Dinner organizing advice from 10 large families

Getting a nutritious, warm meal on the table each night for dinner can be stressful. Even though I plan our meals each week, I still look for ways to make the process easier and run more smoothly. For advice on how to reduce the stress, I decided to interview large families to see how they manage the chaos and keep their families full.

The families: I interviewed 10 families with three or more children. Four of the families have three children, three of the families have four children, two have six children, and one has eight children. Ages range from two weeks old to seniors in high school, but all the families have at least one or more children in elementary school. In half the families, both parents work or are in school full time. In the other half, the father has a full-time job outside the home and the mother manages the business of the house. These families live all across the U.S. and they are all two-parent families.

The interviews were surprising in many ways, but what caught me off guard was how often I heard similar responses. I was not expecting there to be as many trends in the answers as there were. There seems to be an art to feeding large families, and all of the families I interviewed are accomplished artists. The biggest trend I found is that mealtime is a focus of the day for these families and dinner is not something these families just want to get through. Dinner is a valued destination and is the one time each day when these families come together as a unit.

Trends

  • Eat together. In 8 of the 10 responses, the entire family eats together at the dining table at least six nights a week. In one family, dinner is at 4:00 p.m. so the family can eat together before the kids go off to practices and lessons. The father of this family goes to work at 6:00 in the morning so he can be home by 4:00 for the family meal. Another family gives kids high-protein snacks after school to keep them from attacking each other before dinnertime at 7:00 p.m., when everyone is finally home from work and after-school activities. Irrespective of when they eat, these families place a high priority on dinners together. Most sit down to dinner around 5:00 p.m. Six of the families reported sharing breakfast together, too.
  • Eat at home. The children eat at home, and they eat food made at home. One family said they do pizza delivery six times a year for their kids, but that was the only mention of restaurants in the entire survey.
  • Weekly meal planning. All families reported doing some type of meal planning. Whether it means they plan meals based on what the local butcher and stores have on sale (almost all subscribe to the weekend paper to get coupons and sale announcements), build meals on what the CSA delivers or what is in ample supply at the farmers market, scribble meal ideas on the back of grocery lists, or use a formal meal-planning chart — they rarely fly blind. None of the families do monthly meal planning.
  • Prepare ahead. The majority of respondents said that some meal preparation is completed earlier in the day. Vegetables might be chopped or casseroles are assembled or items are put in the slow cooker or meat is defrosted hours before dinnertime (usually while preparing breakfast). In three families, fathers make their lunches and their children’s lunches for the next day while the rest of the family cleans up after dinner.
  • Shopping at more than one location. Not only did families report wanting to get the best deals, but they also want to get the best food for their dollars. Almost all families reported to buying only hormone-and-antibiotic-free meat (when they eat meat), relying on farmers markets for produce during the summer, and eating as little commercially packaged food as possible. This meant that grocery shopping didn’t happen in one weekly trip to one store, but to many locations to get exactly what they want. All families reported that the majority of shopping is done on the same day each week, but that one or two “quick trips” are made to pick up additional items later in the week.
  • Very little meat. More than half of the families said they only eat meat a couple times a week. Although cost might be part of the reasoning for this decision, health concerns and freezer space were the reported motivations. None of the families interviewed is strictly vegetarian.
  • Everyone eats the same meal. None of the families make entirely separate meals for picky eaters. A few families said they make extra portions of favorite foods for picky eaters that they freeze so if one food at a meal is refused, there is an alternative on hand. However, the child is responsible for heating up this side dish on her own and can only do so if the leftover is available. In families with children with food allergies or intolerances, the whole family follows the special diet. One responder said she tries to incorporate two new main dishes into the meal plan each week. She does this to introduce her children to new foods and new flavors, but pairs the entrees with favorite side dishes in case the meal isn’t a hit.
  • Teaching opportunity. Seven of the families responded that mealtime is also a great time to teach life skills, like organizing. Their children are involved in cooking, planning, cleaning, and even creating a food budget and shopping. One mother occasionally changes the serving sizes on recipes to have her kids work the math problems.
  • Divide responsibilities. Again, 8 of the 10 families reported that all family members help in the mealtime process. A young child sets the table, an older one slices vegetables, a third child grates cheese, one sweeps the floor after dinner, one rinses the dishes, dad loads the dishwasher, etc. In only one family do children sit and do their homework while mom and dad prepare the meal. In this family, the children are responsible for cleaning up, however.
  • The head chef. Mom is usually in the role of head chef, but sometimes it is dad and sometimes it is an older child. Irrespective of who it is, the head chef is responsible for coordinating what responsibilities each person in the family has for that night’s dinner. This coordinator doesn’t do all the work, but rather makes sure all the work surrounding mealtime is completed. One family explained the head chef’s role as being similar to a conductor’s role in an orchestra. Who will be head chef for a night is determined during the meal planning stage.

