Life List Goal: Master a Working Menu for a Year

26 Apr

Why is getting dinner on the table every night such a giant pain in the ass?

When you are a kid your nightly burden is homework. When you are an adult your nightly burden is trying to figure out what to have for dinner.

It’s my goal to set up a meal planning system that works for me, that is as uncomplicated as possible, and that gets dinner on the table on a regular basis. I have tried lots of different meal planning systems but nothing has worked consistently. I want to make homemade dinners and meal planning a lifelong habit.

Pre-baby I was getting pretty good at putting dinner on the table every night by the seat of my pants. Ta-da! Another delicious meal half-assedly pulled from the fridge at a moment’s notice!

Having a baby changes that, of course, and besides, it was not a very reliable system to begin with. Isobel is quite mobile now and with that blessing comes a curse: she can move around and entertain herself now, which is great, but what does she choose do with this mobility? She follows me around the kitchen, demanding me to be held, while I’m frying bacon or boiling pasta or tending to some other baby-unfriendly activity. Any dinner requiring preparation more complicated than reheating leftovers requires Anthony to watch her while she follows me around wailing. We’re still working on this.

It takes a lot of effort to make dinner happen every night. The act of cooking itself is the culmination of many preparatory steps involving grocery shopping, advance prep work, and the most dreaded step of all – actually deciding what to have for dinner. The goal for dinner is this:

–         It has to be tasty and appealing

–         It has to be affordable

–         It has to be (mostly) healthy

–         It has to be prepared in about a half hour (weeknights)

I have been using some iphone apps to help me. My bestie turned me on to Grocery Gadget, and it is worth the ten bucks or whatever I paid for it. I love that you can assign aisles to items, that it saves items so you make lists faster, and that you can modify your lists online and send them to those that share your account. I’ve had issues with adding amounts to things but that’s probably because I didn’t take the time to read the instructions or watch the tutorials.

I’ve been playing around with Mise en Place to organize the tasks associated with each meal (raise your hand if you’ve ever forgotten to marinate the steak!) but it’s more complicated than useful for day to day meal prep.

I use relish to plan two to three meals a week. When I first heard about it I hoped it would become my meal-planning, list-making savior. It hasn’t, but I still find the service to be valuable and well-worth the $7 a month subscription fee.  Subscribers also have access to the free iphone app, which is great. I can look up a recipe stoveside if I want and cook from it right there without printing the recipe. Nice!

My meal planning process is still a work in progress. What I want to know is, how do you make dinner happen? Do you share the cooking or planning duties? Do you plan at all? What do you eat most often? Do you have any hints or tricks? Please share and help me make dinner less of a pain in the ass!


(*It should be noted that none of these apps or relish has paid me to talk about their product.)

19 Responses to “Life List Goal: Master a Working Menu for a Year”

  1. Angela (aka Beastie) April 26, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Dude, I am so into hearing people suggestions, because I struggle with this too.

  2. Bonnie April 26, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Right now? I just let my grandma do it. Or my mom. I miss cooking my own meals, I have tons of cookbooks that haven’t been touched in forever. But usually I’m working late (sometimes even after supper) and don’t have time to make anything. And the others here wouldn’t be as open to new dishes as me. I am getting really sick of the same old meals we’ve been having though. I can’t wait to have my own place again, but I know that the “what’s for dinner” will be a problem. Good thing Marc’s not afraid of the kitchen. He’s cooked for me more than I’ve cooked for him!

  3. LittleBig April 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

    When you do cook for yourself, what do you like to make?

  4. April (aka @lilpyrogirl) April 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    I don’t have babies to chase around but I’ve been juggling graduate school and a full time career that includes travel and here’s what works the best for me (although I will provide the discliamer that I fall off the meal-making wagon at least once a month).

    Sunday – it used to be a day of rest, now it’s a day of shopping and then cooking. I have some staple foods that are my go-to meals (I’m on Weight Watchers). These include turkey burgers, low fat home-made soups (usually from a WW recipe book) and cassaroles with lots of veggies and usually chicken.

