The question, “What’s for dinner?” can be cause for serious anxiety. This was true in the days before I had a kid, and it got worse once Melody started on solid foods. Every mother knows that feeding a family these days is stressful. I don’t think it was always this way. What happened?

If I think back to what my grandparents did about dinner. I spent weeks at a time with them as a little girl, often when my single mother took a much deserved break. My grandmother didn’t work, I suppose she was retired. Her days consisted of, fixing me breakfast, doing laundry, smoking cigarettes, feeding the cats, making me lunch, watching soap operas all afternoon (falling asleep after General Hospital) then getting up and making dinner.

Dinner was a scripted affair– a rotating menu, that included a main meat-based dish (my favorite being tuna noodle casserole), often a baked potato, a plate of cucumbers and carrots and a tub of cottage cheese. It was served promptly at 5pm when my grandfather arrived home. Dessert was always included. We all drank glasses of milk. Year’s later when I would ask for a favorite recipe of my grandmother’s she would tell me which can to look on the back of.

Dinner at my mom’s house was a different sort of affair. My mom worked full-time and I was a latch key kid starting at age 9. My mom would come home at 5:30 and start cooking. I remember sitting and waiting at the table hungry, occasionally cruising by the counter to snatch ingredients and stuff them in my mouth when she wasn’t looking. Later, I remember lots and lots dinners that were easily cooked by kids – mostly pasta, namely my little brother’s favorite, “Psketty.”

So where did this leave me once I had a family to feed? I attempted to recreate or outdo my grandmother’s ability to put a full meal on the table every night, while at the same time coming home at the time a working mom does – a recipe for disaster. During my 100 day break, I forced myself to address this problem head on – over and over, and over again. After almost two years I think I finally figured it out enough to publish it.

First: I quit my job, so I was able to prepare dinner as my grandmother did. This works all right, but I tend to over-do it and my dinners are too complicated, time-consuming, expensive, and make far too much mess. I try too many new recipes, am too distracted by a talkative 5 year old and skip an important step, and get really grumpy when it tastes less than delicious. Often by Thursday, I want nothing to do with the kitchen. Grandma would have laughed at me for being the foodie that I am, but with all the recipes in the world in the palm of her hand instead of just the ones on backs of cans, she might have been too.

Second: I decided to tone it back a bit and I developed a system. It takes practice and diligence, and a little advanced planning, but once you commit, it works out great.

I don’t plan a full menu for each night of the week. On Sunday, you will not see me browsing through recipe books while I drink tea on my couch (who has time for that?). I also don’t have a set thing like Taco Tuesdays or Pasta Thursdays (gets boring fast). I assign each day a type based on our schedule for the week:

  1. Crock-Pot® night. This is the day where dinner is assembled in the morning so that I come home to something yummy and do nothing but make a salad. My go to recipes are: Beef stew, Three-Bean Chili, Posole, Pulled Pork, and what my family calls Ham Soup.
  2. Grill night. On our grill you will often see pork chops, steak, salmon, even hot dogs – anything that cooks in less than 10 minutes. Tom throws it on the grill while I steam or saute some veggies. You could marinate your meats in the morning – or not.
  3. Soup/Sandwich/Salad night. This is just like is sounds. I go for a store bought and or canned soup, pre-made or bags of salad, and sometimes get creative with the sandwiches, by adding avocado or bacon. The possibilities are endless and everyone can have what they want.
  4. From the Freezer night. This night is most rewarding when you have planned ahead on the weekend and assembled something yummy like a lasagne, burritos or homemade pizza. But not everyone has that luxury, so no one will judge you if you cook something from Trader Joe’s Freezer instead.
  5. Mom’s night out. I love to network and go to events. I usually pick one night a week to be out of the house. Tom and Melody will figure it out, and I pretend not to care what they eat. I keep pastas and boxed mixes in the pantry and often they eat leftovers. If there are no events I just go shopping – for clothes not food!
  6. Family night out. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Our favorites are Pho, the local brewpub with a great kids menu, Taco Del Mar and Indian food. This is a good break for Tom to who is on clean up duty every other night.
  7. Mama’s Foodie Monster comes out. This is the one night a week I allow myself to get crazy and cook something elaborate and time consuming. I get to try new recipes and go crazy, using the pressure cooker, the food processor, you name it. I make enough to feed an army and freeze the leftovers. This is also sometimes the night we have guests over.

On Sunday I write which night is which on a chalkboard in the kitchen and rough out what we are having. Then Tom and I do the grocery list, and shop. There always seems to be a mid week grocery trip or two to get overlooked items, like the fact that the sour cream jar only has one tablespoon left in it.

I sense you might have some questions like:

What if my kid only eats bread and pasta? We always have at least one thing we know Melody will eat on the table. It might be plain rice, bread, or the raw ingredients of our recipe (warm plain tortilla + pile of rice+ plus pile of beans + pile of cheese= burrito deconstructed). We also have a platter of kid friendly veggies with her favorite dressing on the table, so we know that no matter she has gotten something nutritious. I learned this from Cynthia Lair’s book Feeding the Whole Family. She has great tips and recipes on her website as well.

What if I am Vegan/Vegetarian/Gluten-Free? That’s the beauty of this system. It’s not recipe based. For the record. I am Gluten-Free and I have a stash of gluten-free bread, tortillas, pizza crusts etc and have to sub out my part of dinner since the rest of the fam loves the real deal.

What is your favorite weeknight dinner trick?

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