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.

How many salad dressings are enough?

Salad DressingNot to pick on my mother or mother-in-law, but they both have an odd habit of collecting salad dressing in their refrigerators. The salad dressings may start out neatly lined up on the refrigerator’s door, but they somehow end up in the back of the main shelves never to see the light of day before they expire. With a quick inventory of my refrigerator, I count two dressings. For our family, that is reasonable. If you’d like the choice of six to ten dressings, go to a restaurant. Stocking your fridge full of dressing is overkill.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to do an inventory of your food supply. You may be a bit embarrassed when you find out how much you actually have in you fridge, but there is an easy way to curb your inventory. Stop buying more dressing. (Heck, make your own.) Before you head to the grocery store take stock of what you need and make a list. If you have more than one dressing per household occupant, then you most likely don’t need any more. So when you head out to buy groceries you may want to skip the salad dressing aisle.

I guess taking aim at salad dressings isn’t fair. I’m sure there are many condiments that can be purchased in over abundance. The main thing to take from this post is to make a shopping list when heading to the grocery store. Making a list and sticking to it will help curb your appetite for more food.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

What to do with all that Halloween candy

1610_candy_chemistryIn one week’s time, many of us will find an unwieldy pile of candy on the kitchen table. Or spread across the living room rug. Or even, if your kids are like mine, stuffed inside a plastic pumpkin mixed in with empty wrappers, discarded boxes of less-favorable raisins, and utterly forgotten pencils.

Halloween is almost here.

I love Halloween and I enjoy trick-or-treating with the kids. Heck, I’ll even grab a few peanut butter cups out of their stashes. But as a veteran of the holiday, I know the routine: within a few days, this candy will be forgotten about and left to collect dust. What is there to do with this sugary clutter? Actually, a lot.

Now, before I get started with a list of what you can do with that leftover Halloween candy, a note: I’m not saying, “Take your kids’ candy away!” While I realize that sugary snacks are often nutritionally bankrupt, I also want kids to enjoy the brief time that they get to be kids. If that means scarfing down a Pixie Stick or two (or ten), great. Have fun. In this article, I’m referring to that abandoned pile that becomes clutter. That said, let’s get to it.


  1. Freeze your favorites. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Exactly what’s fun about those tiny, ‘Fun Sized’ candy bars,” here’s the answer. When frozen, they’re fantastic. Put a few in the freezer for a frozen, out-of-sight treat for weeks to come.
  2. Cooking. Whip up some M&M cookies, chunky brownies or what-have-you. My favorite recipe for leftover Halloween candy is Trash Bark. Melt some chocolate, dump in the works and enjoy a holiday bark that puts the peppermint variety to shame.
  3. Transfer it to another holiday. Put some candy aside for an Advent calendar, gingerbread house or piñata filling.


  1. TroopTreats gathers and ships items needed and appreciated by troops who are serving our country abroad. Help them feel a little of that Halloween spirit no matter where they are with a donation of holiday candy.
  2. Do a buy back! Many business — especially dentist offices — will collect unwanted candy and distribute them to members of the military.
  3. Ronald McDonald House charities gladly accept Halloween candy every year, for distribution among the families of the severely ill children that they serve.

Learn Food Science

Did you know that you can paint with Skittles, practice prediction skills with candy bars or blow up balloons with Pop Rocks? Maybe the kids are strong-willed enough to discover exactly how many licks it does take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. You can do these things and more, while showing the kids how to have unexpected fun with candy. Of course, if you’re enjoying the science and want to explore even more, a kit like Candy Chemistry is a lot of educational fun.

There are a few ideas. If you’ve got a great solution that I haven’t thought of, sound off below. And quickly, before I secretly eat the whole stash!

