Food

How I Plan Dinner for the Week.

August 17, 2017
Dinner Menu planning that works
 
Menu-planning is one of those elusive domestic tools that so many people swear by and that I never could really figure out. Last fall, though, something clicked.
 
I’m the primary planner and preparer of meals around here. In an ideal world, I love cooking and browsing through cookbooks and food magazines and plating and serving. In reality, with two little ones under 3 last fall, the late afternoon and early evening became a sort of nightmarish part of the day. For whatever reason, it was the most stressful, the most chaotic, the least pleasant. Anyone else? 
 
Easy Menu dinner planning  
 I began to realize that if I didn’t come up with a clear plan, dinner time was going to be stressful and chaotic and no fun ever again, or at least for another three years. Our grocery budget was out of control, we were wasting a lot of food, I was wasting a lot of time (see “wasting perfectly delicious food because we forgot it was in the fridge”), and nobody was having a good time.
 
Well, my toddler probably was. Possibly my 4-month-old who has loved to eat since she first saw daylight. But nobody else.
 
My meal-planning process, as most of my plans, began too elaborately and optimistically. The last year or so has seen serious edits to the process, but I can confidently say this: IT IS WORKING.
 
We still can’t figure out where exactly our grocery budget goes. But we now waste SO much less food. Dinner time is not UN-stressful, but it is far less stressful. Mostly, I never ever ever find myself wondering “What the heck should I make for dinner?” at 5:23 p.m. 
 
I never do this anymore because I already did it at a different time that week, one more filled with convenient brain-space and pretty food inspiration and a sense of the week’s flow and less full of the hangry stressful grumpings of harried adults and the frantic shrieks and sobs of the hungry heathen zombies that replace my cute children around 4:30.
 
Normally, menu-planning happens at naptime on Sunday afternoon these days – it used to happen on Tuesday evenings. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHEN IT HAPPENS. My menu-planning session normally takes a grand total of about 15 minutes MAX. It has taken as few as 5.
 
Easy Menu dinner planning 2
 
I am not planning a wedding or a fundraiser. I am planning 7 (and really, closer to 6 or 5) reasonably nutritious and not-completely-boring dinners for two adults and two tiny humans. My greatest pitfall in this process has been over-planning and over-thinking.
 
I sit down with one or two cookbooks (The Kinfolk Table is one of my favorites) and some food magazines, our schedule for the week, my computer, and my grocery/menu notebook. Also, I always make sure that I have a a good pen because there is nothing less inspiring than a terrible pen.
 
I always try to build in the following:
  • At least one meal that can serve two nights in some way. [link to recipe]
  • One night of eating out  or takeout (not necessarily fancy – just not me cooking or cleaning.)
  • Any groceries we already have. 
  • The assumption that at least one night we will be spending with another family or some friends – sometimes this includes an actual prepared meal that I have to plan for and sometimes this includes four adults throwing grapes at children and hoping it counts as dinner, so this might be accommodated in different ways.)
  • Only one new recipe.
  • A couple of meat-less meals like this hearty salad.
  • A few really familiar meals that I know I can prepare quickly while managing a multitude of distractions and serve without a lot of hassle or stress. 
My pile of cookbooks, my recent magazines, and my Pinterest board for “Food & Drink”  are my muses during this process. 
 
This sounds really complicated, but once I found my rhythm, it became pretty effortless and definitely fun. Here are my steps for planning out our meals:
 
Easy Menu dinner planning 3
 
  1. Write down all of the days of the week.
  2. Check the refrigerator and pantry so that you can build the menu around food you already have.
  3. Plan your grocery list as you go – so for each recipe/day/meal that you assign, check to see what you have and what you need and write it down immediately.
  4. Figure out the one big new meal or recipe that you plan to make.
  5. Decide which night makes the most sense for the most involved cooking.
  6. If the one big meal or recipe can serve two evenings, then make a note for the next night as well. If the one big meal can’t, then pick which two nights in a row it makes the most sense to have “grouped”.
  7. Decide which nights are “easy” dinners (normally for us, several of these are meatless or familiar routine recipes). 
  8. Fill in the remaining nights with familiar recipes. Mark one night as “eat out!” or “takeout!”. If we don’t eat out on exactly that night, then I just shuffle. The numbers matter – the exact night doesn’t, necessarily.  
 