Additional advice

  • One family doesn’t use formal serving dishes, just puts the pots and pans right on the table, to save on dishwashing later.
  • Once a week, one family eats off china dishes and pretends to be dining in a fine restaurant, complete with dress code. This isn’t really organizing related, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
  • In a family with six children, favorite meals are rotated into the plan at one a week, so it takes eight weeks but each family member gets their favorite meal six times a year. Favorite meals are tracked on the central family calendar.
  • One family makes double portions and freezes half for a meal they’ll eat in a week or two.
  • Surprisingly, the only two families that relied on make-ahead services like Dream Dinners were the two families that eat in shifts and not together. Both of these families also only have three children. My guess is that price is a factor in using these services, and that they are too expensive for very large families to use on a regular basis.
  • One mother writes what the family had for dinner on a family calendar and then reviews the calendar when meal planning to make sure one food doesn’t get into heavy rotation.
  • One family has a no complaining rule and anyone who complains about the meal has to wash all the dishes by hand even though they have a dishwasher. Again, this isn’t really organizing related, but I thought it was a fun rule.
  • Only one responder mentioned making dessert each night. Dessert doesn’t seem to be a regular part of large family meals, at least for the families I interviewed.
  • I didn’t ask this question, but six families reported mom and dad go out on a date night on the same night each week. On these nights, the children still typically eat a meal prepared at home, but they eat together with a sitter or grandparent.

The responder with eight children (her oldest is only 12) summed up her mealtime perspective with a nice catch phrase: “Keep the majors major and the minors minor.” For her, the major is sitting down to a meal with her family each night. The minors are missed ingredients and foods that didn’t turn out exactly right. I believe this perspective and the insights listed above can help all of us, regardless of family size, to reduce the stress surrounding mealtime.

53 Comments for “Dinner organizing advice from 10 large families”

  1. posted by j on

    My only child (I’m a single mom) just left for college. For the last 6+ years, we ate together in the dining room on the nights he was home, almost exclusively home made meals, tho many things came out of the freezer (having been cooked in large quantities, often in the crock pot) to be paired with pasta, rice, etc. Even in our small family it took planning and coordination, but was well worth it.

  2. posted by Amandine on

    Great post; really enjoyed it. Taking care of a family of any size is a lot of work, especially if you are trying to do it well. It’s very helpful to see the amount of time & care that goes into mealtime for normal families. There’s just no getting around the need for planning & preparation if you want to eat healthy.

    I’m curious what most families are using for protein if not meat. Are they all eating tofu? Do they count fish as meat? We are trying to adjust our diet so I’d love to know what they’ve found that is palatable to all family members.

  3. posted by Diane Balch on

    @Amandine Americas seem to think they need a lot more protein than they do. You only need between 2-4 ounces a day depending on your size and age. Check out USDA My Pyramid Tracker http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/

  4. posted by Erin on

    Great read – thank you!

  5. posted by CM on

    Great post, Erin! Very informative. Thanks for the ideas.

  6. posted by Rai on

    I’m grew up in family of 10, and my parents definitely believed in only preparing 1 meal. You either ate it or went to bed hungry. And we only really had dessert on special occasions like birthdays or holidays.

    I’m surprised to hear the restaurant bit though. We went out to eat about twice a month & my parents used it as an opportunity to teach proper etiquette & behavior skills in public.

