8 Secrets to Stress-Free Family Dinners

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on September 2, 2011

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To keep in line with Real Simple’s Take Back Dinnertime Challenge (Week 2 — Get Organized), I wanted to dig deeper into the organization-side of meals. Why?

Because it haunts me. Every. Single. Day.

While I always plan weekly dinners for my family, I’m often plagued by a crowded kitchen, stressful preparation and many calls to my husband to pick up a missing ingredient on his way home from work.

I also believe what’s really behind the no-time-to-cook complaint is a lack of organization. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Everyone needs to find a system that works for them.

So I reached out to the universe and got some inspiring ideas for stress-free dinners and an organized kitchen (hint: these two things go together). If you get through all 8 tips, you get the chance to win an incredibly helpful book.

1. Commit Yourself: “Without a commitment to regular family dinners nothing is going to work,” says Susan Nicholson, RD, and author of the 7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies. “It’s the most important first step for taking control of dinnertime.”

Nicholson, a veteran meal-planner herself, explains that like anything new or challenging there will be times you want to quit. But with a strong commitment you will get through it and slowly build the foundation needed. She assures me that meal planning and preparation gets much easier with time.

2. Clear the Decks: “Eliminating visual clutter can help tremendously,” says Dawn Perry, food editor at Real Simple. “It helps make the kitchen a place you want to be.”

She advises people to remove unnecessary items off their counter-tops. For example, if you only use your blender once a week it might be better stored in a cabinet.

Trust me, once you clear the counter space, you’ll instantly feel better.

3. When it doubt, throw it out:
While you’re organizing the kitchen, you might as well tackle the cabinets and refrigerator.

“If you haven’t used it in 6 months, throw it out,” says Perry. “Make sure to keep the items you use most often close at hand.”

I went through my cabinets last weekend and it has been much easier finding things for meal preparation. If you can, spend one day a week re-organizing your cabinets and refrigerator.

4. Make a weekly meal plan:
Both Perry and Nicholson recommend planning meals one week in advance (if meal planning is not for you, see number 5). Nicholson says to pull out the calendar so you can choose meals with your family’s activities in mind.

In the 7 Day Menu Planner for Dummies. Nicholson shows you how to strategically pick the right meals. Making a roast chicken on Sunday, for example, and using the leftover chicken for some of the week’s simple meals can be a life saver. And a slow cooker meal is a perfect solution to complement weeknight activities like sport practices.

She also advises the head meal planner (usually mom) to include everyone in the meal planning. This makes kids feel more excited for– and involved in– this important ritual.

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5. Think outside the meal planning box:
When one mom left a comment saying she knew the meal planning advice by heart but still didn’t do it, I knew it wasn’t for her. The truth? Some people don’t do well with weekly meal planning.

To give you some ideas, one reader wrote in saying she has a list of 16 meals on her fridge of which she always has the ingredients. She goes through this list when it’s done she starts over. She likes it because if they have to miss dinner one day it doesn’t throw the whole week off.

Every 2-3 weeks, Michelle Segar at Smart Women Don’t Diet, slow cooks 10 garlic cloves cut up for 30-40 minutes in about ½ bottle of virgin olive oil, about 15-20 ounces, on very low heat. Then she pours it into a small glass pitcher with a “pour” feature.

She uses this garlic-infused oil for most of her cooking. She buys the veggies and adds other items depending on what she’s got. She cooks all of the ingredients in the oil, adding garbanzo beans, cooked rice and chicken…whatever inspires her that day.

Bottom line: if traditional meal planning isn’t working for you, try something that more closely matches your cooking personality.

6. Do the work ahead of time:
I get many comments from working moms struggling to get dinner on the table. Doing the preparation on the weekend, or when you have more time, is a good solution.

For example, one of my coworkers takes a few hours every Sunday to make the week’s meals and then freezes them. All she has to do during the week is reheat, make a salad or cut up fruit. Others like to do their cooking once a month (check out Once a Month Mom for meal plans).

