Do you ever painstakingly make dinner and set it on the table, proud of your effort, only to have one (or more) of your kids look at the meal, look up at you, look back at the meal, back at you and then announce, “I don’t like [fill in hated food of the moment here]?” Or how about at the end of a busy day when you’re already daydreaming about putting pajamas on after the kids have gone to bed and one of your kids looks at you and says, “I’m hungry, what’s for dinner?” and you realize that you have no idea because you had forgotten all about that pesky little meal that comes around each day? What about sitting at the table, staring at the bank balance on the computer screen, wondering how you’re supposed to feed everyone three meals a day with what you have?
Yeah, me too.
While I truly believe that those first two are inevitable, in any house, let’s talk about some ways to minimize these instances. And if you’re thinking that you can’t afford to make dinner every night, I bet that we can find some ways to better fit it into your budget.
Feeding our families a healthy variety of foods is part of our job as a parent but sometimes it is just hard! My husband is a non-commissioned officer in the Army and feeding our three sons takes up a big part of our monthly budget. With a lot of planning and some extra effort in the kitchen, we have more than enough for them (though they would argue that we don’t give them nearly enough candy).
Meal planning can be daunting, especially if you think that you need to plan 30-ish different meals for an entire month. Here’s a tip to ease your mind: don’t think of it as having to come up with that many different dinners! Pick 4-6 general meal ideas, and then just do variations on those themes every week. For example, every Wednesday night, we have soup. I don’t know how it became soup night, but now it’s stuck. Soup is simple, usually cheap, and fills up even my hungry husband. Every Friday night? Family Movie Night! We rent a movie (or pick one from an online streaming service) and make our own pizza. With different toppings each week, it doesn’t feel repeatative. Pasta night, Taco Tuesday, Meatless Monday, Breakfast for Dinner Night… these are all ways to simplify your planning.
There are different ways to plan. Some people plan around the grocery store flyer, basing their meals on what’s on sale that week. You can plan two days at a time, two weeks at a time, or for the whole month, like I do. I know it’s a little nuts, but once I start I figure that I may as well fill in the whole month while I’m thinking about it. Do not feel the need to do this too. Baby steps, people.
I keep a loose “theme” for each day of the week, and start filling in the calendar. It goes surprisingly fast, once you’re used to it. But again, start small and work your way up. Once you’re in the habit, you’ll have a ton of meal ideas to work with and will be comfortable with planning. Keep your pantry and your family’s likes/dislikes in mind as you plan. Working with what you have saves money and cooking what your family will eat just makes sense.
Once you have your meal plans in place, make a shopping list. Look through your pantry and freezer to make sure you aren’t going to buy something you already have in the house. Double checking might give you some meal ideas, so be flexible with your meal plan! After you’ve got down what you need for dinners, think about breakfasts and lunches too. I tend to be a little forgetful and sometimes come home from the store only to discover that I forgot that my kids like breakfast too, not just dinner. So remember to add cereal or syrup for pancakes or whatever it is that is popular in the morning at your house. Try to anticipate toiletries, dog food, or anything else you might need from the store. I find that when my list is complete, I’m less likely to impulse buy. My impulse buys tend to be bakery oriented, so a good list helps keep my weight in check. Usually.
In some areas, the local farmers markets are a great bargain for organic and locally grown produce. Also check for CSAs (community supported agriculture) in your area. They are a great way to get fresh, locally grown produce every week, to get a variety of fruits and veggies, and to support local agriculture. Prices vary and can sometimes seem like a lot to pay upfront. But if you look at the weekly cost and your food budget it may actually be a good fit. At least take a look!
We also utilize our local warehouse store, a lot. Think Costco, Sam’s Club, BJ’s and the like. Our favorite usually has a pretty good selection of organic produce, as well as other healthy staples of our diet like quinoa, flax, and even whole milk kefir for the youngest! My boys eat like men (I’m going to need to run a small farm to produce enough food to feed them when they’re teenagers, I swear) and buying in bulk works for us because we go through the food fast enough. If you have a smaller family or lighter eaters, see if you can tag along with a friend that has a membership before committing to one yourself. You want to make sure you’ll be able to eat the food before it goes to waste or buying in bulk won’t actually save money! Although my husband would tell you that the yearly membership fee is worth it just so he can go eat samples on a Saturday afternoon.
One potential downside of buying in bulk? Your 50-pound bin of flour may prove too tempting a playground for your 19-month old. It does look like fun, doesn’t it?
I admit that I probably spend more time in the kitchen than the average woman. This is for a few reasons: I like cooking and baking (it relaxes me) so I don’t mind it and with three kids at home with me (my oldest is homeschooled and the other two are only 3.5 and 1.5 years old) kitchen time tends to be an activity for the whole family. But if you aren’t a fan of cooking, it doesn’t have to take up a lot of time! A roast chicken with root vegetables takes very little hands on time. Soups can be made in about half an hour, with little more effort than chopping up some vegetables and opening a container of stock.
If you are new to the kitchen, I suggest finding a friend (or two, or three) that enjoys the kitchen and asking him/her for one or two recipes that are easy and hard-to-mess-up. If you don’t have any of those kinds of friends, I have a handful of recipes on my personal blog that are very easy for those with little kitchen experience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and recipes! I spend a ton of time in the kitchen but I still have friends that I turn to when I want to try something new or when I have a kitchen question. Plus, most of us that love cooking also love talking to people about it, so it’s really not a problem.
Like meal planning, don’t get in over your head to start, or it will be too overwhelming. If you never make dinner from scratch, don’t think that overnight you will start making homemade meals 7 nights a week. Aim for once a week at first, and work your way up!
Do you plan your meals in advance? Share your tips with us in the comments below. With some planning and thoughtful shopping, along with just a little effort in the kitchen, soon homemade dinners can become part of your routine too!