Don’t get too caught up in the process. I’ve learned that as long as I make sure I have 4-5 meals planned for the week, my dinner woes tend to be solved. 
 
So here’s what a week might look like if I meal-plan on Sunday:
 
  • Monday: Some kind of marinade or spice rub on chicken and quinoa.
  • Tuesday: Quesadillas (using the leftover chicken from the night before) [This would qualify as an easy night]
  • Wednesday: Homemade pizza [Not meatless for us this week, but it could be]
  • Thursday: Mexican Quinoa [This is my EASIEST go-to one-pan meal. It’s also meatless.]
  • Thursday: This butternut squash and quinoa salad.
  • Friday: A frittata along with leftovers from night before. 
  • Saturday: Plans to eat out.
  • Sunday: Pasta with pesto, Parmesan cheese, veggies (whatever I can find to throw into a pan).
 
That’s it! In reality, I end up planning and making fewer meals than this every week – we’d probably eat the leftover pizza from Wednesday on Thursday. Also, depending on the season, Mark or I might have a recurring church commitment on one of the evenings which means that the other parent just throws fruit, nuts, and maybe some hummus and pita bread at the children and calls it dinner. 
 
If you plan a meal that doesn’t happen, make that meal the first meal for the next week’s plan. In the example above, Sunday night’s meal would be Monday night’s meal for the following week. This minimizes grocery waste and mental energy.
 
I order my groceries online based on this menu (another post about this coming soon!) and voila. All done. So much time and headache saved with just a tiny bit of planning.
 
What are your tips for getting dinner on the table with a little bit more celebration and a little less headache?
 
Curious about how simplicity and celebration can be part of your home? Send me an email or sign up for my newsletter by inserting your email into that box in the upper right corner. There are few things I love talking about more!

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Table

Meal 3 – Brown Sugar and Ginger Chicken

October 9, 2013

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We scheduled dinner with a friend for Monday night.

It ended up being one of those crazy weird Mondays. It would be difficult to go into all of the details but a combination of Emily-being-too-optimistic-about-what-can-be-done-before-9:00-a.m., a dirty kitchen that I didn’t have time to clean before my morning lesson, pouring rain, a long drive through the wrong part of D.C., and make-up and regular lessons taking place on opposite sides of town all added up to me being pretty annoyed at my own bright optimism and pretty stressed by a little after noon.

But then a girlfriend came over spontaneously – asked to come over suddenly, just as everything that had made the morning hectic ended- and we worked through the hours of the early afternoon together to the soothing smell of a fall candle, listening to the patter of the rain. And that friend’s sudden need added a soft calm and cheery presence to my out-of-breath morning.

By the time 7:00 rolled around and it was time for our dinner-guest to arrive, somehow everything that was tumultuous about the day had fallen into place. All of the commitments of the day had been fulfilled, the stress of the day had washed away, and dinner was waiting, hot and satisfying, for Mark, me, and our dinner-guest to enjoy.

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And on a day that was – in some ways – stressful and weird and wet and unhappy and – in other ways – cozy and delightful and satisfying, I learned an important lesson. There were moments during that wet busy day when I wanted to call off the dinner, reschedule, move it to another more ideal day, whine that we were over-scheduled and over-committed.

But the truth is that the friend who showed up spontaneously in the early hours of the afternoon and the dinner guest who arrived at our door at 7:00 actually made my day far better than it would otherwise have been.

We talk about how to bless others through hospitality but what we often forget is that hospitality blesses us. When friends carve time out of their schedule to come enjoy a meal with us, when they bring conversation and strawberry ice-cream and waffle cones and warm encouragement, when they bring companionship and empathy and love, they give us wonderful gifts that we could get no other way.

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Sometimes I forget this lesson and I take out my stress by canceling cozy dinners with friends, by constantly moving commitments around, by trying to pretend that it’s the commitments and people and relationships that are to blame and not my own frazzled, self-centered, anxious, rushing state of mind.

We should practice hospitality simply because it is good for us. It is good for our souls to stop the rushing, stop the madness, stop the fretting and to slow down and pause and enjoy the company of those who are on this road with us.

