Family Meal Planning

I wrote recently about my seasonally-inspired need to reflect upon, and normalize, some new rules in our family. With school well underway, our schedules have become less forgiving and the calendar is suddenly full of visits, classes, birthday parties and dentist appointments. Spontaneity feels like a fading summer memory. I’m not grieving though, because I’ve had an epiphany: limits are good. Structure is great! I’ve noticed how the adults and children in our family can relax into routines in a way that we simply can’t when the day is completely up for grabs. By the time summer rolls around again, I know we’ll be more than ready for empty days full of unknown possibilities. But now, after a season of trips and impromptu activities, we could all use some clear expectations about what today will hold, as well as what bedtime, after-school time, and dinnertime will be like. There is a certain freedom from anxiety – and freedom  for creativity and a peaceful family rhythm – in limits.

Meals are the part of family life that I have been focusing on the most of late. My picky children, ages three and six, must endure dinner with two vegetable-loving parents every single night. It can get stressful. Truthfully, my own feelings about feeding picky eaters range from lighthearted acceptance (whenever I find the wisdom to take the long view) to disappointment and sadness. I love to cook and I love to eat. I cannot pass a farmer’s market without salivating; our small vegetable garden brings me disproportionate joy. So when I lovingly saute a batch of ratatouille or toss a gorgeous spring salad, only to then see my children’s crestfallen faces as they climb onto their chairs at the dinner table…? It can be a bitter pill.

My feelings were only complicating the challenge of dinner. It was time to negotiate: to seek input from everyone in our family and talk about what we all wanted dinnertime to be. We discussed what we thought the rules should be, and the next day my husband and I formalized our talk and presented it to the kids: you have to try a bite of everything. You don’t have to like it. And to address the reality that there will inevitably be meals that the children don’t want to eat: There will always be a “fruit course” after we have cleared the table together, and anyone can have any fresh, frozen, or dried fruit available in the kitchen.

I also wanted to solicit the kids’ input on what we were eating together. No, we cannot have pizza every night. Yes, I would like to know what vegetables they do enjoy, and what new recipes they would like to try. This has been the most successful innovation in our family eating life by far: meal planning. I sit down with my kids at some point over the weekend and we talk about what we’d like to have for dinner. I’ve even engaged my six year old in flipping through recipes together. (Chop Chop magazine, a cooking magazine for children and families, is a fantastic source of kid-friendly healthy recipes if you’re also interested in trying this kind of collaborative planning). She writes down what we’re going to eat, and helps me create a shopping list. Her little brother pipes up from time to time with suggestions. (We’re also doing this for school lunches, using a lovely chart from Cynthia Lair’s Feeding the Whole Family). We’re well into Week #3 of this approach, and so far, between the new agreed-upon rules and the family meal planning, dinner has been far more peaceful and pleasurable. The way it should be!

What about you? Do you plan meals in your family? I imagine many of you eat the way we do in our house: low on the food chain, using whole foods as much as possible, aspiring towards thrift. So I enthusiastically invite you to share with all of us the meals you intend to cook and eat together this week. I love hearing about what others are cooking, gleaning inspiration and ideas. Please provide links or recipe sources when possible. Let’s make a little resource page full of ideas for next week’s meals!

I’ll go first.

Monday: leftover sorrel soup, salad, whole wheat crackers and hummus.

Tuesday: zucchini fritters (from Martha Stewart’s Living, August 2011 issue – I found the recipe here), bulgar wheat, roasted peppers and onions

Wednesday: basmati rice and red lentil dahl, salad.

Thursday: veggie sausage, kale “chips” (roasted), pasta, the last of the salad

Friday: noodles with tofu and mixed frozen veggies covered in peanut sauce (which I make by blending peanut or almond butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, garlic, sesame oil, and a splash of hot water).

I’m looking forward to reading about what you’re all eating for dinner. Please do share, and then come visit my blog, Homemade Time, for more on the nitty gritty of family life.

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.