  7. posted by L. on

    Really good post. Thank you. I only wish you had sampled more families. :)

  8. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @L — I sent surveys to twice this many families, and was quite happy with having a 50 percent response rate. These are very busy families and I truly appreciate that 10 of them took time from their schedules to respond. I was most impressed with the two families that responded with children born just in the past few weeks.

  9. posted by Josh @ Live Well Simply on

    Good advice. I grew up in a family of five children and we pretty much practiced all of these ideas.

  10. posted by Hannah on

    Great info! I am one of 8 kids, and we definitely lived by the rule of eating whatever was for dinner, and her rule on eating was you have to eat some of everything and all of something. But she did allow each of us to have one food that we did not eat (mine is corn…ick!).

  11. posted by Kimberly on

    We are a small family of 3 but we incorporate many of these ideas. I think it is particularly important for everyone to eat the same meal. We have been doing this since our daughter could eat solid food. I would purée things for her at first. Now at 7 she has very few aversions. I really like the idea of pulling out the china once a week and dressing for dinner. We often eat at nice places but extra practice never hurts.

  12. posted by Pamela on

    I am a working mom of a large family and the only way I survive is by setting aside a couple days every two months to cook up enough meals to stock our freezer. Generally I make 4-6 different dishes with enough servings to last 3-4 meals. I can space them out throughout two months along with slow cooker meals and quick stir-frys so that they last last the two months. Doing this has saved my sanity and it seems to be a bit easier on the budget, especially considering that we don’t make many last minute runs to the taqueria down the street because I’m too tired to cook.

  13. posted by megan on

    I grew up in a family of four, and we followed many of these same things. We ate meat at nearly every meal, because Dad thought we should, although we often ate fish, since Dad and my brother liked to go fishing.

    My household is childless, but I incorporate many of these same things in my household. We eat at the dining room table. The table is always set. We use cloth napkins. It’s a time for getting together, enjoying conversation, as well as nourishing our bodies.

  14. posted by Liz on

    This is interesting, and thanks for taking time to do the survey.

    Here’s question though: All the organizing gurus and the nutritional gurus and the budget gurus all stress the importance of meal planning. I live a highly organized, uncluttered (generally, anyway) life, but I hate, hate, hate meal planning. I could give you a whole analysis on why this is, mostly having to do with how food became a power thing in my childhood home (ugh, the perils of self-analysis, right?), but the long and short of it is that I hate it.

    What if I’m too busy to cook what I planned to cook on Tuesday? What if I don’t want it? What if I thaw the chicken, only to get a dinner invitation elsewhere, and then it goes bad in the fridge? What if cheese seemed like a great idea a week ago, but tonight the thought makes my stomach churn?

    I’m single, so the consequences of my actions in this realm are limited, but not totally null, because I still have a budget and prefer not to eat like a college freshman. I will never be rigid about meal planning, but I wonder if you have or others have tips for someone like me who just can’t get excited about this?

  15. posted by Rindy Sherman on

    Grew up with five siblings and we lived on a working farm, so summer was wonderful. We consumed the beef, pigs and chickens raised in the fields surrounding our house. When my children were young, we ate our meals at home (breakfast and dinner) with table set and cloth napkins. They are off on their own and still plan their meals. It’s been tough downsizing from four to two, but rewarding because good habits carry onward. Children will live what they learn, observe, and understand by the example you set before them.

  16. posted by EngineerMom on

    @Liz –

    Meal planning isn’t about sticking strictly to a schedule of meals you came up with a week or a month ago. It’s about having some sort of plan in mind for the week so you know you have enough food in the house to prepare some kind of meal. Most families and singles that do meal planning keep shelf-stable ingredients for a few “tried and true” recipes on hand for those nights when whatever you planned is unappetizing or that 4:00 meeting ran late.

    Case in point: I had “scheduled” chicken soup with dumplings for dinner last night. I was planning to use leftover chicken from Sunday night’s dinner. However, everyone was hungrier than I anticipated, and we didn’t have much left over. Also, I slightly overcooked the broccoli, and DH and I are pretty picky about how we like our broccoli. I also had some mushrooms that needed to be used (originally planned for a stir-fry later in the week, but were about to go bad) and about half a cup of diced yellow pepper from something else that also needed to be used.

