Friday, August 31, 2018

All Of That Struggle, and Such a Simple Solution

Making Dinner: A Meal Planning Brainstorm

Panko salmon, brown rice, sweet potato fries, and zucchini wedges. 

On the first day of kindergarten, I was determined to be a super mom and make my dinner while Mazen was in school so we could relax and spend time together that afternoon. But since I’d had little working time the previous week, I was so behind on tasks that they took over my day and all that I had accomplished by 5:00 was taking the salmon out of the freezer to thaw in the fridge that morning. (Note: It was still partially frozen when I was ready to cook it.) It was a total dinnertime preparation fail, and if you missed it, you can see all the videos that I saved in Instagram Stories by clicking on the dinnertime circle in my Insta profile.

I think the combination of craving routines at the end of summer and having a baby on the way has me itching for a stricter schedule so that cooking, dinner, bath, and bedtime routine go as smoothly as possible. My goal is dinner at 6pm sharp, Mazen’s bath/shower around 6:45 and bedtime stories and tucking in (which is often a process) from 7-7:30ish. On this particular night, we didn’t sit down to dinner until 6:45 and he wasn’t in bed until 8.


Breakfasts and lunches have never been a problem for me. I have a bunch of regulars that I create in less than 10 minutes, and most are healthy and made from real food. I’m also usually eating lunch alone, so that means I’m only preparing something for myself.

Breakfasts: oatmeal, overnight oats, pancakes, eggs and toast, power toast, yogurt bowl, cereal, smoothies

Lunches: salads with protein, sandwich, leftovers, chips, fruit

But dinnertime is SO hit or miss.

Some weeks I have a perfectly prepped meal plan, a Blue Apron box, or winging it goes smoothly. Other weeks, especially those when I’m too busy on Sunday to really think through our week, I feel out of control. That’s what happened during the first week of school!

We all know the key to smooth dinners is to plan ahead. It’s remembering to do the planning that’s the hard part. The worst thing you can do is wait until 5:00 on the day of to decide what to make, especially if you’re starving, have kids, or an unpredictable work schedule.

In the past I’ve tried my own meal plan, meal plan services, buying staples and mixing and matching, and prepping everything in advance to a T (which I did a lot more when Mazen was young). While I do love services like Vie, Cook Smarts, and Blue Apron, I have found that for the long term I really want to have more control over my meals. I like doing those services here and there – it feels like someone else is cooking for you – but week after week, I want to choose the meals I make based on flexibility, cravings, seasonal foods, sales at the grocery store, produce that someone might share from their garden, or our schedule for the week.

Sunday prep days where you batch cook and/or freeze meals are another solution to the dinnertime conundrum. Sometimes I enjoy doing the Sunday prep and getting organized for the week, but other Sundays, especially if we have a day full of plans or are traveling, prep gets pushed to the weekdays and doesn’t really get done. I have experimented with Monday prep days, and those actually have gone quite well, but ultimately I don’t want to spend any long period of time making all the meals for the week. Also, while I love the idea of having every meal for the week prepared, there are a lot of meals that I just don’t think taste as good made in advance. Pre-cut veggies sort of lose their luster by Thursday/Friday and while some meals taste better days later, some are just best fresh. I’d rather do a little bit each day, perhaps in the mornings, than a huge block at once.

House Tweaking’s Chicken Marbella was a great make-ahead dinner we had this week!

Tons of you (100?!) responded to my stories with “Girl you are not alone!” (so glad to hear that) and lots of tips. A dozen people recommended an Instant Pot! I really hesitate to buy another kitchen appliance because I’m not sure that would really solve my problems and I’m also really working on minimalism (but that’s a topic for another day!) I believe you all that they are great, and maybe someday I will trade my Crockpot for one. A few recommended Prepear as a great meal planning app, as well as Dream Dinners.

I am looking for a solution the would satisfy the following:

  • Me choosing the recipes
  • Flexibility
  • Doesn’t require a large weekly block of time for planning or prepping, but still involves some advance prep

Thus I’m thinking a combination of a monthly meal plan plus a themed day-of-the-week plus a really good bank of recipes is ultimately what I need to put together.

We sort of already to the day-of-the-week style planning. Often our weeks include:

  1. A dinner salad (usually on nights Mazen is with his dad)
  2. A fish, rice, veg dinner (possibly the most tedious one – that’s what I failed on the first day of KG)
  3. An Italian night (either homemade pizza, spaghetti, meatballs, or a Mona Lisa Pasta dish)
  4. A leftovers night (most often Thursdays when Thomas has volleyball)
  5. A dinner date for T and me (often Tuesdays; this might change drastically in October!)
  6. A weekend dinner out as a family at a restaurant, event, or sometimes hosted by us at home
  7. ??????

So we halfway have the foundation laid, but I think I just need to fine tune it a bit more. Perhaps #7 can be a soup! I also think the fish, rice, veg dinner could be a bit more specific. Perhaps this turns into “one sheet pan” night? I don’t want to go super basic with the themes because I think we would get bored of the same recipes each week, but by sticking to a theme, we can buy the staples and mix and match them as need be. I also think having 20-30 solid recipes in the bank that can be repeated monthly is much more reasonable for the palate boredom. This is basically what I do anyways!

So maybe our schedule gets revised to this:

Sundays (when we have more hands/time on deck): Rotisserie chicken with whole grain and veggie or Sheet Pan Meal, prepped after grocery store trip. (Anne just posted some great ones!)

Mondays: Italian with side salad (I could buy 4 Mona Lisa lasagna/zitis/raviolis at the beginning of each month, which are about $10 each and made from scratch, and this night would be super easy) and/or I could start making some of those great freezer meals before the baby comes and Monday could be freezer night!

Tuesday: Dinner date till baby comes, then maybe Taco Tuesday?

Wednesdays: Crockpot or soup

Thursday: Leftovers

Friday: Pizza night (either homemade or take-out in a pinch)

Saturday: Family events or a wild card meal (that we have all day make, like something special on the Big Green Egg)

With this plan, Sundays and Wednesdays would require morning prep time that I could plan for. By using Mona Lisa or quick Italian (like dry spaghetti, a pack of grass-fed beef, bagged spinach and jarred sauce), I could save prep time on Monday mornings. Tuesday/Thursdays would require little-to-no prep, at least for now.

With this plan in mind, please share your favorite one-pan dinners and crockpot soups! I will definitely do a follow-up post if we put this into action. I’m sure it will get tweaked! Also: What’s your favorite way to save recipes you come across on the ‘net? I have so many recipes saved to Pinterest boards and I forget about them when I need more!

from Kath Eats Real Food