It’s dinner time and you don’t know what to make. The kids are hungry, your spouse is on the way and you are staring into the fridge, hoping for inspiration.
Food experts and home cooks say they have all been there. But they also say that with a little organization and planning, answering the question of what’s for dinner will get easier.
Yes, it takes a little extra time and commitment. And there are challenges, especially when you have picky eaters or you’re not feeling like “Taco Tuesday.”
The upside is that as you alleviate the stress over what to make, you’re more likely to make something healthy and save time and money.
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“When you actually write out your menus and capture your ingredient list – you will be a lot more efficient at grocery shopping,” said Lisa Herzig, a registered dietitian and associate professor at Fresno State’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition. “You won’t find your self mindlessly wandering the aisles. You will, in fact, be more focused and mindful of what you are purchasing.”
Lizzie Betts of Fresno, a mother of four children, all under the age of 6, recommends getting a meal planning guide, or large calendar where you can write down the meals you would like and the ingredients required for that meal.
Betts says she and her husband get together on the weekend to talk about the meals they’d like for the coming week. They choose meals that include family favorites and new recipes.
Ambitious meal planners like to sketch out an entire month’s worth of meals. But experts advise to pick a time frame that is manageable for your lifestyle. And remember to aim for foods that are healthy, nutritious and relatively simple to prepare.
To avoid boredom with meal selections, Betts enjoys working new recipes into the mix. Each week, she tries at least three new meals. She says you can find ideas from Pinterest, magazines and cookbooks.
Freezer meals can also be a lifesaver. Betts has attended one of the popular freezer meal workshops at Young Chefs Academy in Fresno. Class participants get to make 10 meals they take home and store in their freezers.
“Before I started meal planning, cooking had begun to feel like a rut,” Betts says. “I used to dread 4 p.m. because it meant it was time to try and pull something together. Now that I am more proactive, it alleviates a lot of stress.”
Annie Foreman, Realtor, wife and mother of two children, admits she is a “planner” by nature and doesn’t shy away from planning a month’s worth of meals at a time.
To help make meals easier, Foreman will get at least three meals out of one main ingredient. For example, she will barbecue chicken one night and make several extra pieces to be used over the next two nights in different meals. She does the same with ground beef.
“It works out really well and you can stretch your meals out by just using one main ingredient,” says Foreman, who also writes the lifestyle blog www.therealhousewifeoffresno.com.
Foreman tries hard not to repeat a meal more than twice in one month. The Foremans also have a strict rule about not making special meals for either of the daughters, the youngest who is almost 2 and the oldest who is 4.
“Whatever I am making, the girls are also going to eat,” Foreman says. “So far, it has worked for us.”
As most home cooks know, a picky eater can easily derail a well-laid-out meal plan.
Erin Gunstream of Fresno says her 5-year-old daughter is not a big fan of meat, while the rest of the family, mom, dad and 2-year-old brother, have it in most of their meals.
What Gunstream does is offer her daughter a meatless variation of the meal everyone else is having. And on a few occasions, Gunstream acknowledges she has made a completely different meal.
“I am not going to lie, there have been a few nights of butter and noodles,” says Gunstream, a school counselor at Saroyan Elementary. “But overall, the meal planning has worked.”
Experts say it’s also important to have staple food products in your pantry, such as canned tomatoes, eggs, mustard, pasta, frozen chicken, broth and Parmesan cheese. It makes meals easier to prepare and can save you when the meal plan falls apart.
“It also helps on those days when you forget to hit the on button on the crockpot,” Gunstream says with a laugh.
Despite the challenges, Gunstream is committed to making a meal plan work.
“When you stop meal planning you tend to go to what is the easiest thing to make and that isn’t always the healthiest,” Gunstream says. “When we plan meals we plan for them to be nutritious and good tasting. If you really make an effort to meal plan, you will see a change.”