    So chicken soup and dumplings became broccoli cheddar soup (the only acceptable way to eat overcooked broccoli as a leftover in my book!) and toasted bread topped with cooked mushrooms and peppers, and mozzarella.

    Not what I’d planned, but a much better use of what I had on hand!

  17. posted by Melanie on

    Good article. But is 3 kids considered a large family these days? Maybe times have changed. I grew up with 3 siblings, and we were defintely not considered a large family by anyone we knew.

    I have always wanted to do better meal planning, but with two people it hardly seems worth it.

    My mom enjoys cooking; but hates having to decide what to fix for dinner. She tried all sorts of schemes for mealing planning…none lasted long. Now living alone, she doesn’t really fix meals, just food that she eats at random times of the day whenever she is hungry. If someone is coming for dinner, they simply tell her what they want and she will happily fix it since she didn’t have to decide what to fix.

  18. posted by Steve on

    Good post. In the spirit of uncluttering our schedule, my family recently implemented weekly meal planning so that my wife and I don’t have to decide everyday around 4:00 PM what to eat. We cook about 2 days/week, eat out 2 days/week and assemble prepared meals (frozen foods, leftovers, etc.) 3 days/week. My wife is a vegetarian and my pre-school daughters are picky eaters. For the past couple of weeks a weekly meal plan has worked out great.

  19. posted by Liz on

    Thanks, EngineerMom! I do keep a lot of staples on hand, but I notice that lends itself to repetition. (And cooking for one is boring!) I can see how a loosely defined structure like you’re describing can incorporate variety and help me keep my cherished flexibility.

  20. posted by Katrina on

    Some really good ideas here Erin.

    @Liz. Cooking for one takes a different type of organising. Think of what you can do to have food on hand and not wasted as being less about formal ‘meal planning’ and more about ‘avoiding food unitaskers’.

    For example – Finding recipes that use similar ingredients for very different results. Vegetables that can be used in a stir fry, and a pasta sauce, and an omelette, and a casserole. Then mix and match the meal to what you feel like

  21. posted by Sarah on

    I grew up in a family of six (four children was definitely considered a big family where I live), and dinner together has always been very important. We all ate the same meal (only one exception was that I didn’t like mac & cheese, so mum would make a mac & tuna one as well – which everyone else also ate so kind of the same). Dessert was very rare. It always looked to me like my mother decided what was for dinner at the last minute, but I suspect now that she must have had some plan in place because she rarely went shopping mid-week except for extra milk or bread.

    My husband and I now have a weekly plan – but only ever for five meals, which gives us the freedom to do whatever we like two nights a week.

  22. posted by Jodi on

    melanie, I was thinking the same thing (I have 4 children and am one of the smallest families I know). But, the advice for families with 3-8 kids is probably sufficient for most readers, as I imagine larger families have different techniques.

    Personally, I was surprised that “The biggest trend I found is that mealtime is a focus of the day for these families.” I have better things to focus on with my family than meal times, and I refuse to be a slave to my kitchen. I do a LOT of planning twice a year…I shop twice a year, cook twice a year, and do the bulk of my dishes twice a year (about two-thirds of dinner clean-up is the mess from cooking). Its not for everyone, but I personally LOVE not being in my kitchen more than 1 hour a day (prep and clean up).

  23. posted by eccoyle on

    @Liz I have always been daunted by menu planning as well. My latest strategy is to just pick three recipes for the week. The first three appealing recipes that I find, no analyzing or extensive research allowed. Print them out or mark them in the cook book and stick them on the kitchen counter immediately.

    Then I shop for those recipes but also buy the ingredients for my staple recipes. Each night I can pick one of those recipes or one of my fall backs. So, I sometimes don’t make all three recipes but then it can just transfer to the next week or transform into a different dish.

  24. posted by Tara on

    I love this post! I have two children (ages four and one), but there is a lot of good stuff here that I’ll be able to use.

    We’ve especially been struggling with a picky eater, so that advice was particularly helpful. Our standby has been oatmeal. If she refuses to eat whatever the family is eating, she is allowed to make herself a packet of oatmeal. But I really like the idea of freezing individual servings of dishes that she does like and letting her heat them up in the microwave.

