What’s for Dinner?
Meal Planning Made Easy
“We let perfection be the enemy of good,” says Tama Crisovan, nutrition educator for the Family Nutrition Program through Purdue Extension. But, planning and preparing tasty, healthy meals for your family doesn’t have to result in a nightly gourmet feast. There are simple ways to tackle this task and create meals that will fortify your family.
Forming A Game Plan
If the thought of planning, shopping and cooking meals every day makes your head spin, remember to start slowly; perfection is not the goal. Tama suggests beginning with a “dinner audit.” Before you can take those baby steps toward healthy meals, you need to know what you’re already doing. For one month, simply write down what you actually eat for dinner. This will give you an idea of what is working for your family and what isn’t.
Next pick two nights during the week and plan not only what you will make, but who you will be feeding and who will be doing the cooking. By starting with just two dinners, you can let your new skills start to simmer, and soon planning for a full week or even a month at a time will seem like a piece of cake.
There are lots of strategies that can help you keep track of your plan. Some families put a menu on the fridge mapping what they’ll have each night, down to the side dishes. Others plan their picks on a white board or line up index cards with the week’s recipes. Doing what works for your family is the key.
Maya Parson, writer for Edible Michiana Magazine and mother of two, has a knack for whipping things up in the kitchen. She takes a spontaneous approach by planning two more involved meals each week. She’ll plan a roast chicken and pork chops, for example, and use the leftovers to create another meal, like soup, tacos, a casserole or enchiladas. This takes care of four out of the five weeknight dinners. The fifth is usually more basic like whole-wheat spaghetti with sauce and maybe some veggies to kick it up. Maya uses the weekends to make more elaborate meals or experiment with new recipes.
Stocking the Pantry
What you need to keep your pantry stocked will depend on your family’s preferences, but when it comes to shopping, “the list is everything” says Tama. After you know what’s on the menu, make your list. Coupons and sales can be helpful if you use that item, but beware of processed foods and spending money on something you wouldn’t normally buy just because you have a coupon.
“I find it’s a lot easier to get excited about cooking when you have ingredients that you’re excited about,” says Maya. She likes to check out local farmers’ markets to see what produce they have available and then finds ways to incorporate them into the week’s meals. While this might not work for everyone, she explains the more time you spend preparing food, the more comfortable you will be in the kitchen, and your skills will evolve.
“Anytime we cook anything at home, it’s going to be better than anything we eat out, health wise,” says Tama. To pack an even bigger nutritional punch, she suggests planning your meals around the vegetables. “Frozen vegetables rock! Someone’s already washed and cut them up for you,” she says.
Check out the new USDA food guide at myplate.gov, which illustrates that half your plate should be fruits and veggies. Eating seasonally is another way to save money and enhance the nutritional value of the foods you eat. Besides, tomatoes in the winter just aren’t very tasty.
“People should go easy on themselves when they meal plan,” Maya says. “As long as you’re eating foods that are nutritious, what really matters is that you like them and that they’re manageable for you.”
Strive for small changes like planning more fruits and veggies, eating as a family at least twice a week, and eating out once less a week. As Tama said to me, this will have a huge impact on the health of your family, on your pocket book and on your own sanity!
More Tips and Tricks
To combat picky eaters and allergies in her children, Maya suggests, “If you always offer at least one thing that they like to eat… they’re much more likely to come to the table and have a positive attitude about dinner.”
Tama does a lot of double batching, making twice as much and stashing half away in the freezer for a hectic day.
Maya cooks enough for an extra person or two so there are plenty of leftovers for lunch or to create another meal later in the week.
Americans throw away almost one-third of their food, says Tama. She suggests working up to planning five meals a week and using leftovers, freezer meals, or maybe takeout on the other two days.
“Start really simply,” says Maya. “You don’t have to have a fancy meal for it to be healthy and good tasting.