“What’s for dinner?”
It’s an age-old question. Seven days a week, 52 weeks a year… You get the idea.
Depending on the day, the question could be easy, on other days when life gets a bit hectic, it can be downright stressful.
How many times in the last week have you either heard that question… or frantically asked it of yourself?
Thus begins the dinner time scramble.
I hate to scramble… unless we’re talking about eggs.
It doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re at. Whether you have small children, mid-sized kids (teenagers, me) or grown children. Whether your nest is full — or empty. Whether you’re cooking for a crew, or only yourself. The question still pops up — daily. Solving the what’s-for-dinner dilemma doesn’t have to be stressful… or even hard.
A menu plan. Specifically… a what’s-for-dinner menu plan.
Why I Plan My Menus
• Night-time stress relief (so I’m not scrambling for something to put on the table)
Life is hectic. Dinner doesn’t have to be. With a few minutes (literally) invested in meal planning early in the week, you won’t have to rack your brain to answer the what’s-for-dinner question.
• Keeps the food budget on track
The USDA keeps track what we’re spending to feed our families. Are you keeping track? The latest report shows that for a family of 4 with mid-size kids (me), monthly groceries on average will be between $643.40 and $1284 by their criteria of a “thrifty plan” to a “liberal plan.” Keep in mind, these are groceries alone — not dinners out. On average, families spend 40% of our food budget on dinners out. Keep track of your spending and with a plan — your costs will go down! Consult the USDA current Cost of Food Report to compare your costs.
• Promotes a healthier family
“Studies have shown that kids who eat with their families frequently are less likely to get depressed, consider suicide, and develop an eating disorder. They are also more likely to delay sex and to report that their parents are proud of them. When a child is feeling down or depressed, family dinner can act as an intervention,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.
RELATED: The Family Table
• Promotes a healthier diet
When you’re cooking — you know what’s going into your food. You can better track nutrients and additives. A 2000 survey found that the 9- to 14-year-old children who ate dinner with their families most frequently ate more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of many key nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fiber notes Matthew W. Gillman, MD, the survey’s lead researcher and the director of the Obesity Prevention Program at the Harvard Medical School.
• Creates variety in how and what we eat
My great grandmother lived a few months shy of her 100th birthday. Her son lived a few months shy of his 105th birthday. Her advice to living long and healthfully — keep variety in your diet. Eat something different, everyday.
• Keeps a record for leftovers
You never have to wonder how old that pizza is. Just consult your dinner plan. 3 days is my rule. Further guidelines on leftovers and food safety.
• Built-in meal flexibility
My life never seems to go according to plan — or even my dinner plan. But with a set of 7 meals already planned — it’s easy to shift them around to accomodate whatever lives brings your way.
Here are some easy and simple steps I use to plan our weekly dinner meals. And I promise, life is too hectic for me to do complicated and hard.
1. Favorite Food Log
It’s a simple sheet of paper I have posted on my refrigerator door.
I’m trying new recipes all the time. It’s impossible for me to remember which ones received the highest votes. I keep track of those favored recipes. When it comes time to meal plan, it’s an easy reference.
A simple list is all you need. But here is what I use.
2. Weekly Dinner Planning Sheet
This is the meat and bones of my plan.
A piece of paper broken down into a 7-day grid with a space below to write weekly family obligations.
It can be blank piece of paper, it can be a blank weekly calendar printed out. There are lots of cute templates you can find with a simple Google search.
I designed this form for our family — and it works great. The scheduling piece below each day is imperative for my planning. Feel free to print it out and see if it works for you!
While there are many apps, like Paprika (which I really like and do use — especially helpful to organize favorite Pinterest recipes on my food board) I still find the simplest and most effective method is the form below. Written in pencil, it’s posted on my refrigerator door so the whole family can see and jot down changes in their schedules.
3. Schedule a Planning Day
This shouldn’t take hours. Minutes, maybe. It should be quick and simple.
Pick a day that works for you to menu plan. And be consistent. An appointment with yourself. Sunday afternoon is my time. Following our weekly Sunday lunch, I ask everyone about their weekly commitments and write it on my menu planner. Later in the day when everyone is preparing for their individual weeks, I plan menus around all of our schedules.
I choose menus based on weekly activities and on the season.
While I make the lion-share of our meals, I schedule some takeout nights. Many Friday nights, especially during football and basketball seasons, I don’t even try to cook. I plan things like — our favorite Costco pizza. It’s simple, quick and can stretch with whoever happens to come home with our son. But I write it down. No guessing on Friday night at 6.
We are all need a dose of inspiration from time to time. Whether you’re a veteran homecook or a new cook.
I’m a cookbook collector. For me, they’re a great resource. I find myself reading volume after volume — much like fictional novels. The new, the old — the ancient, are all sources of inspiration. Current magazines and favorite websites are great resources as well. (I hope 31Daily is one of those!)
Weekly Meal Plan Resources:
Quick and Easy Meal Ideas from 31Daily:
5. Making Your List
On Sunday while I’m filling in my calendar, checking my resources for inspirational recipes, and writing down recipe ideas, I also keep a running grocery list beside me. When making your list, check first your pantry to see what you’ve already got on hand, then peruse your market’s weekly grocery ads for any great sales and either stock up for a future week or incorporate those items into your weekly menu.
6. A Shopping Trip
My shopping day varies slightly depending on my schedule and what menus I’ve planned for the first of the week. Ideally, I like to shop on Monday for the week. But if it isn’t possible, I plan menus for items I already have until I can get to the market.
And there you have it. A simple and easy solution to solve the what’s-for-dinner dilemma.
Really, it’s pretty simple. And the more consistent you are, the easier it gets. The more it becomes a habit rather than a chore. You will be happier at the end of each day, your family will be nourished — and you’ll be amazed at the variety you can incorporate into your regular diet with just a small amount of planning.
Have some meal planning tips of your own to share? Leave them in the comments below. We’d love to hear!