Dinner + Meal Planning Lately
One of my 2019 goals was to have "one family meal" meaning that more often than not we are all eating roughly the same dinner each night. At the beginning of the year this felt like a struggle. Often I was making two meals and didn't feel like we had any meals that everyone would eat. I'm happy to report that as 2019 wraps up I'm feeling really good about our family dinners! We've found meals, or at least combinations of food, that work for everyone at the table, and my meal planning/grocery shopping/cooking systems are working well.
Having more time and planning ahead is a big factor. When Chris and I were both working full time we didn't walk in the door until 5:40 p.m. Now we're usually sitting down for dinner by 5:30 or 6 p.m. and I'll often prep part of dinner earlier in the day. The boys being older also helps a lot. They can (mostly) entertain themselves as I cook dinner although some days are easier than others. I've also figured out a good rhythm for dinners during the week. I think I used to plan too many new recipes or dishes that needed too much time or ingredients. It all sounds great when I'm planning it but then it turns out I have very little desire for a lot of chopping on a Thursday evening.
My general meal planning routine goes like this: I plan dinners and make a grocery list on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning so that I can go to the grocery store on Friday. I love to bring a blank spreadsheet grocery list and clipboard to the park and plan while the boys play. I plan dinners from Friday through the next Thursday since I do my shopping on Fridays. First, I'll look at the week ahead on my Google calendar. I make note of any evening commitments such as book club, soccer practice, or a work event for Chris. I always try to do simpler dinners on those nights.
After knowing our schedule I can plan dinners. A big factor in this is that our boys are fairly selective eaters. They aren't very adventurous and don't care for many "mixed" dishes like casseroles or stir fries. I often feel like our options for dinners that everyone enjoys are pretty limited and that can be challenging and frustrating. However, I don't want to sacrifice eating the food that Chris and I love. So each week I try to plan a couple of meals that everyone will eat and on the nights I plan something the boys won't like I plan something simple for them on the side so that I don't cook two full meals. This could be a quesadilla, a grilled cheese, mac and cheese from a box, or even just a smoothie with banana, peanut butter, and other fruit. I'm also trying to incorporate more vegetable sides into our meals. I try to keep in mind that kids might have to be exposed to a food many, many (many!) times before they start to like it or are even willing to try it.
Another tactic I use is a loose dinner template for the week. I almost always make a soup on Sundays since I have more time to cook and then we have leftovers for the week. On Mondays we have soup leftovers for dinner. Since the boys don't like soup (yet) I plan something simple for them on the side for these nights. On Thursdays I usually plan breakfast for dinner since we're low on groceries by that point but can always make something like eggs, veggie sausages, and/or pancakes.
Once I have a list of dinners for the week I circle/write in all the ingredients that we'll need on my spreadsheet grocery list (it continues to bring me so much joy!). Once I get home from the store I update the list of dinners for the week that I keep on a dry erase board on the side of the fridge. Sometimes I also put our dinners into my Google calendar and into my paper planner. It might seem like overkill but it can be handy to see what we're having for dinner in mind as I look at my day in these places. Then I'm more likely to keep dinner in mind throughout the day and make time for a little meal prep. I've been surprised at what a difference it can make to chop veggies, drain and chop tofu, or even just gather ingredients before the boys are home from school.
A few winning dinners that are showing up on our table lately:
+ Two-bean burritos. A fun name for a simple but delicious meal, and one of the few meals that everyone will eat! Black beans, refried beans, and cheese wrapped up burrito style. If I'm really on my game I make a double batch and freeze some for a future meal.
+ Beans and rice. A pretty consistent hit as well. I heat up canned black beans and brown rice from frozen (the Trader Joe's frozen rice comes out perfect every time). The boys eat theirs topped with cheese. Chris and I will add guacamole, salsa, and plain Greek yogurt.
+ Soup. Not a hit with the boys but something that Chris and I love. We have soup on Sundays, leftovers on Monday, and eat it for lunch through the week. A few favorites include lentil tortilla soup, black bean soup, and pumpkin, chickpea, and red lentil curry. We make the boys something simple on the side such as hidden hot dogs (below) or mac and cheese.
+ Hidden hot dogs. Hot dogs wrapped up in store-bought crescent rolls; a recipe from a beloved childhood cook book of mine. We make ours using one half of a veggie hot dog in each crescent roll.
+ KSB (kale-sausage-beans). I read about this on Cup of Jo and it's become a favorite of mine and Chris's. We use the smoked apple field roast in place of sausage. Easy, hearty, delicious. The boys won't eat this but it's so easy that I don't mind making them hidden hot dogs or mac and cheese on the side.
+ Pasta, jarred red sauce, and veggie meatballs. We always use whole wheat pasta and I'd like to try Banza pasta again. The creamy tomato basil sauce from Trader Joe's is delicious and I get the frozen meatless meatballs from Trader Joe's as well.
+ Quick pizzas. For these we love the frozen naan from Trader Joe's as crust or whole wheat english muffins. Everyone can add the toppings they like (just cheese for Dash, for example). Chris and I love sauce, mozzerella, feta, parmesan, chopped bell peppers, and artichokes. When the grown up pizzas are done I top them with greens tossed in balsamic dressing.
+ Tuna melts. The comfort of a grilled cheese is made all the better by adding tuna salad resulting in an easy, hearty dinner. Dash prefers his without cheese and declares it "the best sandwich ever!"
Veggie sides that are showing up on our plates and usually eaten by at least three of four people at the table:
+ Carrot sticks + ranch dip
+ Roasted broccoli
+ Homemade sweet potato fries
+ Smoothie. I make ours with frozen banana, frozen blueberries, frozen mango, frozen shopped spinach, a scoop of peanut butter, sometimes a bit of cocoa powder, and unsweetened vanilla almond milk. A hit with everyone! We had a neighbor friend over for dinner recently and he loved it as well.
+ Corn with butter, made from frozen
+ Cinnamon carrots. Halved baby carrots tossed in olive oil and a little salt, cinnamon, and brown sugar. These make the kitchen smell amazing! Although it always fools the boys into thinking I'm baking cookies. Sorry guys!
What are dinners at your house like lately? Any winning dinners or sides that I should try?