As a wife, a mom and a business owner, I wear many different hats. And of all the hats I wear, the one I like least is chef because cooking just isn't something I love to do. It's not that I don't know how to cook, it's just that I'd much prefer setting the table and doing the dishes as my tasks while leaving the meal making to someone else.
My husband, on the other hand, loves to cook and would be thrilled cooking every night of the week. Our challenge is that he works farther away from our home, so dinner making lands on me more often to manage.
In this post I share how our family now plans out our weekly dinner meals and how doing so helps me find cooking more enjoyable. Below, I share some Neat Little Nest "tools" that might help you if you or your loved ones are asking "What's for dinner?"
a meal plan is more important if you dislike cooking
When our now 16 and 12 year old children were younger, we didn't meal plan. The usual story was that I would come home from work (exhausted) and I'd open up the cupboard and the fridge and try to figure out what I could create for dinner based on what was on hand. Trying to figure out and make dinner on the fly with small children tired and cranky because they were hungry was downright stressful and that was on top of the fact that I'm not a fan of cooking. Those elements were a recipe for a lot of frustration.
What would then usually happen is that I would find the easiest things to make but the challenge was that often those "easiest things to make" were not always the healthiest. After this cycle played itself for years, I knew we needed to make a change so we decided to incorporate meal planning into our weekly reset.
My husband didn't have the same level of exasperation because it wasn't hard for him come home from work, scan our inventory and voila, a meal was made. The more we talked about it, the biggest difference was that preparing a meal for him was actually a form of decompressing after work while for me it was the exact opposite.
When we began to meal plan together, my anxiety was greatly reduced. Coming home from work and looking at a recipe that I already knew we had all of the ingredients for was a game changer. I could just go into "do-mode" and crank out the meal rather than flounder in "think-mode" when my brain was taxed from a 10+ hour work day.
there is no right way to meal plan, so you'll likely need to try a few options and see what works best
I was overwhelmed when I began meal planning mostly because there is so much advice on it. So many other moms seemed to have no trouble planning out meals and making many of them ahead for the week or dishing up elaborate dinners every night while it seemed a huge obstacle for me.
I am going to share the way that has worked for our family, which may resonate with some of you and not with others and that's okay. What I know for sure is that the only way to figure out what works for your family is to try a few different meal planning scenarios until you find the one that lessens your load and just feels right.
the one week at a time plan
My brother and his wife meal plan for a month at a time. It's admirable and something I thought I might want to strive to achieve but I quickly learned that planning that far ahead just doesn't work for us. Our family is too active with too many things changing week-to-week. Plotting and planning and buying food in large quantities isn't a viable option for our family.
One week at a time planning allowed us to tie our schedule for the upcoming week to what made sense for dinner. That meant that if my daughter had a soccer game or my son had piano lessons downtown, we could adjust the meal, simple/fast/easy or more relaxed/less rushed, to match the type of evening we had on deck.
more involved meal options on less active nights and easier meal options on more active nights decreases a lot of stress
My husband and I (and now our kids) plan out our week together. We sit down going through both our digital family calendar and our individual calendars. First, we make sure that we've accounted for everything - every practice, game, meeting and activity.
Then, based on what we see slated for each day, we decide if we'll have the time and energy for a more labor-intensive meal or if an easier-to-make meal would be best.
incorporating a few recurring dinner nights eases the planning process
We have landed on having three days a week that, for the most part, are regular recurring meals: taco Tuesday, pizza Friday and take-out Saturday. Having those days earmarked in advance each week help makes being creative with the other four days a lot easier.
Once we have everything laid out on the calendar, we know whether we will try new recipes or just fall back on something we know. We also decide based on workload and timing who is going to be in charge of the meal making.
use prep ahead + leftovers as key strategies in your meal planning
Prepping some of your food ahead of time, like chopping onions or other vegetables, making a large batch of soup or a one-pot meal and putting it in the fridge or freezer can cut back a lot on needing to do so after a long day. I've found certain things I like to prep ahead for and other things that don't save enough time to warrant cutting into my weekend time with my family. It's always a balance.
Leftovers are another excellent way to simplify meals and reduce prep time. For example, we often will have chicken or pork on Monday knowing that we can use the meat from that Monday meal in our tacos on Tuesday. To make it even less stressful, you can pick up a roasted chicken from the grocery store and use that over a couple of days for salads, sandwiches or soup/stew.
The main point here is to leverage your planning ahead of time when able to simplify your dinner making because doing so reduces stress and makes mealtime more enjoyable.
simplify your inspiration so you don't overthink it
Early on in my meal planning, I was getting overwhelmed with all the potential choices for meals. So I use one strategy that has cut down significantly on overthinking, which is: I choose one place where all of the recipes we will make for the week come from. That place - a food blog, a magazine or a cookbook changes from week-to-week, but the strategy of only using one inspiration source each week remains the same.
I'm not interested in creating and organizing an elaborate library of recipes and I don't own any cookbooks or keep cooking magazines very long. For the most part, I use recipes once and move on. I get my cooking magazines in the mail and check out cookbooks from the library. I use the inspiration from the pages once and that's usually it.
Why? Because I've realized after trying to manage and organize recipes that most recipes are usually similar enough that obsessing over keeping track of one you found years ago takes more time than just finding a new one that's similar enough.
Look at meal planning as a form of self-care. Taking some time to plan a few recipes taking your schedule and energy into account can go a long way towards minimizing stress and anxiety in the kitchen. Meal planning provides you with beneficial structure that is also innately flexible when it needs to be (as we all know the inevitable last minute "thing" can pop up pushing everything off schedule). Having a game plan to lessen dinner time chaos takes some of the pressure off and that is always a win-win.
Photo credit: Jes Lahay Photography
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