Meal planning for family dinners

We live in a culture awash in busy-ness, and getting a family together every evening can be a challenge, particularly when fall and all the school activities kick into full gear. But plenty of research suggests that one of the most important things you can do for your kids is to prioritize family dinners. According to the Family Dinner Project, founded by professors at Harvard University, families reap benefits that extend well beyond the dinner table. In very young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary, even more than being read to. Intellectual benefits continue to pay off as children grow. And a growing body of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are more resilient and self-assured.

Planning and executing a weekly meal plan can mean just another thing on the endless to-do list, but it doesn’t have to be hard or take much time. If you tackle it once a week, you’ll save money, eat healthier, cut your time behind a shopping cart, and best of all, get to enjoy one another around the dinner table.

Pick a day every week, scan the calendar, pull up the grocery store ad, and take an inventory of what you have on hand. Scanning the ads and planning your main meal item around what's on sale can save hundreds of dollars a month with minimal effort. And since Montana weather is unpredictable, you can even look at the forecast to avoid serving a hearty stew on an 80-degree day. Then, start filling in the blanks.

A large, prominently displayed chalkboard with a basic description of each evening's menu keeps everyone on track and easily answers the dreaded "what's for dinner" question. I used to write the plan on the grocery list on Sunday, only to lose the list by Tuesday, and have no clue what was planned for Friday, so we'd end up scrounging in the pantry or eating fast food. Having a permanent spot where it's all written down has completely solved that issue.

If you're going out for the soccer team's pizza party, write that on the board. Slow cooker dishes are ideal when everyone gets home late and is rushed for dinner. Warmer days get assigned a barbecued entree, salad, or pasta that won’t heat up the kitchen. Conversely, on cooler days, skip the chilled salad and fire up the oven. Days when the primary cooks have evening plans and won’t be home call for freezer meals. If you happen to change plans at the last minute, save that planned meal for the next day or for another time that works.

Involve your kids. Ask them for meal ideas, take them shopping and discuss the importance of budgeting and sticking to the list. If they’re a little older, they can help prep food too. This also offers a great bonding time in the kitchen.

Once you get a routine started, planning meals for the week should take about 15 minutes. Look at the recipes, make your grocery list and hit the store just once a week, with a quick stop for staples like bananas, fresh vegetables, and milk mid-week. Buying meat in bulk from warehouse stores means you’ll always have some in the freezer, which cuts down on shopping trips. Find vegetables that you know your family will eat and pair them with any dish on the menu. Keeping things like rice, instant mashed potatoes, and other pantry essentials on hand is always helpful, so stock up on non-perishables when they go on sale. 

Having a few prepared meals in the freezer can make a difference between fast food dinners on the run and a nutritious meal at home. The Pinterest promises of making ten meals in an hour can be daunting, but making double portions is very doable. You're cooking anyway, so double the recipe and freeze the second serving, check online to make sure it will hold up well. This works especially well with stews and soups, but check the web for thousands of freezer meal recipes and storage ideas. 

Keep it realistic and remember that habits can take weeks or months to form. Happy cooking!

Here are a few recipe ideas for crazy weeknights:

Chicken fried rice freezer meal: Make a triple batch of teriyaki chicken (depending on family size, this is about 6-8 chicken breasts) in a slow cooker; cook three or four cups of rice on the stove. Cool everything off and then divide the rice and chicken between three, one gallon-sized freezer bags. Keep a few bags of chopped peas and carrots in the freezer. When you need a meal, fry the vegetables and a scrambled egg in a little sesame or vegetable oil, then add the chicken and rice. Sprinkle with soy sauce and dinner is on the table in about 10-15 minutes.

French dip/Shepherd's pie: I love this one because it takes about five minutes each night and you get two meals. Put a beef roast in the slow cooker, add a can each of French onion soup, beef broth and beer; cook for 8-10 hours on low. Shred all of the meat and divide in half; the first night, ladle some of the broth into some small bowls. The beef goes with Swiss cheese on hoagies for French dip sandwiches. After the meal, turn the remaining broth on high heat and whisk in some flour to thicken it up. Put the remaining shredded meat into a casserole dish, layer with a bag of frozen mixed vegetables and pour the gravy over the top. Top with instant mashed potatoes and refrigerate to throw in the oven for another night.

BLTs and salad.

Alaska salmon (yes, kids will eat this!): Put salmon filets skin-side down in a lightly greased baking dish; mix a spoonful each of honey, mustard and melted butter; brush this on the top, then top with breadcrumbs and crushed pecans and bake at 400 degrees until the fish flakes easily, usually around 10 minutes. Serve with rice pilaf and a green vegetable.

Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s August 2018 issue.

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article and photo by Stephanie Hobby