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Reduce Overwhelm, Save Time and Money: Guide for Easy Family Dinners

April 1, 2019

Do you get overwhelmed by options when you try to plan meals for your family? Or do you struggle most days to figure out what to make because meal planning seems rigid? Or maybe, you skip meal planning because it seems too complicated…? I feel you. I used to be in the same boat!

Feature and Above Photos by Angela Carlyle

Ever since my kids were tiny, we have all sat down together for dinner as a family. This has not always been easy, but family dinners have become a centering force for my little crew, where we can all reconnect after going in our own various directions during the day.

As my kids get older and take on more evening activities, attempting to get dinner on the table is no small feat. But, when faced with any challenge the most important thing is to have a plan, right?

Here’s the weekly meal planning strategy I’ve come up with over the years to get dinner on the table most evenings, while simultaneously limiting food wastes, extra trips to the store, and in turn, saving money…

Saturday: Meal Plan/Grocery Shop/Cook Dinner  

I love a lazy Saturday morning for many reasons: no one is rushing out the door, the kids get to splurge a bit on cartoons and pancakes, and I get to sip coffee and catch up on my favorite blogs. It’s also great time for me to plan the upcoming week’s dinners—although this can also be done Thursday or Friday when the core cooking for the work week is done.

Here is my step-by-step process:

  1. Check the calendar for the week ahead, noting any evening events that will change up the usual mealtime routine.
  2. Scan the fridge, freezer, and pantry, making a list of any food that is reaching its expiration (and tossing or composting anything that has).
  3. Find meals that include ingredients on the list. I have all my favorite recipes digitized so I can do a quick search for, say “cilantro” on my computer and pull up all my recipes that include this ingredient. There are also several websites, such as Epicurious, where you can search for recipes by specific ingredients. This goes such a long way in reducing food waste and saving money by using what you already have. It also keeps your crisper from becoming the place where veggies go to die!
  4. Finalize a meal plan for four dinners and make a grocery list.
  5. Add weekly staples. I keep a list of the things we need every week (milk, lunch bread, etc.) and quickly add them to the list. I know Elizabeth, NQM founder, has a few different apps she loves to use for grocery list. Stay tuned!
  6. Shop! The day I grocery shop is always when I plan to make a meal that is best at its peak freshness. For us, this often includes salmon and fresh bakery bread—two things that certainly don’t lend themselves to the aging process. When our local farmers market is in action, we hit that first (which the kids love!), then follow up with a trip to the store.

Sunday: Cook

I try to keep Sundays as low-key as possible. We relax, tackle to-do lists and projects, and recharge before the week ahead. Being home lends itself to a wonderful slow braise, which often resurfaces on leftover Wednesdays.

Monday/Tuesday: Cook  

While I tend to put a little extra time and effort into weekend meals, I’m more realistic about weekdays. We often try to go meatless and simple these days. Favorites includes pasta with marinara and a side of broccoli, topped with parmesan (always a crowd pleaser and easily one-pot if you boil the noodles and pasta in same water) or quesadillas with black beans and a green salad.

Wednesday: Leftover Night (or Breakfast for Dinner in a Pinch)  

These dinners are often a slight riff on a previous meal, as I’m married to a self-proclaimed leftover hater (braised pork shoulder on Sunday can turn into killer nachos on Wednesday). If we generally have nothing left to spruce up (yeah for no food waste!), I make breakfast for dinner. Pancake mix, bacon, and eggs are weekly staples in our house, and the kids end up feeling like the are getting special treat.

Thursday: Freezer Dinner  

A couple of my girlfriends and I have come up with a monthly tradition where we get together and each cook a triple batch of a freezer dinner. It has become one of my most beloved traditions as we each walk away with three dinners and get to spend a few hours catching up and trying out new recipes. If I do find the freezer a bit empty, no one has ever complained about frozen pizza or the heaven that is Traders Joe’s frozen Mac & Cheese! And, if a spontaneous dinner-out occurs, you won’t need to worry about food going to waste in your fridge.

Friday: Take Out   

Friday night is takeout (and cocktail) night at our house. Everyone is spent from the week, including the cook. Friday is also the one day a month our house gets professionally cleaned, and on that hallowed day, there is no way I’m going near the stove. Well, that’s not true—I spend a lot of time staring at it in all its shiny beauty. 😉

All our lives are different, and meal planning certainly gets adjusted for each family’s circumstances, but hopefully you busy moms out there can pull some strategic tips from my weekly planning to get dinner on the table throughout the week. Bon Appetit!

Breakfast for Dinner on a Wednesday Night. Photo by Nicole Vaughn.