Dinner Planning

We live in a busy world. Sean and I lead pretty busy lives. Sean works full-time and is trying to finish his bachelor’s degree almost full-time (3 classes each semester). I work full-time (although this usually equates to way more hours than your standard 40-hour work week) and I study yoga 4 days a week. With our busy schedules, Sean and I usually get home late with few brain cells left to process prepping and eating dinner. When we first got into our routines, we would stand around the freezer and fridge (or one of us would stand there with the other on the phone) and we would squabble over what to have for dinner. This invariably led to lots of grilled cheese and soup nights not to mention the amount of take-out we ate. We knew this habit had to change for two reasons. One, making dinner each night started becoming an argument because we were both tired of dealing with it. Two, we knew we both needed to eat healthier than we had been if either of us had any hope of losing the weight our doctors were telling us we needed to lose.

Here’s the plan that someone very smart suggested to us and we’ve spent the past 6 months following with great success. Every Saturday, we plan out our menu for the following week (Monday through Sunday). This gets recorded down somewhere. For us, that means it gets put into a Google Calendar that Sean and I share (it’s called Weekly Menu). In order to keep just one of us planning the menus, we swap this chore of planning the menu. So, each one of us only has to do this every other week.

Sunday morning, we make out a grocery list of everything we need to buy to get us through the week of dinners. Here’s where we deviate slightly from the plan. We eat a lot of fresh foods in our house (fresh vegetables, fresh meats, etc) which precludes us from completely shopping for the week, so we split our list into two. We’ll shop on Sunday for Monday through Thursday and then on Friday for Friday through Sunday. Fridays are usually the least hectic of our week days (Sean rarely has classes on Fridays and they haven’t extended beyond noon yet and I don’t have any yoga classes after work on this day), so this works out pretty well.

Okay, so that takes care of making sure that a menu has been planned for the entire week and that groceries are bought in a timely manner (instead of in a rush on the night of dinner making). That leaves making sure that the weekly menu is posted somewhere so that everyone in the household is aware of the plan and whoever gets home first can start working on dinner. Before Sean and I had iPhones (and thus constant access to our Google Calendar), we used a paper weekly menu stuck to our fridge.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering how we manage to come up with a weekly menu without running out of ideas on a regular basis. We have a lot of different resources we use, some online, some are cookbooks that we constantly refer back to and some are food magazines that we subscribe to. Here’s the rundown:

epicurious.com – This is the online form of Bon Appetit which is a great food magazine. This website’s got several useful tools to help you plan menus. First, the search function allows you to search under a large variety of options, one of which is “quick & easy”. This option has found me some great ideas for week day dinners. The other tool is an iPhone app that you can download for free. This app gives you access to the database of recipes and allows you to create a shopping list from recipes that you add to your cart.

Sunset.com – Once more the online form of one of my favorite magazines in the world (thanks Lisa!). The magazine is meant for the western half of the United States and covers everything from traveling to gardening, but the online Food and Wine section can be used anywhere in the country. There’s a Fast and Fresh area where one can find easy and healthy recipes.

Food & Wine – Yeah, yeah, so I like food magazine websites. They’re rich resources of past magazine recipes. This magazine tags each of their recipes so that at a quick glance you can tell if it’s Fast, Healthy, Vegetarian, Make Ahead, etc. The website allows you to search under these tags, which is yet another way of finding just the type of recipe you’re looking for.

Any of the above three magazines are great ways to start finding recipes. Why would I recommend spending money on the magazines when you can just download the recipes? It’s because these magazines offer more than just recipes to find. They offer techniques and advice that I find invaluable as someone who is trying to learn to cook better and healthier.

Cooks Illustrated – This magazine is beyond words for anyone who likes to cook. It offers a Quick Tips section where readers can contribute ways they’ve found to save time or resources in the kitchen (For instance, one reader suggests freezing leftover chicken broth in ice cube trays so that when you need some again you can defrost small amounts. I love this suggestion. In fact, when I make my own chicken stock, I do the same thing). The recipes in this magazine are also well thought out and written down. Each recipe comes with an article describing why they’re doing the recipe the way they are (why use small red beans over kidney beans in a Red Beans & Rice recipe). This helps expand your knowledge as a cook at the same time as getting a vault of great recipes to use. The one thing I’ll caution you on is that they don’t frequently do “quick” recipes, so if that’s all you’re looking for, you’ve been forewarned.

30-Minute Meals – I’m not a huge fan of Rachael Ray, but I have to admit her cookbooks (I’ve got two of them) have saved my bacon a few times when I’ve needed to toss together a quick meal. She’ll give you recipes that will create a full meal and they really are ready in 30-minutes or less (including prep time).

My Personal Recipe Book – Sorry, no link for this one and that’s because this is quite literally a personal recipe book that was given to me as a wedding gift from awesome friends and family and has been expanded upon over the past 6 years (and counting) of marriage. Any time I find a recipe that I like online or in some of my magazines, it gets cut out and put into this 3-inch ring binder. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve poured over this book looking for ideas and I’ve rarely come away empty handed. The best part about putting together a book like this is that as the years go by, these recipes start getting stories put to them and they become personal.

So, here’s what I’m going to try to do. Each Sunday, I’m going to try to post our weekly menu so that other people can see how we’re planning. If the menu item has an online recipe, I’ll link to it so that everyone else can find it. I promise that planning healthy and quick meals ahead of time is worth it and it’s doable.

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