“What’s for dinner?”
The dreaded question. I don’t know what time it first comes up in your house, but my youngest asks for a rundown of the day’s menu before his eyes are all the way open.
There’s some major pressure in being responsible for meal preparation every day. It’s a big job: choosing the menu, buying all the ingredients, remembering to defrost meat or soak beans, making sure it’s ready in time for bedtime, the PTA meeting, or sports practice, not to mention actually serving it all and cleaning up afterward.
Hopefully, you farm out a good deal of that work. Everyone can make dinner suggestions — so it’s not always on you to choose the menu — there’s grocery pick up, delivery, and the never overrated partner (or older kids!) willing to head to the store, and certainly everyone in the family can pitch in with cleanup, no matter the age. But if you’re in charge of the main event (cooking), then it’s still a lot of work. In my family, that job is almost exclusively mine, and it’s a lot to do: Feed a family of five with food of good nutritional value (and ideally taste), within time constraints, without going over budget, and without fail. My solution: Do it once a week and get it over with.
That’s right, I only cook once a week. One day on the weekend, normally Saturday or Sunday (I have used Friday or Monday nights in a pinch), I spend between two and three hours in the kitchen. In that time, I cook four to five meals that will last us the week. How, you may ask . . . ?
The Grocery List
I only go to the grocery store every other week. When making my grocery list, I sit down and I plan out eight to 10 meals (depending on our schedule for the upcoming weeks) that we will have for dinner (and lunch leftovers). Everyone in the family contributes at least one meal suggestion, and I fill in the blanks with tried and true favorites or whatever NYTimes Cooking sent me in an email over the prior few days. Mostly it works, and I purchase everything I need for two weeks at the store in one day.
I choose which recipes to cook, keeping variety in mind to make sure that we have a good mix of proteins and flavors for each week. Then I spend a few minutes figuring out what all needs to be chopped, if any or multiple items have a long cook time, if I will need to rotate pots for the stove, oven, etc. I get all the ingredients I need to make EVERYTHING out on the counter, and I just start.
If items need to go in the slow cooker, they are put in first. Next comes anything that has a long cook time on the stove or in the oven. I try to have a mix of oven meals and stove meals so that I’m not waiting on one meal to complete another. If the balance is off, I definitely plan out how to make the most of what I have. After those long ones get started, I finish ALL of my chopping before I start on anything else.
I separate chopped items into bowls or plates for each meal so all my veggies/herbs are in one spot when I start cooking. Then I just tear through it. I might cook rice for one meal while I’m stirring sauce for another. My kids have been known to help, especially when it comes to simple tasks: browning meat, washing dishes, snapping the ends off green beans, peeling potatoes, etc. They’re finally old enough to really be a big help with some of the easy stuff, so I can work on more complicated items.
As things finish cooking, I set them into containers to cool on the counter before sealing up and putting them in the fridge. I wash dishes as I go, partially because I don’t have a ton of pots so I need to reuse them, and partially because it keeps my cooking area as clear as possible. I try really hard never to start cooking without an empty dishwasher, which really helps with everything except the pots!
You may not be interested in giving up a large chunk of time in one day (it really doesn’t have to be a weekend), but in my house, it’s totally worth it. I never rush home to start dinner. Going out to eat doesn’t become a necessity because we don’t have anything ready go. There are lots of options for lunch and dinner (and in my case, breakfast as well) every day of the week. We save money because I plan things out, buy in bulk when possible, and rarely choose to go out to eat when we have perfectly good food waiting for us in the fridge.
This system has allowed us to sit down to a homecooked meal on a daily basis without the daily stress. It works for us. And I no longer hate the question, “What’s for dinner?” because I almost always have the answer.
Who’s the main cook in your family?