Despite loving to cook and being a very organized person, feeding my family day in and day out continues to feel just short of running as smoothly as I'd like. It's not terrible. We do have some systems in place that work pretty well. And every night we feed everyone, usually with a homemade dinner that is not cereal. So there's a lot to celebrate! But I keep feeling like the whole thing, from meal planning to making a grocery list to shopping and the actual cooking of dinner, could be optimized. As one of my goals for the year, I'm spending some focused time identifying what works, what's not working, and where we can improve when it comes to dinner. Care to join me?
Our current situation
Chris and I have always grocery shopped once a week and meal planned for a week of dinners. I also prefer to assign a dinner to each day. This is because I plan simpler meals on busier days and intentionally plan leftovers after we've cooked earlier in the week. I also really like knowing what's going to be for dinner and don't want to decide on the day of. I usually plan the meals but sometimes Chris will do it. To plan a week of meals I look at the week ahead to see if we have anything planned that will affect dinner. I usually touch base with Chris too because sometimes he'll have a later meeting that runs up until dinner.
Usually I do the grocery shopping but sometimes Chris will. Last year I was going on to the store on Thursdays but with Maeve's new daycare schedule (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday) I might try going Friday mornings and taking her with me. To make the meal plan and list, I use a printed template list that I created in Excel, just like my mom always did when I was growing up. It shows our frequently-bought-items at Trader Joe's laid out by aisle. To make our weekly meal plan I jot down the days and meals at the bottom of the list and then make sure to circle needed ingredients on the list. In addition to a Trader Joe's trip I often put in a smaller grocery pick up order at a nearby grocery store.
After making the meal plan I write down the dinners on my laminated What's For Dinner? sheet that we keep on the fridge. We aim to eat dinner around 5:30 p.m. and I like to start prepping around 4:30 p.m. Sometimes I've prepped a few things earlier in the day and I always appreciate getting a head start. Our kids aren't super picky but they also aren't very adventurous which impacts what we have for dinner. I don't mind making an additional side, even if it's toast, to round out a meal they don't love. But I don't like to plan to make them a meal separate from what Chris and I are eating for dinner.
The energy and antics at meal time varies although more recently have calmed a bit (thank you). Sometimes we get a full episode of The Dash and Cedric show which means a lot of silliness and the parents losing patience. For a while Maeve loved to signal being done by spontaneously dumping out whatever was left on her plate or in her cup. Other times dinner will be pleasant with conversation and everyone mostly eating what's on their plate.
What matters and what's working
At this season of life what matters about dinner is that it's uncomplicated. What I want are the different steps, from making a meal plan and a list to putting away groceries to making and serving dinner to be as efficient as possible. What also matters to me is enjoying food at dinner. It's not the season to cook from recipes several times a week, nor do I have the little eaters who appreciate that kind of food. But I'd like to find a way to express my love of cooking and food while also feeding my family, all without feeling overwhelmed. That's possible right?!
We do already have several things going for us when it comes to feeding our family dinner every night. These include:
+ Making a homemade dinner and eating at home most nights. Chris and I enjoy cooking (although cooking family dinner daily for selective little eaters does get tiresome) and we like putting healthy meals on the table. We do go out for dinner or get takeout occasionally but not even once a week.
+ Having a weekly dinner plan and using the What's For Dinner? sheet on the fridge. Like I mentioned, I like knowing what's for dinner and assigning simple dinners or leftovers where we need them in the week.
+ Adding simple kid-approved sides when we know the kids won't love the main dinner. This can include crusty buttered bread, whole wheat pasta with butter, buttered brown rice (from frozen), or a smoothie.
Like I said, getting dinner on the table and all the supporting steps is far from broken at our house. I'm just convinced that a few tweaks could make a big difference. Here are things I'd like to improve:
+ When meal planning and making a grocery list happens. I don't mind making the list and meal plan but it always feels like a lot of mental energy that I need to gear up for. So I tend to put it off. Part of the problem is that I don't have a set time that I sit down to make a list plus I usually don't feel like using my workday time. Chris would totally make the list every week and sometimes he does. But I like being in control. So I like being in control of the list but don't particularly love doing it, hmmm not sure why that feels challenging.
