Monday, April 22, 2019

Dinner Planning Made Easy

Is there any question more dreaded than "What's for dinner?"

The one thing I hate more than thinking about what's for dinner every night, is making multiple trips to the grocery store during the week. I try real hard to make that trip a one stop shop which means that a little planning is in order, so every Sunday I sit down and think about what we have going on that week and what healthy meals I will make for the family. A couple of weeks ago I realized I spend way too much time on this task and I don't really enjoy it.

Since I have been on a mission to simplify my life, to find the things, commitments, obligations, etc. that I spend way too much time and energy on with little to no payback for me (either in the karma or joy department), it was only a matter of time before I tackled dinner.

Where was the time suck? Well, I had to think about what I could make, go through recipes I pulled or pinned, and try to remember what we had in the last few weeks so I didn't do a repeat. Then I had to think about how much time things would take to make because on some nights I didn't have as much time as other nights. 

What I often failed to plan for were the nights that I strayed from the menu because I was too tired or didn't feel like spending that much time in the kitchen, so we made sandwiches or breakfast tacos for dinner then I later guiltily threw out the food that I bought for those abandoned recipes.

Then I had to face a hard truth. I am not Julia Child. I do not derive joy from tinkering in the kitchen. That is not my thing. It is, however, one of those things that I wish I liked doing. I wish I was that Mom who whipped up new and delicious things in the kitchen and loved it, but I'm not.

Was my family putting pressure on me to come up with new and exciting meals? No, I mean clearly they were living on sandwiches and breakfast tacos more than fantasy me would like to admit, so this perception of who I "should" be was a weight I chose to carry all on my own, and it was time to put it down and stop worrying about what I thought other people might think of fantasy super mom me. 

Lighter, brighter, real me was ready to simplify this whole process, the menu planning, grocery shopping, and food prep.

First, I made a list of all the things that I know we liked and that were mostly healthy. The list ended up being a mix of things that were super quick and simple, and ones that were more labor intensive.

Second, I categorized them into the following categories:

Bowls (these are things like Buddah Bowls, rice and beans,Shrimp, greens, polenta,  - a mix of food that I put into a bowl that doesn't go into the other categories)
In case of Emergencies (quick sandwiches and cereal) Emergencies have included my husband not being home for dinner, so just me and the kids, and me wanting to finish a book I was almost done with. Fantasy Mom felt guilty, I didn't.

You can make up any categories you like. This is how I like to mix it up so I don't feel like I am making and eating the same things over and over, but you can do anything that makes sense to you.

Some other ideas:

Things that take 15 minutes or less to make
Freezer meals (things you pre-made and froze and are ready to cook)
Instapot/Crockpot dinners
Casserole Sundays
Meatless Mondays
Taco Tuesdays
Friday Make your own pizza night
Chicken Dinners
One Pot Dinners

Whatever works for you. The idea being that on Sunday or whenever you plan you trip to the store you zip down your list, and pick your 7 meals for that week.

After I put all my favorite things down into the list I realized I had way more dinners than I realized (50+ different meals), and that I didn't make my favorites as often as I would like because I was too busy trying new things.

I also realized everything went faster because I was familiar with those recipes, so I knew what I needed to buy, and what I already had on hand. Also, I could tweek things here and there as necessary if I wanted to mix it up or if I simply forgot to pick something up at the store.

I didn't have to think about what we had last week because it was all there on the list.

One thing that has also helped speed things up - the Alexa app. Alexa has a shopping list feature and when we run out of a staple like olive oil or chocolate chips, whoever uses it up adds it to the list and I check the Alexa shopping list before my store run, but if I forget the Alexa app with shopping list is on my phone. The family has been much better at keeping up with this then they were about physically writing it on the shopping list.

I also created a menu and shopping list in Evernote and have it on my phone, so I always have my list with me, and it is organized in categories as well.

My meal planning and grocery list making takes 5 minutes now. My grocery store trip in done in 30 minutes. I spend zero time during the week thinking about dinner while not actually making dinner which leaves more time on things I do enjoy, like reading, which means less chance for emergency cereal while I squeeze in that last chapter (or maybe not, I'm improved, not perfect.)

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