So take my advice today, my advice to myself that I forget so frequently. Are you too busy, over-scheduled, over-booked, frazzled, tight on time? Have someone over to dinner anyway.

It doesn’t have to be glamorous. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The presence of a friend, the conversation, the change of pace, will remind you of what is good. We don’t need to stress. We don’t need to run around frantically. We don’t need to constantly shuffle our commitments on the calendar like so many pawns on a chessboard.

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But we do need each other. Breaking bread together is one of the most fundamental acts of a civilized society. To achieve what is good, to forge those bonds of community, we need to do it. And do it again. And do it more. Until the practice of eating together becomes so natural that we forever shake this terrible habit of feeling like friends and good food are dispensable.

I’ll even help you. Use the menu below and you won’t even have to plan. Just do it. Invite someone over for dinner. On a Monday night. You won’t regret it.

Chairs Around the Table: 3

Main Dish: Brown Sugar and Ginger Chicken

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 tsps. ginger

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup orange juice

1 tsp garlic

1 tsp pepper

 5 chicken breasts.

Blend the ginger and brown sugar. Pat the chicken breasts dry and cover thoroughly in the brown-sugar-giner rub. Mix the other ingredients in a measuring cup. Pour gently over the chicken breasts. Let sit in the fridge for a few hours. Place the chicken breasts in a baking pan. Bake at 365 degrees for 30 minutes.

Side Dish: Rice

Salad: Baby kale with Mushrooms, tomatoes, red bell-peppers, pistachios, and this dressing.

Appetizer-That-We-Ate-With-Dinner: This spinach-artichoke dip. I replaced the kale with spinach and added bacon bits and I’m so glad I did.

Dessert – These gingersnaps, plus our guest brought delicious strawberry and chocolate ice-cream along with waffle cones. Scrumptious.

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Meal 1 ~ A Zesty Summer Evening Feast

August 17, 2013

Some lovely friends came over for dinner last night. Two of us were exchanging emails and trying to sort out when we could all get together.

You know the game . . . “What about next week?” What about two weeks after that?” “I’m so sorry; that won’t work. What about Christmas 2015?” K shot me another email. “What are you guys doing tonight?”

8-17-13

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Done. Mark and I thrive on spontaneity. I cooked the main dish and dessert; the guests brought an amazing quinoa salad and wine. We threw open the windows and enjoyed the cool summer night as we ate the zesty meal.

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This recipe makes a lot of ganache, so when it was time for dessert, we brought it out and doused the strawberries in chocolate.

Chairs around the table – 5

AppetizerArtichoke Dip and Chips

Main dish – Lemon Pepper Chicken

I rubbed mine ahead of time with a bit of pepper, salt, and basil and, since I was out of wine, I skipped that step.

Side dish – Roasted Potatoes.

2 lbs red small potatoes

1 large onion

1/4 olive oil

1/2 garlic

Chop up the potatoes and the onion. Douse them in olive oil and garlic. Cook them at 350 degrees for 2 hours, stirring occassionally. Broil for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese at the end. 

Dessert – Orange-flavored Bundt Cake with White Chocolate Ganache and Strawberries.

For the bundt cake, I simply used this cupcake recipe for the batter, left out the cinnamon, added an extra 1/2 tsp. of orange extract, and baked it in a bundt pan for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. 

I tried to substitute white chocolate for dark-chocolate in this recipe. It could have worked better, but anything chocolate is pretty amazing on strawberries.

Guests Brought – A fabulous quinoa salad and lots of wine.

Near Disaster – I almost set the house on fire 15 minutes before the guests were supposed to show up. Instead of cooking the chicken in one of my trusty pans, I threw it onto a cookie sheet with no rims. The olive oil dripped off and smoked like Mt. Vesuvius. We turned every fan in the house on the kitchen, opened all of the windows, and managed to shoo the smoke out just before our friends rang the doorbell.

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Waffles and Chicken: A Miscellaneous Tale

July 14, 2012

My mom made chicken and waffles once for Easter. I secretly thought she made up the whole miraculous event. Then, recently, Mancredible discovered them on a menu and we ordered them, mostly because we were incredulous. But they are a real thing. A real and beautiful thing.

