Tips for Weeknight Dinner Planning

Fork and plate

What’s for dinner? Is there a question more stressful at 5:30PM on a Monday night?

Here is the formula I use everyday for figuring out, “what’s for dinner?”;

Protein + Vegetables + Extras

Proteins

My dinners focus on healthy sources of protein; meat, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, or dairy. I prepare meals based on what I find fresh at the markets and what I have stocked in my kitchen. I am not advocating a high protein diet – make sure to include plenty of healthy fats in all your meals.

  • Keep a well stocked kitchen. This is what I routinely store based on what my family prefers;
    • Freezer: ground beef, London broil and other cuts of meat, marrow bones, chicken breast, whole chicken, chicken bones, chicken liver, lamb chops (special treat), sausages (nitrate-free), wild salmon and other fish fillets.
    • Refrigerator: fresh fish, herrings, gravlax (store-bought or homemade), eggs, yogurt, cheese, cream, butter, ghee, deli-meat (nitrate-free).
    • Pantry: canned tuna, salmon, and sardines, jarred anchovies, coconut milk, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, olive oil, sesame oil.
  • Take a few minutes when cleaning up dinner to prepare for the next night.  Place freezer items in the refrigerator to defrost, wash or chop vegetables, soak grains, nuts or seeds, marinate meats, etc…
  • Stock easy to defrost options for hectic days. Chicken breasts, turkey cutlets, and ground meat all defrost in an hour or two in a cold water bath.
  • Keep a list of meals that your family enjoys divided by categories. These are meals I repeat at my house divided by categories;
    • Meat: meatballs, hamburgers, seared london broil, grilled lamb chops, pasta bolognese, tacos, and stir-fries.
    • Poultry: rotisserie chicken, chicken soup, curried chicken salad, and oven-roasted turkey breast.
    • Fish: pan-fried, steamed, roasted, or seared with butter/coconut oil and herbs or with special sauces (time permitting), ceviche, and sushi.
    • Dairy: risotto, homemade sourdough pizza, quiches, and lasagna (made with rice pasta).
  • Try new recipes, ingredients, and techniques but save more complex ones for the weekends when you are not so rushed or stressed to get dinner on the table.
  • Organize recipes in a binder or a recipe management computer program to keep track of recipes you want to try and those that were successful.

Vegetables

  • Choose fresh, local, seasonal, and organic produce when you can.
  • Serve vegetables with healthy fats for maximum nutrient absorption.
  • Prepare a mix of raw, cooked, and fermented vegetables. Most nights I serve a salad, raw cut up veggies, and a cooked vegetable side dish.
  • Prepare what your family likes but expose them often to new vegetables.
  • Vegetable options;
    • Raw: lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, celery, avocado, cucumbers, red/green peppers, fennel, and red onions.
    • Cooked: grilled, steamed, pan-fried, or roasted broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, asparagus, spinach, chard, kale, zucchini, squash, sweet potato fries, and cauliflower rice.
    • Fermented: pickles, sauerkraut, fermented beets or other vegetables.
    • Dressings: Caesar salad, ginger-cumin dressing, or a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.
  • Stock onions, garlic, ginger, lemons, limes, olives, capers, fresh herbs, and spices to flavor your dishes.
  • Stock frozen vegetables for days you are low on fresh produce.

Extras

My “extras” are dishes and sauces that enhance the meal, but can be skipped if pressed for time. Though some dinners the sides may be an integral part of the meal, like spaghetti (gluten-free) and meatballs, often they distract from more nutritious offerings. Sauces can enhance the meal’s nutrition by providing healthy fats. Elaborate desserts are reserved for weekends and holidays, but I do offer low-sugar options a few times a week.

  • Side dishes: oven-baked rice, roasted potatoes, buckwheat noodles, lentils, risotto, rice pasta and quinoa.
  • Stock pantry items like mustard, naturally fermented soy sauces, capers, tomato paste, and anchovies to create dressings, marinades, and sauces.

Have a Backup Plan

Life happens, have backup plans – “dinner in five minutes” types of plan – like when the President is in town and your 20 minute ride home takes two hours, or your child’s friend sleeping over wants another dinner at 10PM.

