Sometimes the biggest problem with weeknight dinners is figuring what to make when you get home from work. Generally you’re somewhat hungry and exhausted from making too many decisions at work and an additional decision, even of just what to have for dinner, puts you over the edge. Even adults can have low blood sugar melt-downs.
Now, to fix this problem, you could do what one set of our friends does and have the same thing to eat every week. Monday is chili night. Tuesday is Spaghetti night, and so on. (Wasn’t there a commercial about that?) Problem solved.
We need more adventure than that, however. Otherwise I might have to take up skydiving, and nobody wants that. So that means new and different meals that can be made quickly on weeknights with minimal advance planning. Pantry meals. Or meals with ingredients that will last between weekly grocery store trips.
There are online services out there that will give you a weekly menu plan complete with grocery list, taking the thinking out of the process. We tried a couple of these at various points, but they always seem to call for exotic ingredients that we can’t get given our lack of Whole Foods, take much longer than the 20 min we have for making dinner (if the cookbook is called, “20 min meals” it is LYING), and end up leaving mostly unused jars of ingredients in the fridge to rot. Alternatively, they focus on pouring can of Campbell’s X over Pillsbury Y, which is not only unhealthy but doesn’t taste great if you’re unused to so much processed stuff. So, a great idea in theory, but in practice they seem to be unworkable.
Fortunately it’s pretty easy to cobble together your own menu plan with minimal mental effort using one or two cookbooks by the mother-son team of Nancy and Kevin Mills. If there are 1-3 people in your family, use Help! My apartment has a kitchen! If there are 3-5 people, use Faster! I’m starving! Obviously you can use your own cookbooks, but we like these because they are actually accurate in terms of preparation time, they use simple healthy and inexpensive ingredients that work well with a pantry, they have a nice variety of cuisines, and the meals are darn tasty. For non-meat eaters, Kevin Mills married a vegetarian before writing Faster!, so that book has more suggestions for making the meals veggie-friendly.
Open up your book of choice. Go to the first section (possibly salads, maybe appetizers), pick the first meal from that section (or the first meal that sounds good). Write it down on one sheet of paper (or used envelope) and put the ingredients that you do not have on your grocery list. Then move to the next section (chicken, for example), and pick the first meal from that section, adding its ingredients to the grocery list. Continue until you have 5-7 meals listed on the paper. Then go grocery shopping.
When you get home from work on Monday, instead of wondering what to have for dinner, just pick the first meal off the list and ~20 min later it should be ready to eat. Get the partner and/or kids involved too, if applicable.
What if you don’t feel like that day’s scheduled meal? That shouldn’t be a problem, just pick a meal further down the list– you should have all the ingredients from all meals on hand. We usually just have a list of meals, generally one or two more than we’ll be making before we next get to the grocery store. The default no-think option is the top one, but if that doesn’t sound good, we move to the next. Also we will often have one night that’s just leftovers (if not all of the leftovers have been eaten as lunches), or people can have leftovers instead of the planned meal.
The idea is that this kind of planning is more flexible than a strict menu plan and also takes less thinking than other forms of deciding what to have for dinner. There’s a default option for each day each week that is a pretty good option.
Is figuring out what to make for dinner stressful for you? Have you found ways to cut down on the mental load?