Dinner time, two ways — Fresh ideas for meal planning

Jen and I were exchanging ideas about making life easier the other day and realized that we have dramatically opposed notions about meal planning. What sounds efficient to her sounds draconian to me, and I’m sure my structure-less “plan” sounds like a recipe for chaos (or at least takeout) to her. So we decided to share our two methods to see if they inspire you to shake up your routine (or adopt one in the first place). Or maybe you have a third way we should consider?

Jen: Plan meals by the month

Happy dinner table boyI’ve been meal planning by the week since a few months after Owen was born and I realized, with no small amount of despair, that we had to eat at home every. single. day for the next 18+ years. For a couple who once thought of nothing of a three-hour restaurant dinner with an entire bottle of wine on a Tuesday, this was more than a little shock to the system. Add to that a family in which three out of four members are scarily hypoglycemic, and dinner better be on the table within 30 minutes of walking in the door or it’s gonna get ugly around here.

Since going back to work this fall, I’m trying a new strategy: meal planning by the month. I realized that I hated that weekly chore, putting it off all weekend and then giving up altogether in favor of TV and red wine, resulting in pancakes for dinner on Monday and shopping on the way home from work on Tuesday. Plus, I love new recipes and collect them voraciously, so maybe planning by the month would unearth them from the depths of my binders, Pinterest boards, and baskets and get them onto the table.

This takes less time than weekly planning, and I make Scott choose recipes with me. I don’t use any special tool, just a blank Word calendar and a binder on the counter. I put all the recipes for the month into the binder, in order, in page protector sleeves. (If the recipe is in a book, I actually put a note in the sleeve for that date with the book title and page number of the recipe. I don’t count on myself to remember anything.)

Best part of this system: Scott’s home first and can start the meal prep; sometimes he even finishes the whole meal. Worst part of the system: That means I’m on dishes.

Breanne: Skip meal planning altogether

After many failed attempts, I’ve finally made peace with the fact that meal planning does not work for my family. For us, meal planning turns cooking dinner into a chore. At best, you’re merely crossing an item of your to-do list. Instead, we like the spontaneity and fun of figuring things out as we go.

We shop generally for things we like (and yes, sometimes for all the ingredients for a certain recipe), but we tend to leave what we actually have each night up to chance. Then every night you are a HERO — it’s a surprise and we are delighted with the creative genius that prompted us throw those items together.

dinner table

This doesn’t mean you can’t prep stuff the night or morning before. After all, you get points for coming up with the idea and executing it. And sure, sometimes it backfires and we have frozen pizza or go out. But I like being able to listen to what sounds good that night (or what was in season at the grocery store, or on sale). And I like not having to sit down and plan meals and check the cupboards and run to multiple grocery stores.


There’s a million ways to do this, but only one right one: the one that makes family dinners work for you.

Blythe at table

P.S. from Breanne…

Real truth: when I was getting ready to put together this post I snapped some photos of us at dinner, but looking at them I realized how cluttered and messy our dinner table had become. So I made a clean sweep and took a moment to dig out some seasonal table decor. What a difference this small chore has made in making me feel peaceful and put together.

Also, I feel the need to explain why we are eating only lentil soup for dinner. We often eat in courses, which is a fancy way of saying that sometimes the entire dinner isn’t ready at the same time or we have our first “course” as we prepare dinner together.

P.S. from Jen: My real truth

Breanne has had this post done for at least three weeks, and she’s been waiting on me, Miss I-Plan-a-Month-Ahead, to get a usable photo of my family at dinner. I had a lot of excuses, among them: my phone was not up to the lighting challenges of my kitchen (true), I had a big party and spent all my time testing recipes while my boys ate cereal for dinner (and then of course we had to eat all the party leftovers), I had to leave my family to their own devices because I had fancy-dress shopping emergencies, I just forgot, and on and on. So I’m either something of a fraud on the plan-ahead lifestyle, or it’s just evidence that I’m fine with punting on dinner when life gets in the way.

And here’s the real truth about tonight’s oh-so-delicious curried chickpeas with sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and kale, as experienced by my seventh-grader:

IMG_4735He ate it, though, all of it.

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