Making Dinner Easy!

Meal Planning (or lack of) seems to be a dreaded “thing”. I see comments all the time on social media along the lines of “what’s for dinner”, “I have no idea what we are going to eat tonight”, “Really don’t feel like cooking” etc.
It’s a topic that comes up again and again, and seems to be one of the things people need help with. While I’m no expert by any means, I have found a system that works for us. It worked, when I was working FT outside the home, and it works now as a SAHM. Let’s face it, dinner needs to happen every. single. night. Isn’t it worth finding a system that makes it as easy as possible?

I’m a bit addicted to food magazines!
I already know what some are thinking…you’re home all day…you have more time to cook dinner. Let me just say that I have the same 24 hours a day as everyone else.  I still have “to do” lists every day, a munchkin with a busy schedule, volunteer work that I enjoy, a personal business that keeps me busy, a desire for a little personal time, workouts/running, and life basically. Life is just busy!
Bottom line, my work may be different, but I still have a schedule, and scheduling issues just like everyone else. And, just like everyone else I have evenings that I just don’t feel it, and evenings that are busy and take some juggling to pull off.
The only thing I’ll concede to have an advantage on is: 1. I can grocery shop during the week/work day, which makes it easier. 2. I love cooking and want to be good at it. 3. I’m good at picking out recipes that will be quick and tasty. 4. I’ve been meal planning for so long that it maybe takes an hour to map out 2 weeks of meals and make the grocery list. 
With a little planning and list making evening dinners can be much less daunting to pull off, and make for awesome family time, and healthier meals! So, how to do it?
1.       Make a schedule. Maybe it’s easier to take it week by week, that’s fine. We get paid every two weeks, so I grocery shop and meal plan in two week chunks. (I’ll only list a week though for this post). I write this schedule out on a piece of paper listing the activity for the evening (if there is one), and a meal that will be easy to do given the schedule.
Here’s what a typical week looks like:
SundaySmoky Buffalo Chili (or some other stand by, or new, recipe that will give Mark left overs for lunch)
Monday– Taco’s (Mark works from home Tuesday so doesn’t need left overs to take for lunch. Tacos are a hard left over to pack.)
Tuesday –Run Group –  Spaghetti (run group night I need something I can make quick and easy before I skip out to lead the group, and it gives Mark left overs for lunch the next day or two)
Wednesday –New Recipe (I usually go for something new since we are usually home Wednesday evening and I have a little time to spend in the kitchen)
Thursday –Jamberry Party – Caribbean Chicken (usually by Thursday I’m ready for something easy! If there are a lot of left overs we will eat those before I cook anything new, or it’s something super quick like Caribbean Chicken, or Mark will grill. I tend to have Jamberry parties on Thursday’s, so if that’s part of the schedule for the week I’ll make sure that Wednesday’s dinner will give leftovers so Mark and Sky can reheat, or that it’s something I can easily make before leaving for the party)
Friday-New Recipe/leave open (if we don’t have plans this is a night I’ll try something new, or we may grab something like street tacos for a quick easy dinner before heading out to the local park to enjoy the sun. If there are a lot of left overs we eat those to clean out the refrigerator)
Saturday – Grill/leave open (I like at least one, usually more during the summer, grill night. Mark is the grill master so I get a break that way)
2.       Make a shopping list. Look through each recipe and list out all the meat, veggies, spices you need to purchase. I tend to buy staples (stalks, broths, spices, dried herbs, garlic, onions, meat (food save it/freeze it) in bulk, so almost always have the basics on hand at all times).
3.       Go To Meals. Build in at least two meals that never change. For us it’s Tacos and Spaghetti. We have those every week. Because they are easy, and I always have the fixings on hand. Knowing there are two nights a week you don’t have to think about is really nice.

I always have onions on hand, and almost always have some chopped, ready to go.
4.      Food prep! Seriously if you have a food processor (even if you don’t) you can do all the chopping, shredding, dicing etc for the week in 30-60 minutes. While you’re doing that cook all the ground beef for the week and store it in the fridge.  Sunday afternoon/evening is a good time to do this.
5.       Post a calendar. Have a calendar, chalk board, piece of paper, something visible in the kitchen that list the meals for the week(s). Then, each night before bed take anything out of the freezer that you will need for the next day’s meal. And/or make note of anything fresh you need to pick up on the way home the next day for that meal.

This is on the wall next to the refrigerator. In Note’s I list the days that would flip/flop well and sometimes which cookbook to turn too for a meal I have planned.
I have found I really only need to plan 4 (ish) dinners a week. I always make more than we can eat in one meal, and life happens/things come up and it’s not unusual to end up unexpectedly missing dinner at home 1 night a week. If we do end up home on an open night with no dinner planned we usually always have left overs, and I keep pork chops, chicken, dogs, salmon burgers frozen/on hand for grilling.

Even Sky can Grill! 
Some think a slow cooker is a life saver, I say it’s the grill! I hardly ever schedule steak into the meal plan, yet we eat it at least 1 time during the two week schedule. Super easy to pop in the store grab steaks and slap em on the grill. To keep it quick and easy open some canned green beans, or grab a bagged salad, for a meal. Or, opt for veggies you can stick on the grill with the steak. My fave – lettuce wedges charred on the grill and dressed with oil & vinegar, or Caesar dressing…so yummy! 
Find a magazine, website, blog, cookbook etc that offers recipes that work for you and the family. I subscribe to more than I need, but the one I use the most is Rachael Ray. Her magazine has a ton of 30 min meals and I’ve yet to make one we don’t like. I would venture to say that you only really need 10 (maybe 15 for variety) go-to meals to rotate through on a regular basis. More than that and meal planning gets sort of crazy. Some Faves: Zenbelly CookbookWell Fed & Well Fed 2Bon AppetitCook’s Illustrated Magazine to list a few.
If a dedicated hour of food prep isn’t going to happen try this instead. Every time a recipe calls for an onion, chop two, and save one for later. If it only calls for half an onion, chop up the whole onion and save it for later. Need garlic…chop up twice as much and save it for later. When I make tacos I always chop up extra onion, that way it’s ready to go later in the week. Cook twice at much taco meat and freeze half for next week!
Know where you can buy stuff pre-chopped. Trader Joes has bagged, chopped onion ready to go, some stores have bagged, julienned or shredded, carrots already done for you. Little things like that are time savers!
Consider buying ground meat in bulk. I go to cash n carry every other month or so and get ground beef and sausage in bulk. I cook 5 lbs of sausage at once, with onion added in, then freeze in 1(ish) pound portions, and that way I have our spaghetti meat ready to go for weeks. Just thaw, add sauce (and whatever else you like to add) and enjoy.

When all else fails, and it needs to come out of a box (it happens to everyone!) go organic! Or, order pizza! 🙂
It doesn’t have to be fancy, or gourmet, save that for the weekends, if at all…if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But everyone’s thing is food, we need it to live. Winging it doesn’t do the food, or ourselves any justice really.
Any favorite recipes to share?

A go-to fave of ours is Thai Beef with Basil


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