+ Planning meals everyone is happy with. Chris and I love lots of flavor, ethnic foods, and dishes like sautes, bowls, and soups with lots of different things in them. The boys aren't big fans of any of those things. Maeve is a good eater so far but has her preferences as well. She recently used perfect grammar to say, "I don't like broccoli." I find myself wanting to try a new recipe, like black pepper stir fried udon, but then get exhausted just doing the mental gymnastics of figuring out how to feed the kids without making a separate meal. Alternatively, there's the tactic of sticking with "brainless crowd pleasers" as Kendra calls them which for our family would be bean burritos, egg burritos, and pasta. But the cook and lover of food in me dies a little to think of weeks on end of those meals. I know it doesn't have to be all one or the other but I haven't found the balance between the two that feels easy and sustainable.
+ Expectations around what the kids will eat. This goes along with the previous "planning meals everyone is happy with." Even though I know in my brain that being a selective eater is completely normal and common among kids, the fact that I have at least two of them in my house brings me some frustration and maybe even a bit of guilt. I'll wonder if we didn't expose them to enough foods as toddlers or maybe we should have had a firmer boundary around not eating something different than what's served for dinner. But those feelings are helping no one. Currently we ask the kids, especially the boys, to try everything on their plate. And we have progressed to where they will at least take a bite or two of foods they don't like. As a toddler, Cedric used to announce, "No!" and fling any unwanted food off of his plate. So this is progress to celebrate! But it is very, very rare for the boys to try something new and find that they like it, no matter how we try to find new foods they might like. There's a lot of sour faces and tiny bite taking that I usually want to roll my eyes at. And I'm talking crispy roasted potatoes here, not a spicy tofu curry or mushy eggplant. It's hard to put so much effort into making food I hope the kids will enjoy and to have the food rejected.
+ Sharing responsibilities with Chris. Chris would happily take over all meal planning, grocery shopping, and the majority of the dinner making. Thank you, Chris! However I find that I do want to be involved. I enjoy cooking and I like taking care of my family by cooking for them and feeding them. I think because we approach dinner differently (Chris loves to be improvisational, I love a plan) we haven't figured out how to efficiently share the load.
Other ideas to consider...
+ Meal planning for a month a time. I tried this briefly in the spring. I took a simple printed calendar and assigned dinners to most days. The habit didn't stick but I'd like to try it again. I like the idea of consolidating all that decision-making.
+ Creating a dinner template. I've used dinner templates, such as deciding to have the same thing every Monday, before to simplify decisions. Even just deciding what's for dinner every Tuesday and Thursday, not even the whole week, is helpful. Sometimes our routine is soup on Sunday, leftovers on Monday, bean burritos on Tuesday and breakfast for dinner every Thursday. As we get into the school year and re-establish routines I think a weekly dinner template would work well for us.
+ Batch cooking and freezing. I rarely make meals and stock the freezer but I love the idea. Some of our dinners in rotation could be made in big batches and frozen, like bean or egg burritos. I would just need a plan for doing all the cooking.
Where to go from here
Identifying the dinner challenges gives me a place to start. And I can see what's already going well. That's important! Some of our challenges will be solved with tweaks in our system. Some of them will be helped with shifts in my own mindset. A dedicated time to talk to Chris will be super helpful. I've been wanting to sit down with him for a food and dinner summit so we should put that on the calendar. Sometimes I get set in my ways of doing things and Chris is great at seeing alternatives. I also think a conversation will be the way to figure out how to better share responsibilities around dinner and related tasks.
Also helpful is The Lazy Genius Kitchen which is a great companion as I think about ways that we can improve dinner. I like the way she encourages you to name what matters to you (and no one else) about any aspect of the kitchen or meal planning and to consider your season of life. I took lots of notes and got some ideas from the book.
That's what I've got for now! I have some work to do and then I'll report back. I'd love to hear what works for you in getting dinner on the table or what parts of the process you're trying to tweak.