Ending the “What’s For Dinner?” Stress: Family Meal Planning Made Easy

When I was growing up, I remember my mom picking us up from school and turning to my sister and me in the backseat, “What are we going to have for dinner, girls?” she would ask. We would look at each other and shrug. Why was she asking us? How were we supposed to know what we should have for dinner?


Now I understand. Because I work from home, I am in charge of the dinners around here, at least the weekday ones. But some days–OK, most days–I’m just so crazy trying to get my work done and manage after-school errands, homework, naps and soccer practices that by the time dinner rolls around, I am more than ready for someone else to tell me what we are supposed to eat. Even better, to prepare it and serve it to me.


Not to mention the fact that the pre-dinner hour often seems to be more like the witching hour around here. Whether it’s because my darling children are hungry or tired or just feeling ready for a rumble, it is not usually the most lovely time of day to make a quick grocery store run or even to expect them to play quietly on their own while Mom puts together a nutritious yet tasty dinner.   All too often I ended up grabbing takeout or rummaging around in the freezer for some kind of nuggets I’d bought at Costco.


Of course I had heard this idea of planning out the family meals in advance but it never sounded like anything I could possibly pull off. I visited a friend’s house once and she had a typed list on her fridge of the family menu for the week. I was impressed but never even considered trying to do the same thing. First, I was nowhere near organized enough, and second, who wanted to plan it all out in advance? How did I know today what I wanted to eat on Thursday? And what if something came up or we wanted to eat out?


But then I bought this little magnetic pad at Target, and it completely changed my mind. And, although it sounds highly dramatic, seriously improved my life.












I know. It’s just a grocery pad, right? But what makes it work for me is that it has everything in one place–the week’s meal plan and then a place for the groceries you need to buy to make that menu happen.


It just makes it so easy for me to plan out our meals in advance. I am not a natural planner, and so I need it to be easy, or I just won’t manage it. For example, last Saturday, I pulled the notepad off the fridge, laid down on the floor next to where my son was building a train track and sketched out all the meals in about 3 minutes, adding the groceries I needed to buy to the bottom of the list at the same time. Then I threw the notepad in my bag, we headed to Trader Joe’s and boom, we were done for the week.


Here’s why it works:


1. Everything’s in one place.  There’s no going to the computer to print out a menu, then checking in the kitchen for what we’ve got and then going back to the computer, and then making a separate grocery list. I take it off my fridge, make the plan, and then stick it back on there until I’m ready to go to the store so it’s not cluttering up my counter or getting crumpled up in my pocket or bag.


2. Planning it all at once allows me to see the bigger picture. For example, this week I realized I needed stock to make soup on Thursday so I decided to roast a chicken on Monday night. I also know that Monday night is the night with no soccer practice or homework due the next day, so I can be the most ambitious in my cooking that night. Planning in advance also helps me make sure I have some kind of vegetable at every meal that both kids will eat. My older son will eat most vegetables, but my younger son is picky about texture. What he does like is “cursed noodles”–pasta with kale pesto–so I try to make that at least once a week so he can eat it those nights he likely won’t eat the vegetable the rest of us are eating.

            Planning the meals in advance also helps me figure out the nights dinner has to be ready especially early or be something that can be cooked fast. (Without any planning, those are usually the nights we end up grabbing takeout). For us, those nights are usually Tuesday and Thursday because my older son’s soccer practice runs from 5:15-6:45 (I know! What were they thinking?), and if dinner isn’t made in advance or ready for us in a slow cooker the minute we get home, it’s crisis time because everyone (OK, me) is too hungry to wait.












3. It takes so much less time than any other meal plan idea I’ve tried, and certainly a ton less time than my usual M.O. of not planning at all. I grab the pad, think about what we’ve got, sometimes checking in the fridge or the cabinets, and sketch out a plan. Some weeks I get out the recipes and try some new things, but a lot of the time I just choose things that I’ve made so many times that I know the ingredients by heart. The whole planning process takes me a few minutes, and then it’s just one grocery trip rather than five, as often happens when I don’t plan out the meals in advance. Not to mention the time I don’t have to waste worrying about what we’re going to eat!


4. I only plan Monday-Thursday. That’s just four meals. Anybody, even me, can plan four meals in advance. Then the whole family can make decisions about the weekend meals. If we have leftovers, we can eat them then, or my husband can cook if he wants to. Plus we usually eat out at least one of these nights.


You know, I resisted this kind of planning for such a long time, at least in part because I like the idea of simplicity.  I didn’t want to be bothered planning things way ahead and then having to stress out to meet my own scheduled meal plan. I like being able to change things at a moment’s notice. But what I’ve realized is that not planning things out in advance DOES NOT make life more simple. In fact, not planning this aspect of family life makes everything more complicated and stressful, at least for me. And in practice it doesn’t even prevent us from being spontaneous. We can still change things up. What’s the worst that can happen? We decide to grab burritos and we eat that night’s planned meal tomorrow night instead? Oh yes, that would be truly terrible.


So what works for your family when it comes to meal planning?

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