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The Less-Stress Guide to Family Dinners

How to plan ahead so you can enjoy mealtime—no sous chef needed!

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By now, you’ve probably heard that there are benefits to eating dinner with your family, yet there’s so much about mealtime that feels stressful. Perhaps the book, Eat, Laugh Talk! The Family Dinner Playbook says it best: “Dinner often feels like another mountain to climb in a work week filled with mountains.”

That’s where meal planning serves up some relief. Spending just a couple minutes to organize family meals for the week, or even the month, may actually reduce meal-time stress. Not only that, you may also cut down your grocery bill and restaurant take-out expenses.

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While there’s no fool-proof plan that works for everyone, there are tips and tricks that make meal planning more approachable. To source some solutions, we reached out to experts who have vast experience in the kitchen and whipped up this beginner’s guide to all things dinner prep. With some planning and optimism, meal prep really can become a task to savor.

The Pros of Planning

Before exploring how to approach meal planning, let’s talk about why you should spend the time on it. These three perks aren’t the only benefits to meal planning, but they’re reason enough to start.

It reduces stress in the kitchen.

How many times do you hear the dreaded “Moooomm, what’s for dinner tonight?” When you have your meals mapped out for the week, this question becomes less triggering after a long, busy day. Having a plan in place creates a sense of control and a feeling of accomplishment. If you go a step further and incorporate some advance meal prepping (prewashing and chopping ingredients), you’ll relieve yourself from being tied to the stovetop all evening, and save some time on daily dishes and kitchen cleanup.

It’s a money saver.

Trashing unused or spoiled food is like throwing away money. And it’s usually a symptom of shopping without a clear plan for the groceries you put in your cart. With a meal plan (and a shopping list), you will pay attention to what food your family is really eating and what’s going to waste. You’ll also learn what food items you use most frequently and could buy in bulk like chicken, fish, or grass-fed beef, which is generally more cost-effective than buying small amounts.

Elana Amsterdam, a cookbook author, the blogger behind Elana’s Pantry, and a mom of two from Boulder, is a big fan of batch cooking. “Batch cooking saves money because it prevents food from going to waste. My husband and I will grill chicken breasts and have a chicken Caesar salad one night, then I’ll shred the leftovers and make a one-pot meal of fried cauliflower rice with chicken the next night for dinner,” she says.

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Karin Russell, a volunteer at Metro Caring, a nonprofit anti-hunger organization in Denver, believes the key to saving money is to think about all the different ways you can use your produce. “You can buy a bunch of carrots with the fronds still on and use them one night in a stir fry. Then the next night, the fronds can be used to make a pesto,” Russell says.

It limits your grocery store runs.

Keeping shelf-stable items, like pasta sauce, frozen pizza dough, taco shells, frozen veggies, and rice in your pantry or freezer ensures you’re always stocked up on the essentials. While you’ll still need to make trips to the store for fresh produce, having some staples on hand will help limit your grocery store runs—which is especially nice during the colder months.


Make it Happen

How to put a meal plan in place—without the stress.

Start small.

There are many different ways to plan your meals, and finding a starting point may be one of the most intimidating parts of the process. Erin Chase, the blogger behind $5 Dinners and a mom of four, suggests starting small by writing down five recipes that you’ll make at some point that week. Once you know what meals you’re going to make, check your pantry and fridge for ingredients that you may already have, then add any other needed items to a grocery list. When you shop with a grocery list, it’s less likely that you’ll forget items or have to run back to get ingredients for last minute meals. With five meals planned and the groceries needed for each, you won’t feel the urge to fall back on delivery or the drive-through.

Make it your own.

Tailor the way you keep track of meal plans to fit your schedule and organizational style. Amsterdam keeps tabs on her meals by writing her plans down in a computer document she created. Chase, on the other hand, uses a combination of a binder and a tear pad. “I’ve changed my strategy over the years. It’s an ongoing journey, but as long as you’re planning in some way, that’s what’s important,” says Chase. “Eventually, you’ll settle in and find the right cadence for your family.”

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Give yourself some grace.

To take some of the pressure off of following through, Chase believes it’s important to allow yourself to be flexible. “I think a lot of people don’t account for two things—their schedule and their mood—which are both really important when it comes to deciding what to make on which day,” she says.

Cut yourself some slack and remember that it’s OK if you want to switch up your plan a bit. When writing out your plan for the week, use a pencil instead of a pen so you can easily make adjustments. “Sometimes, the corn you purchased for tacos next Tuesday is going bad and needs to get used on Sunday instead. Or you might have a bad day and need to use your leftovers day on Thursday instead of Saturday. Having a plan is a great way to stay on track, but understand that it can have some wiggle room in case something happens,” says Russell.


Kickstart Your Meal Prep

Three finds that will keep your meal plans organized.

$16, etsy.com

Fridge Whiteboard

Update this magnetic meal planning whiteboard with a dry erase marker each week. Older kids will be able to see what you’re having for dinner so you don’t have to repeat the menu each day.

$3, staples.com

Binder

Store recipes and meal planning templates in this three ring binder to keep everything in one place. Psstt! Download our free template (shown in opening photo) from coloradoparent.com/meal-plan.

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$15, michaels.com

Planner

This meal plan journal has designated spots to write down grocery lists, weekly menus, recipes, and more. Keep it out on your kitchen counter so it’s ready when you need to start planning.


