Family Meals: What Works, What Doesn’t and How to Prioritize

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on March 6, 2014

This is Kitchen Revamp, a new ongoing series about simplifying cooking in my house

Somewhere along my cooking journey, I realized there were some dinners I enjoyed cooking and others I dreaded. And because I am drawn to certain meals, I tend to make them more. The problem with this is that meal variety can suffer.


This is very normal with almost everything – we do what we enjoy and we put off what we don’t. Sometimes the guilt would get to me, and I’d spend a week making not-so-fun meals, but eventually a big light bulb went off.

My goal shouldn’t be to make less of the meals I enjoy, it should be to create more of them. In order to do this, I needed to do some investigative work.

Examining the why behind what works

What is it about certain meals that I like so much? Well, first is ease of use. Like all of you, my life is busy and mealtime can take a hit. I like meals – especially during the week – that are easy to make, where at least part of the meal can be cooked in the slow cooker or that I can make earlier in the day. For example, I have started making a big batch of marinara sauce in the slow cooker with added vegetables (built off of this recipe) and freeze it. I use this sauce for my spaghetti, lasagna and pizza.

When I examine the recipes that work for me, there are certain ingredients (like garlic, beans, certain spices, lemon, roasted veggies, vinegar!) that are front and center. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to expand my ingredient base, but I have learned that it’s better to do so slowly or else I end up with a bunch of ingredients I only use once.

And lastly, and most importantly, are my kids. Keeping their ever-changing tastes in mind is important. Big A loves food that is breaded and Little D loves cheese. Finding ways to build on their preferences is top of mind. Young children tend to like ingredients served separately so I look for meals I can serve family style, rather than one-pot dishes. This is why I like Mexican night — there is always beans and guacamole for Little D to make his burrito but he also gets exposed to different protein options like turkey, fish and shrimp.

Putting what works in one place

After thinking about my meals, I went through my collection and removed what wasn’t working and added things that seemed to be missing. I use a three-ring binder.  As you can see, this isn’t a fancy collection but I am constantly improving it as I get more and more meals (more on that later).


Putting my favorite meals together gives me a “big picture” view of what I have and like to cook. Most importantly, it helps me see what I need to develop for new meals. For example, I need some new side dishes (grains and potatoes) and more soups.

My other light-bulb moment? I was making the mistake of randomly trying new recipes without a plan. I now realize I need to be purposeful when trying new meals. It’s like clothes shopping. It’s much better to go looking for clothes with a plan of what you need instead of just gathering a million different blouses (yes, I do that!).

So in a future post, I’ll write about my plan for new meals. But for now, I’m savoring what is working for my family with the goal of building off of it. This is the mistake so many of us make, we feel guilty for making the same meals, but the answers that lead us to more variety and cooking joy are in our favorite dishes.

What type of meals do you like to cook? Have you found a way to expand your meal base so it is enjoyable and do-able for your cooking skills and family?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy M. March 6, 2014 at 11:58 am

I am totally with you on this! I have same issue where consideration of my son’s palette becomes an ingredient in choice of meals. I look daily for new inspirations/ideas on incorporating veggies and fruit (& protein) where I can BUT DEFINITELY has to be easy/quick to make since I work full time. Kid is in starving-mode once I get home (about 7:00pm) and by the time food is on the table…it’s already 7:30. IF I don’t make it home by 7:00 then we end up eating out which isn’t ideal for out budget nor my son’s nutrition.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 6, 2014 at 12:16 pm

It’s tough on work/activity days when you get home late. I think pre-prepping is key so when you get home you just put it all together.


Sam March 7, 2014 at 6:23 am

You’ve just encouraged me to clean out my recipe binder this weekend!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 10, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Glad to hear it Sam!


Tiffany March 14, 2014 at 6:14 am

I’ve just started following you, but I had to add this: you said you are looking for more soups in your repetoire. Try this Mexican Tomato Soup by Jamie Oliver. The added yogurt is spicy so you can customize the spice level of your own bowl AND it’s a 15-minute meal. It’s so good!


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