Meal Planning, Simplified

The dinner hour is like the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of family life. It can be a lovely opportunity to come back together as a family after a long day, a time to talk and share, nourish your body and your soul as you unwind into your evening and home life. It can also be a chaotic, rushed and anxiety-filled time, as you hasten to try to feed a hungry family, perhaps shuttle some off to a meeting or event, others off to homework or bedtime routines. A well-planned meal schedule can go a long way toward smoothing the path, keeping you more calm and available to your family, and allowing you to feed your family with home cooking and love. With that in mind, here are my top three tips for a simplified and successful dinner hour.

  1. Create a monthly meal calendar, and then repeat it for a year. I know, that might sound crazy. Eat the same food for the entire year? Plus, won’t it take a long time to create the meal calendar? Yes, it will. But that investment of time will pay off, as night after night you know what you are making, and know what to buy at the store.

    I began creating monthly meal calendars when I had an infant and a toddler at home. I had very little time (and no free hands) to prepare dinner but I didn’t just want to eat frozen meals for the foreseeable future. So, I spent every free moment I had for about two weeks, and slowly filled out a blank monthly calendar. The month time frame allowed me to ensure that, over the long haul, we had a good variety of foods. I sprinkled in several pasta dishes, lots of crockpot meals (great when it is easier to do your cooking at times other than dinner time), easy favorites like tacos, rotisserie chicken, and so on. I looked for simple, quick meals that everyone liked, and even built in “take out” and “cook something new” nights. Lastly, I made a shopping list for each of the 4 weeks, simplifying grocery shopping. I repeated that monthly calendar with only minor alterations for two years. And, no, we really didn’t get tired of it. After all, you probably repeat lots of your recipes already. And who remembers what they ate at the beginning of last month anyway?

  2. Another strategy is to cook ahead. There are a variety of ways to approach this. Some people like the meal prep businesses, where you prep and cook for 2-3 hours and leave with an assortment of dinners ready to quickly finish at home. Other people like to gather with a friend of two and work together to cook freezer-friendly meals. This gives you a ready stash of home cooked meals for busy nights, and makes the prep time fun and social.

    The simplest approach is to always try to cook for 2 meals at a time. When I cook, I always try to stretch that cooking effort into at least 2 meals. For example, tonight I may grill chicken to have with rice and vegetables. If I throw extra chicken on the grill, I can save it and have chicken Caesar salads tomorrow night with very little time and effort. Making a big pot of soup will often serve as 2 dinners, filled out with bread one night and salad another. Be creative and try to stretch your kitchen time.

  3. Finally, a great way to simplify meals and planning is to reevaluate what counts as “dinner.” You don’t need a hot meal, or a main dish and two sides every night. Dinner can be leftovers, sandwiches, pancakes, rotisserie chicken bought at the store, or any number of simple and easy things. More important than the food served is the time when your family can sit together and reconnect. Don’t let the stress of preparing the “right” meal short circuit the greater goal of family dinnertime.

    Family life is a series of phases, and no phase lasts forever. Perhaps right now, your phase means frozen leftover soup and a sandwich, eaten together with laughter and hugs. That phase won’t last forever, and then you can reassess and tackle the dinner hour with new recipes and options. The good feelings and memories you create will keep your family coming back for seconds!