    So, on Sunday I usually grill up 4 turkey burgers so I have them on hand for lunches or those nights when I get home later than I expected and I can just toss them in the microwave, add some ketsup and cheese and voila! Soup offers the same benefit. Add a half a sandwich to some soup and meal = done. So, I usually try to brew up a quick pot of soup on Sunday. Preferably something with veggies. A crock pot is GREAT for this. Toss in ingredients…leave alone for several hours. Then I come back, portion out into tupperware containers and toss them all in the fridge. My crock from teh crockpot is usually in the dishwasher every sunday night. That covers lunches all week plus a couple dinners between the turkey burgers and the soup.

    Then I either make a cassarole to fill in the rest of my meals or I marinate. For example, this week, I took a pack of chicken and put each breast in a different marinade for the week (I think I did a peruvian rub on one, a lemon pepper on another, and did bbq sauce on 2 others). When I get home, I just plop it on the grill or in the oven if the weather isn’t grilling season. As for veggies, I buy them all sunday, cut them and clean them and toss them in a marinade (my fav. is a balsamic vinagarette salad dressing). Then I toss them into a sautee pan or into the veggie pan for my grill and in less than a half hour dinner is done.

    If you grill up extra meat one night, you can toss it with pasta and a simple sauce and have a green salad with it for dinner the next night. Or, just put the meat ON the salad. Another great meal.

    Things I keep on hand:
    marinades and salad dressings galore. I always try to buy low sugar/reduced calorie ones. I use them as salad dressings, veggie marinades, and meat marinades.
    fresh already prepared veggies. I usually go for broccoli, peppers, cauliflour, and squash (sometimes I wait to cut squash until the day I prepare it)
    Fresh salad fixin’s like lettuce, spinach, carrots, etc. already washed and prepared so any night I go for pasta, my salad is ready to go.
    Dry pasta noodles
    A selection of my favorite pestos and pasta sauces to toss with some meat and pasta for a quick dinner.
    Crusty bread to go with soups
    Cheese for pasta dishes.

    I occassionally make fish but I plan to pick that up on the way home so I am sure I’m getting what’s fresh. I grab a fish filet at my local market with some Adobo seasoning or fresh herbs and some salt and pepper and a sliced up lemon on top and just put it in a parchment paper pouch and bake it.

    The key is that I cannot stay on the “making dinner every night” wagon unless I spend at least one day a week on prep work. I try to do it the same day I grocery shop. I buy my veggies, clean them and get them ready to go. I sometimes even cut up potatoes for Monday on Sunday and just store them in the fridge in some water with lemon juice to keep them from yellowing. The idea is that when I get home from work, whatever I’m making for dinner is ready for the oven/grill/pan already without any prep work. I save the more fun dishes that take some substantial time committments for Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights.

    Hope this helps a little.


  5. LittleBig April 26, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    April, I simply LOVE your idea of marinating chicken breasts in different flavors! You are all about forethought. I’m definitely adding some of these ideas.

  6. Julie April 26, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    i’ll preface this with the fact that i have no kids to tend to or worry about nutrition or fidgety eating preferences. however, meal planning is essential in our house- with our careers at full tilt and evening activities abundant, food has to be planned and cooked ahead of time or else we end up eating poorly, expensively, or not at all. So here’s the deal:

    Sundays is shopping/cooking day. We’re usually home at least part of the day and can plan for breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and dinners for the two of us for the week. I’m okay with the same thing for a meal for a week but he needs a little more variety so we have to take that into account. For me, getting hungry every 2 hours no matter how much i eat, i need a few healthy snacks for during the day. Once planned, shopped, cooked, and packaged, we’ve spent quality time together and now have a fridge full of ready-to-go meals for the week. Dinners are still eaten together at the table but now only take the time it takes to unwrap or microwave (which is great when there’s 30 mins overlap when he gets home and i have to leave for class). It also makes lunch decisions easier in the mornings- one meal tupperware and two snack containers. all done. easy peasy.

