Evenings at home can be so hectic. It’s the time babies are most colicky, kids are the busiest with homework and extracurricular, and you or your husband (or both) are just getting home from work. On top of that, everyone’s hungry. You have probably been dealing with everyone’s problems all day long, and feeling a little frazzled yourself. What happens next? You either have to cook dinner, or get someone else to do it for you. Some days you find that the only thing you can manage is to order pizza. We’ve all had those days, but if you find that you are frustrated with dinnertime more than once a week, maybe you could benefit from a dinner planning system.
The biggest problem I have found with cooking dinner is trying to decide what to make. I often ask my children what they want for dinner and they always reply, “I don’t care” (besides the one child who always says “pizza”). So I’m left to stare into the fridge, then the freezer, then the fridge trying to find something to make that I have all of the ingredients for so I don’t have to run to the store. In this moment of wanting to cook dinner quickly so we can all just eat, it can be really stressful to try to come up with a menu. Luckily, I found some help. I was introduced to this dinner planning system more than 10 years ago. It changed my life and I still use it every week.
Dinner planning is going to take a little forethought. It requires three tasks: recipe and store ad research; menu planning; and a good grocery list and shopping trip.
First, the prep work. Set aside at least 30 minutes the first time you do your dinner planning, so that you can get organized. Now, make a list of everything your family likes to eat, just let the ideas flow. Write anything that comes off the top of your head. Once you’ve written everything you can think of, look through all of your cookbooks and write down any recipes that your family has liked. This is your new “Family Favorites” list. Keep this list some place handy so that you can refer to it each week when you plan the menu. In addition to your “Family Favorites” list, try one new recipe each week. You can get new recipes from friends, cookbooks, magazines, and my favorite, the internet (there are tons of recipe websites, and most will have reviews for each recipe). By trying a new recipe each week, you will keep from getting bored with the same old thing, and you may find something new to add to your “Family Favorites.” A recipe that we discovered this way was Sweet and Sour Meatballs. I know what you’re thinking. It sounds really weird, but I found a recipe in a cookbook and tried it and we loved it. We put it on our list.
Now you are ready to start planning dinners. So, gather your supplies: your “Family Favorites” list, any recipe books you think you may use, grocery store ads for the week, a calendar, and your grocery list.
The next step is to look at the calendar and take note of any special days: times when you’re having company for dinner, or days when there are a lot of kids’ events in the evening and you know that you won’t have time for cooking anything elaborate. Plan these meals first. Write the dinner menu right there on the date you’re planning to make it. Then consider any meal that you have really been craving, and it goes on the calendar second (sometimes it pays to be the one who cooks). Next, look at the grocery ads and see what is on special that week. If they are offering London Broil cheap that week, find a recipe for London Broil. It is also helpful to pick one grocery store that has the best deals for the week and stick to just that ad. Sometimes you will want to go to more than one store to catch some really great deals, but that is up to you. After you have looked through the grocery ad for meal ideas, if there are any days that don’t have a meal assigned to it, go to your “Family Favorites” list and fill in the blank days. Once you have picked the meals you want to cook, look at the recipes and check your kitchen to see what ingredients you already have and add the items that you need to the grocery list.
A quick word about your grocery list: I suggest that the grocery list be readily accessible during the week. Mine is a magnet-backed pad of paper that I keep on the fridge. That way, when you use up the last of something or find that you need something that isn’t in your kitchen, you can easily add it to the grocery list. Also, when you are creating the list for the week it helps to write items on the list according to the sections of the store where they can be found. For example, keep the produce, dairy, meats, or canned goods in separate areas on the list. This way when you’re standing in the produce aisle, you can look to that section of the list and not overlook something that is written someplace else.
Now that you have a list, a menu for the week, and recipes, you can go forth and conquer. You are a mom with a plan. Remember that this plan is just meant to help you along. There will be days when you don’t feel like eating the meal you had planned, and that’s okay. You can just trade it with another day, or cook a family favorite that you already have ingredients for. This dinner planning system will give you the freedom to enjoy your evenings with your family. You may even find that you are calm enough to get your kids to help with the preparations. Enjoy taking back dinnertime.
QUESTION: What dinner planning system do you have?
CHALLENGE: If you don’t have a system, try this one.
Image by mattack / Flickr.com
Originally published August 13, 2011.