Let’s talk about food!
I’m having lots of fun with it right now due to the challenge of eating seasonal produce from our garden and the CSA we joined. Right now my recipes reflect that and I plan our dinners around what’s harvested that week. I think I’ll share a few of our current meals throughout the summer, because it’s fun!
In the meantime, I thought I’d give you some tried and true ideas and recipes that we always come back to. I know I’ve mentioned many of them here and there on the blog, so I hope this isn’t too repetitive. I guess the good news is that means we’ve found a system that works!
Here are a few thoughts:
1. I’m a huge plan of meal-planning for the week, and I mean huge. Life is just less stressful when you know what’s for dinner. I like to think that knowing the plan and having the ingredients is what allows cooking to be fun.
I keep a running grocery list all week in my bullet journal (and we have a white-board on the fridge where family members can jot items we need), and around Thursday afternoon I tear my “grocery” flap from my bullet journal and attach it to the fridge with a magnet. I like having it in front of my eyes for a day or so to add last-minute things and transfer items from the white board, and begin to work on my meal plan.
My bullet journal is also helpful because I have a weekly meal plan list that I can add ideas to. So rarely do I start from scratch on Friday mornings. But either way, Friday morning is my time to firm up the meal plan for the next 7 days. Then the kids and I grocery shop Friday afternoon. I love having the house stocked with food before the weekend.
2. If you’re struggling to come up with your own dinner plan, I’d first sit down and do some brain-storming on paper.
What are your favorite family recipes?
What are you continuing to prepare but your family just doesn’t like?
Where do you feel stuck in a rut?
Then think of your dinners on a sort of two-week rotation. So if spaghetti is a hit, plan to have it once every two weeks. In our family we love a big pan of lasagna, but it’s pricey and labor-intensive — and let’s face it, not that great for you! — so I told the family I’ll make it once a month. I have that in a list that I can plug in.
The slow-cooker is your friend! I use it every single week in the winter for soup, and in the summer I use it for chicken or beef for tacos, and spaghetti sauce.
Now that you have some ideas, try grouping them into themed nights. Kids really get into the themes. I know I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but in case you missed it . . .
How about this:
Monday: Pasta (in the summer), Soup (in the winter) . . . This means spaghetti would be a great fit here. Or you could try a Meatless Monday theme.
Tuesday: Taco Tuesday! or any sort of Mexican-themed food
Wednesday: Leftovers (we call it Waste-not Wednesday to be funny)
Thursday: For me this is either Indian food, which I try to make every two weeks, or a night to try a new recipe
Friday: Grill or homemade pizza (or even English muffin pizzas to keep it simple)
Saturday: we eat burgers with David’s folks
Sunday: Breakfast for dinner (muffins and eggs, fritatta, waffles, pancakes, etc)
3. I don’t typically plan an eating out night into the schedule. I’d rather have too many dinner ideas than too few and one can always roll over into next week if plans change.
We don’t eat out for dinner often because it’s expensive as a family of 6 and often it feels like more trouble than it’s worth with young children. I’d way rather spend money in our Eating Out budget on breakfast at the Soda City farmer’s market, which we do once a month or so. However we do enjoy meeting friends for dinner from time to time, and sometimes will order pizza.
4. After you’ve done a little brain-storming, copy your themes into your planner or calendar to help you when you sit down and plan dinners for the week. Now half your work is finished!
Every so often (usually when making dinner starts to feel stressful again), I look at my overall themes and then ask, “Where do I feel stuck in a rut?”
For me right now it’s Indian food. I have chicken curry and dal down pat (we make both with chapatti), but there are so many other delicious recipes I should be rotating in. So in my to-do list for this month I wrote, “Choose one new Indian recipe from our Aarti Paarti cookbook.”
5. Google and Pinterest help with new meal ideas too, but be sparing here. I’ve learned to stick with pinning simple recipes that I know I’ll actually make and my family might actually eat, and just search for a couple of new recipes at a time. My most trusted website for recipes is Simply Recipes.
Truly you can lose hours on pinning gorgeous food photos and come away without one single practical thing to show for it (says the person who has done that more times than I care to admit). If you rely on Pinterest for meal planning, it helps to regularly go in and purge/edit your categories of things you’ve never used or made.
If you’re struggling with dinners, try not to reinvent the wheel all at once. Ease into some new recipes — definitely don’t try more than one a week if you work lots of hours or have young children. You’re more likely to stick with a new habit if you take it slow.
6. My plan for new recipes is to bookmark the recipe I want to try, cook or bake it once, and then if it’s a keeper, print it out in black and white and stick it in my recipe 3-ring binder. I learned the hard way not to print a recipe until I test it out on my family! I add any notes/adjustments I made to help me out next time.
Using a recipe notebook rather than an iPad or computer means I’m not accidentally spraying my screen with lemon juice while cooking or being tempted to surf David’s Facebook page when I should be chopping onions (I mean, who’s ever tempted to do that!?).
I have cookbooks that I enjoy using too and I unapologetically dog-ear my favorite pages for easy reference.