    we’ve even gone as far as to make an egg-bake thing for his breakfast (i’m a yogurt kind of girl lately) in order to make it easy to make a non-cereal decision in the mornings which helps him get through till lunch since he can’t eat whenever he’s hungry while at work like i can.

    we also try to make things do double duty… with a little extra planning that chicken salad can be spruced up halfway through the week with the grapes from the snack list. or we’ll do lots of something and freeze some of it for when we anticipate not being able to keep to the routine (like if we’re out of town).

    that said, not every week goes as planned. but as soon as we can (and before we run out of food) we try to get it, cook it, and package it all up so we’re ready to go.

    the time we save doing it all at once and assembly-line style saves us tons of time during the week. and it’s a routine we can get into that lets us try new things in the kitchen and spend quality time together. when the little one gets older, you can include her in the decision making and prep too!

    hope this helps! 🙂

  7. Peter April 26, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

    I would say that a well stocked pantry is key. This way you can improvise some meals like these:

  8. Kalifornia April 26, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    When I was a single guy in order to make things easier for me, I would cut all the vegetable ingredients I would be using the next two or three days, except tomatoes, and store them in the fridge in a bag or tupperware. I was just learning how to cook so it was all easy stuff, recipes I’d seen my mom make and stuff that I could not ruin by overcooking. Doing this helped me get home and cook, not prep much, cutting time and all proteins were marinated. Today it works a bit different, Alicia does a good job at grocery shopping, she makes sure that whatever protein she picks up, she knows what to make with it. I have no idea what you like to eat, but one of the reason its easy for us to cook a meal is because of the number of vegetables we pair with chicken, meat, or pork, and almost all of our meals are on the grill (gas). We can share a few recipes if you like, just let us know what you like to eat.

    Did you change or add something to your settings in order for the site to know you one has an iphone? Or is this an automatic setting that comes with the blog? I only ask because when I had a blog on blogspot, it was full html when viewed on the iphone.


  9. LittleBig April 27, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    Thank you all for your wonderful, wonderful ideas! I was going to write a huge reply in the comments, but I think it’s better suited to a post. 🙂

    Omar, I enabled the mobile site in the settings. You can actually turn that on and off from your end, too, so you can see the site either way from your phone.

  10. Erin April 27, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Our strategy is to make a meal plan for 6 of 7 days, so 2 lunches (weekends), and 6 dinners. We have enough stuff in our pantry that we can usually wing it if we don’t go out to eat one night, order takeout, or just don’t feel like eating. We usually eat leftovers for lunches on week days. We do our shopping together on the weekends, because if I go into a grocery store alone without a plan while hungry, I go a little crazy. Also, we don’t assign meals to days of the week. We just sort of pick what sounds best based on what’s left on the list, and yes, eventually we’re left cooking that last, lonely meal left on the list at the end of the week.

    Meals that we cook regularly:

    Ninjapoodles roast chicken. We buy the organic chickens when they go on clearance (usually a day before their sell-by date here), and chuck them right into the freezer. They will last for 3 or so months this way. Here’s the recipe from Belinda: It takes a little over an hour, start to finish, but it has very, VERY little hands on time. And then we have plenty of leftover roast chicken for lunches, and if I’m feeling intrepid I make stock from the carcass. I did that this weekend, and it made our whole house smell divine. If you dice up some potatoes and carrots and place them under the chicken, they sort of fry in the schmaltz. But that’s not so healthy. Still, it’s what we do, almost every time we make this chicken, simply because they’re so delicious!

    Kahlua crockpot pork. Here’s the recipe: It says a butt roast is best, but we’ve honestly used quite a variety of different cuts, and they all turn out about the same. I also cut down the liquid smoke to a few drops, because I’m not all that big a fan. Just buy a cheap pork roast, cook it forever, and shred the meat once you’re almost ready to eat it. It’s foolproof. The first night, we usually eat this straight out of bowls with barbecue sauce and a steamed veggie as a side. The next night, we eat the same roast with taco fixings as pork carnitas. Two meals, one crockpot. Can’t be beat.

