“What’s for Dinner?”: No Longer Dirty Words

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Most busy families these days have very little spare time. We often dread the phrase, “what’s for dinner?” because planning meals seems like an impossible task! What if I told you that one simple discipline could increase variety in your diet; cut your dependence on fast food; lower your grocery bill; decrease your anxiety about cooking and meal planning; decrease your time spent in the kitchen; and increase your love for cooking? I’m talking, of course, about meal planning!

Like many, I have a commute to and from work. I would often use that time to do most of my meal planning. Perhaps like you, I would do a mental inventory of what was likely in the pantry, fridge, and freezer. Then I would use that information to assemble a dinner in my head. After awhile I noticed we were basically eating different variations of the same things. Does this sound familiar to you? It was at this point, I decided it was time for a change, and I put the simple meal planning steps found below into practice in my life. Perhaps they can help you too!

Make healthy eating a priority. You will find that you have the most success with things that you are passionate about. So, first take the time to identify what outcomes you want from changing your diet. Perhaps it is utilizing low calorie cooking for weight loss, or reducing the sugar in your diet. Make this mindset personal to you and your family, and a goal you can all get behind. Keep in mind not to set the bar too high right off the bat. Don’t try to completely cut things out of your diet, but instead initially try reducing the amounts you consume as an attainable goal.

Schedule a time each week for meal planning. Many people find that setting aside about 30 minutes on a Sunday afternoon is adequate time to plan out meals for the week. However, select a time that works best with your lifestyle. You may even need to set a reminder to get into the habit of meal planning for the first few weeks.

Write your plan down. This is important – you have to write it down. There are many ways you can do this: a dry erase board; calendar; cute meal planning sheet; or just a piece of plain paper. In planning your meal schedule, first look at your upcoming week and add meals that are “commitment meals”. These include a night out with friends, family dinners, and  organizational meetings or dinner parties. Next, add your “standard meals”. These meals are something you have set in stone. Meatless Mondays, Pasta Thursdays, Seafood Saturdays…etc. Next, add your “go to meals”, which includes meals that are quick, easy, and family favorites.. If you don’t have “go to meals”, ask your friends and family what they like most, or do an internet search for popular and healthy recipes. Write all these meals down somewhere in a “meal bank” of sorts, so you can revisit them when you are planning each week. For filling in the other meals, start by considering what you have going on each night in the upcoming week. If you will be getting home late and will not have much time to cook, it may need to be a quick meal or maybe leftovers from another night. Also look in the fridge and pantry at what needs to be used up and how you can make those ingredients into meals. Lastly, add your “convenience meals” if you need them. At our house, this usually includes throwing together a pizza with topping ingredients we have on hand.

Think about when in your schedule you will have time to cook. Be honest with yourself about the amount of time you have. Maybe you have less time and need to pick up prepared foods like cut fruit or washed lettuce. When you look at the plan you just made out, will you need to cook every night? Can you combine some cooking? A good example of how to combine cook is loading up the grill. If you are grilling chicken, then add vegetables you can use tomorrow or grill extra chicken for a chicken salad later in the week. I also will prepare a lot of shredded chicken at once to use in several meals throughout the week. If you are going to prepare meals in advance  or combine cook, it is best if you also include this time on your plan.

Start a grocery list with all the items you will need for the week’s meals. It is easy to get off track during the week if you do not have everything you need. Plus, it also keeps you from making multiple trips to the grocery store, saving you time. It may also be a good idea to have two backup meals for the week. These could include already prepared freezer meals. This means preparing your favorite recipes in advance and freezing them for a later time. Keeping these meals in the freezer means, you do not have to rely on fast food when plans for that day fall through. There are a variety of recipes out there for the pressure cooker, oven, and slow cooker as well.

So there you go…You did it! You have now prepared a whole week of meals for you and your family. Can you feel the “What’s for dinner?” pressure lifting from your shoulders yet? Hopefully incorporating these meal planning steps into your life will increase variety in your diet, cut your dependence on fast food, lower your grocery bill, decrease your anxiety about cooking and meal planning, decrease your time spent in the kitchen, and increase your love for cooking.

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