In talking to other moms lately, I've discovered that many of them suffer from the 5 o'clock dinner panic. As in, "Yikes! I've been busy all day and it's 5 o'clock and I have no idea what I'm making for dinner!" I won't mislead you into thinking that I never suffer from this feeling (life happens, right?), but I've been able to limit it quite a bit by coming up with a system of meal-planning that works for me. I'd like to share a few tips with you. Without too much time and effort, you really can have a nice, healthy, affordable meal every night, instead just another plate of scrambled eggs.
Tips to help you avoid the 5 o'clock dinner panic:
1) Plan an entire week of meals in advance. You can use the pad of paper method to do this, but ever since being inspired by The Mrs. over at her blog, I've found it more helpful to scratch out a rough draft on my note pad and then transfer the plan to my erasable board above the sink. That way, rather than scrambling around the house to find the ever-elusive notepad, I can easily locate my list. It is also helpful for Christopher. With just a quick glance at the board, he can know what is for dinner (and theoretically, whether to rush home or make other plans!).
2) When planning your meals for the week, take into account which nights will be busier than others, which nights will involve eating somewhere else (such as church potlucks or dinners out), and so on. Since my husband is a pastor, I try to touch base with him the day I'm working on the meal plan and find out if he has any evening meetings. I often plan leftovers or simpler meals such as spaghetti for evenings he will be out, so that everything will be ready on time (I have a habit of taking far longer than expected to cook meat dishes so it's good to be able to control the time with simple meals).
3) It is very helpful to take a half hour or so and go through the grocery ads for your area for the week before making your meal plan. Get to know what is a good price for each item and circle great sales in the ads. Building your dinners around as many on sale or already stocked-up items will help tremendously in budget-consciousness. Building dinners around what's on sale also helps give you variety to your meals, because obviously the same things will not be on sale every week.
4) Stay stocked up on key grocery items that won't spoil and that you find yourself using in meal after meal. We have a Costco membership and always stay stocked up items such as low sodium chicken broth, red and black beans, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, pasta, pre-shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and so on. It becomes much easier to build your meal plan when you have less items to purchase, and your staples already sit on your shelves.
5) Regularly take time to peruse your favorite cookbooks or cooking magazines. Take note of key ingredients and file interesting recipes away so that when those ingredients go on sale, you can pick out the appropriate recipe. For example, I subscribe to Cooking Light Magazine and draw many of my recipes from there. I pay attention to the seasonal nature of many of the recipes. Often a produce item will go on sale when it is in season. I also subscribe to favorite food blogs like the Pioneer Woman Cooks and I find that the more I peruse these along with my favorite cookbooks, the more I begin to understand how food works. I find myself remembering interesting recipes when grocery items go on sale. And I find myself able to cook up recipes of my own far more easily because I have seen similar recipes side by side and understand how ingredients work together.
6) Plan for leftover food nights. I have found that when I don't plan to use my leftovers, all too often they go to waste. So if I'm going to make a big meal with leftovers like chicken pot pie or pot roast, I try to plan it to be made near a day when we can eat the leftovers. Leftovers aren't very good if they are more than a couple of days old, and they need to be used promptly. So if I'm going to be away from home a couple of evenings in a row, then I won't make my big meal the day before I'm to be away. I'll wait until I plan to be home for several days in a row.
7) Use your meals that require lots of fresh produce items first, if you can. Fresh produce items tend to spoil quickly so if I'm cooking with zucchini or cilantro or fresh tomatoes, I try to plan meals involving these ingredients for earlier in the week. Otherwise, I find that my produce may go to waste.
8) Read through the recipe for the evening ahead of time. Sometimes it will happen that you didn't realize the meat would take 2 hours to cook or that there was an extra prep step that you didn't know about. If you have a clear idea of how long dinner will take to cook, you will be able to start in time to get it on the table by 6 PM (or whenever dinner is in your house).
9) Once your meal-plan is sketched out for the week, put in on your erasable board, make your grocery list and stock your kitchen. You'll be patting yourself on the back when you realize it's 5 o'clock and dinner is not only planned; it's in the oven!
Questions? Shoot them my way and I'll see if I can tackle them for you.
Note added July 24: After writing this post, I found a fantastic website with some great ideas for how to go about meal planning. Check it out here.