Stories

The Meal Planning Experiment

Mar 29, 2021
Menu Monday

What's for dinner?

It seems like a harmless enough question. Reasonable, even, coming out of the mouths of growing children. Yet, under the right circumstances “What’s for dinner?” might as well be “Should you be eating that?”

My very insightful teenager used to describe me as TRIGGERED by the question, back when even my youngest’s playful inquiry, “What’s for din din?” seized my entire body with tension and left me in despair and on edge. 

“I don’t know! Why is it all on me? I hate cooking! Pasta night!” 

Why all the dinner dread? As the primary cook in the family, I have a few theories: 

  • THE QUESTION highlighted that I consistently had no plan.
  • THE QUESTION required me to make yet another decision for the day. It’s estimated we make 35,000 decisions a day. 35,001 was a bridge too far!
  • THE QUESTION required brainpower at the end of a long day. What do I have on hand? What do I have that doesn’t need all day to thaw? What do I even have time to make at this point?

It was a recipe for evening angst and a slipshod supper, often built around noodles of one sort or other, chosen for availability, convenience, and speed rather than nutrition, variety, or even flavor. I really value taking care of my family and half-baked, haphazard meals didn’t align with what I wanted dinner time to look or feel like.

Our dinners needn’t be elegant or adventurous for me to feel like I’ve done the job well, but speed-heating and slapping something on a plate leaves me feeling like I backed myself into the kitchen corner. It’s the same feeling I’ve had leaving other tasks to the last-minute, only more emotionally fraught.

THE ANSWER to THE QUESTION is simple, and it’s not “spaghetti,” even when it could be “spaghetti.”

THE ANSWER is intention. Yes, it requires some organization, some forethought, and some shopping, but the act of cooking and the end product will both inevitably go down easier and with less stress with a little advance planning. Even when the outcome is the same, I feel so much better when I’m intentional about it.

In other words, planned pasta night > panicked pasta night. Heck, if you planned it, you might even have thought to have the good bread to go with it.

OK, now the hard part that makes dinnertime easier. Plan those plates!

  • Pick a planning day. Knowing when you’re going to sit down and map it out is the first step. That turns "I need to do that" into "this is when I’m going to do that."  
  • Start with your family’s weekly go-to meals. Do you have a pizza night? A leftover night? Taco Tuesday? Is Friday take-out night? Lock those in on a calendar, and you’ll find filling in the gaps a lot easier.
  • Call up and make a list of all the favorites recipes: old and new, easy and ambitious. Then sprinkle into the days between. 
  • Make a list of favorite take-out places. It’s all about the easy reference. Sometimes I could make a lasagna from scratch in the time it takes the family to decide where to do take-out! With a list ready to go, it’s easier to make the match between what the family wants and what we will have time for.  
  • Add a dash of context. Are there unusual nights on the schedule for you or your family? Work events, ball games, and lessons are a whole lot easier if you’ve planned ahead.  Make them less frenetic by scanning your list of easy favorites and folding in convenience by assigning quick-prep meals (or even quicker delivery calls or the quickest of them all - leftovers!) to those days. 


Now that you’ve planned your week, pick your shopping day, take your grocery list, and GO! Future you will thank intentional planning you, and “what’s for dinner?” will no longer feel so loaded. You can calmly direct little (and big) inquisitors to the dinner calendar with a blissful, stress-free smile on your face. Then, we can talk about their reaction to what’s for dinner next time.  



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– Jeanne Torre, MSW, LCSW, NBC-HWC

Health Advisor | Email Jeanne

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