  25. posted by snosie on

    Jodi – wow, twice a year is AMAZING! I wouldn’t have the space or stuff to store for that, but it’s an whole other level of organised.

    eccoyle – great advice. I used to cook for five, now one, and I went from 5-6 recipes/meals a week to 2-3 recipes (which I shop for) and again, I can use a ‘staple’ meal if I want, and I have leftovers for lunch and other dinners on busy nights. I like that you tell me not to over analyse (which I sort of had to with picky eaters and parental requirements for 5).

    Liz – I stress out about the chicken going off too – so the first meal out of the week is the most ‘dangerous’ (ie most of the stuff will go off etc). Whereas second and third meal have more ‘stable’ ingredients (like deli meats, or tubars – potatoes etc). Alas, I live on top of a shopping strip, so I can go to the butcher or grocer should I want fresh (unfrozen & defrosted) meat should I want.

  26. posted by Jodi on

    To those daunted my menu planning:

    I knew a mom who planned her menu in themes…Monday was Mexican food, Tuesday Italian, Wednesdays salad and grill burgers (or chicken or whatever), etc. That might be an idea that would compromise meal planning with non-planning.

  27. posted by Motherofpurl on

    Jodi wrote:
    Personally, I was surprised that “The biggest trend I found is that mealtime is a focus of the day for these families.” I have better things to focus on with my family than meal times, and I refuse to be a slave to my kitchen.

    Liz2 writes:
    I’m no great fan of housework either, but in my family mealtimes provide an important opportunity for us to sit down together and talk about issues as they arise.

    A modest investment in mealtimes has delivered benefits including more organised and assertive kids, and more informed decisions about major family purchases and projects.

    How do you handle such matters in your family? You seem very disciplined (shopping twice a year!) and as a semi-rural resident myself I’d be interested to hear more about what works for you.

  28. posted by Jodi on

    Snosie, I am able to fit everything in a 27 cubic foot freezer (same size as a large refridgerator). I cooked for a friend of mine after her twins were born, and we fit almost a month of food in the freezer over her fridge.

    Its amazing how much space is wasted space in most freezers. The trick is not freezing air in the way you package the food. Think how much space is wasted in frozen store pizzas!

    The space is in there…its just learning how to organize the food so you maximize the usefulness of the space.

  29. posted by Jodi on

    MotherofPurl,

    When you ask how do you handle such matters, are you talking about “more organised and assertive kids, and more informed decisions about major family purchases and projects?”

    Assuming that is correct, my response would be:

    Organized. My kids help with the cooking. It may only be twice a year, but its a new level of organization. My kids are required to do their own laundry (even the toddler has to help put her clothes in the washer, dump in the soap I scoop for her, close the lid and push the start button…she is 19 months). They clean their own rooms, my 11yo packs her own school lunch (she is in private school and there is no lunch provided), they each have a household chore that rotates monthly they are responsible for (“bathroom” is the favorite chore because its the easiest, so i’m told). They are paid an allowance, but they have to budget their money, donate 10% to charity of their choice, pay rent ($10 per month), etc. Thankfully we have systems in place for all of this…their chores take about 2 hours per week, and their allowance/budget takes about 30 minutes per month. I do not feel my kids are missing opportunities to be organized by not cooking full meals from scratch daily.

    My kids are assertive. My 14-year-old was having a problem at school earlier this year, so she wrote a letter to the school then presented her complaints (and proposed solutions) to the school board. My kids have drawn boundaries with their friends about rules in our home without damaging their friendships.

    Informed decisions about major puchases and projects: Since food is not a focus of the day (its almost not even a thought) we have that time to discuss projects, usually while working on the projects. We already have a home and cars, so we don’t make major purchaces very often. Our last “major” purchase was replacing our car after a drunk driver wrecked it, so we had insurance money. Having an organized budget certainly helps simplify purchase decisions.

    I am NOT super-woman. I have been working for two years on a paper-filing system (I think I have one finally, but implementing it is taking FOR-EVER!), and my schedule is a wreck. But my family has clean clothes, food to eat and the basic needs paid (water bill, electric bill), without a lot of stress.

