What’s for dinner?

I think the question that every parent dreads is, “What’s for dinner?” But beyond creating a plan for the evening meal, you can save time and money by planning your entire menu. Menu planning will also help you achieve other goals such as eating healthier. Here are some tips to get you started.

Determine health requirements

Health requirements vary by individual. Size, age, and physical activity all factor into determining calorie requirements. Some people may prefer to consume all of their calories in three large meals per day. Others, especially children, may prefer to get up half of their daily calories in snacks between smaller-sized meals so it is important that these be healthy snacks.

Take a look at a healthy eating chart. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has links to food guides in many countries around the world. Many guides will provide nutritional information for infants, children, youths, pregnant and nursing women, etc.

Estimate how much everyone in your family needs to eat based on the food guide recommendations. For example, you may need to prepare five servings of fruits and vegetables per child but up to 10 servings per active teenager.

Note any dietary restrictions such as religious observances, allergies, or intolerances. (Download this interesting pdf explaining allergies, intolerances, and food labelling!) Many grocery stores are expanding their selections of allergen-free foods as well as Halal and Kosher foods.

If you have certain preferences make sure they are noted. Some children can be picky eaters and what they like or do not like can change on an almost daily basis but if there is anything that is a definite no-go, (I hate beets!) cross those recipes off your list.

Consider seeing a professional to help you get started. Your family health care plan may include a consultation with a nutritionist or dietitian. If so, take advantage of this to help plan your menu.

Go through your cookbooks

Browse through your cookbooks and pull out any recipes that your family loves. You may have meals that you prepare on a regular basis without recipes. If so, list out all the ingredients for those meals. Note any ingredients in any of the recipes you wish change. For example, you could add chopped carrots or celery to a spaghetti sauce or substitute milk for cream in a cheese sauce.

Do you want to try some new recipes? Go right ahead but ensure you give yourself lots of time to prepare that meal. I would also recommend that you only try one new recipe per week — just in case it turns out to be too much work to prepare or your family doesn’t like it. If the new recipe is a big success, feel free to incorporate it into your menu plan in the upcoming weeks.

Create a master grocery list

Make a master grocery list of all of the ingredients to all of the meals you have chosen including meals other than dinner. Remember to include snacks such as fresh fruit, granola bars, etc., and other foods not found within recipes (e.g., breakfast cereal).

I have found preparing a list in a spreadsheet helpful. Create one column for the food item, another for its category. You can then sort foods by their category. It will make it easier to do the grocery shopping.

Planning the plan

Check the calendar. Families have busy schedules so look at your calendar and decide which nights of the week you have time to cook. A 30-minute meal may be perfect for Wednesdays when you’ve got some time between getting home from work and taking the kids to music lessons. A crock-pot meal might be just the thing when you have a bit of extra time in the morning to throw ingredients into the slow cooker.

Choose recipes with common ingredients. Preparing several meals during the week that use the same ingredients will avoid wasted food. For example, you might want to prepare spaghetti sauce, stir-fry, and soup in the same week to use up the entire bunch of celery. An occasional Caesar cocktail/mocktail will help finish up those celery stalks too.

Prepare more than you need when you can. When you’re chopping fruit and vegetables for a meal, chop extra for lunches and snacks the next day. Cook twice as much and use it the next day. For example, bake extra chicken breasts to use in sandwiches or casseroles the next day. Cooking more than you need for dinner will allow you to use leftovers in lunches on the following day.

Time savers: Pre-cut fresh and frozen vegetables and packages of grated cheese might be a bit more expensive but they will save you meal preparation time. Use free time on the weekend to make soups, casseroles, or other freezer meals, slice and dice garlic and onions, and wash and chop lettuce and other salad ingredients.

ALWAYS have a back-up meal planned

Ensure you always have the ingredients for a 30-minute meal ready. This could be something as easy as mac and cheese or a store-bought frozen casserole. Because no matter how much you prepare, at some point, something will go wrong. You will come home from work to find the electricity was off and your crock-pot full of raw meat and vegetables has been sitting at room temperature all day or your casserole dish will explode sending shards of glass all over the oven. (Both have happened to me.)

If you have any meal planning tips, feel free to share them with readers in the comments section.

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