Become a more organized cook with modified mise en place

Years ago, when I was just a lad, I would watch my dad assemble birthday presents, grills, lawn mowers, and whatever else was not assembled at the factory for customers. He always followed the same organized procedure, which I still use today:

  1. Read the instructions all the way through before beginning.
  2. Lay out each part in a tidy row, ensuring that all required pieces are available.
  3. Identify and locate all of the necessary hardware and/or tools.
  4. Find little containers to hold tiny screws, bolts, and other bits that had the potential of getting lost.
  5. Lastly, make sure there’s enough room to spread out and work.

Only after satisfying all five steps would he begin working. It’s how I do things today, and how I recommend working on anything that has “some assembly required.”

I’ve taken this same approach and applied it in the kitchen, through a modified mise en place. When I’m getting ready to cook from a recipe, I:

  1. Read the recipe all the way through. Just like when you’re assembling a bicycle, you don’t want any surprises once you’ve started. Reading the recipe thoroughly before beginning will identify all the techniques, hardware, and ingredients you’re going to need.
  2. Find and prepare all of the hardware. This step is where you’ll find and locate what I think of as hardware: pots, pans, spatulas, whisks, measuring cups and spoons — all of the tools you’ll need during the preparation and cooking process. It’s no fun to read “stir constantly” or “with a slotted spoon” to find you don’t have a spatula or a spoon.
  3. Find all the ingredients. Locate everything your recipe calls for and get it ready.
  4. Practice mise en place. This is a French culinary term that means “putting in place.” It’s the practice of preparing and arranging ingredients that the chef will need to prepare the day’s meals. But you needn’t be a pro to benefit from this practice. If your recipe calls for 1 Tbsp of butter, a cup of milk, or a diced onion, get exactly those amounts ready before you begin. It’s so nice to not have to stop and measure something as you go. Just grab it and toss it in.
  5. Know where you’re going to place hot items. This step is easy to overlook and not usually included in mise en place, but extremely important. I remember my mother saying to me when I was first learning to cook, “Before you take that out of the oven, think: where are you going to put it?” Put out trivets if you like, clear a spot on the table or what-have-you. It’s all better than scanning the kitchen with a hot pot or dish in your hands.
  6. Can you clean as you go? I’ll admit that I’m not very good at this one. Professional kitchens have a dedicated dishwasher, but most home cooks are not that lucky. If you can clean as you go, do it. If not, designate a spot for dirty hardware ahead of time.
  7. What’s needed to set the table? When I cook for the family, the deal is the cook doesn’t have to set the table. I recommend you work this deal, too.

There you have it: kitchen lessons learned while watching my dad assemble bikes, grills, and more. I hope it makes you a more organized and successful cook.

Unitasker Wednesday: Small apple dish

I’m not sure about you, but when I finish an apple I’m in desperate need of somewhere to place the core. Yeah, I can stroll over to the garbage can and dispose of it there, but I like to sit back and admire the core for a bit. Thankfully for me, there is a perfect product for just this specific use. The small apple dish is kind of like an ashtray for apples. It has a convenient spot to place the apple and the core. From the designer’s site:

By creating an appropriate place in the dish, your fruit waste becomes an esthetic part of your meal.

See? Admiring an apple core is esthetically pleasing to some people, and what better way to put it on display than with the small apple dish? I defy you to find a better way to present your apple.

Thanks to reader Vinod for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Dough-Nu-Matic

Who doesn’t love a doughnut every once in a while? The fresher the doughnut the easier it is to become an addict. If you are addicted to freshly deep fried doughnuts, now you can have your cravings quelled by investing in the Dough-Nu-Matic. The freshly fried dough may scald you incredibly badly, but be patient and you can enjoy your very own doughy goodness.

Why stop by a Krispy Kreme or a Dunkin’ Donuts when you can prepare your very own before you leave for work in the morning?! This bad boy will only eat up 23″ x 7″ x 14″ of valuable counter space. The Dough-Nu-Matic shapes the doughnut, fries it, and dispenses it into the hopper in under a minute. Let them cool, and you can enjoy a fresh doughnut during your daily commute. Of course, you may be adding quite a bit of girth to your waistline if you are partaking in fresh doughnuts every morning, but I challenge you to pass up a fresh doughnut if you have the ability to make your own at the drop of a hat.