    It just gives me time to stress over the things I love, like my broken sewing machine, my weed-infested garden, the paint that got spilled on the carpet during my kids last sleepover…

  30. posted by Carolyn on

    Great insights from families that place a premium on mealtime. I came to meal planning in increments. I remember after becoming a SAHM after my first child was born and the 4:00 scramble for dinner. Then I decided that I must know what I was preparing for dinner by 10:30 every day.

    I remember my husband calling me one morning and I asked him what we should have for dinner. He told me he couldn’t think about dinner at 10:00 in the morning and I realized that I think about dinner all day. Dinner and laundry were always lurking in the back of my mind.

    Meal planning and completing one load of laundry a day, first thing in the morning freed my mind to attend to anything and everything else in my world. In short, I’m a mess without meal planning.

    Now if I could get a handle on my millions of photos…….

  31. posted by Marie on

    @Liz, I’ve done two things that help me with even nominal meal planning.

    I keep a running list of my favorite meal ideas – both simple and elaborate – on my fridge or nearby after I found myself wracking my brains at the last minute a little too often. Now if I am stuck for inspiration, I peek at the list.

    I also keep a pair of small white boards on the fridge, one for my grocery lists, and the other for my weekly menu ideas. I rough out the week, and it helps me plan when I need to get this or that ingredient or use up leftovers, and also focus when I need to remember what to prep. I’m free to shift gears depending on the circumstances. I <3 my white boards.

  32. posted by Kevin Lindsey on

    We have 4 children as well (now all grown) but we employed a lot of these strategies as well. As my wife said though, it wasnt strategy it was survival!(ha) We emphasized mealtime as well, not so much to be a slave to the kitchen but as a time we could all be together during the day. Only one meal was served and the choice was take it or leave it. We did require everyone to take at least a teaspoon of everything to try it, but didnt force it down their throats. Everybody had kitchen tasks to do as well. And we wrote what we had on the calendar, not so much to avoid repeats as to remember when we had what when it came to leftover night.

  33. posted by organizingwithe on

    Great article! Shows how planning can really make life easier – especially at mealtimes. We too sit down for dinner every night, but we make it a conscious choice. My kids opt not to do any activities that take place at dinner time. We value the family meal more then whatever activity may be taking lace. After all, 10 years from now, which will make more of a difference in their lives – baseball practice for a team they are no longer on or a strong family unit?

    I also do menu planning, but with a twist – I write down the daily menu for all to see. Saves time & words! How to here – http://bit.ly/vHr1nl

  34. posted by Sue on

    I’m amazed at the number of families I know where everyone eats dinner separately. The mother gets home, feeds the kid or kids, later eats her dinner, and then, even later, the husband decides he’s hungry and cooks his own dinner.

  35. posted by Shalin on

    Really good post – we can all take away something from this no matter how big/small a family we have…or even if we’re single.

    I remember dinner with family was a kind of “daily ritual” that I thought everyone did until I got to college and found out differently. I find it’s definitely something I miss and try to recreate with dinner/cooking clubs amongst friends.

    @Erin – This would probably lead to an add-on post, but did any of those family have rules or strategies for dinner regarding technology (cell phones, etc.)? When I go back home and have dinner w/my family I leave my phone in my room, but sometimes we’ll put some music on.

  36. posted by cindi on

    Love this post! We have two children (high school and middle school) and already do much of what you suggested. But will definitely incorporate several other things, like the complaining consequence, head chef, deliberate favorite meal rotation, “formal” dining, and more conscious teaching opportunites for life skills (primarily organizing and appreciation).

  37. posted by Sara on

    When my two boys were around 12 and 14, we tried a system where each member of the family had to plan and cook a meal one night each week (with mom handling the other nights). The boys and husband each had to provide a grocery list for their meal on Saturday and pick a night to cook. I helped with prepping the meal, and used the time to teach some planning skills (start the rice before you begin cooking the stir-fry so it will be done in time, etc.). It worked well for a couple of weeks, but failed because we didn’t enforce it.

  38. posted by Anita on

    Wow, that is quite a thorough survery. Thanks, Erin, for a very informative post.