Jodi, a busy mom, likes to double the recipe on items like lasagna, casseroles and meat (with the marinade), and freezes the other half.

“It’s great to have homemade freezer meals prepared for those nights with sports practice, school meetings, scouts, church studies, etc,” she says. ” Just defrost and pop in the oven, there’s hardly any extra dishes!”

7. Cut your veggies ASAP: My friend Beth Hirsch, also known as The Cooking Coach, advises her clients to do the chopping right when they get home from their shopping trip. She also suggests placing the chopped veggies in baggies or small containers and putting them in a basket or open container on a shelf in the fridge so they are easier to find.

I did this last Sunday — cut up some raw veggies for the week and onions/celery for salads. I even made the tuna salad!

8. Have back up meals: In her book, Nicholson includes 10 meals to make when you have “one of those days.” You know what I’m talking about. Those ultra-stressful days you don’t want to set foot in a kitchen, much less make dinner.

Having the makings for super quick meals is key whether the meal is spaghetti with meatballs or easy Mexican like quesadillas. It can also be a freezer meal you made ahead of time (see number 6). Nicholson recommends making a generic pasta sauce and having it on hand to use on top of ravioli/pasta or for a quick pizza.

Organization can make or break your meal-planning efforts
We live in a different time than our parents and grandparents did. If we want our kids to get all the benefits of family dinners, we need to be creative. And organizing and planning — in a way that works for individual lifestyles — makes this important ritual happen.

Nicholson was nice enough to send me two copies of her book, 7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies. I’m very impressed with the depth of this book and plan to use the advice and nutritious recipes. I want one of you to get a copy too.

For a chance to win a copy of the book, leave a comment about how organizing is going for you (can be good, bad or neutral). And for an extra entry, share this article on Facebook, twitter or via email. Just leave a second comment so that entry will count.

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Marie Dailey September 2, 2011 at 9:58 am

I used to plan a week’s worth of meals every Sunday, but I’ve been slacking. It did work well, need to get back to it!

Susan Baker September 2, 2011 at 10:47 am

Moms need to remember that dinner doesn’t need to be complicated, hard or time consuming to be nutritious. Make a list of all the meals you can make in 30 minutes or less. I would bet that most of your children’s favorites fall into this category. Then use them often. You are not being a bad mother by serving you child the same dinner often or even in the same week. One of my children’s favorite dinners is “Backwards”. That is when we have breakfast for dinner. It is fast, easy, cheap and I don’t know a child that does not like breakfast food.

sallyjrw September 2, 2011 at 10:49 am

I love to cook. Whenever I see a clean kitchen counter, it inspires me to start cooking. If I can get my husband involved in meal planning and have backup plans then I think I’ll be all set!

Leah September 2, 2011 at 11:13 am

I shared this post on Facebook!

Leah September 2, 2011 at 11:14 am

I tweeted this post!

sharon_s September 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

Thanks to a recent infestation of meal moths (ick!), I have been on a mission to thoroughly clean, declutter, and reorganize the entire kitchen. It’s been time consuming, but it will pay off when school starts next week and meal planning and prep kicks into overdrive.

Leah September 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

Great Post! Even as a mommy dietitian, its is always good to hear and re-learn somet things I should be doing to be better. I feel like I am pretty good at having a fully stocked pantry and frig, pre-preparing some foods like veggies, but I totally need to work on my meal planning! I know it would save me time and reduce the trips to the store. The problem is, I LOVE grocery shopping, its one of my favorite things to do….to buy food, look at food, read labels, and learn.

Leah September 2, 2011 at 11:24 am
Traci T. September 2, 2011 at 11:30 am

On Saturdays we always make a list of meals we plan to make for the following week and then we make our grocery list off of that. We try to look at our freezer and pantry while making the meal plan to use up what we already have in the house. We always have a frozen pizza or 2 on hand for “those days” when neither of us feels like cooking. Everything in moderation, right? :) The weekly meal plan has really helped us stick to healthy eating 6/7 days a week! Plus, it helps me know ahead of time what to prep during my son’s nap time for dinner that night.

