“What’s for Dinner, Mom?” – Family Meal Planning

“What’s for dinner, Mom?”  Oh, such a seemingly harmless question!  But for the mother who has not planned ahead it can feel like an interrogation where you ultimately plead guilty and say with irritation, “I don’t know yet!”

This is me on a lot of occasions, sadly.  As a mother of three, there is so much pressure surrounding dinner.  It’s the one meal of the day where we all actually sit and eat together. It’s the one meal of the day that should include the best of the food groups to encourage healthy eating habits for the little ones.  Often I would find myself at the grocery store stocking up on meats and veggies and fruits and grains without any real “menu” in mind.  So, at the last minute, I’d throw something together.  This was both good and bad.  Bad because it stressed me out and I could never really answer that “What’s for dinner?” question.  Good because I learned to get creative and spontaneous.

But after several years with kiddos in the house, I have learned what works to keep me sane and organized while providing healthy meals for my family of five.

  1.  Find and experiment with healthy recipes.
    Use your resources – Pinterest, Cooking Light Magazine, Allrecipes.com, or follow your favorite chef online.  I love hunting on websites to find ways to tweak popular recipes simply by adding in the words, “Low carb,” or “gluten-free,” or “fat-free.” Whatever your dietary needs or restrictions, the internet has your back. Remember to ask for favorite recipes from family members & friends!  In other words, build a rotation of meals that you and your family love (that are also healthy).  I’m not going to tell you this will happen overnight.  Over the course of a year, with lots of experimental recipes, we’ve probably found 10-15 winners that we rotate for our family menu.  And in our weekly rotation, I usually try to introduce something new just for variety.  I look for recipes with a short list of simple, fresh ingredients – and I favor recipes that can be thrown in a crock pot or on a baking sheet with minimal prep time.  At my house, dinner time is still a witching hour for the kids, so I try to stay away from meals that require lots of hands-on time at the stove.
  2. WRITE DOWN a Weekly Menu BEFORE going shopping.
    1. I know, I know.  This seems so basic, but it really does help.  I have a magnetic erasable board right on my refrigerator.    I write down the meals on the board about 5 days at a time.  This way, every time I open the refrigerator, I see the weekly menu.  It reminds me that maybe I need to defrost some meat, or prep something the night before – things I would otherwise not think about.  It also answers the “What’s for dinner?” question for my husband and my 9 year old.  Ah…sweet relief that I don’t have to answer it – they just read the menu.  As a sampling – this week’s menu is as follows:

      Monday – Rotisserie Chicken, Quiche, and Sauteed Spinach w/ Feta
      Tuesday – Tilapia Cakes, Cup of Maryland Crab Soup, & Green Beans
      Wednesday – Spaghetti Squash, Roasted Tomatoes, Meat-sauce, & Mex Cheese
      Thursday – BBQ Chicken Sliders, Sweet Potato Fries, & Sugar Snaps
      Friday – Filet Mignon, Sauteed Portabella Mushrooms, & Spinach Salad
      Saturday – Crispy Codfish, Broccoli, & Rosemary Quinoa
      Sunday – Pork Tenderloin with Eggplant/Onion/Mint/Feta stir-fry

    2. Make some meals Kid Friendly and Some for the Grownups.
      I’m always seeing “kid friendly” recipes and I think they’re great, but honestly, I’m not willing to eat them all week.  The most kid friendly meals for us include some variation of chicken nuggets/fish sticks, pizza, or spaghetti and meatballs.  I love to make my kids happy but I don’t want our family menu to just cater to their taste buds.  So, every week, I plan meals based on what we all like and hope that I’m expanding their horizons – or at least their palates.
  3. Think – at least a little – about presentation.
    Yeah, yeah, because we all have time to explore our inner culinary artist and make a plate worthy of a magazine.   But in all seriousness, kids like a pretty plate.  I make sure to modify a dinner that mixes everything together and try to separate each food group – maybe quinoa, then chicken, then sugar snap peas.  I find that toddlers in particular like a line or a circle of small bits of food – little pieces they can taste and try and decide what they like.
  4. Prep & Freeze Meals.
    I consider my freezer meals my emergency bank for the days that I really can’t prep and cook.  I didn’t really start doing this much until I was pregnant with my 3rd child and I had the presence of mind to prepare meals that were ready for my first few weeks at home with a newborn.  Taking the time to chop, marinate, and combine ingredients in a freezer bag is such a payoff later.  Take that bag out of the freezer, thaw it, and throw it in a crock-pot or on a baking sheet.  Many meats and veggies do great in the crock-pot and in fact, the flavors are intensified and the meat is more tender.  I also love to use light salad dressing to marinade my meats (Italian Dressing and Asian Sesame work great) for chicken, beef, pork.  The flavors really come through when the meat is frozen in the marinade.  Once fully cooked, your crock-pot meal can be thrown over a plate of instant rice, quinoa, cous-cous, pasta, or potatoes.  Dinner = done!

The small effort involved in planning your weekly meals goes a long way to make a family dinner less stressful, more healthy, and enjoyable for everyone.  I’ve noticed that our meals on a weekly basis now have more variety – different meats, fish, grains, and veggies – that I may otherwise tend to repeat.  My regular efforts also make me feel less guilty about the nights when I write “leftovers” on the board, throw some chicken nuggets in the toaster oven, or simply decide to order in pizza or Chinese food.  But make no mistake, even the best meal planners have (and need) those nights too.

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