It’s been a busy day, you forgot to thaw the meat the night before, you were sick, the kids were sick, or my usual excuse – I lost track of time. Then the age-old question surfaces for family dinner time: “Mom, what’s for dinner?” Oh the dread…
Let me share the steps I take to equip my kitchen for dinner plans regardless of what the day brings!
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Family dinner is a lovely time to sit with one another and connect over a meal. However, prior to the meal can be a stressful time, since the planning of the meal is on my shoulders. Without a plan, I can feel tension and stress, and I dislike ending the day that way.
We all have our own methods and systems in place, but here I’ll share my method to family dinner planning. I hope my method will be encouraging and helpful advice. Perhaps I can help relieve some of the burden you carry when planning your family dinners.
What Cuisine Comes Naturally To You?
I love all types of foods, Korea changed me for the better. Does that make me naturally inclined to preparing Korean meals, Mediterranean dinners, or any other cuisine I love? Of course not, it’s not my default for ease and familiarity.
While being adventurous in the kitchen is fun, it’s not a way to streamline your process and gain confidence.
The easiest type of cuisine for me to prepare, without having to read a recipe, and shoot from the hips, is Mexican food.
I can pair rice and beans with cheese and meat and spices in any combination, effortlessly, and make a delicious, quick, easy dinner.
Knowing what type of cuisine comes easiest to you (not necessarily your favorite, just the easiest one for you to prepare) will help in the next steps to being ready to rock and roll in the kitchen at a moments notice! Let’s talk about creating a meal plan next.
Family Dinner Planning
I suggest making a family dinner meal plan for at least a week. This doesn’t have to be fancy. I like to just jot down meals that are easy to make that my family enjoys.
Here are some examples of quick meals that I am good at making and my family enjoys:
- Taco soup
- Chicken Enchiladas
- Chicken Alfredo and Homemade Alfredo Sauce
- Mexican Biscuit Bake
- Chicken dumpling soup
- Teriyaki chicken
These 10 dinner ideas is enough for me to plan for two weeks. I’ll explain later.
Let’s talk about my pantry next!
Create Space For Dry Foods
Unlike the home I live in now, homes over my adulthood have not always been so kind to me when it came to pantry space.
My first home as an adult was a small two bedroom apartment with a hallway kitchen feel. Then I bought my first home, a three bedroom condo in the city, also a hallway feel kitchen.
After getting married I moved across the country to a two bedroom duplex with an even smaller kitchen. Shortly after, we moved to South Korea, and rented a small home from a Korean family, no dishwasher but at least there were cupboards.
Then back to America to a four bedroom home. My husband kindly tore down a wall and added cupboards and a counter to create a work space in the kitchen. Oh, and still no pantry – but there were book shelves in the basement!
I am thankful to now have a dedicated pantry for housing our stocked up dry foods.
With no pantry in my past homes, I had to get creative. Overflow of pantry items would be placed in a corner of a spare room (before I had kids). I sacrificed a cupboard to stock up on dry goods. I converted countertops into canned food storage. Book shelves in the basement housed pasta, rice, sauces, cans, flour, and more. Let’s discuss what to stock up at home with.
Items That I Stock At Home
This definitely needs to be catered to your preferences. I stocked up my little in home grocery shelves with items that I regularly use.
Don’t buy things on sale just because they are on sale. If you aren’t familiar with how to prepare it or don’t use it regularly (by regularly I am talking – at least within the month) resist bringing it home!
Here is an example: I like chickpeas, when I was single I cooked with chickpeas. Now that I am married with kids, we don’t use chickpeas in our family dinners ever – so you won’t find chickpeas in my pantry.
Dry food goods have such a long shelf life, therefore my pantry holds a few months worth of these items. Since it is all food I regularly use in our meal planning, I just rotate the food as I buy new and keep it stocked up. Here is a list of foods that I always keep on hand in my pantry:
Foods that can be used in many different meals:
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Black beans
- Black olives
- Canned diced tomatoes
- Coconut oil
- Grease or lard
- Kidney beans
- Masa Harina
- Olive Oil
- Pasta noodles
- Refried beans
- Tomato sauce
- Tuna fish
Herbs/Spices I buy in bulk (this is what I consider a must have in a kitchen, but more variety is better):
- Bay Leaves
- Chili powder
- Garlic Powder
- Onion Powder
Things I like to make from scratch but keep on hand for busy days:
- Alfredo sauce
- BBQ sauce
- Canned soups
- Enchilada sauce
- Marinara sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
A beautiful spice rack made by husband. The spice containers I found here.
Organizing The Freezer
If you’re tight on freezer space, this can be difficult, and I have been there. As our family has grown, we have had to invest in a standing freezer. Thankfully, we found a used one for $100 on Facebook Marketplace. Until you have extra space, utilizing your limited space for necessities is important.
Here is what I suggest. Buy your meat in bulk. We shop at Costco for our meat when we have to buy it. My husband has gotten into hunting over the last few years, so not all our meat is store bought, saving us money.
Regardless, space is precious so buying in bulk or packaging your own meat is like a game of Tetris . I like to unpack meat from the store and section it off by weight in freezer zip lock bags. Then when I put them in the freezer I place them flat to freeze. Once frozen I can stand them up, and like books on a book shelf they slide in tight, taking space vertically. This method is used for ground meats, country style pork ribs, freezer meals, really anything that can be reassembled to freeze flat and then stacked.
Another benefit to storing meat or frozen meals flat, is that it unthaws much quicker on a countertop.