Of course we wanted to re-create the masterpiece. Until we encountered An Obstacle. At the ripe age of 24, I own a few earthly possessions. But not a waffle-maker. Neither does he. So Operation Waffles and Chicken was abandoned. 

That would have been the end of the saga…until I remembered that most groceries actually sell an amazing invention, the frozen waffle. Obstacle overcome.
And so, on a sweltering D.C. Sunday afternoon, while smart people were sipping iced tea in very dark cool shady locales, four of us were instead enthusiastically breading chicken and toasting waffles in a hot kitchen. 
Of course I didn't remember to write down the steps to our creation. We used Fluffy Eggo Waffles and combined the chicken recipe in this recipe with the sauce in this one. Except I used a lot of red wine instead sherry. The sauce recipe needs tweaking certainly. It wasn't quite sweet enough and was a little too thick, more like a glaze than a marinade. 
But overall, it was wonderful. And on Waffles and Chicken Round #2, syrup was added to the combination. This improved the dish immensely. All of it was gone within six hours, which says something, I like to think.

What experimental dish have you cooked lately?

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Monday Meal: Veggie & Bean Wrap

July 18, 2011

Sometimes, after a long day, dinner needs to not only be quick but substantial. This can be accomplished easily by modifying a quesadilla.

2 flour tortillas
1 bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 an onion
1 can of refried black beans
1/4 cup of extra sharp Cheddar cheese, finely grated
2 tbls.  of milk
1 tbls.  olive oil
Additional extra sharp Cheddar cheese, finely grated

Turn heat on medium and pour olive oil into pan. While the oil warms, prepare peppers and onion. Saute on medium heat in olive oil until peppers are soft and flexible and onions are transparent.

While the vegetables are heating, heat the refried beans, milk, and cheese in another pan over medium heat. Remove the vegetables from the pan and allow tortillas to warm in the pan on low heat.

Sprinkle cheese lightly in a line down the center of each tortilla, leaving about half an inch of space between the top and bottom edges and the cheese.

Add a layer of beans on top of the cheese. Add sauteed vegetables. Tightly wrap tortilla around the cheese, beans, and vegetables.  Repeat for the second tortilla. Place both wraps back in the pan and cook on medium heat until cheese is fully melted and tortilla begins to brown.

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Monday Meal: Quesdilla

July 4, 2011

This recipe is quick, flexible, and satisfying.

2 flour tortillas
1/2 a bell pepper
1/2 an onion
olive oil
Sharp Cheddar cheese, finely grated

Pour 3-4 tbls. olive oil into pan. Thinly slice pepper and onion. Saute on medium heat in olive oil until peppers are soft and flexible and onions are transparent. Remove vegetables from pan.

Swish tortillas around in oil, making sure both sides of each are lightly covered. Let tortillas warm in pan on low heat. Remove tortillas from pan.

Cover half of each tortilla with a thin layer of cheese. Add a layer of vegetables. Fold uncovered layer of tortilla over covered half so that each tortilla resembles a half-moon.

Place both quesadillas in pan. Cook on medium heat and flip occasionally until each side is satisfactorily browned. Enjoy! And Happy Fourth of July!

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Monday Meal

June 27, 2011

Another one of my favorite, quick, go-to meals during the week is a twist on the simple grilled cheese sandwich.

 Pepper-Jack Cheese Panini

1/2 a pepper
1/2 a red onion
Pepper Jack cheese, thinly sliced
Pepper
Garlic
2 slices of sourdough bread
Olive oil

Pour 2 tbls. olive oil into a medium frying pan. Slice peppers and onion thinly. Saute sliced peppers and onions in olive oil on medium heat until onions are transparent and peppers are soft and flexible (about ten minutes). Transfer peppers and onions to a plate or bowl.

Sweep one side of each piece of bread around the pan to oil. (One side of each piece should be lightly covered in olive oil.) Lay one piece of bread flat in pan. Cover with one layer of thinly-sliced cheese. Cover cheese with sauteed onions and peppers. Add another layer of cheese. Add final piece of bread (oiled side up).

Cook on medium-heat, pressing firmly occasionally with a large spatula. Once cheese has begun to melt and the bottom-piece of bread has begun to brown, flip quickly.  Continue to cook, pressing firmly on occasion with spatula.