Take a look at this video and you may not be able to resist.

**Each week, the Unitasker Wednesday column humorously pokes fun at the unnecessary, single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: Movie Time Kettle Popcorn Maker

Popcorn is the perfect snack to enjoy while watching a movie. What could be more perfect than this Movie Time Kettle Popcorn Maker? It may measure in at 19″H x 12.5″L x 10.5″ W, but that space is easily sacrificed for the allure of freshly popped popcorn for your movie viewing. How else does one achieve the freshly popped corn of the movie palace? I can’t think of any other way!

It can make up to one gallon of popcorn at once. I’m not exactly sure how much popcorn that is, but it sounds like enough to cure your popcorn craving. This thing is perfect for the home theater, tv room, or game room. It is apparently meant for table top display, so make sure you have a table ready for this popcorn behemoth!

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: Pickle picker and unitaskers explained

We realized last week that we haven’t ever explained the Unitasker feature on our site. So, before we delve into the goodness that is this week’s item, we wanted to take a few seconds and talk about it.

At their most basic elements, all Unitasker posts are intended to be funny. We joke about single-use items to remind us that organizing doesn’t have to be so serious. It’s good to pause and remember that what we discuss on the site isn’t brain surgery or rocket science.

Often times, the things we mention are things that are in our homes. I have an ice cream maker, a juicer, and a few other items that have been discussed. Matt has the snowball maker. We were both oddly tempted by the martini shaker!

When we mention an item as a Unitasker, we do it knowing that someone out there probably finds some use for the item (well, except for the kitty wigs … we’re still completely baffled by those). For most people, though, the items we name wouldn’t be anything but clutter in their homes. It’s totally fine if you choose to own a Unitasker. There aren’t any Unclutterer Police coming to take it away from you or judge you over it. We’re just talking about stuff, things, objects — not people or their choices. We love our readers and hope to entertain you with the Unitaskers. And, we love it when our readers send us ideas. Some of our best items have come from you! — Erin

So, without further ado, we bring you this week’s installment of Unitasker Wednesday:

Pickle PickerPickles can be tough to round up out of a jar. There is no need to use a fork or your fingers when you can buy a utensil specifically designed for the task of picking up a pickle! The Pickle Picker is just what any pickle lover would want:

Forget squeezing your fingers into a jar trying to grasp a pickle to no avail. This nifty pickle picker does the work for you. Simple and easy to use, the picker is great for any jarred item that is difficult to grab. Just push down on the plunger, grab the item out of the jar and release.

Did I mention it can also pick up banana peppers and be used to annoyingly poke your little brother? (Maybe it’s not a unitasker after all?!) Regardless, if something is in a jar and you don’t want to waste a perfectly clean fork or your fingers on such a task, then this is the tool that can get the job done.

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Unitasker Wednesday: Food molds

Penguin Sausage MoldYou may have eaten a few hardboiled eggs in your day, but have you ever eaten one in the shape of a cute little fish? If you or you child have been waiting for a more exciting ways to consume hardboiled eggs, your opportunity is now. Over at Slashfood, they highlight the fish mold for all your hardboiling needs. Those folks in Japan think of everything don’t they?

Once you’ve had your taste of an egg in the shape of a cute little fish, you’ll most likely be craving for some more molded foods. Not to worry, the good people at the eBay Store in Japan have your sausage making covered with the Penguin Sausage Maker (pictured). Have you always wanted to have a little more fun when eating plain old sausage links? Your morning breakfast will be full of excitement when you take a bite out of a sausage link shaped like a lovable little penguin. Penguins not for you? How about sausage in the shape of a crab or an octopus? Either way, you’ll be living it up with your newly found love for molded foods.

Wait, what about your kid’s lunch? You’re covered there, too. Boring sandwiches can now be cut and molded into bears, bunnies, or flowers. Take your pick. Now, go forth and eat some molded food!

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.