Allison September 2, 2011 at 11:42 am

I am trying to be more organized with dinners before I do the grocery shopping so I have an idea of what we will have for at least 3 nights of dinner during the week. That has been helpful.

Steph September 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm

We do a weekly meal plan and it always works out great for us, but I stay home. I’m nervous about how it will go when I go back to work some day.

Sara September 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I use a meal prep service called Dream Dinners and that really helps me stay organized. Every Sunday I pull 3 dinners out if the freezer, figure out what the rest of the week’s meals will be and get my groceries. Not having to come up with dinner every night has been a life saver for me.

Sara September 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I posted on FB.

Jody September 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I always plan our meals for the week but I have a hard time coming up with meals and being smart about what I plan. I would like to be better at using leftovers and certain ingredients for multiple meals to save money.

goodfountain September 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I try to make all my sauces at once. Like if I’m going to make marinara for pasta, I’ll go ahead and make some pizza sauce for the pizzas later in the week. That doesn’t work every week, but when it does, it’s a real time saver.

goodfountain September 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm

And I just tweeted this!

Kim Thompson September 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Meal planning is one of my weaknesses, but I know I need to do more of it. It would help with food budgeting a lot and hopefully reduce the number of trips to the store.

Sam September 2, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Making a weekly meal plan helps me a great deal, as does having input from my family. We do our best to use what we have on hand and also keep “go-to” meals at the ready (including frozen options) when we are pressed for time. I’m also a big fan of finding meal ideas and inspiration from a variety of sources, including food blogs, magazine recipes and cookbooks. I keep my print outs organized in a binder, with a section dedicated to recipes to try.

I’m definitley in favor of encouraging a system that is individualized because I find too many folks have guilt over not doing things “right” when there are so many creative options. It’s the shared meal time that’s the important part!

Kathy September 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I have teenagers who love to do their own shopping. They did well and followed guidelines at first, but now they have been sneaking treats and prepared foods in to the grocery bags. It’s amazing how fast the grocery bill rises when that happens. I’ve had to put them on a grocery shopping “diet”. Lots of protests now that they’ve realized how easy it was to grab ice cream and chips off the shelves. But, too bad. When they pay the bills, they can make the decisions, haha. Hopefully by then they will be more aware of the impact of what they eat, too!

Meg Pennington September 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm

My meal planning is pretty much non-existent these days, what with being 35 weeks pregnant and having a husband who travels a lot. Most of the time, it is just my three year old and I having dinner!

cheryl September 2, 2011 at 4:52 pm

I need to do the de-cluttering aspect of it. my counters and table are piled high. you’re right, it is not a fun thing to be in the kitchen.

Leigha September 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Meal planning is going ok for me right now. It would be the organizing and pre-chopping of the veggies that I really need to do. My doctor just put me on bed rest, so now it is ultra important for me to have everything organized with a list so that hubby can do some of the things for me and my son. :)

Jami Anderson September 2, 2011 at 6:34 pm

We have recently incorporated one more ‘tradition day’ to our week – Taco Wednesday. We have fairly regularly had spaghetti Sunday for years now; which is nice because extended family and friends are always encouraged to come over. But, I did see from the 8 tips that I want to start keeping on hand certain staple foods and I liked the idea of doubling the batch and freezing for those hectic nights. Thanks for the tips :-)

Sarah @ Real Family Eats September 2, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I love the whole idea behind meal planning and always find that when I write up a weekly meal plan (and stick to it) that my own stress levels around dinner are somewhat reduced. The problem I find is not one of writing up a meal plan, it is access to groceries. My husband and I recently relocated overseas and with an active toddler, no car and the bigger supermarkets a bus ride away, I find the ability to do a shop that is big enough to last me a week (and get all those groceries home with toddler in tow) next to impossible. This leaves me shopping at our local small supermarket (15 min walk away) and only buying what I can carry home. Means I only ever meal plan for 1-2 days at a time. Would love to have the ability to meal plan, shop, cook and freeze enough meals for 2-3 weeks at a time!

