What’s for Dinner? Meal Planning Woes

Posted 27 September, 2014 by Trish in In the Kitchen / 33 Comments

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What’s for dinner? The dreaded question. Actually, the question I dread is the one I ask: “What do you want for dinner?”

Elle isn’t old enough yet to make any suggestions for what she wants for dinner–her stock answer is Mac and Cheese, whether that’s really what she wants or not. Most times the answer I get when I ask what Scott wants for dinner is Spaghetti, which I often deny because we just had it a week ago. Above is a vague list that Scott gave me many months ago that I still keep on my fridge for inspiration. The answer that I really hate getting, though, is “I don’t know” or even worse “I don’t care.”

Hmmmm. I’ll bet that you’ve been in my shoes before. And “I don’t care” isn’t so bad as long as when I make a few suggestions they aren’t turned down. The worst, isn’t it?

To combat the problem of “What’s for dinner” I’ve started keeping a menu on my fridge with two weeks worth of meals. The menu is on a white board so I can easily switch out meals or note an outing that has come up. I find that dinnertime is so much less stressful if I have a plan ahead of time.

But, I still have to come up with two weeks worth of meals.

And then shop for those two weeks worth of meals.

Sometimes the meal planning itself is so daunting a task that I ignore it, ignore it, ignore it, until we don’t have any food in the house.

If I am really organized (hint: I have two little babes and just started back at work), I will start with a notepad and list out the dates for two weeks. I immediately mark out any dates that we have plans with family or other nights out. Then I start brainstorming ideas. What did we have last week? What haven’t we had in a while? Most likely I’ll stare at the blank page (minus those dates) for so long that I run out of time to actually plan anything.

On lucky days I’ll come up with a balanced couple of weeks worth of meals and built in leftover days. I love leftover days (even if I’m the only one in my family who appreciates them). As an example, I’ll plan to cook two days in a row and hopefully both of those meals will yield enough for leftovers. Then on the third day (or fourth), we will have leftovers and everyone can pick and choose her favorites.

Meal planning can be a bit rigid, but I use my two week menu more as a guide than a rule. More often than not I’ll switch up the meals based on mood, but if I planned correctly then I know that I’ll have all of the ingredients already in my fridge and pantry.

They key is to have ideas! Written down in front of you! Which is like a magical miracle for me!

Because otherwise we get to 5:30 and all stand around asking each other, “what do you want to eat?” Those are never good meal nights…

Do you meal plan? HOW do you decide WHAT to cook for dinner?

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33 Responses to “What’s for Dinner? Meal Planning Woes”

  1. For the most part I base all my meals around chicken thighs and ground beef. Both are inexpensive. I also try to look for reciepes that use ingredients I have on hand. Sometimes we eat the same things a few times but at least everyone is fed.

  2. MD Smith

    It’s just me and the cat now, so I am no longer faced with this problem. BUT the smart cookies at Canadian Food Bloggers post a weekly menu planner that is spot on . I think their blog is one of the best out there, and I so desperately wish the Best Birthday Present Ever Fairy would send me to Vancouver for their conference!

  3. Lately, I’m not cooking much of anything so there’s no planning involved but I used to be in your shoes. Whenever I’d ask Carl he’d say something like “whatever you want to fix will be fine,” and I’d reply that I didn’t WANT to fix anything.

  4. Lu

    Meal planning! I love-hate it and there are just two of us… I’m dreading it when there are more! Michael is a much more adventurous/patient cook than I am, so he’ll sometimes plan more elaborate meals for weekdays, but what I want is something quick and tasty. My college roommate used to call them Mom Dinners – a meat, a grain, a veggie. Done. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of baked fish or pork loin, something I don’t have to think about once it’s in the oven. I think I might try just listing a main dish and a bunch of sides, have all the ingredients, and then mix and match all week. But we are also big fans of stews and one pot meals in our house, so I’m not sure if that will work!

    But I got my wisdom teeth out yesterday, so all I’m eating right now is yogurt and dreaming of all the elaborate meals I can eat when I’m feeling better!!

  5. I love to cook dinner and my husband will eat almost anything. I often ask that dreaded question but usually have a plan already in my head and the answer I get is “I don’t care”.

  6. Laura

    I HAVE to meal plan, because I loathe the 5:00 “what should I make for dinner?” feeling. I’ve been doing it for the last 3.5 years or so, and I don’t really love or hate it…it’s just something I have to do each week! We usually have at least one meatless meal, and somehow we got on a “breakfast for dinner” kick, and we usually have that once a week or so. I also try to have at least two different meats/fish during the week, so we don’t have chicken or ground beef multiple nights in a row. Also, since my kids are a bit picky, my meal idea list is smaller than I’d like, but I probably rotate between 15-20 different meals. My goal is to cook 4 nights a week, and Friday is always pizza night. We usually also pick something up or eat out on Saturday night, and Sunday tends to be leftovers or random, easy food night (think cereal, grilled cheese or similar). Now that fall is here, I’m excited to start making soup and chili, and change up our meals a bit! :)

