Growing up, my family did old-fashioned dinners. Whether I was at my mom’s or my dad’s, our family sat down together to eat the final meal of the day. My divorced parents had joint custody of my younger brother and I since I was 4-years old, where we spent half the week at my mom’s and the other half at my dad’s. This was not old fashioned, and it came with it’s own set of crazy. But dinners added a necessary dose of normalcy.
Research shows that kids whose families’ eat dinner together are at a decreased risk for drug use and other delinquency behaviors. It’s not so much the dinner itself that matters, but it’s the sitting down together, having conversation and connecting as a family that makes the difference. In today’s gotta-stay-on-the-move culture, that’s not always easy. And, I’m told by my friends with older children that, the older they get, the harder it is to carve out time for family dinners. Even with my oldest being only 8, we don’t always manage to sit down together for all 7 meals each week, but planning ahead does enable me to make 98% of them homemade.
I’m not a natural Martha Stewart. I’m not even naturally organized. Go with the flow, keep my schedule open and flexible – this is my preferred mode of operation. However, I learned many moons ago (about 20 years ago actually), that open-ended, go with the flow doesn’t bode well for meeting deadlines. And I’ve learned to think of making dinner as a deadline of sorts. If I don’t have something in motion by 4:30ish, I’ve missed my deadline. If your household is anything like mine, with two-school aged children and a toddler, the pre-dinner hour is chaos. I’ve termed it the “witching hour” around here. If I don’t have a dinner plan in place well before hand, I am frazzled trying to come up with a healthy idea (while resisting the urge to order pizza). My stress is contagious, as my kids then become more on-edge, and the downward spiral begins.
Dinner planning not only makes our late afternoons more pleasant, but it keeps our family budget on track and helps ensure we are eating healthy. Eating out and running to the grocery every day for last minute items is hard on our budget. And the larger our family gets, the more expensive it is to dine out. And I’m big on healthy eating. As much as I can, I feed my guys organic, non-processed foods and provide a balanced diet over the course of the week. Planning and cooking my own meals gives me more control over these variables.
So this is how I do it. My method isn’t all that original and lots of blogger mommas have shared equally great ways to get dinner on the table. But this is what works for me, for now. I’ve modified my method as my kids have gotten older and as our family has grown. Maybe my system will inspire you to create or tweak a method that works for your brood.
I plan dinners two weeks at a time, every other Sunday. Lots of moms dinner plan at the start of each week, but I don’t like dinner planning. I don’t like grocery shopping. And I don’t like cooking. I’ve found that every Sunday simply comes around too quickly, and sitting down only once every two weeks to plan makes it less dreadful. So, every other Sunday, I gather the following supplies and plan 14 days-worth of suppers: My dinner planning notebook (nothing fancy, just a 3-ring binder with loose-leaf paper), our Family Calendar (ala Google), my go-to cook books, and my Pinterest “Good Eats” and “Kid-Friendly Meals” boards.
Step 1: Consult the Family Calendar. My husband and I use shared Google calendars. This means, while we maintain separate ones, we can each see what is on the other’s calendar from our own calendar view. This has saved our marriage! For years, my husband would inevitably forget to inform me of evening commitments and we’d double-book our evenings. Now, with shared Google calendars, we rarely make this mistake – brilliant.
I consult our calendar to answer the following questions: When does Dad have evening meetings? Do I have any evening volunteer/social commitments in the next two weeks? What are the twins’ after school activities? Are we scheduled to host any guests? The answers to these questions tell me 1) On what days I need quick-prep meals (great nights for crock pot dinners), 2) On what days I need portable meals (during sports seasons we sometimes can’t sit down together and need to eat on-the-go), and 3) On what days I might want to plan a special meal (birthdays, when we are hosting guests, etc.) For each day there is an event that will impact my dinner plan, I make a note on the top of a blank piece of paper in my notebook. This will be the page on which I plan the dinners for the next two weeks.
Step 2: Size Up the Pantry, Fridge and Freezer. Next, I make a note of any food I want to use up in my refrigerator and pantry, and what meat I have available in the freezer. This enables me to save on my grocery bill because I’m not allowing food to go to waste and will plan meals that make good use of what I have.
Step 3: Choose Dinners for Each Night. With my family calendar and available food items in mind, I start to figure out what I’m going to cook my gang for the next 14 suppers. Within my dinner planning notebook, I have a dynamic list of “family favorite” dinners. These are winner dinners from everyone’s perspective. As I try new recipes, I add to this list if everyone agrees it was a hit. I plan to make at least one of the family favorites each week. I also allow my 8-year olds to choose one dinner every week. I am free to veto their idea, but work with them until they come up with one that fits with our diet, budget, etc. Otherwise, we’d have crepes twice every week because it is, hands-down, their all-time favorite meal. To fill the other four nights each week, I consult my Pinterest boards, my go-to cookbooks, and my past dinner planning lists. Every time I make a new dish, I make a note on my list to remind me if the family liked it or how I would cook it differently next time. So, I use those notes and “grades” to decide when and how I will work these dinner ideas into upcoming meals. I also try to balance the main protein source for each meal, ensuring we have a balance of meatless, pork, chicken, fish and beef over the course of the 14 days.
On the evenings when I will be gone, or on days where I have little prep time, I’ll plan for crock pot meals. I love America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution for these ideas. I also try to have several crock pot freezer meals in my freezer that I can pull out and throw in the slow cooker for a super-easy (but healthy) dinner. (I make these several at a time – I’ll blog about that process in the future I’m sure!) I don’t always plan ahead for sides, but when I have veggies I need to use up, I’ll make a note of that in the form of a side dish. As I choose a meal, I note it next to the day of the week along with where I found the recipe (what cookbook, on Pinterest, etc.).
Lots of moms plan breakfasts and lunches too. I don’t. Remember, I’m not a natural planner, and adding breakfast and lunch planning overwhelmes me. I fly by the seat of my pants for those meals. I do, however, plan a weekly snack. My twins bring a snack to school each day because they have a late lunch. I rarely buy snacks from the store (granola bars, fruit sticks, etc.) because they are expensive (and often unhealthy). So, I make a huge batch of one snack (sometimes two) so the boys can grab it for school. I always allow them to choose from a list I provide them (granola bars, homemade Z-Bars, energy balls, different muffins, etc.). So I make a note of the snack choice and the ingredients I’ll need at the grocery.
Step 4: Make a Grocery List. My grocery list is driven by my meal plan. As I’m choosing meals, I create my shopping list of the items I need to buy. I make a “big” trip to the grocery every two weeks. I do have to make a grocery run every now and then between big trips – but they are relatively infrequent. One of those in-between trips involves buying fresh produce for the second week of meals.
Step 5: Note This Week’s Meals on Our Family Menu Board. So I don’t have to pull out my notebook everyday and so I don’t have to answer the question “What’s for dinner?” a hundred times, I write 7 days worth of meals on a small white board that I “command-striped” to the fridge. It’s just an inexpensive board from Target, but it does the trick. For each day of the week, I note the meal, the side if that’s pre-planned, and where the recipe is located. If I need to take meat out of the freezer for a meal, I note that in parentheses the day before.
So that’s it. This planning requires about 40 minutes of my time every two weeks. Those 40 minutes probably save me several hours of rushing around, trips to the store and sheer panicking about what’s for dinner. Those 40 minutes allow us to sit down most days of the week for a healthy, usually tasty (no guarantees there, however) dinner where we pray as a family, talk about our day and connect as individuals. While I don’t enjoy it, and could think of a thousand other things I’d rather be doing, those are 40 minutes well spent.