  • Cook extra when possible and use leftovers creatively for a second meal but freeze them before they go bad (make sure to label with date and description).
  • Keep a list of last minute dinner options and try to always have the ingredients stocked.
  • My backup plans (when I don’t have leftovers): crispy pizza (on gluten-free tortillas I always keep in the freezer), tuna/salmon salad (canned fish are always in my pantry), grilled cheese sandwiches, yogurt/raw milk with nutty granola, and other breakfast for dinner choices.
  • Have a running shopping list in your kitchen and as soon as you are running low on something add it to the list so you’re never out of kitchen staples. A well-stocked kitchen makes last minute dinners feasible.

Weekly and Monthly Menu Planning

“There are only two things required for good cooking: great ingredients and just enough technique to tweak them into a tasty meal.”  Amelia Saltzman, author of The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook.

Some families strive on structured menu planning. It’s also helpful for beginner cooks, those starting special diets, or those wanting extra guidance to prepare healthy meals without having to figure it all out on their own.

If weekly or monthly menu planning is what you are looking for, I recommend the following;

  • Jenny at Nourished Kitchen offers Simple Dinners/Healthy Meal Plans. The plan comes with three full dinner menus per week, plus a soup, dessert, and ferment of the week. (Suitable for gluten-grain free and dairy free diets).
  • Cara at Health Home and Happiness provides Grain Free Meal Plans, especially helpful for those on special diets. Her plan includes menus for 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, plus snacks with shopping lists.

How do you plan your weekday dinners? What are some of your go-to meals for hectic days? What challenges do you face getting healthy meals on your table? What recipes would you like to see on Real Food Digest?

This post is linked to Kelly the Kitchen Kop | Real Food Wednesday.

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 For entertaining, Mark Bittman created a Dinner Party Matrix to simplify what can be a stressful endeavor.

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Comments

  1. says

    wonderful tips. As a working mother of four, weeknight dinners used to be the number 1 stress in my life. But I’ve adopted a lot of the tips you’ve outlined here, especially keeping my pantry well stocked, and it’s helped a lot. Thanks for this inspiring post!
    Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger) recently posted..Apple Tart

  2. says

    Great tips, I love how you broke them down to make them more helpful!
    A few other ideas that work for my family:
    – Once a week (can be a Sunday) I jot down some dinner menus for the week so I’m not scrambling for ideas at 4pm on a Tuesday and racing to the store
    – I try to keep some sort of healthy vegetable soup in the fridge or freezer, a nice bowl of soup with a side salad can be a filling meal
    – If I introduce something new to my son, I am sure to include an “old” favorite so that he doesn’t walk away hungry if he’s not prepared to try the new things (usually vegetable) yet, but then I introduce it again and again so that he becomes familiar with it
    – I often prepare extra of the simple high protein favorites such as salmon patties or baked turkey eggrolls
    so they can be served as snacks or used in a bind
    – Never underestimate the importance of the crockpot! You can dump lots of heathy vegetables, sprouted grains, legumes, protein in there with seasoning and 6 – 10 hours later you have a delicious one pot meal, often with leftovers that can be frozen or used the next day

  3. says

    Lisa, What excellent advice. really well organized and things you really don’t think of when the What’s for Dinner question hits every night. Thanks. Ken

  4. Dina says

    This is such a great post, with so many useful ideas that I am implementing. I would love to hear how you come up with lunches (maybe I need to use more leftovers, but my kids get bored if we’re eating the same thing a lot). Would also love to hear your Shabbos menus, I’ve liked every recipe I’ve made from your blog!

    • lisa says

      Thanks Ken and Dina! Please add your own tips and favorite go-to dishes as well!

      Dina – my Shabbat menus are very similar to my formula above, always centered around chicken, fish, or meat, with salads and roasted or other prepared vegetable dish, but I will add in rice or potatoes and always have a dessert.

      But I will try to post about Shabbat and holidays menus soon. Thanks for your feedback!

    • says

      Hi Cari – nothing complicated. I usually make it from the chicken used to make chicken soup – but any cooked chicken will do. Tear or cut chicken into bite size pieces, mix with mayonnaise and curry powder. Chop up arugula, or other salad green and toss together. Add lemon juice, salt/pepper to taste. I’ll try to blog about it next time I make it…

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