    I’m impressed by how much concerted effort these families put into ensuring meal times are family time. Not coming from a large family, I didn’t grow up with this imperative, but I imagine managing 3 to 8 kids makes this kind of coordination quite vital to keeping the peace :)

    For my part, while there are some great tips on here even for small families, I’m enjoying the flexibility and freedom of not having big meals to plan every day.

  39. posted by hkw on

    I can see that eating out would be prohibitive with more than a couple of kids, but I hope that’s not the norm!

    We are also serious about family dinner — and I love to cook — but we also don’t want to give up our love of dining out or trying lots of different kinds of foods because we’re parents. Fortunately, because of repeat exposure, our 5-year-old loves all kinds of Asian foods — Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, sushi — so those are treats to either eat out or get as takeout. And meeting friends at the neighborhood Mexican joint Friday nights is a family ritual, too.

    As much as food IS a focus for me, I wish that more people realized it’s getting people to the table that’s more important than what’s on it. Thanks for getting the discussion started!

  40. posted by Jo@simplybeingmum on

    All sound advice…we are only a family of 4 but planning is key to an organised dinner at our house. Routine and structure works wonder when it comes to food, and also helps reduce waste. I have a menu board in the kitchen and the dinners for the week are written on bistro style – that way everyone knows whats on the menu and there’s no ‘I don’t want that’…
    This is how we do it at Chez Wrightincluding organising what food gets purchased!

  41. posted by Kevin Lindsey on

    Regarding Shalin’s question about technology, I cant speak for the other families but with iur 4 kids we made it a point of not having technology involved, so that the family time would be just that without distractions. We didnt have to contend with cell phones, but the TV was off, and walkman’s, hand held video games, or any other such thing was not allowed. The focus was on each other, and then we could talk was going on in their days.

  42. posted by Kevin Lindsey on

    Oops…too fast typing. It should say “talk about what was going on in theeir days” and “iur” should be “our”

  43. posted by deb on

    Interesting observances. It is heartening to see that these families are all doing things that make family time a priority. However, these are larger families than the norm, so one could say that by having 3+ kids the decision was made that family comes first. I like that meals are unifying. Too often I think splintering members off due to work/sleep/school/social schedules, convenience, food preferences, television, and other needs and distractions adds to making meals a lot more work. If everything is a routine a habit can be developed to efficiently get the majority of the work done. If dinner has to begin with extensive negotiations about who is where, who wants what, whether the meal can be prepped…well, you can see why it’s just easier to go through the drive in.

  44. posted by Jess on

    My husband and I started planning weekly meals when he lost his job a few years ago. We found that we were able to budget our money more carefully this way, and we always knew we had something delicious at home to eat. We continued this habit after he found a new job just because it worked so well for us. Typically, while one of us is cleaning up from dinner the other is packing lunches for the next day and doing the prep work for the next night’s meal. It cuts the time from doorway to dinner table in half or more. We do try to build in some flexibility for unexpected late meetings, etc, but we generally have staples on hand to put together a simple meal in a hurry. Once a week we have what we call a UCAN meal. U CAN find it, U CAN eat it. It’s a great way to get rid of leftovers and use those odds and ends that aren’t enough for a full meal for two. We generally each come up with something creative and delicious. In fact, one of our favorie pasta dishes was my husband’s creation on a UCAN night!

  45. posted by snosie on

    Jodi – I have a 8.8 cubic feet sized fridge AND freezer, so I agree there’s space, just a lot less! But there’s only me, so that’s OK

    Marie – love your idea, I’m working on it. When I was cooking for my family, I started to ask ‘should this be on the top 20 list?’ (Figured 20 was a good number for a season/half year, seeing we only really eat at home properly 5 nights a week, so that’s almost a month)

  46. posted by WilliamB on

    @Liz: I, too, was put off by the rigid-sounding process and lack of spontenaity implicit in the phrase “meal planning.” Some months ago I realized I’d stumbled into a different way to meal plan, just as ECCOYLE had.

    Short version: I make a list of what I want to cook next, then shop for ingredients I don’t already have.

    I don’t assign days. I usually decide the day before which recipe I’ll make. I don’t defrost meat more than a day ahead, using the microwave to mostly defrost (so the meat doesn’t get cooked around the edges) and finishing in the fridge overnight. Sometimes I do advance prep as well, mixing sauces and chopping veg.