Sarah @ Real Family Eats September 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Shared the link on facebook too :)

Catharine September 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Great tips especially the one about clearing the counters. A clear kitchen makes cooking so much easier! My challenge right now is changing tastes on the part of my kids! What was hit last week is met by scowls this week. I think I’m going to use the tip to get the kids more involved in the plan. Thanks!

Haania September 3, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Good tips! I cleaned out and reorganized my pantry this week so I feel great about being in the kitchen and cooking now!

leslie September 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm

As a working dietitian, I find it so stressfull to get meals on the table after work. I struggle with getting healthy foods prepared versus using some prepared foods which are far less savory. I want to bring my love for cooking and eating healthy back into our household. From now on, my husband is going to take over two nights a week. He will give me a list of ingredients so I can get the shopping done. I will prepare the other 3-4 nights. I’m hoping this will help :)

DebbieS September 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm

I try all the time to plan out the week but I always make too much and feel so much goes to waste. I have gotten better with Freezer cooking and think that might be my “lifesaver”. These tips will REALLY help. Thanks

Miranda September 3, 2011 at 7:53 pm

My meal planning works well but the execution is chaotic. I’d like to try more freezer meals.

Kristen M. September 3, 2011 at 8:32 pm

I am slowly getting back into meal planning after having our second child. And he just turned 2 last weekend! Even though life continues to be crazy I am re-inspired to plan meals. :)

Sandy September 4, 2011 at 10:28 am

We try to plan dinners a week in advance. Each family member gets to choose one night and then I fill in the remaining night’s based on what’s in the freezer and what was available at the farmers market. I can always use more help, though! The tip about clean counters is SO true – and one of the hardest things for me to do! I’m a “piler” and it’s often the kitchen counter that gets the piles. :)

sharon_s September 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Shared on facebook as well! :)

Anne at Always Half Full September 6, 2011 at 6:28 am

I learned my weekly meal planning and kitchen organization from my mother. And it works wonders. Meal planning saves me time (go to the grocery store once per week), it also saves money because I’m not tempted to buy other things if I go to the store everyday. My husband does about half the cooking – that helps my stress level tremendously. Something else my mother taught me – never go to bed with a dirty kitchen. After each meal, we clean up the kitchen – dishes, counters, table, etc. That way everything we need for the next meal is clean, we don’t have to clean or organize to have prep space, and we are ready to go.
I would like to be able to plan for more than 1 week at a time – I hate having to spend every Saturday morning at the grocery store. That’s my next big goal but I’m not sure how to do it since we mostly eat only fresh foods and they don’t always last more than a week!

Erin @ vie balance September 7, 2011 at 4:23 am

Helpful tips! I have recently started planning meals in advance. My struggle tends to occur on the actual day when I don’t have enough time to make fill-in-the-blank dinner. I liked your tip on doing the cooking on Sundays and having some homemade options in the freezer.

Erin @ vie balance September 7, 2011 at 4:25 am

Shared your article via @viebalance on twitter :)

Dana September 18, 2011 at 8:16 am

In addition to shopping for meals for the week to fulfill my meal plan, and power cooking and freezing over the weekend, I save more difficult dishes for Saturday dinner when we have more time. Plus having a husband who cooks is a bonus for our family of four ( six month twins)

Brenda T. @ Meal Planning Magic September 21, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Great tips here! Of course I, too, believe there is no “one size fits all” approach to meal planning and each person needs to focus on the aspect of thier meal preparation that they want to improve and start with baby steps. Is it incorporating more produce into the menu? Is it simply eating out one less day per week? Perhaps it is relying less on processed foods and cooking more from scratch. But maybe not every meal. Like any new program, baby steps is what it takes to encourage success! I recently started a weekly series on my blog that lets others share their Meal Planning Milestones on Mondays. Through it, my hope is that readers can share with each other the progress they are making and have others cheer them on to keep it going!

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