Creating a weekly meal plan

In my mind, there are two types of meals: utilitarian and everything else. Utilitarian meals are weekday lunches and dinners when my top priority is supplying my body nutrients for survival. Everything else meals are dinner parties and meals prepared when I have leisurely Saturday afternoons to craft a gourmet plate.

The utilitarian meals, the ones that often begin with phrases such as “What’s for dinner?” and “I’m starving, let’s see what we have in the kitchen,” are where disorganization can work against you. If you don’t have an organized meal plan, it can be easier to head to a fast food joint than to create a nutritious meal at home.

To help with meal planning organization, I created a Meal Plan worksheet (links to the worksheet at the end of this article). To use it, I start most Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee, a stack of cookbooks, and a pad of post-it notes. I flip through my cookbooks, flagging all of the recipes I want to use for the week.

My next task is to put an “X” on the worksheet through any of the meals that I know will be eaten out of the house for friends’ birthdays or whatever is lined up on our calendar. Then, I match up recipes I’ve marked in the cookbooks with openings on the schedule. If any of the items need preparation hours or days beforehand, I’ll list those under the “Prep for Tomorrow” section to help with managing my time. (For example, dough for homemade pizza crusts needs to be made 24 hours in advance of use … so if I want pizza tomorrow, I have to make the dough today.) Also, having at least two snacks listed on the worksheet ensures that I’ve got healthy snack choices available.

When matching recipes with meals, I’ll review the recipe and write down any ingredients on the grocery list section of the worksheet. This helps me plan out what I need from the store and my local farmer’s market. Sometimes, I’ll make two grocery lists for a mini-run on Wednesday night to get fresh produce.

Creating a meal plan takes a little time when it is written, but ultimately saves time and stress during the week. You also may find that a meal plan helps you to eat better and completely eliminate fast food from your diet.

The Unclutterer Meal Plan:

Are cookbooks a thing of the past?

cookbooksLucky for me, my wife enjoys cooking and baking. She has a shelf dedicated to her cookbooks, but she hardly ever uses them. More often than not she accesses recipes via the internet. The amount of information that is at your fingertips is astounding and the ease of accessing that information gets easier and easier.

One cookbook that my wife swears by is the Joy of Cooking. It is an encyclopedic volume of just about anything you can think of cooking or baking. She swears by its usefulness and relies on it quite a bit. Other than that, her cookbooks are seldom used. So are cookbooks obsolete? Why clutter up a whole shelf in your kitchen for a bunch of books that you never use? Here are the recipe sites my wife frequents instead of using a cookbook:

One site that I just happened upon is Supercook.com. The site lets you enter the ingredients you have in your kitchen and then gives you ideas on what you may be able to prepare. Maybe it’s time to let some of your cookbooks go?

Unitasker Wednesday: Spinmallow

SpinmallowYou’re heading out on a camping trip and you have to pack one thing … so what will it be? After taking a look at the Spinmallow, it may be on the top of your list.

Why roast a marshmallow like a caveman using a stick when you can sit back and relax while the Spinmallow does all the work. No more waking up in the morning with a sore wrist from rotating marshmallows all night. The revolutionary Spinmallow rotates the marshmallow for you with the help of two AA batteries.

According to the makers of the Spinmallow, it is “the most exciting way to toast marshmallows over a campfire or barbeque.” I have no doubt that it is as exciting as it sounds, but what are the advantages of a self propelled marshmallow spinner? Again, according to the makers:

  • No more searching for sticks
  • Toasts marshmallows evenly
  • Kids love it! Perfect for Scouts, family gatherings, parties and backyard barbeques.
  • Great for hot dogs too!
  • Detachable 29″ skewer is easy to clean.

So while those suckers are searching tirelessly for sticks, you can kick back and enjoy an evenly toasted marshmallow that kids love. You can also use it for hot dogs? Maybe this isn’t a unitasker after all!

Thanks to Guinnevere for pointing out this great unitasker.

**Unitasker Wednesday posts humorously poke fun at the single-use items that manage to find their way into our homes.