Do you ever get in a funk about what to make for dinner the week after coming back from a trip? Not too long ago, my husband and I traveled to NYC for an extended weekend. Not long after our plane touched town in Dallas, the excitement and joy of the trip soon became a memory and the reality of loads of laundry, having to set an alarm for work the next day and the all too familiar question of what to add to the grocery list set in. Usually this funk only lasts a day or so, maybe an entire week. After this trip, however, my funk drug on and on. “What’s for super?” my husband would ask. I’d respond with, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care, what do you want?” I’m usually the organized food girl with a Monday through Friday plan and a packed lunch the night before. For some reason, I just couldn’t think of a thing to eat and, if I thought of something, it didn’t sound good! Why was it that something I was so used to doing on a regular basis starting feeling like an overwhelming chore? Add to that the pressures of being a registered dietitian. It seems like everyone thinks you’ve become a dietitian because you love to cook. Not me. I love to eat. That’s why I am a dietitian…partly.
Christian comedian, Dorie Mclemore knows the all too real struggle of figuring out what to cook for dinner. In one of her acts, she talks about someone signing her up without her permission to provide a meal for the meal train on behalf of a family a church. When she found out about this, another member of the church said, “Don’t panic, Just make double of whatever you were planning to make tonight for dinner.” “You want me to make double the portion of cereal??” she responded. She goes on to say how frustrated she becomes when her family asks her what is for dinner. “Are you kidding?” she asks. “We just had dinner last night and now you want me to think about it again?” Mclemore says that she should be her own best resource considering that she has eaten dinner every night for 38 years, but still it is hard to come up with new ideas!
Below are 7 realistic ways to make meal planning and dinner preparation easier for you:
1. Save Fancy for Sunday
Or any flexible night of the week for that matter. I used to try and make these long drawn out Southern Living Magazine recipes during the middle of the work week. You know, the recipes that call for a million ingredients, a commercial kitchen and Betty Crocker talent? I’d get excited about trying something new only to end up with a messy kitchen, covered in ingredients and crying on the kitchen floor while on the phone with the pizza delivery man. I finally realized that trying fancy new recipes during the work week was not going to be realistic. For me, I’ve found that trying one new recipe a week has been a helpful way to add variety to our family dinners without becoming overwhelmed. I intentionally pick a night of the week that will allow me enough time to try something new. My Mondays are very flexible because I am able to work from home. This allows me time in the evening to play around with a new dish without having to factor in a long work commute or stressful day at the office. For some, Sunday nights work best as they prepare for the upcoming week. It doesn’t matter. Pick a day that works best for you and try something new!
2. The Crockpot is your Friend
I learned a long time ago that the crockpot is your friend! A great companion after a busy workday, like your own personal chef who has dinner ready when you walk through the backdoor. The 4-6 hour crockpot meals can be tricky if you’re like me and have a basic crock pot. Some crockpots have a timer you can set for coming on and off. For me, the meals requiring 8 hrs to cook on low work best since it is unlikely that I will be home sooner than that. Limited ingredient meals for the crockpot are super easy to do. If you are making something that calls for more ingredients or lengthier directions (such as cooking something ahead of time prior to adding it to the crockpot), make sure to factor this in. When I am making something like a post roast, I prefer to chop my potatoes, onions and carrots the night before. This makes for an easy throw and go the morning of when I am trying to set things up while getting ready for my day. There is nothing quite as lovely as walking into the kitchen after being gone all day and smelling that savory aroma, knowing that dinner is ready!
