I am a big proponent of the family dinner. When everything works out right, there is nothing better than sitting around our square table, three little boys, one big boy, and me, eating something tasty and talking together. The dinner table is almost always a place of smiles, laughter, and satisfaction, and rarely sees arguments or tears. I am also pretty sure that 90% of the compliments I receive as a mom are given to me because of something served at that table. (The other ones come on Sunday mornings when Chris says, "tell Mom that she looks pretty" when I'm ready for church.) And, to back up my love of dinnertime, studies have shown that children who eat regular sit-down dinners with their families enjoy a better sense of belonging and fewer instances of drug, alcohol and promiscuity. I'm in!
But, read the above paragraph with that little caveat: when everything works out right. That's the hard part. Life is busy, our budget is tight, someone is going here or there, and I haven't planned the menu enough to shop for it. When that happens, it's either running to the store at 5:30pm to grab something quick and easy, or worse, running by a fast-food place for takeout. You know you're not on the right track when one of your kids says, "McDonalds again?!" (By the way, the kids getting sick of Mickey-D's hasn't actually happened since we lived in Logan and I was working full time, but still-- I remember the sting well!)
I tend to shy away from books and sites that help with meal planning, mainly because I am not wanting for recipes. In my cookbook cabinet, along with my selection of favorite cookbooks, I also have a folder full of recipes I've gathered over the years, plus three + years subscription of my favorite food magazine, Everyday Food. My wonderful maternal grandmother, Nonny, who is an equally wonderful cook, is sending me her recipes so that I can compile them for posterity. And, in case you haven't noticed, this blog has links to some incredible recipe sites, including Culinary Collie Sue, managed by my sister-in-law, Emily, and Bex Box, where my delightful friend Becca shares delicious recipes and fabulous recipe cards. So, recipes are not the problem.
For me, the biggest challenge with family dinners is the planning. For some reason, even with my abundance of recipes, when it comes time to plan for the next week or two, I tend to draw a blank. Even though there are plenty of things we love and would love to try, I often end up making the same old stuff because that's all I could think of at the time.
Enter the Food Nanny.
When we were in California, my sister-in-law, Heidi (also an excellent cook-- see, I have inspiration everywhere!), introduced me to the idea of meal-planning, Food Nanny style. The idea is pretty simple: each day of the week has a theme, and you plan your meals accordingly. It seemed pretty elementary-- almost too elementary, in fact-- but then Heidi mentioned how the idea is actually working really well for her family. So, I decided to give it a try myself.
Last week was our first week, and here's what we (I) came up with for our nightly themes:
Sunday: Family Traditions (meat & potatoes, traditional Sunday dinner stuff)
Wednesday: One-dish/ Crock Pot/ Simple
Saturday: Kid's Faves (pizza, mac & cheese, grilled cheese, etc)
This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I think it's funny. I guess I could say that Neil is so excited about dinner that he jumps down the stairs?
I was surprised at how easy it was to come up with a menu, and in fact, I came up with weekly menus for six weeks. That's 42 different meals without a single repeat. If I didn't have the little paper in front of me, I wouldn't believe it myself. The ease came from narrowing down my thought-process into a single category-- instead of trying to brainstorm everything I could possibly make, I just focused on the one theme. Mexican: enchiladas, fajitas, sweet pork salad, white chicken chili, shredded beef tacos, etc. You get the idea.
I can also see how flexible this schedule is-- I kept some of my themes pretty generic to fit around our lives. Wednesdays, for example, are always a little crazy around here, so it makes sense that our dinner would be easy to prepare and serve. And we sometimes go out on Friday nights, so I put "fish" there, since I don't have quite as many fish recipes as some of the other categories.
Here's how it worked last week:
Sunday: Glazed salmon with Rice Pilaf
Monday: Chicken Fajitas with oven-roasted vegetables
Tuesday: Spaghetti (I tried a new homemade sauce and added sweet onions) with breadsticks and peas
Wednesday: Pulled Pork Sammies
Thursday: Sesame Chicken
Friday: Dinner out at Morenita's (I was tempted to get something with pesce, but I can't resist their tacos carnitas!)
Saturday: homemade pizza
It was a really good eating week, and even though nothing major happened at any of our dinners, it just felt good to be together. We're trying this system again this week and I find myself looking forward to our themed nights. Yum yum!