes call for fresh basil, which is hard for me to get and to keep fresh, I will put those recipes together in the plan. I’ll also take one recipe and use leftovers in a different way on another night. For instance, one night we will eat Turkey Pesto Meatballs over pasta, and a few nights later, we will have meatball subs. I do the same thing with chicken. My Honey-Garlic Balsamic Chicken is great with pesto orzo and a vegetable. I make a few extra breasts to serve as sandwiches or on top of a salad later in the week. I try to make my life as easy as I can, and thinking about what else I can do with a recipe helps.
After I plan my two weeks of meals, I grab a cup of coffee, sit at my kitchen table, open my laptop, spread out all of the recipes and start making my grocery list. Since we live about 25 minutes from a grocery store, I really have to be organized. I go over every recipe and add the needed ingredients to my list. Make sure to check that you have all the pantry staples as well. It is frustrating to be in the middle of a recipe only to realize that you are out of sugar or garlic!
When I am done with my grocery list, I paper clip all of the recipes together and tape the meal plan to the refrigerator. That cuts down on all of the “What’s for dinner?” questions because everyone in the house knows where to look. Do I follow the meal plan exactly as written? Almost always, but things do come up. Sometimes I plan meals that need to be started in the afternoon, and life happens. Maybe I couldn’t find an ingredient at the store. In those cases, I just replace that dinner with another one in the plan.
Planning out meals is time-consuming, but it is a job that I look forward to every two weeks. An hour of planning frees me up for the next two weeks. I know what’s for dinner and have the ingredients in the house. It’s just a matter of preparing the meal. Best of all, we spend more time together as a family and spend less money on food since we no longer eat out. Plus, the quality of the food we eat is so much better. It is a win-win for all of us!
A few more tips:
- Stock up when things that you use often go on sale. When I see a good sale on chicken breasts, I buy a lot and keep them in my freezer.
- Prep your vegetables when you bring them home from the store. It saves so much time.
- Buy a few plastic bins and place the ingredients that you need for each meal inside. You can just grab the basket from the pantry and add the fresh ingredients. Dinner will on the table in no time!
- If you have more time in the morning or afternoon, start making your meal then. Lots of time, I make the meal in the afternoon and reheat it at dinner time.
- Remember to add leftovers into your meal plan. When I first started meal planning, I forgot about having leftovers. Now I either plan for them, or send them with my family for lunch the next day
- Plan for some simple meals. Breakfast for dinner, sandwiches, soup night, taco bar. Those kinds of meals are easy to put together.