When I was cooking for two young, busy kids, I was the Master of the Master Plan, drawing up a list of dinners we’d make that week along with a shopping list of ingredients, then hitting the supermarket on Sunday so I’d be ready to go when Monday night came at me fast and furious. These days, with only two people at the table, both of whom have predictable schedules and appetites, we still shop for the week with meals in mind, but we can wing it a little more — we can make tofu at the last minute even if the original plan was to have chicken! Still, if the goal is to have a moment of reprieve at the end of every day, a moment to sit down to dinner in an intentional way, there are some basic strategies to help make that happen.
1. Keep the Rotation Tight If That’s Where You Are Right Now
First and most important: If you’d currently use term “whack-a-mole” to describe the way dinner gets decided in your house, just a reminder that it’s okay to plan on the same tight rotation of recipes week after week because they are easy and (crucial) because you know everyone will eat. Don’t waste energy on feeling like you have to be creative or innovative. Maybe that means eight straight Mondays of Bianca’s empanadas or broccoli quesadillas? Maybe every Tuesday it’s a store-bought rotisserie chicken or Annie’s Mac & Cheese! Only you know that one meal that everyone on your house eats and that you can pull together when your battery is running low. In summation: If they like it, if they eat it, it’s good. Later, when you are an empty nester missing the chaos, you can go ahead and experiment with one of those dozens of Kenji YouTube recipes you’ve bookmarked.
2. Pick the Right Recipes for the Right Days
Monday meals in my house are almost always in the category of Extra Simple. I learned pretty quickly that the key for making it through the week is to mentally pace myself. It does me no good to spend time and energy on some multi-pot casserole if it’s just going to remind me how much I dread the clean-up (and, more to the point, begging the kids to help with the clean-up). Likewise, at the other end of the week, I think of Thursday almost always as a Use it or Lose it Night, something that takes advantage of the odds and ends of a vegetable crisper or pantry — Vegetable Fried Rice, Frittatas, Chopped Salads.
3. Have a Well-Stocked Pantry
There’s a reason every cookbook has an opening section dedicated to staples and pantry ingredients to always have on hand. If you have a decent supply of oils (olive, vegetable, sesame), vinegars (red wine, rice, white wine, distilled), condiments (ketchup, mayonnaise, pickled things, Sriracha, hoisin, whole grain and Dijon mustards, tamarind sauce), and legumes and grains (brown and basmati rice, lentils, white, black, and pinto beans), meal planning gets a lot easier. Nothing will get you to throw your dinner-making hands up faster than having to stop everything and run to the store to pick up a jar of smoked paprika.
4. Be Your Own Sous Chef
I used to take a half hour on the weekend to make just one meal for the freezer: a batch of chili, veggie burgers, brothy beans. I called this Sunday Sous Cheffing, and it was so satisfying knowing that a dinner was already done for the week, I just had to pick the night I needed it the most. If it’s too hard to swing a complete meal, you can start simple with a salad dressing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If dressing is the only homemade moment on the dinner plate, dinner’s going to be a success.
5. Think General Vehicle, Not Specific Recipe
Before I was a Weekday Vegetarian, I’d build most of my dinners around an animal protein, and the formula was simple and traditional: meat + starch + vegetable. These days, I strategize dinner ideas mostly by vehicle. As in: I’m in the mood for a big salad tonight or I’m in the mood for tacos. Almost everything I make when I’m busy is in the form of a pizza, a grain bowl, a taco, pasta, salad or soup — all vehicles for dishes I know my family will like and that I can make without referring to a recipe. So, that’s where I start: Not “What should I have for dinner,” but “What kind of dinner am I in the mood for?” It’s subtle but game-changing.