  7. Oh – I feel your pain! The worst part of cooking dinner for me is what to cook! And I so easily get in a rut. I ask my husband and he’ll respond “chicken”…well, what kind of chicken? Aaah!! If someone could just tell me what to make everyday, then the actual cooking part would be a breeze! I also can’t remember the last time I tried something new…just don’t have any time to find new recipes anymore :(

  8. I don’t ask because J is a taco Tuesday kind of guy and that’d drive me crazy! Periodically I’ll ask if there’s anything he wants but that’s more of a general question or when I have day I’m trying to fill in my meal plan. I do something similar to your planning though I use a notebook instead of a white board. Planning is definitely the way to go! I tend to make sure I have at least 2 or 3 easy nights to mix in with more complicated recipes just in case something comes up. I buy meat when it’s on sale and break it up into portions and freeze it so that helps steer me for what can be made. Good luck!

    • I just go to my computer and type in chicken (or beef, vegetables, etc,) recipes and pick one. That makes it a little easier. My problem is I never know who is going to be at home to eat. I ask but plans change in mid stream.

  9. We do the same – plan two weeks of meals to make it less stressful. With my school schedule, my kids school stuff, and our community involvement, I don’t have time to run to the store every couple days, so twice a month shopping it is. We hate making the schedule of dinners though. We keep a list of meals that most of us enjoyed to help. And definitely, some weeks turn out better than others. Often depends on what’s going on, cause the crazy schedule we have dictates how much time we have to prepare meals and eat before we have to run off to an activity, since we both work full time. It is the one big Ugh moment of my days.

  10. How organised! One of us just buys some meat or fish every day – whatever looks good and is on special and then I just make up a dish based on that – I find it creative to use what you have on hand. Cheers from Carole’s Chatter!

  11. Bex

    I have the same exact problem. We’ve started trying to sit down together and make a plan on Sundays as we shop for the week on Mondays, but there are always the weeks we forget to do it and then it becomes a nightmare. It’s difficult enough attempting to cook on the days when my husband’s working late, with an almost 2 year old and a 3 month old, but if I have no idea what I’m planning to do it’s a total nightmare! Meal planning is definitely the way forward, I just need to utilise my vast collection of cookbooks better!

  12. SarahBeth

    Shawn’s a much more adventurous cook than I am, but I’m really beginning to enjoy cooking more than I used to. We tend to trade off cooking, but during the week I do a lot of the cooking unless Shawn’s home. I am always in charge of dinner Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday because he has class and works. On the weekends, I will generally make something in the crock pot and now that its coming into fall/winter, I’ll start doing a casserole one night a week because that is a) filling and b) garners leftovers for work/school.

    I have been using pintrest as a main source of inspiration to find recipes that aren’t hard (Hard things that use a ton of ingredients intimidate the hell out of me) and in the last year alone have made a handful of what I’ve pinned. Had a few fails but that’s what happens when you try.

    Here are a few of my go to’s:

    Cheeseburger Pasta
    Chicken Cordon Bleu Roll Ups
    Tater Tot Casserole
    Cheesy Chicken Stew
    Steak tips of some kind
    Brown Sugar Garlic Chicken
    Pork Roast (Crock pot)
    Pork Tenderloin (in the oven)

    So I guess, the tl;dr answer to your question is we loosely meal plan but do keep mac and cheese and pasta in the house as a ‘omg we need to go shopping’ last resort.

  13. My life goes so much better/easier when I plan out dinners for me and my family. I’ve been really, really, really bad at it lately — which explains why I’ve been to the grocery store so often this week! Thanks for inspiring me to do better :)

  14. I don’t work.. and I don’t have kids but I still use the two week planning. It makes life less stressful. I go grocery shopping every two weeks too. I can’t stand going to the grocery store all the time or when it’s 5 pm and I am pondering what to make. I am just all about what makes life easier.

  15. I plan for meals, and I love it! I have a spreadsheet I go to every week (usually Friday) when I’m ready to plan for the next week, I shop for groceries on Saturday, and I prep some Sundays. My spreadsheet is full of everything my family will eat, so we rarely have the same meal in a month unless it’s breakfast for dinner. My family will offer up ideas (usually ethnic) when they want to try something new, but, for the most part, I decide what we eat. For next month’s cookbook challenge, I’m using Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: The Playbook because there are tons of good recipes in it. Check it out; it may inspire you.

  16. So funny! Just yesterday I decided to try the meal planning thing. I am *always* a fail because my mood changes — on Saturday morning that spaghetti on Monday sounded good, but when Monday comes around, I want soup. Argh. So meal planning doesn’t work.

    I’m lucky to not have kids or a picky eater to cook for and to work at home, which means meal time is not that stressful and it doesn’t matter when we eat. On the other hand, some days I’m just not inspired and I really wish I had a recipe and the ingredients on deck.

    So we’ll see if this week works and if I find it easier or not to have a plan.

    Now I’m going to read everyone’s comments.

  17. There’s only 2 of us now, and I never ask the question “what do you want”…LOL Now that fall is here, 2x a week I try to use the crock pot to make a huge pot of soup (freeze some and take to work for a few days) also beef stew or a pot roast now and then and have even made turkey drumsticks and potatoes in the crockpot. I like coming home to a cooked meal on those days.

