I start with a brainstorm. This is the best part. I just think about what I want to eat. I’m pretty much always hungry, and even if I’m not, I have keen memories of hunger and cravings (primarily from my pregnancies) so this is easy. I keep a notebook where I write down our dinner every night (shout out to Jenny Rosenstrach) and I will pull that out and look at what we had this month last year and the year before. I’ll poke around in a favorite cookbook. I’ll think about my favorite childhood meals. Sometimes a meal pops into my head – something I ate at a restaurant, or something I saw online? I’ll ask my husband and sometimes, if I’m very very lucky, he will say the name of a meal. I’ll ask my boys. “Mac and cheese and peas and carrots!” they’ll shout. I know this, so I only ask them occasionally. I just write it all down.
Then I look at our schedule for the week. I know which days we have commitments, when we might be eating dinner at some else’s house, if we might need a super quick meal, or if I should get dinner started in the morning in the slow cooker. Some meals start to fall into place. I’ll cross things off if they’re too similar, or if they’re too much work for the week we have ahead. I make sure we’re getting an assortment of vegetable sides – we tend towards broccoli, which is actually really awesome if you have to choose a vegetable tendency, but again, variety is good. I make sure we’re not eating pasta every night, or eating every meal on top of rice, or that it’s not all Italian or Asian or French (ha!). I make sure that my boys, who are fairly adventurous eaters, are not challenged every single night with something new – there are tried and true hits every week. I don’t push myself to cook a challenging meal every single night. I build in meals that would work with the ingredients or prepared foods we have at home that need to be used up. I often leave a day open, where we could eat any leftovers from a previous meal, or we might order a pizza.
By this point, I have a solid idea of what we’ll be eating each night for the next several days. I’ll write a fresh copy and post it in the kitchen. That way it’s easy to see every day, and I can check it each night to see if something needs to come out of the freezer and thaw, or if I need to stop at the grocery store in the morning. It’s not written in stone though, especially towards the second half of the week.
Some families find it useful to assign themes to each night, taking some of the guesswork out, like Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, pizza Fridays, a roasted dinner on Sunday when they’ll be home all day to keep a hot oven company. Personally, I need a bit more variety than that, but it’s a good place to start.
This might seem horrific and time consuming but it isn’t. It used to be. It takes a while to create a new habit. Start with only planning three nights at a time, and don’t feel that you have to cook a dinner from scratch each of those nights. Be realistic about your schedule and your comfort level in the kitchen. It’ll get easier in time.