When cooked as desired, enjoy!

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Monday Meal

June 20, 2011
I love trying new recipes and expanding my food repertoire. There's just one tiny obstacle: the reality of time. In reality, I have a job that generally requires me to leave my before 7:45 in the morning; during a typical week I don't ever get home before 6:00 and often walk in the door after 7:00. 
This is not an unusual dilemma…..most of my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues also work (or study) between 40 and 60 hours a week.
I refuse to eat dinner out for the sake of time. If I am spending time with friends over a meal, fine. But I have fully boycotted eating out or relying on fast food simply to save effort. Among other reasons, eating out tends to be both less healthful and more expensive than cooking. 
So how does one balance a desire for healthful, beautiful food with the reality of a crazy work week? Building an arsenal of quick yet healthful recipes takes time, but there are many healthful, creative, lovely meals that can be prepared with a minimum of time and effort.
For a while, Mondays around here will be dedicated to these kinds of recipes. I'm determined to build my repertoire and I hope you'll share in my search! For now, I'm going to share one of my go-to week-night meals.
Pasta with Veggies and Basil
1/2 a bell pepper
1/2 a red onion
Fresh basil leaves
Garlic
Pepper
Olive oil
Farfalle (bow-tie) pasta
Mozzarella cheese
Tomatoes
Fill a small pot with hot water. Add 2 tablespoons (all measurements are approximate) of olive oil and stir. Let the water come to a full, rolling boil and then add pasta. Let the pasta boil for about 9 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Wash and chop the bell pepper, red onion, and fresh basil leaves. Place the chopped vegetables and basil in a medium frying-pan with about 1/8 cup of olive oil. Sprinkle generously with garlic and pepper. Saute on a medium-low heat until onions are transparent and peppers are pliable. 
Meanwhile, chop tomatoes. Place in a cereal-size bowl. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese over the tomatoes. When the pasta is done, drain well and add to the bowl. Add sauteed vegetables. Stir. (The vegetables and pasta should be hot enough to melt the cheese.) Enjoy!

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A Summer Feast

June 6, 2011
When I stepped out of the airport late the other evening, a blast of muggy warm air hit me. Warmer weather is upon us to stay, it seems, and the change in the weather demands a different kind of food, a lighter food, meant to be eaten as the golden summer air fills the evening sky.
So this weekend, I tackled Crusted Parmesan Chicken, halving the ingredients. Then I modified this recipe to create a delicious vegetable dish. I sprinkled Parmesan cheese on bread and toasted it briefly in the oven. Finally, I added some fresh fruits to the plates and my roommate and I sat down to a colorful, delicious summer meal.
Crusted Parmesan Chicken
1 package of chicken breasts (I used chicken tenderloins)
3/4 cup Progresso Italian seasoned bread crumbs
3/8 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
2 eggs
1 cup milk
Olive oil ( add additional oil if needed when sauteing the chicken)
Whip the eggs, milk, garlic, and pepper until thoroughly combined. Mix the bread crumbs and the Parmesan cheese together on a large plate.  Heat the oil on medium in a skillet.
Dip each chicken breast in the egg-milk mixture and then dredge the breast in the bread crumb-cheese combination. The original recipe says to do this step twice. I only did it once to save time, but a second coating would have been beneficial, although not necessary.
Place the breaded chicken breast in the heated olive oil and saute until both sides of the breast are light golden brown.  Repeat with all of the breasts. 
After each breast is sauteed, place it on a foil-lined baking sheet. Once all of the chicken is sauteed, place the baking sheet in the oven on 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes.

Brussels Sprouts with Carmelized Onions

1 lb. Brussels sprouts

1 large red onion, thinly sliced
2 tbls. butter
2 tsp. sugar
Garlic
Olive oil
Pepper
Place the onions in a pan with the butter. Sprinkle the sugar over them and saute on low heat until they become transparent, soft, and begin to delicately brown. Meanwhile, trip the stems from the Brussels Sprouts and steam until tender.
Thinly slice the Brussels Sprouts. Add garlic and Brussels Sprouts to onions and continue to saute for 5-7 minutes.

*Photos taken by Cassandra McCray

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