7. My rule of thumb with cookbooks is to always check them out of the library first. If there are 5+ recipes I want to make, then I’ll buy it. This month I bought 100 Days of Real Food: Fast and Fabulous. There are so many recipes I’m excited to try, and I love that the author includes real food shopping lists from some of the top grocery stores.
8. Okay, food and kids.
I’ll keep this brief. Our kids have to eat what we serve them. Period. They aren’t allowed to complain about dinner, and they get a consequence if they do. They must say “please” and “thank you” and show gratitude for the person who prepared their food.
However, they don’t have to like it. We want them to be able to have their own opinions. They may not say any of the following, “Eew,” “Yuck,” “This is gross.”
They may say, “This isn’t my favorite” or “I don’t prefer this.” But not immediately when they sit down to eat or when they hear of tonight’s dinner. First they have to say “thank you.”
I used to really take it personally when they didn’t like my cooking, but I’ve learned to develop a thicker skin. Now I tell them, “You know what? I know which meals you love and which you don’t. I know most of you dislike brussels sprouts. But there are some foods we eat as a family that are fun and some we eat just because they make us healthy and strong. As your mom, it’s my job to help you grow healthy and strong and try new things.”
We have lots of treats as a family. I regularly make cookies and muffins and banana bread. They get a bowl of cereal with their green smoothie most days for breakfast. They get peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch often. So I don’t mind making them eat healthy dinners.
I also read somewhere that it can take kids 10-15 tries of a new food before they begin to like it, so David and I don’t apologize about asking them to keep eating a small helping of something they don’t prefer.
9. Having said that, I really work hard to make food my family likes. As a recovering picky eater myself, I really do try to be compassionate, especially toward the kids who have texture issues. I still struggle with that.
David and the kids are allowed to tell me when there’s a recipe they just plain don’t prefer to ever eat again, and I delete it from my running idea list. This Tamale Pie was a recent one I just stopped making because no-one liked it but me. We do tacos or taco salad of some sort almost weekly because they are a fave.
10. So to sum it up, my last tip is to work to find a balance between challenging the people in your house to embrace new (especially healthy) foods, but also to compromise when it comes to personal preferences. For example, I truly think I could be a vegetarian. Meat just isn’t important to me. However, my family does not feel the same way.
So we just aren’t going to be vegetarian in this household. I fought that battle for awhile and realized it was silly — and only caused me more stress. We experiment with meatless meals often, for our health and our budget and the environment, but we plan to go on eating meat around here.
After watching way too many documentaries and reading way too many cookbooks, David and I finally settled on saying we don’t want our eating habits to have any label. I eat mostly gluten free, and we try to always move in the direction of adding fruits and vegetables and cutting out processed food. But for our family labels feel restrictive and that stresses us out. Barring any allergies or healthy issues, we aren’t going to be all of any one thing.
And now, a few dinner ideas:
Here’s our favorite lasagna recipe. Just like my momma taught me, I sub cottage cheese for the ricotta, and pre-cooked pasta for the uncooked.
We love slow-cooker chicken or barbacoa beef tacos. I use the Against All Grain recipe from my cookbook for chicken (photo at the top of this post), but there are plenty online. You can also serve either over rice with lots of toppings or as a taco salad. If you have the foresight to whip up this Cilantro Lime sauce to serve with it, your family will love you forever (I tone down the spice in it).
Quesadillas with sauteed veggies or leftover grilled chicken are a great idea for Mexican night
I know summer isn’t the best time for soup, but this White Chicken Chili is probably our all-time favorite soup.
It’s summer, so you should add Bruschetta to your regular rotation (it’s meatless, so less expensive!). Trader Joe’s ciabatta loaf is my favorite for bruschetta (but any heavy, crusty bread will do) and make sure to buy the real mozzarella that comes in a ball.
Speaking of summer, how about BLT’s? My kids adore bacon and mayonnaise enough that they’ll suffer through the lettuce and tomato part.
The grill is your friend. We brine our chicken first if we’re grilling, and always make a double batch so we can use it to top salads, serve the kids for lunch, or make quesadillas.
Pesto pasta is a hit with everyone in my family but one. Actually here’s a rule of life: even if you make something absolutely amazing, there will be one person in your house who hates it.
As for sides, unless it’s a one-pot meal, we always have at least one veggie. Summer is perfect for corn on the cob. Lately I’ve done a lot of chopping and roasting with herbs: white potatoes, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, zucchini. Google the veggie you plan to roast for instructions, but it’s super easy (especially if you spread parchment paper on the cookie sheet first).
If you want to make more use of your slow cooker, how about this roast chicken? You can also roast a pan of veggies, buy a loaf of crusty bread, and voila!
Alright friends, there you have it!
Hey, I know making dinner is hard. Shopping on a budget is hard. Keeping your family healthy and at least somewhat interested in the food you make is hard. It really helps me to look at it as a fun challenge (How can I get Judah to eat more veggies? Answer: zucchini bread!), but there have been seasons when it’s been a dreaded chore.
And if nothing I’ve said helps, do you know what my solution to all your cooking woes is?
That’s right! A book!
If you need a little jump start of fun inspiration, my go-to book is Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach. She’s so down to earth and fun and the photos are pretty. Check it out from your local library, or just buy it. I first read it years ago and still use her recipes.