    Grilled flatbreads. Take pizza dough, divide into four roughly rectangular pieces. I”d like to say that we make it ourselves, since it’s so easy, but the reality is that we generally keep a tube of the premade-stuff in the fridge and use that. Scissors work really well to cut it to size. Brush the dough rectangles with olive oil, then grill until they’re almost charred. Bring them back inside and top them with your favorite veggies (cooked or uncooked, your choice – leftovers work well here) and cheeses. Put the loaded flatbreads on a cookie sheet and stick them in the oven under the broiler until the cheese is gooey and delicious. Gourmet pizza, at home, for a fraction of the price. And more veggies.

    We also eat a lot of eggs, because Ian has a coworker who sells farm fresh eggs to us for $4 for 1 1/2 dozen. They’re fantastic. Lots of quiche and fritatta. I have other regulars in our rotation, but since I’m already occupying the majority of your comment area, I’ll leave you with my two favorite websites for recipes: and

    Good luck with the meal planning, I have found that it really does reduce my stress to know that I don’t have to go to the grocery store before I can go home and cook something. It also saves us a ton of money.

  11. Elizabeth April 27, 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    I’ve been struggling with this mostly because I feel like I’m off my game right now – just no desire to cook, which makes preparing meals after work a big ol’ drag. I can put a *meal* on the table about 4 nights/week reliably, with leftovers, fast food, or panic filling in the other nights. Here’s some of the stuff we fall back on when we’re both unmotivated/uninspired/just tired of eating:

    – roast chicken on a weekend night, then eat leftovers during the week. SO Sunday night’s roast turns into Monday night’s tacos or pasta with chicken or just a couple of days’ worth of lunches. Use the carcass to make stock, which can be frozen or turned into a quick soup. SUPER cheap and pretty easy – even more so if you just get a rotisserie bird from the grocery store.

    – A quiche or frittata with whatever’s in the fridge. A 4 egg frittata is just about the right size dinner for two of us and usually takes under 30 minutes, including time under the broiler. Toast and a salad fancies it up or stretches it out for cheap. See also: egg mess with sauteed veg, omelettes. Quick and protein-y.

    – Good quality sausage links – Italian, bratwurst, sage, etc – can bulk up a pasta or veg dinner quickly. Grill them, broil them, cook them in tomato sauce, chop up and pan fry, squeeze out of the casing and cook with eggs, add to a casserole. We almost always have sausages in the freezer for this reason.

    I rely heavily on Bon Appetit and Jamie’s Dinners for recipes and ideas.

    Bon Appetit has a Fast Easy Fresh column – recipes under an hour cook/prep time and reasonably healthy:
    They also have a Family Style column, with one big meal and ways to spin leftovers, as well as a new Sunday Suppers column (similar concept).

    I love Jamie’s Dinners, which I think is in a really logical format. There’s a section with foundational recipes – slow cooked lamb, tomato sauce, pesto – and then several ways to use those recipes in other things – so sausages in tomato sauce, fish in tomato sauce, tomato sauce and polenta, etc. The vegetable section gives you 3 ways to prepare carrots, 3 ways to prepare corn, etc. You get the idea. It’s the one cookbook I uniformly recommend.

  12. dingey April 27, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    I feel your pain, and I don’t even have a toddler underfoot. I totally second the well-stocked pantry tip. It’s hard to stock up on fresh veg, since it turns over quickly, but everything else–stock up and keep it stocked when you find it on sale, etc.

    Is there an Aldi in your area? Some of their stuff is total convenience-food crap, but they have a lot of good staples==you just have to look. It seems like their produce is getting a little better, too. Lots of times you can find nice bags of baby spinach for 99 cents there, cheap cantaloupes, etc. Cheap olive oil, salt and pepper grinders, nuts, soymilk, some decent varieties of cheese (their double-cream havarti is european and cheap!)