    I also like making think chicken breasts with coconut/panko bread crumbs, chicken parm, beef stir fry, coconut shrimp and salmon. We also have breakfast for dinner once a week and go out to dinner 1-2x a week.

  18. I used to plan our family meals weekly, then do a big grocery shop Sunday after mass. It really helped keep us organized, and the few hours I spent planning made it so much easier during the week when we were all so darn busy. I like your idea about posting the menu on the frig, I never thought of that.

  19. Esme

    I try to think out the week when I get groceries. But things do not always work out or you find you are in the mood for something different.

  20. Chicken, beef, pork, chicken, beef, pork, fish. Repeat.

    My mom swears it is the only way to plan a week’s worth of meals, and it is a regiment she and my dad stick to today. She has a large stack of recipe cards for each meat, pulls two off the stack for each, and uses them to plan to meals for the week. We voted on the recipe at the end of the meal. If the majority liked the recipe, it went to the back of stack. If the majority hated the recipe, it was tossed out and never made again. Keeps things interesting even if the rotation sounds very regimented.

    I’ve been trying to incorporate her method into my own meal planning. Although, with only one to cook for, I tend to make two or three recipes on Saturday morning and then freeze it into single serving portions to eat throughout the week.

  21. I try making a meal plan, but more times than not I end up not following it. And I have the same problem you do most the time when I ask what they want for dinner, they don’t care, and the same goes for which restaurant to go to. Here’s My Weekend Cooking

  22. I used to be so good about meal planning but for some reason when I went back to work full-time (when I clearly needed to be more organized about it!), I let it drop by the wayside. We do keep two lists in the cupboard. One is a list of things we like to eat – casseroles, pastas dishes, different ways to cook meats – there are about 50 ideas on it for us to turn to. The other is a list of sandwiches; we seriously have something like 30 sandwiches on that list. So nice to have those lists to fall back on. Of course, that doesn’t insure we’ll have all of the ingredients on hand at one time to make any of those things on any given night!

  23. Oh Trish, I imagine how frustrating that “I don’t care” can be!

    Our household is just me and my boyfriend, and we are both pretty adventurous eaters and we love to cook, so we don’t have the same issues. We discuss our weekday meals on the way to the market on Sunday so that we can get all the necessary ingredients (keeping in mind any leftovers from the weekend that have to be used up). It’s usually two meat dishes, two veggie ones and a fish based one. Sometimes we’ll change our minds depending on what looks nice (and cheap) at the market. Leftovers from weekday dinners are either incorporated in the next dinner or we have for lunch at work.

    We don’t plan things for the weekend; Saturdays tend to be a bits-and-pieces lunch (cheese, salad, bread, cured meat, etc) and take-out for dinner. Same for lunch on Sundays and either fajitas or a roast for dinner.

  24. We both hate this question! We usually shop for the whole week and he dinner of the day is decided by the first expiration date. But making the list is always a challenge. We have a few recipes that we do not really mind eating every second week.
    We do try to get a few new recipes in that line up by trying out some new stuff we find in magazines or online in the weekend but often we return to the same few things.

  25. I don’t really meal plan YET. Because of health issues and being really REALLY fat, I need to start eating paleo. To do this I need to have a plan so I am not tempted to say to hell with it and order out. I am going to start this week.

  26. Ti

    I love to cook, but I hate to shop. I can never leave the story under $250 and I often have to shop once a week. So… I try not to shop all that often which means that I have to get creative in my house. My family likes protein the best and they like it grilled which is easy to do year round in California. So, I will typically grill a lot of chicken breast and then use it throughout the week in different things, tacos, salads, with a side, etc. I will sometimes throw a lot of meat into a Crock Pot with the same idea and then we will make tacos, burritos, etc. My kids are grab and go lately with all of their activities so this works for us and it’s what they like.

    They also like breakfast for dinner which is good for nights we do not have rehearsal. It’s tough! Whatever we do make, I do try to make a lot of it so I can also take some for lunch.

  27. I usually sit down every Saturday and plan one week of meals. I save my old menus to get inspiration. I like leftover nights, too, and am lucky my husband likes them too. I usually make a couple of favorites and throw a new recipe in. All that said, I get really bored with the process!

  28. When my kids were little (They are 22, 16, 14 now) I used to have a weekly menu on posted on my fridge as well. It was SO helpful. Those years are CRAZY and that was one of the things that I had some control over.

    My family does/did the SAME thing. Every weekend I ask them what they want for the next week. I used to receive blank stares, lol. But I changed tactics and told them that if they don’t give me ideas they don’t get food, ha.

    That helped. :D

  29. I think anyone in charge of the kitchen struggles with this one! I know I have my staple meals we eat nearly once a week, and get so tired of after a while. I try to experiment with what’s in my cupboard and it used to be lovely having a big garden- whatever was ripe inspired me to prepare it in whatever way I could. I just couldn’t let it go to waste. Now to be a little creative I try to make at least one new meal a week- my older kid likes to pick new things out of the many cookbooks I have (and rarely use, shame on me).