Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What's for Dinner?

The always hungry SoRMuiJAi
Do you hate it too? That question... the one that pops up every single day right at the witching hour.

What's for dinner?

It's almost always demanded by a kid who has just been nagging me for snacks and turned her or his nose up at whatever healthy options were offered. Most likely whatever I answer (so long as it isn't pizza or boxed mac and cheese) is going to be met with a whine and followed by "Can't we go out to eat?"

No. We are not going out to eat.


But you like chicken cordon bleu.

Oh, you don't make chicken cordon bleu? Neither do I. Although if I did it would probably be a family favorite.

Anyway... I was asked that question one time too many when my third child was an infant, because I totally threw in the towel and subscribed to a menu-planning service that came with a grocery list. You could select what types of meal preferences you had (vegetarian, kosher, etc.) and the menu list would arrive in my email inbox, weekly, complete with grocery list. All I had to do was print the whole thing out, check the grocery list against my pantry and refrigerator, and follow the directions.

It was perfect for a very intense year when I didn't care a whole lot what went into my mouth. The menu I selected was a "healthy" option created by a registered dietician, and basic enough that I could adjust it for the 5 year old and the 2 year old without having to make anything extra. For times when I had guests coming, or knew I'd have a little help, I could also purchase the directions for make-ahead freezer meals that could be pulled out at and prepared at short notice.

After about a year, though, I noticed that it was pretty repetitive. I get bored easily and by the time Quentin was two I was feeling more capable of taking back the menu-making responsibilities. I really enjoy cooking and I love to eat. I'm willing to try unfamiliar flavors and recipes and I enjoy cooking blogs, so I didn't need as basic of menu planning as what I had been using during the "barely keeping my head above water" period. At the same time my husband's travel started picking up, so six nights a week of planned dinners was a little more than my family could use. So I liberated myself.

I do my grocery shopping on Mondays. Sunday nights we all contribute our requests for the weekly menu based on the schedule for the week. Friday is always pizza & movie night, which simplifies things a lot. My four year old always asks for shrimp, which I honor once a month. I do not plan for weekends, which evolve based on opportunity. I have developed a hard line about dinner. I am not a short order cook and what is on the menu is what is offered. There is not a whole lot of compromise going on, but I'm willing to take some pasta out before adding sauce, to serve vegetables raw, or to add dressings or dips on the side, if they require little prep. Surprisingly, my kids are becoming more adventurous in their tastes, which I attribute to their having a say in the dinner plan. We talk a lot about flavors and preferences, and I am pleased to say that Quentin, who had formerly declared vegetables his "emmamy," ate three servings of roasted broccoli for dinner earlier this week.

I'm going to take credit for that achievement.

  • Friday is pizza night
  • One vegetarian dinner per week (at least) 
  • Try to aim for one meal of planned-overs during particularly busy weeks
  • Sometimes I use cookbooks or my Evernote recipe system to help with planning
  • Keep an eye on other people's menu mentions on Facebook (we usually have Taco Tuesday the week after my cousin announces it...)
  • When all else fails, raid the freezer for my husband's spaghetti stash and cut up a head of lettuce
If you don't have it in you to make your own weekly meal plan, or if you'd like to see some samples of how others manage it, there are lots of menu-planning services to choose from. Some are free, others you have to pay for. Many of the paid services include a free week or two so you can find out if their ingredients and prep times are consistent with your own preferences.

I used Saving Dinner, which is associated with the FlyLady, for anyone who might be familiar with her. It is the only one I can speak to directly, so I won't recommend any others. However, if you Google "menu planning service" you'll find a list so huge that it might make you prefer to order take out. Alternatively, you can check out the blog 100 Days of Real Food. There is a page of menu plans, and also a very informative post, "Product Review: Meal Plan Services."

 Planning meals a week in advance has saved me money -- as much as 1/3 of my previous grocery bill -- and prevented food waste. It's made the witching hour a lot less painful. It's easier to stick to my grocery list knowing that I have a plan for eating what's on the list; extra purchases are likely to end up on my thighs. I'm going to even stick my neck out and say that it's helped my kids to be more adventurous eaters (they are nagging me for a "build your own salad night" this week) and best of all, it has freed my brain up for interesting problems like the plot of the novel I'm worrying over.

How do you manage "What's for dinner?" (Please feel free to share favorite outsourcing options!!)


  1. We actually did Dream Dinners for a couple of years, but then I took my menu planning back. The kids wouldn't eat the food, we weren't saving any money, and I missed being a real foodie. It was nice while it lasted, but for us, it just didn't last.

  2. Yes, you really have to be aware of your own family's preferences to choose the plan that's right for you, but if cooking is not your thing or it's a lower priority than, say managing a two-income family and multiple levels of childcare, the right plan can be a total lifesaver. Whether or not outsourcing is the right option for any given family.