The Art of Meal Planning: Taking the Dread Out of Dinnertime

Hey, what’s for dinner?


Is there a worse question to be asked at 5 pm on a Wednesday night while you rummage the recesses of your freezer and pantry for something to feed all the people. Again.

Meal time can be a wonderful time to check in and enjoy conversation, teach important lessons on manners and gratitude and the worthiness of vegetables and fill up hungry bellies. OR it can be a stressful nightly event filled with arguing, complaining, scolding and disappointment. The biggest barometer of how dinner will go rests on the mood of Mom/Wife when she arrives at the table. In my experience the old adage is often true, If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. That can either be a privilege or a burden depending on how you look at it I suppose. What I have discovered as a wife and mom is how amazing it is to create spaces for our families to bond and learn and make memories. There is nothing quite as special as being the originator of traditions and nostalgia for the people I love the most. My kids remember all their favourite dinners I cooked when they were little, certain jokes and hilarious moments spent at the table together, holiday meal times, and even dinners that totally flopped are now great memories. But when I start a meal cranky and stressed and 45 minutes after everyone is already hungry- well, those meals create memories also, but not the ones I want my family to remember.

The single biggest factor for me in lowering stress at dinner time has been meal planning. My methods evolved over the years but I have broken it down into 4 basic parts and the entire thing takes about an hour a week, not including the grocery shopping time. It not only lowers my nightly stress in trying to throw together meals at the last minute, but it keeps me on my budget, it provides an outlet for creativity and it helps me stick to healthy eating by purchasing groceries prior to a craving or moment of weakness. Win-win-win-win.

So here we go! Four steps to get you started on the road to happier memories at your dinner table:

You are always planning for seven meals, but not usually cooking seven meals. First you have to look at your calendar and decide which nights you are able to cook. It does no good to plan meals unless you assign them to a specific day you have already verified will work for the time and energy involved in cooking. Monday night may be a terrible night to cook something complicated because you get home late, but that would make it a great night for a crock pot meal, or leftovers. A night when everyone is in and out with practices and meetings may be a good night for sandwiches or take out. On a piece of paper or in your planner- first assign non cooked meals to specific days. We always have one day of leftovers, usually Wednesday. We also have Friday night frozen pizza or eat out night, because I don’t cook on Fridays. So for me, that generally leaves five dinners to cook.

Pick your remaining meals based on grocery store sales for the week. I look on line at the store flyer, to see what meats and other items are on sale prior to making a menu because we have a fairly tight grocery budget. My family loves  pork loin roast, but it doesn’t get added to the menu until it’s on sale. Ditto for pot roast. Once I know which meats I can afford for the week I begin to assign dinners to the remaining days. Cook books were my salvation from getting in a rut as a new wife, and even now I consult Pinterest every couple of weeks for new recipes. To make sure you don’t end up eating the same foods all the time here are some categories to rotate through as you plan for the week:

casserolles, meatless, roasts, pasta/rice based, crock pot/soups, salads, breakfast mains, stove top/skillet dinners

A good variety keeps you out of a rut. A great goal would be to make a list of at least 20 dinners you are confident in cooking that your family enjoys and are reasonably economical. This list will form a base for your month, leaving you room to try a few new recipes and have a few nights of non cooking. If you have dietary needs or picky eaters, it may be more challenging working up to 20 different meals but even with 10, you won’t be eating the same meal more than twice a month .

After you have seven dinners assigned to specific days, make your grocery list. This step is critical in lowering stress on a nightly basis. Not having what you need to complete a meal at the last minute means wasted food and wasted energy. Double check your recipes as you make your list! It’s worth the few extra minutes, believe me. This is also where you add in the extra side dishes and breads or desserts to fill out your menu.

Post your weekly menu on the fridge. This serves two purposes: when hungry children begin to nag ask about dinner they can be redirected to go read the menu off the fridge rather than harassing mom. Also, if you check it every night before bed, it will cue to to take out any meat that needs to be defrosted or marinated the night before. When you read it in the morning, it can remind you to get something into the crock pot or a casserole prepped before heading out for the day.

Just for fun here is a sampling of my top meals including a few from each catagory:

Poppy Seed Chicken, King’s Ranch Chicken, Beef Enchilada Bake, Garlic and Rosemary Pork Loin Roast, Pot Roast with Brown Gravy, grilled Chicken Ceaser Salad, Italian Shepherd Pie, Ultimate Baked Spaghetti, Homemade Waffles and Scrambled Eggs, Pork Fried Rice, Taco Salad, Black Beans and Yellow Rice, Veggie Beef Soup, Chicken Fajitas, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Sour Cream Chicken Enchilada’s, Chicken with Bow Tie Pasta, Red Beans and Rice, Salsbury Steak with Mushroom Gravy, Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes, Chicken Spaghetti, Bourbon Chicken.


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