It’s 5:30 PM and as I stare through the green tinted glass, I feel the train slow to a dead stop. I roll my eyes and start to mindlessly flip through my Instagram feed. After several minuets I hear the all too familiar voice over the loudspeaker say, “This train is operating twelve minutes behind schedule due to freight train interference, Metra apologizes for any inconvenience”. As I sit there my frustration builds and then quickly shifts to anxiety as I realize how late it is and I haven’t the slightest clue what to make for dinner. There’s nothing in our fridge, I’m exhausted, and so hungry I could cry. I feel a wave of guilt wash over me as I consider eating out.
I’m not judging myself or anyone else who eats out, in fact, I love eating out. The thing is though, sitting down to dinner at home means so much more to me than just putting food in my stomach. It’s how I connect with family and nourish my body with ingredients I control. It also provides me a welcomed creative outlet after staring at a computer screen all day.
A little bit of planning goes a long way.
In a perfect world I would prep all of my meals on Sunday, but I’m not perfect, nor does the idea of spending all day in the kitchen on a beautiful weekend day appeal to me. Realistically, I can manage to get to the store to buy the essentials and maybe wash and chop a few veggies, but that’s about it.
If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that for the past three months I’ve been writing down what I plan to make for dinner at the beginning of the week. Over that short period of time, I’ve quickly realized a little bit of planning goes a long way. I’m starting to understand that even if I don’t want to do much more than make a peanut butter and jelly, it helps to write it down and make sure I have the basic provisions at the beginning of the week.
My insights don’t included recipes (although I’ve already started to plan recipe post as a part 2), but rather a basic method to prevent dinner madness. I’ve distilled my approach down to a few steps below and I hope my findings provide you some value. Regardless if I’m using a crock pot, grill, oven or stove top, these are four actionable steps that have helped me get weeknight dinners on the table.
1. Review Your Schedule:
I take five minuets on Sunday and figure out what’s going on this week? Dinners out? After work events? A workout class? Travel? I like to save the easy stuff, like warming up left overs or making a quick sandwich, for those busy nights.
2. Take Inventory:
I try and use what I have first. I’ll shop my fridge and pantry looking for produce, meat, cheese, leftovers, other perishable items, before I shop for more. I might find a hunk of goat cheese left from a weekend party platter (score!) and I’ll use that to amp-up spaghetti with Marinara one night. Or, I might dust off that can of chick peas in the back of my pantry and slice up some celery for a humble side salad with a frittata.
3. Write down the menu:
Based on our schedule for the week, and our food preferences, I write down a simple meal for each day of the week. Simple as in – the meal comes together in about 20 minutes. I have to remember not to try and be a hero here and stick with my go-to favorites. I try to create breathtakingly simple meals, and save adventurous recipes for the weekend. This is the toughest step, but trust me when I say, it becomes easier each week.
- Remix your favorites: Pat loves tacos and rather than make the same ground beef version each week, I try and vary the combinations such as, turkey & chorizo, shrimp & avocado, or chicken. Or, I might make forgo the shell and make them into burrito bowls with rice in place of a tortilla.
- Work smart, not hard: I try to balance convenience with homemade & healthy, and sneak in extra veggies whenever possible. I might top a frozen cheese pizza with leftover grilled veggies and toss some pre washed greens with vinaigrette to along side it.
4. Prep as you go:
Using the menu I wrote down in step 3, I make a list of additional ingredients I need and head to the store (yes, I’m including grocery shopping as prep). If I have time and patience to spend Sunday prepping meals for the week, I’ll go ahead and do it. Typically, by the time I get home from the store and unload my bounty, I’m uninterested in doing much more. At that point I usually pat myself on the back for a job well done and pour a glass of wine pretend I’m sitting ocean side as I fold laundry. (A California Sauvignon Blanc pairs beautifully with a load of whites.) In all seriousness… with my menu written down and all of the provisions on hand, I’m already way ahead of the weeknight dinner game.
Prepping as I go also involves doing a little extra the night before to get a jump start on the next night’s dinner. For example, we’re having left-overs tonight, so I don’t have much to do aside from dressing some mixed greens and reheating the food. While I warm up the leftovers, I’ll cook the brown rice I’m planning to serve the next night. When Tuesday rolls around, all I’ll have to do is quickly saute the salmon and then heat-up the rice.
Don’t forget to defrost as part of your prep too! While my salmon sautes on Tuesday night, I’ll move the frozen shrimp to the fridge for Wednesday’s tacos. Those little protein powerhouses will be all set for a quick saute when I get home on Wednesday night.
A few more ideas…
- Keep a food notebook and write down your favorite meals. Then look for ways to change it up so you don’t have the same thing each week.
- Picky eaters? Gain their buy-in by asking them for help. Give them a page in your food journal and have them write down their favorite meals and favorite ingredients. Look for healthy and fun ways to vary those meals and use their favorite ingredients.
- Take a photo of your weekly menu list so you can look back at what you’ve cooked previously. Rotate your go-to family favorites and add a new dish every so often so you don’t tire of the same meals.
Additional Resources & Inspiration:
- Book: Dinner Made Simple
- Simply Recipes: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/
- Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/search/weeknight
- Pinch of Yum: http://pinchofyum.com/recipes?fwp_dinner=5-ingredients%2Cquick-and-easy
- Follow my “Everyday Food” board on Pinterest.
- Follow me on Instagram to see my weekly menu
- Some perspective: How do you eat healthy?
The most important thing to remember in all of this is to go easy on yourself. We’re all doing the best we can and sometimes the best is a bowl of cereal. It’ll get easier as you plan each week and you’ll begin to develop some mad kitchen skills. You’ve got this!!!!
…go easy on yourself, we’re all doing the best we can.
I’d love to hear from you, what are you cooking for dinner? What are your go-to meals? What are your biggest dinner frustrations?
2 thoughts on “A Simple Framework to Get Dinner on the Table”
Love this Ann!! I love seeing your IG posts and have definitely gotten inspiration from them. Lately I’ve been buying a lot of rotisserie chicken, riced cauliflower, and low carb wraps. I freeze the rotisserie in portions. With my staples I already have at home- I can make taco seasoned chicken burrito bowls with the riced cauli, add in salsa, black beans, red onions, tomatoes, cheese! Or a stir fry with the same chicken, cauliflower rice, and frozen veggie blend! Or a chicken and tzaziki rice bowl! Or a chicken wrap for lunch with feta, hummus, tomato and cukes. I try and buy things that are super versatile, but I fail sometimes and end up throwing a lot out. It’s a work in progress 🤷🏻♀️
Thanks for your feedback, Jean! It takes a lot of practice and I am continually learning. Sounds like you have some great ideas and I love your freezer strategy. Rotisserie chicken is a life saver. I’ll work on sharing more recipes and menus ideas because this topic of weeknight meals seems to be a popular one among my friends. Food waste is another important area I’m working on learning how to better control. Thanks so much for reading and following Kitchen Composure.