Expert advice on the challenge of family meal planning — especially for busy weeknights
“So, mac and cheese with hot dogs on Thursday, then?”
My husband and I were revamping our dinner menu. Our previous meal “plan” – a generous name for something containing so many frozen waffles – was getting super old. We had abandoned it in favor of the easy meals that our kids would eat while fending for ourselves. Sometimes he and I would forget to eat. Sometimes we’d just stop to grab a hard-boiled egg or piece of toast.
It wasn’t working.
So as summer came to a close, we sat across from one another at the dining room table, a sea of cookbooks between us. On my laptop was a spreadsheet showing all of the meals we wanted to eat during the fall — for sure this time. But we quickly felt overwhelmed: We all liked different recipes, and our kids raised an eyebrow at anything even remotely different, despite admitting they were tired of their preferred foods.
When I asked some local friends to see what they were doing, I found out we weren’t alone.
It’s true that many weren’t stressing too much and were happily feeding their omnivorous children whatever the grownups ate. But others were feeling as lost as we were. “I recently started working full time again since having kids and dinner is the LAST thing I want to deal with when I get home,” Aviva Lubowsky said. “All I have to add to this conversation is: UGHHHHHHHHHH.”
Several people said they had given up and either make separate meals or have their older kids or teens feed themselves. Others extolled the virtues of snack dinners (these are essentially buffet-style dinners with themes like nachos or breakfast). Lots of parents recommended that weekend meal-prep was the way to go. But that had never worked for our weekend routine.
So I reached out to Pittsburgh-based dietitian and nutritionist Althea M. Bradley for some guidance.
“Meal prepping only works if you eat the food,” she said. “I’d say my biggest piece of advice is to stop thinking that everything has to be all or nothing. That mindset sets you up for failure. What we need is to be realistic… be honest about the barriers and make sure meal solutions match your needs.”
For us, being honest meant finally acknowledging that we were unlikely to roast a pan of vegetables on a humid, 92-degree day (who planned that anyway???). It also meant that we needed to remember not to plan an elaborate dinner or a new recipe on nights when one of us is rushing a kid home from kung fu.
Creating a spreadsheet really helped. We’ve now got it sorted with all of our recipes and ideas according to the major interceptors of dinner productivity: summer heat, evening commitments and — since we’re being honest — general overwhelm. At the end of a busy weekday, sometimes just reaching into a cabinet to get out a pot seems an insurmountable task, especially when our kids are in the background declaring, loudly, and sometimes tearfully, that what we have chosen to prepare is less than satisfactory.
I asked what Althea suggests for parents like us whose kids are devotees of frozen pizza.
“I usually recommend family-style meals where kids are at least exposed to foods on the table and I also like to encourage one “no thank you bite” or “try me bite” of at least one of the nonpreferred foods. I also encourage families with picky eaters to get the kids involved in food prep,” she said.
“This can be super simple. — like adding an ingredient, stirring or chopping items. It builds excitement and ownership of the yummy finished food and kids are more likely to eat something they make.”
With all of this in mind, we took a look at the forecast (definitely sandwiches on that one super hot day in late summer) and at our schedule (chicken and rice for the day with nothing else planned) and then we filled in the dates. And once we got part way through week one, I can’t say that we didn’t order take-out at least once. But I also can say that we happily tried a new recipe and we did manage to get one kid to place one egg in one pot.
It’s also nice knowing we’re not alone in sometimes struggling with family meal planning.
“The truth is, there is no one size fits all meal plan,” Althea says. But she definitely has strategies and solutions that can help any family.
In fact, to help get Kidsburgh readers started, she’s shared a sample meal plan. Happy dining, Kidsburgh families!