I think the worst part about nearing the end of the day is the “what’s for dinner” mystery. The last thing I want to do after working all day is to figure out what I want to make that evening, and hope I have everything in the refrigerator to make it.

What if I told you a way to stop this nightly battle once and for all?

In our house, we no longer wonder what we’re making, and dinner making is a breeze. This is because we sit down every Saturday and create a meal plan for the next week. We keep the list on the door of the refrigerator so the kids always know what to expect that night for dinner. And it has taken away a ton of headaches in the dinner-making department.

If you aren’t already doing this, I totally recommend meal-planning. Here are a couple tips to follow:

Know your schedule
When we create our meal plan, we keep the week’s activities in mind. I have a huge whiteboard calendar of the month’s events, and we chart our meals according to what’s going on each day. On busier nights we’ll plan for a meal that doesn’t take a ton of prep time or that we can prep ahead of time to just throw in the oven that evening. On nights where there isn’t much going on, we might make something a little more elaborate, and maybe prep a dish for later in the week. We keep in account who will be cooking that night, planning a meal that person can cook easily, and making sure to note who the executive chef will be on the menu. By the way, whoever cooks doesn’t have to clean up (and yes, we both take turns).

Plan for leftovers
Some nights I like to make a whole roasted chicken for the family. It’s cheaper to cook the whole thing, plus you can make a tasty giblet gravy from those innards. But instead of cooking just one chicken, why not cook TWO? That extra chicken will make a tasty meal of chicken tacos later in the week, chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, salad with grilled chicken pieces, slow cooker tortilla soup, or chicken enchiladas for Mexican night. And even if those leftovers won’t be used that week, they can still be frozen for another week. One of my favorite frozen leftover meals is “breakfast burritos” – a tortilla filled with egg, potato, bacon, beans, and cheese, and then grilled on each side to seal it shut. I try to fold a few extra every time I make these, wrap them in foil, and throw them in the freezer for a quick meal that’s a little healthier and much cheaper than store-bought convenience food.

Create your shopping list
While planning our meals, we also keep another piece of paper close by to plan our shopping list at the same time. When we write down a meal, we list the ingredients we’ll need. This ensures we won’t be scrambling for capers when we’re making Chicken Piccata, or run out of ketchup when we’re making hamburgers. Plus, having a list will save you time and money, as you won’t be wandering the store looking for inspiration, grabbing all those enticing impulse items, or returning to the store the next day for all the things you forgot.

Include the kids
Sometimes the meal plans get a little boring when the adults are in charge of picking out the dinners. So why not let the kids plan the meals? Sure, you might get a week of hot dogs, pizza, and spaghetti. But your kids might also surprise you with a favorite dish you haven’t made in a while, like that casserole dish you made months ago, or the stew just like grandma makes. You might even assign a cooking night to the older kids and let them be the executive chef for the evening. Our kids have surprised us with some pretty impressive dinners on the nights they’ve cooked for us, including stewed chicken with sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, and authentic Japanese pancakes. Yes, they left a huge mess after cooking, but the food was delicious and it was nice to have a night off cooking.

Allow for flexibility
Things happen last minute – school project is due tomorrow, a party invite without warning, company is coming over, the zucchini needs to be used up, or that steak dinner just doesn’t sound as appetizing as it did on Saturday when you planned your meals. We always keep some “cheat” meals in the freezer, like a frozen pizza or something equally convenient, for occasions like these. Or we’ve been known to switch meals midweek to a day that seems better. The meal plan is not written in stone, and should be just as flexible as you are! And when in doubt, breakfast makes a fabulous dinner.  ?

To end, here’s a sample dinner menu we’ve enjoyed during an especially busy week, with no meal taking more than 30 minutes to prep:

Saturday
Caprese (mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil with drizzled balsamic), grapes and apples, and crackers with cheese and turkey lunch meat, or a tuna salad to spread on the crackers.
Sparkling cider to drink
Note: the kids call this “Wine Country Meal,” and it’s basically a bunch of fun finger foods with lots of variety.

Sunday
Mexican Casserole
Note: This is a favorite in our house. Combine taco seasoned cooked ground beef, cooked rice, 1-2 can beans, 1 can stewed tomatoes, and some hot sauce, top with cheese, then bake for about 20 minutes. Serve with chips, guacamole, and sour cream. Leftovers are not guaranteed. 😉

Meal Plan Note: Prep for Monday & Tuesday’s dinner by baking a whole chicken on Sunday night.

Monday
Crockpot Tortilla Soup (click the link for one of my favorite slow cooker recipes, and one of my favorite food bloggers)
Add chips or fried corn tortillas, avocado, sour cream, and mozzarella cheese

Tuesday
Crockpot Tortilla Soup leftovers

Wednesday
Sliced sausage and grilled red peppers and onions
Polenta (we like the one you can slice from Trader Joe’s)
Marinara sauce
Cheese to top
Note: This is one of our family’s favorites, and it’s sooooo easy to make. The sausages (I like Aidell’s Apple Chicken) are already cooked, and I grill them with sliced peppers and onions until everything is lightly caramelized. Then I serve it next to the sliced polenta (which cooks nicely in the oven already in slices) topped with cheese and marinara sauce.  So good!

Thursday
BLT’s (bacon, tomato, mozzarella, basil, lettuce and mayo on whole wheat bread).
Note: Don’t eat bread? Use a large lettuce leaf instead. Or, like I do, and just make this a BLT salad.

Friday
Breakfast for dinner!
The kids have come to expect this on Fridays. By the end of the week, I’m over cooking. But breakfast is easy. Sometimes it’s pancakes. Sometimes it’s bacon and eggs. Whatever it is, it’s easy, comforting, delicious, and done in 15 minutes.

What are your family’s favorite meals for dinner? Leave them in the comments so we can all add them to our list!

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Want more time-saving tips like these? Find them in the book, Reclaim Your Creative Soul, the secrets to organizing your full-time life to make room for your craft.

Crissi Langwell is a Petaluma local, blended family mom to three young adults, and author of 11 books. Visit Crissi’s author website at crissilangwell.com.

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