    Between my half-assed planning and reviewing the fridge once a week to see what needs to be used up, I hardly waste any food now and avoid the 6 pm rush.

  47. posted by Motherofpurl on

    @Jodi
    Thanks for sharing how your organise things in your family. Your kids do indeed come across as organised and assertive.

    You don’t say when you get together as a family to help your kids work things through, but in my family we use mealtimes. The key work here is time. Where we eat, what we eat and who makes it is a separate issue.

    I don’t know any mothers who have the time to cook full family meals from scratch daily or who expect their kids to do it daily. Like you, we all have more important things to fit into our lives! All the best…

  48. posted by Jodi on

    @motherofpurl: We discuss problems/successes/daily events in the car when we visit grandma, before bed or before school, after homework and before dinner (for example, instead of spending an hour cooking, we spend 2 minutes putting a lasagnia in the oven and talk over a game of blockus or checkers) etc.

  49. posted by Toya on

    I really enjoyed this post. I would like to see similar posts of this variety, like, their laundry routines, or the chore chart. I have a difficult time meal planning. It’s just me and my husband, and we subscribe to e-mealz.com but I rarely prepare the meals due to time managment issues (I work 2 jobs and am often too tired). But I would like to get out of the fast food routine. So this post is very insprining to me. Good Job!

  50. posted by Chaotic on

    This is a great post and discussion.

    I grew up in a nuclear family, but being old school working class migrant, family mealtimes were a must. Mother was head chef and everyone else assisted with reheating, vegie preparation and the clean up afterwards.

    Saturday was major cook-off day with a huge pot of soup and a meat-based main meal prepared. This was eaten for the next 5 days, with just fresh veg and sides added – how’s that for organisation. And there was no complaining permitted.

  51. posted by Gillian on

    Excellent post. I shall recommend it to others, particularly if I’m encouraging planning.

  52. posted by Monique on

    Great post, and I really enjoy the rest of the site as well. I am a SAHM of 3 boys (8, 6 & 3) and I hate meal planning but it sure saves sanity. The method I use that is a bit different is that I keep a spreadsheet of recipes we’ve enjoyed, categorized by type of meat used, vegetarian, sides and salads, etc. This list has the name of the menu item, where I found it (often online, Martha Stewart Everyday Food is a fave), what it goes with and any amendments I’ve made. It sounds a bit OCD, I realize, but when the dreaded meal planning day arrives, I just pick a meal from each category and I get variety of ingredients for the week as well as variety throughout the month. I also regularly try new recipes for a change of pace, and to keep the list fresh.

    Additionally, a good friend and I bulk cook together when we can (at least every couple of months is ideal). Having some frozen meals at the ready is a lifesaver when you miss that weekly trip to the store, and don’t want to order out.

    I should also mention that these methods appear to keep my grocery bill MUCH lower than that of most of my friends. I credit the planning.

    (sorry if someone mentioned these ideas already; I didn’t get through all the comments as I’m busy making dinner!)

  53. posted by JMK on

    I rarely freeze a finished meal, but I prep and freeze what I call meal components. When ground beef is on sale I get 10lbs. I fry it all and put it in 10 freezer bags. How many recipes do you have that start of with “brown a pound of ground beef…”. Doing it all at once get the grease over with and makes dinner quick. If I’m organized I take the bag out of the freezer in the morning to defrost in the fridge all day, but if not I just unzip it and microwave for 2-3 minutes. It can become tacos or spaghetti sauce in 20 minutes while the table is being set and a salad made.
    When green/red peppers go on sale I buy 10-20 and slice or chop them. I freeze them on wax paper on a cookie sheet and then dump them into a freezer bag. After that I just grab a handfull out when I make western omlettes, pizza, spaghetti sauce or stir fry.
    We meal plan but don’t generally assign meals to certain days. Most days we cook extra of some part of the meal and use the intentional left overs in another meal. It’s a rare thing to have an entire meal started fresh that night. A whole roasted chicken one night generates the leftovers that become enchiladas, or tetrazini. Extra pasta from one night gets butter and parmesean cheese to become a side dish the next. Anytime I can cook a little extra that eliminates a task completely anther night is great.

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