Craft a Menu

Take note of your family’s favorite foods, put them in rotation, and get cooking!

If you’re ready to go all in, simplify meal planning by creating a consistent weekly menu. The idea is that you’ll always be making at least five tried-and-tested meals and, bonus!, you can keep the staples on hand. You’ll only need to shop for the fresh ingredients each week.

To begin, think about the meals your family loves like pizza or tacos, (choose five) then brainstorm all the different ways you can prepare those dishes. To keep things from getting boring, make sure your dishes have toppings, sauces, or bases that can be swapped out weekly for something different. For example, you could make chicken tacos one week and shrimp tacos the next, or a veggie pizza during week one and barbecue chicken pizza on week two.

Chase says that the average family already rotates between the same nine to 10 meals over and over, so this menu approach isn’t far from most people’s realities. “I hear a lot of people complain that they get tired of eating the same thing. I think that this menu concept helps with that because, while you’re sticking to the same type of meal, there are several ways to make it feel new each week.”

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Wrap up your plan by designating one day for takeout and one day for leftovers.


Plan Smart

Consider your family’s schedule before committing.

Does it matter which day of the week you plan to make each dish on your menu? Not really, but you should consider your family’s schedule. Have a particularly packed day on Tuesdays? Don’t schedule your most involved meal for that night. PTA meetings on Thursdays? Even if the meeting ends up being virtual, plan to roast a one-pot chicken in the slow cooker that day so it’s ready to go when the meeting is over.

As Chase mentioned, many parents don’t think about their schedules and what’s realistically going to work for them before they come up with a meal plan. This will only leave you frustrated when you can’t follow through, and no one wants that.

While everyone’s schedule is different, plan to make your most challenging recipe on Monday, when you’re still excited about the week ahead (and not exhausted yet). Then, use the evenings that you have the most chauffeuring to do to get takeout, serve up leftovers, or make one of the faster recipes like pasta or pizza.

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If Colorado Parent opened a restaurant, these five dinner staples would make an appearance on the menu. These tasty, classic family meals can be made a variety of ways, are easy to batch cook, and have ingredients you can buy in bulk. Use this list as inspiration to craft your own family menu, but don’t be afraid to make tweaks.

Monday:
Grain Bowls Mix quinoa with fresh veggies, chicken and brown rice, or farro risotto with shrimp
Tuesday:
Chicken Try a one-pot chicken roast, chicken sandwiches, or chicken Caesar salad
Wednesday:
Tacos Devour tacos with shrimp and corn, traditional ground beef, or steak and peppers
Thursday:
Pasta Eat spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine alfredo, or lasagna
Friday:
Pizza Treat yourself to deep-dish veggie pizza, zucchini boat pizzas, or margherita flatbreads
Saturday:
Takeout
Sunday:
Leftovers

Tools of the Trade

We couldn’t possibly list all the kitchen gadgets that make mealtime easier, but our editors and experts thought these six products were total stand-outs when it came to cooking, prepping, and preserving.

$399, boschmixers.com

Mixer

“My favorite meal planning tip is batch cooking. If I’m going to be making pizza dough or shredded meat, I can double or triple the recipe and make enough for multiple meals in the same time it takes me to make one batch. The problem is often the small volume of standard kitchen appliances. The Bosch Universal Plus Mixer has a huge capacity without taking up a lot of extra space. I can make dough for four pizzas but could totally double that. Plus it’s powerful, has so many attachments, and the motor is on the bottom, so there are no issues trying to add ingredients around an overhead motor.” —Debbie Mock, Editor 

$100, instantpot.com

Instant Pot

“My Instant Pot is super handy because it cuts down on cooking time for things like artichokes that can take up to an hour to cook on the stove top. In addition to time, it saves electricity and locks in flavor.” —Elana Amsterdam, cookbook author and blogger

$40, bedbathandbeyond.com

Nonstick Pans

“We have three nonstick pans that we’re constantly using. I like the Calphalon Nonstick Fry Pan. It’s not super expensive but will last you a really long time because the quality is high. You can make everything from a stir fry to sauces to rice to chicken in this pan, making it the perfect kitchen essential.”—Erin Chase, blogger and mom of four

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$8, buybuybaby.com

Glass Containers

Wean Green Meal Tubs are the holy grail containers for storing leftovers or frozen meals. The tubs are made from tempered glass that’s three to five times stronger than regular glass, they’re BPA-free, and dishwasher, freezer, and microwave safe. I love how easily the lids snap on and off, and how well the containers hold up after multiple uses.” —Kara Thompson,
Assistant Editor

$100, instantappliances.com

Air Fryer

“On nights when you need to get dinner on the table as quickly as possible, reach for the Instant Vortex Plus Air Fryer. In our test run, it cooked up perfectly flaky salmon filets, roasted veggies, and delivered crispy chicken wings—all faster than you’d get in an oven. And it doesn’t stop there; this air fryer can also roast, broil, bake, reheat, and dehydrate. Its six-quart capacity is perfect for feeding a family of four, and (bonus!) it’s easy to clean.” —Christina Cook, Associate Editor

$90, amazon.com

Blender

“The Cuisinart Smartpower Duet Blender and Food Processor handles several kitchen duties while offering the compact perks of being one appliance. The blender’s purée setting allows you to make everything from pancake batter to baby food while the food processor whips up fruit smoothies, homemade hummus, fresh salsa, and more.” —Kara Thompson, Assistant Editor

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