    I also try to make use of any food co-op or health food store that offers bulk grains. Stock up on the basics like arborio, brown rice, jasmine rice, bulgur, quinoa, etc. Many of these are fine to use for a few days after you’ve made them, especially if they’re used as part of a one-pot meal, like shrimp and rice with veg or something. Make grain salads ahead of time–they’re good for several days and can be used as lunch or as a side for dinner.

  13. dingey April 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm #

    Wait! I wasn’t really done. I just hit the wrong button. Again, stock your pantry. Besides the stuff mentioned above, always have a decently stocked spice rack, various condiments and things like hot sauce, rooster sauce, soy, various vinegars, prechopped ginger, OH! And a big one for me is boxes of low-sodium chicken and veg broth. Some of this stuff can cost in the initial investment, but it’s also mostly things that last quite a while and are worth the investment.

    Once you have a stocked pantry, you’ll find that you can rely less and less on recipes. I’ve seen photos of your cooking, so I know you’re experienced. When you have all the basics on hand, and you’ve got some solid cooking experience under your belt, it gets easier and easier to sort of review what you’ ve got on hand, what fresh items need to be used before they turn, etc., and just start winging it. I highly recommend THE FLAVOR BIBLE. Check it out of the library if they have it. It has no recipes, just keys to tell you what flavors pair, ingredient by ingredient. It really helps on the winging it front.

  14. Bonnie April 28, 2010 at 5:34 am #

    I have a bookcase of cookbooks, and some are sneaking their way into my headboard’s shelves too. My favourite books are Jean Pare’s Company’s Coming collection, though I’m not sure if you can get them in the states. I find the recipes are all written well and it uses normal ingredients I normally have on hand. What I did when I had my own place was browse through and find things I wanted to try, then made a list of things I’d need to buy still to make it and mark down the book and page number for the recipe so that when I got the stuff I’d be able to find the recipe again to make it. I don’t read normal books, just browse through cookbooks and stuff.

    If I have time the night before I would sometimes chop up veggies and get stuff ready to go in the slow cooker the next morning so dinner’s ready when I get home. I went through some stir fry phases too, where I just never put the wok away because I used it all the time. I’d usually start the rice cooker right away and then figure out something to put on it. Or use rice noodles that cook up super fast.

    BBQing never worked for me, because I’d get so distracted by my flowers and stuff outside and would forget about the food.

    Fast is good, because if I didn’t already have something planned I would just keep putting off making supper till I was famished. I have several cookbooks that only have quick recipes.

    My Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book also has a nice pizza dough recipe that you can keep in the fridge for 2 weeks or something. WHen you want pizza you just cut off a cantaloupe-sized piece, roll it out, and put toppings on. I need to start doing this again because I am so sick of the frozen pizzas my mom buys.

    Oh, and with my cookbooks, I use little post it things to mark pages with recipes I’d like to try. And when I try it and really like it I try to write it out to put in my own cookbook, but I’m not always good at doing that.

  15. dingey April 28, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    OH! Also, the internet! Sometimes I’ll just looks at what I’ve got that needs using up, then type those ingredients into google and see what happens. Often, it at least gives you some ideas to work from!

  16. asiajane June 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    I know I’m a little behind here… reading archives! However, I had to put in my two cents. We struggle with spending so much money on food, and seemingly never having anything to eat. It’s ’cause we buy most everything unprocessed, except for tortilla chips and pretzels sometimes. But cooking everything from scratch does take a lot of time and effort. My husband’s mom always cooked the same thing every week: pasta on Sunday, meatloaf on Wednesday, etc. And I used to scoff at that idea– how boring! Now I totally get it. We still don’t adhere to a strict weekly menu but we always have some sort of taco/burrito dinner, a rice+veggie dinner, a pasta dinner, and always eggs+potatoes on Fridays. Not sure why, but a frittata and roasted potatoes on Friday has become our standby.

    That 101 10-minute meals list from the NYT is awesome! I will definitely bookmark it.

    I would someday love to be a person who has a set of dishes she has perfected, including the perfect cake, a potluck dish, and several dinners…


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