The Tyranny of Dinner

How (and why) to plan meals for the week

It’s 5:30 pm. You’ve just gotten home and dropped everyone’s backpacks on the floor. The kids are pawing you for snacks, and you’re staring into the fridge thinking, I could make a frittata. Oh wait, just two eggs. Well, what about chicken? Not defrosted. What’s in here? I think that used to be a cucumber.

This is the biggest reason I plan meals—to avoid the soul- and belly-knawing dinner crisis as much as possible. As a mom and a person who genuinely likes to cook, it seems extra crushing to my self-esteem when I can’t feed my family well. It punches me right in the raison d’etre. I can give myself plenty of feminist pep talks and frozen meals to lean on, but the best cure I have found for the tyranny of dinner is meal planning.

I used to do all the no-nos: shop for groceries when hungry or tired, shop without a list, buy whatever you bought last week and whatever else looks tempting. Which also meant cleaning out the mushy produce I’d bought the week before in order to make room for the soon-to-be mushy produce I’d bought for the aspirational meals I thought I might make that week. Then I got into cooking, so I added to the shopping list all 16 ingredients for an elaborate recipe from Epicurious. (I did draw the line at Martha Stewart, though; my mom got me a book of her appetizer recipes. The first instruction for the first recipe called for you to place a bundle of herbs in a bottle of Riesling and keep it in the fridge for a month. A recipe with a one-month lead time? I was never going to do that, so I closed the book. The End.)

When my kids came along, so did more awareness of local and organic food, and we bought a CSA share (what I call a farmshare), providing us with tons of local produce each week. The rotting produce guilt grew to a roar just as my time to cook shrank to an all-time low. It was also high time to rein in the food budget. That’s when—and why I started planning meals.

Six years later, it’s made a huge difference:

Why plan?

  • We waste less food.
  • We eat the seasonal local produce from our farmshare.
  • I always know what I’m going to make for dinner and the ingredients are there waiting for me.
  • I’ve learned to simplify my cooking and become a more intuitive cook, more flexible with recipes.
  • I spend less time shopping.
  • Our family eats better food and eats out less frequently.
  • We save money.

Also, it’s just not that frickin’ hard, really. Probably because I’m used to it, a lot of the mental processes involved kind of happen automatically. It is definitely more time-consuming when you first start out, and it’s an evolving discipline. I love hearing how other people do it, since I’ve never met two people (or read two articles) with the same process.

Here’s how my current thinking goes:

Create a routine. I always shop on Monday, so that means meal planning for the week happens Sunday night, if not before. I only plan dinners, and I try to give myself at least 2 quickie meals, 2 long-prep/cook for the future meals, 1 day of “I give up, let’s eat out,” and 1 day of eating something from the freezer.

I recommend only shopping once a week; every time I enter a grocery store I know I’m going to wind up with something that was not on the list, so just minimizing those trips saves me money.

Your first time, make three columns on a piece of paper: FRIDGE. FREEZER. PANTRY. Ransack these places and write down everything you already have in its corresponding column.


mysterious enshrouded produce

Look at the list, especially FRIDGE. What can you make this week that will use what you already have? Sometimes I will search two particularly stubborn perishables to see if I can find an interesting recipe including both. This is how I discovered a cauliflower and tomato casserole we liked. See what supplemental elements you can include from the freezer and pantry. Challenge: what can you make with the fewest additional ingredients?

Jot down your meal ideas. Think about the “how” of the meals to fit with your schedule. When’s a good day to cook a double batch of something in a crock pot and freeze the other half? When’s a good day to whip something together in 15 minutes because of swimming lessons? If there’s a new recipe I really want to try, I throw that in there. Write the days of the week next to the meals you think fit best. Extra points for using up your most perishable items earlier in the week. Put this list on your fridge in a prominent place. It is the ultimate panacea for what’s-for-dinner panic attacks.

Now list the additional ingredients you’ll need to make those meals. Put them in the order you’ll run into them in the grocery store. This is the start of your shopping list. If you are cleaning out an overstuffed pantry, it might be pretty short. If you have a weird competitive/frugal streak like me, you might delight in how short you can make it.

Add breakfast and lunch items to your list. I don’t really plan these too explicitly since they are fairly routine. I buy lots of fruit for mornings and packing lunches, eggs, peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, and cereal. And since the cheapest way I’ve found to be a person who eats granola is to make the granola, I list the ingredients I need from the bulk bins at the co-op to make that happen. Add snacks or desserts as modestly or wildly as you wish. What else are you out of? It’s really helpful to keep a list on the fridge and add to it as you run out of pantry items. And ask your partner to write things on it too, since you’re not a mind-reader. Ahem.

Shop judiciously. For me, this means two stops on shopping day. One of my stops is always the big giant supermarket, but the other varies. It might be Costco, Trader Joe’s, or my local food co-op (where the bulk foods and organic produce can’t be beat). I keep running lists for the “other” stores since I’m only going to get to them about once a month.

Prep the night before when you need to. I work from home, so it’s really easy for me to pop down to the kitchen, warm up some leftovers for my lunch, and start defrosting or chopping something for dinner. But when I’m going to be out all day, I usually need to look at my meals list the evening before, do some prep, maybe drag the crock pot out onto the counter.

Cook! I sometimes dream of becoming that person who washes her lettuce and roasts her beets as soon as she gets home from the farmers market and bakes no-knead bread every Sunday. I’m so not there, and: Meh. There’s only so much time that even I want to spend on food. I also sometimes steal from one of the easy nights and find myself with a long-prep dinner on a short-prep day. Boxed mac and cheese to the rescue! This still happens sometimes. Just not as often. Most of the time, I know what the dinner plan is before I walk back in the door trailing kids, empty snack containers, and smelly gym bags. And that makes a stressful time of day less so.