Saturday, June 11, 2011

what's for dinner?

Feeding four adults and two kids every night can be time-consuming, expensive, and exhausting.

But for our family, it’s also very important. We enjoy gathering at the table each evening to share a meal and conversation. Since we all work different jobs during the day, dinnertime is often our only chance to be together at the same time.

Before I started meal planning, we would go to the grocery store and pick up a bunch of things (some of which we needed, some of which we didn’t) to eat during the week. Then dinnertime would come and we would realize that didn’t have everything needed for any particular meal. So somebody would stop at the store on the way home. We never knew what we’d be eating, and we never knew what we had in the house. And oftentimes dinner wasn’t ready until 7 or 8, so of course the kids ate whatever we could find in the fridge before going to bed. We’d also eat out a lot when we didn’t have time to cook. It got expensive.

So when the New Year came around I decided that I was going to take control over dinnertime. Since then I’ve planned, budgeted, and cooked (or designated an alternate cook) nearly every dinner we’ve had. And I’ve found that it really isn’t difficult. Actually, it’s quite a bit easier than scrambling at the last minute to put a meal together, and considerably less expensive than eating out once or twice a week.

So how do I do it? 


First, I keep a list of meals our family likes to eat. I try to plan about 10 meals for every two weeks (because occasionally we do like to go out, and often we have leftovers). As the seasons have changed, I’ve found we eat differently depending on the weather. But there are some things that we like to eat year-round. Here is a sample of meals we might eat for dinner over a two week period:

Chicken enchiladas
Crock pot chicken
Grilled flank steak
Pulled pork sandwiches
Chicken sausage and couscous

We don't eat a lot of boxed dinner type processed food, so basically our meals are meat, veggie, fruit, and occasionally a starch (usually pasta, potatoes, or rice).

I usually go shopping on the weekend, and stock up on things when they are on sale. Some things we always get at Costco (meat, dairy, and some produce). Fruits and veggies that are in season are always on sale at the grocery store, so we buy those before the ones that aren’t on sale. We always have a veggie as a side dish (green beans, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and lettuce salads are among our favorites) and usually have a fruit for dessert (strawberries and watermelon are loved by most at our house).

I don’t usually plan ahead which meal we will have each day. It’s easier to decide in the morning and then thaw whatever meat might need to be thawed by dinnertime. I had tried planning with a calendar, but found that some meals worked better than others depending on our other plans for each day. So now as long as I know I have ingredients for all 10 meals, I can just choose whichever I want.


Cooking a whole meal after I’m done working is sometimes a daunting task. I’ve been caring for three or four children all day, and by the time I’m down to just two kids they act as if they are starved for my attention. By this time of day at least one of them is crying, and I am counting down the minutes until one of the other adults in the family is home and can relieve me of my parenting duties for just a few minutes.

So one thing I’ve learned to do is to plan meals that can either be prepared ahead of time, can be cooked in the crock pot all day, or can be cooked easily and quickly on the grill just before dinnertime. I also make extras of something one day with the intent of using them in another meal that week. For example, whenever we make chicken in the crock pot I cook two whole chickens. We eat what we want the first night, and then I shred the leftovers to use in enchiladas later in the week. When we have flank steak, the leftovers are diced and put in quesadillas another night.

~Have a Back-Up Plan~

I’m the first one to admit that I occasionally forget to put the chicken in the crock pot. Or I forget to thaw the ground beef and don’t realize until it’s 5:30 and too late. So we always have a few back-up meals that are quick to prepare and are made of ingredients we almost always have on hand. One of our favorite back-up meals is pancakes. Some others we use ofen are PB&J sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and smoothies and popcorn. With any of these, just add some carrot sticks (or another veggie) and grapes (or another fruit) and you’ve got yourself a quick and simple meal.

~Save Money~

Since we've been planning our meals we have saved hundreds of dollars each month. By checking out the local grocery ad each week before I go shopping to see what is on sale, buying produce that is in season, and knowing what items to buy at Costco we spend considerably less than we used to. But I think one of the biggest money savers is not having to shop as often. It seems that even if we would go to the store for just one thing we would leave with several items that we didn't even need. And knowing that we drink about three gallons of milk each week means not having to stop at the corner store to buy the expensive brands of milk last minute. It's nice to know we aren't wasting as much money (nor are we wasting as much food as we had been).

I will say that I tried the coupon thing and it really wasn't for me. Most of the things you find coupons for aren't things we normally eat anyway because most are processed foods filled with salt and corn syrup. But occasionally I will see a coupon for something we use, and if I happen to remember it when I'm shopping (and happen to remember to use it) then I guess that helps us save some money too. But in general, I've found that the time it takes to sort through coupons compared with the money I save isn't really worth it.

My goal over the next few weeks is to post some of our favorite recipes. I’m always looking for new recipes to add to our repertoire and I think this would be a nice place to keep them all together. Feel free to try them out yourself and tweak them to what you think your family would enjoy. And feel free to email me some of your favorite recipes as well. I’d be happy to post yours here too!

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adelantegirl said...

We love this one - and I remembered last night when I didn't feel like making dinner that I had purchased all of these ingredients! So, since it is so easy, that's what we had!

Sausage Spinach Pasta Toss
2-3 c. uncooked penne pasta
1/2 lb. mild italian sausage (I usually use about 3 links - feel free to up it slightly based on your taste)
1 can (14 oz) diced tomatoes
1 pkg (6-7oz) baby spinach
1 c. shredded mozzarella
1/4 c. shredded parmesan cheese

Cook pasta. Meanwhile, brown sausage (casings removed) in large skillet. When sausage is browned, add tomatoes and spinach. Stir until heated and spinach gets a bit wilted (about 4 minutes). Sometimes I add a squirt of Italian dressing along with the tomatoes. Or, you can buy "Italian diced tomatoes" or you can add a little of your own seasonings to the tomatoes to kick up the flavor a notch. Drain pasta. Stir pasta and tomato mixture together. Add cheeses. Serve.

Sometimes the cheese gets really gooey and the stuff kind of sticks together so you could just add the cheese on the individual bowls once you had served it.

And, since Jaden doesn't really like things mixed up all that much, I usually just pull some sausage from the pan before adding the tomatoes and separate some pasta before tossing together and give those to him with some grated cheese.

I would say for all of you, you coudl double it. As is we usually have 1 serving of leftovers with 2 adults and 1 kid eating.

Let me know if you find any other fast, healthyish, and YUMMY winners!