3. Leave Room for Leftovers
Everyone seems to have their own little quirks when it comes to leftovers. My husband will only eat certain things leftover and will absolutely not touch a dish if it was prepared more than 2 days prior. I, on the other hand, do not like leftovers heated up! Warm pizza or spaghetti…yuck! I prefer them cold! What works well in our home, is agreeing upon certain meals that we enjoy leftover. Usually this is some sort of meal that makes 6-8 servings that we couldn’t possibly finish by ourselves in one night. If we aren’t entertaining in our home or hosting a meal, we will just save the rest of the meal for the busiest night of our week and BOOM there’s dinner! (Of course it has to be no more than 2 days down the road…)
4. Plan for a Night Out
So many people place unrealistic pressures on themselves to cook every night of the week. I used to be one of them. It was exhausting! When I first got married, I felt like I needed to cook a new fancy dish every single night after work. I was stressed and tired and overwhelmed. I later found out that my husband used to eat hot links and a bag of chips nightly before marriage and he brought it to my attention that my cooking endeavors were to meet unattainable goals that I had placed on myself. He was content with PB&J. This realization helped me to be more flexible with meal planning. I still always have a plan for the week, but don’t work so hard at figuring out what we are going to eat. For our family, Friday nights are always a night out. The kitchen is closed and mama ain’t cooking! We will usually opt for ordering a pizza in or visiting our favorite Mexican restaurant for a frozen margarita and the famous Bob Armstrong queso! For you, your night out may be soccer practice night or date night. Maybe it’s the night that you know you’ll be working extra late at the office. It doesn’t matter. Just pick a night and plan for dinner out!
5. Cook Smarter Not Harder (your wallet with thank you)
Put some thinking into your meals. Overlap ingredients when you are able to. For example, if you are planning to make homemade fajitas one night, consider using the rest of the bell peppers and onions the following night in a Pepper Jack Chicken dish (grilled chicken marinated in BBQ sauce with sautéed onions and peppers and a slice of melted pepper jack cheese on top…yum!). You could even save the extra peppers and chicken for stir fry the next night. This shortens your grocery list and prevents you from food waste! Sometimes we use ground beef for burgers and then use the leftover beef and burger fixin’s and sides (lettuce, tomato, etc. and chips) for taco salads. Just today I made a recipe that called for a zucchini and the zucchini from the store was massive so I chopped half of it for tomorrow night’s meal which is a turkey sausage, potato, veggie bake.
6. Consider Signing Up for Grocery Pick-Up
No, I am not getting paid by Wal-Mart for this advertisement. Yes, it is amazing. And with a little one? Game changer! Like seriously, whenever I actually have to go into a store to grab something now…no! Mama ain’t happy! Wal-Mart grocery pick-up is amazing! They substitute your items when they don’t have what you requested and they always honor your price. For me, this has meant mega deals because I always order the cheaper stuff and sometimes they substitute it for the fancy! #winning
Added bonus, you have until midnight the night of your order to make any changes so if you find yourself laying in bed at night and pondering life only to realize that you’re out of contact solution. Bang! Tap of a button and girl you’ve got contact solution in your cart! (This happens to me regularly). We moved this past weekend and when my husband and I were considering this home, one of my first questions was, “Does this town have a Wal-Mart grocery pick-up?” Seriously, it’s that good. Tragically the answer was no, but they do have Super One grocery pick-up and so far, I’ve found it to be just as rewarding! Now I’m just a girl in the country out to pick up her handpicked bananas from Natalie, the curbside assistant.
7. Make Family Meals a Priority
I cannot stress this one enough! Have a dinner plan, clear off your kitchen table, say a prayer of thanks and have a family meal. As sad as it is, the reality is that most families are no longer sitting down together for family meals. The number one reason? Too busy. This has got to change!
In their book, Born to Eat, Leslie Schilling, MA, RDN and Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN say that, “research suggests that engaging in a family meal provides benefits far greater than physical nourishment.
Consistently sitting down to family meals may reduce the likelihood of a child engaging in disordered eating behaviors and has been linked to less depressive symptoms.
This time spent together as a family may also make a child more likely to eat healthier foods and less likely to experience weight concerns."
Hopefully you have found these ideas to be both realistic and resourceful. As I sit on my back porch this afternoon I am relieved to know that in the house, just a few feet away, slow cooker lasagna soup* is sizzling with the savory aromas of fall filling my kitchen and the warmth of a family meal awaiting. It is only Monday, so things could get crazy this week, but at least for tonight I can answer the question, “What’s for dinner?”