The meat I recommend having on hand for families is ground meat (such as hamburger) and poultry (such as chicken breast or chicken thighs). Such a variety of dinners can be made with those two staples.
With the combination of the meat in your freezer and your pantry items, almost any staple family dinner can be made.
I also recommend keeping frozen veggies and fruit on hand. Here is what I regularly have in my freezer:
- Chicken thighs
- Mixed berries
- Mixed veggies
- Shredded cheese
Substitute what you like and will use! I have deer meat in my freezer, and hopefully soon we will be adding turkey!
Ok, you have your pantry and freezer stocked and ready to go. Now what? How do you breeze through the days with all these ingredients? Let’s talk about how to make it all work together.
How Family Dinner Planning Saves You Money And Time
My goal in all of this prep work it to afford myself more time in other areas of life. Once I have a good system in place, it’s just a matter of maintaining my system and flow.
My personal goal is to not have to run to the store every couple of days but rather consolidate my trips to weekly or once every two weeks. In these weekly, or every two week grocery runs, I am picking up all the perishable items to compliment the meal plan I jot down.
Within my home, I have created a basic supply of essentials for almost any meal we regularly eat and enjoy. With the 10 meal ideas I mentioned earlier, I will do a quick look through in my pantry and freezer to see if the ingredients are at home. As for the missing ingredients to these meals, usually just the perishable foods, I write out my list and buy just the things on the list for the week.
This method has saved me money since I am not using as much gas to get to the store every couple of days. I also don’t deviate from the list often. I am buying only the things I need to feed my family. An important exception to that is when there is a sale on items that I use regularly and they can be stored long term, I will get extra. This saves me in the long run of paying full price for things I’d be buying in the future anyway.
Preparing Family Dinner With Little To No Stress
The planning is done, the pantry is stocked and the perishable items are bought. You might be thinking now what? Act out your meal plan! Let’s go back to my meal plan at the beginning of this article and pick five out for the week.
Chili, Lasagna, Chicken Enchiladas, Teriyaki Chicken, and Taco Soup – I’m going to pull out meat from the freezer for all 5 of these dinners at the beginning of the week. When I’m ready to make the dinners, only the preparation and cook time is required – simple and easy with no stress to getting it on the table.
Note: This does not account for a baby that needs to nurse, your toddlers fighting, or your kids wanting to be involved with every step of your process – Sorry, I don’t have all the answers to relieving stress in the kitchen, but the steps here will certainly reduce your stress!
This next step you can do a couple of ways, it’s dependent on the season of life you are currently in.
Method 1: I like to start preparing family dinners at 3pm. It just makes life easier for me since around that time I am done with homeschooling the kids, and it’s a natural break in the day for our family. Your family may be different, so work your schedule to fit your needs. When everything is already at home, I am less stressed. Also, the family dinners I choose to make take little effort on my part, all while creating a delicious meal for my family.
Method 2: In seasons of life when I am unable to make dinner daily, I have prepared all the dinners on the weekend and froze them for use at a later date. This is a great method for after having a baby, if you know you are going to have a surgery, or can foresee that you won’t have the option to prepare family dinner. But as we all know the show must go on, so preparing ahead is an advantage to eliminating that stress.
A Family Dinner Hack
Here is a hack I do weekly: Double a few or all of your family dinners: you can do two things with this extra food.
- Freeze it for a future family dinner.
- Use the extra for family lunches for the next couple of days.
We do the latter the most often. It is so nice to send my husband to work with a healthy “leftover” meal. He isn’t spending extra money on lunch and it’s healthier.
Tips For Planning Family Dinners – Overview
- Make a meal plan.
- Don’t make the meals complicated. Make what comes natural to you. Practice and get good at a few meals before venturing to more complex meals.
- I recommend five family dinner meal plans per week. Life happens every week and you are bound to have extra or eat out for one of those dinners during the week. So planning five family dinners a week is a really good start. If after a while you are finding that you need to plan more or less, then definitely adjust to your family’s needs.
- Stock your pantry and freezer. All my recommendations are listed throughout this article. Keep your pantry stocked with food you will use.
- Pull out the meat at the beginning of the week! There have been times that I have forgotten to do this step but the instant pot has saved me. It is my favorite kitchen tool. If you don’t have an instant pot, I highly recommend buying one.
- Don’t be afraid to substitute things or be creative if you don’t have something. Example: you’re making spaghetti and you don’t have spaghetti sauce. If you have tomato sauce you can add basil, oregano, salt and pepper, garlic, ect. Now you have what you need to complete your meal!
- Herbs and spices are crucial for making an enjoyable meal, keep a good stock of these items in your home. I have found that the simplest of dinners can be brought to the next level when I add spices and herbs to them. In my opinion, this is a necessary step in creating memorable family dinners.
- Give yourself enough time to prepare family dinner each day or set aside time to make them in advance.
Enjoy Family Dinner Time
This might take practice to get your system down. This is what has been working for me for years and with a larger family. Now when I open the fridge to make dinner each day, I have little to no stress because I have everything I need to get the job done. An hour of planning each week has saved me hours of stress, money, and time throughout the week!
Preparing food in the kitchen is my love language. I especially enjoy seeing my family connect over meals at the table. Planning allows me to enjoy this treasured time together! I hope these tips help you and your family to make great memories at your table!
Let me know if the comments if this helps you with your family dinner planning!
For more dinner ideas check out my recipe for Turkey Alfredo – you can substitute chicken! Don’t forget to write down the ingredients for this finger-licking good Alfredo Sauce when you’re planning your family dinners this week!
Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established.