Okay, I've said this before, so sorry to the mama's who've heard it all. First, get yourself a couple of really good cookbooks. No, you don't have to learn a new recipe every day, but the ones I'm going to suggest will help you, over time, to take what you learn and apply it to the stuff that you already make so that, just maybe, people won't turn their noses up anymore.
Get yourself a book called "The New Best Recipe" by the editors of Cooks illustrated. Last time I checked, you could get it off of Amazon for $14.95, and it included a free copy of the magazine, too (and the magazine is as awesome as the cook book...). The editors of cooks illustrated take great pains to honestly figure out what makes a recipe great, and then they tell you exactly how they came to that particular recipe and WHY certain things work the way they do...so this is the part you can bring to your other cooking.
They also have a book called "The Quick Recipe" with the same concepts, only the recipes are generally quicker than your average four course meal (
) to make. It's a good one to try something from once a week.
There are a bunch of others I can recommend, too, if you want, but I'll move on unless you let me know you'd like more of those suggestions.
Then, I get a calendar (I have a great one right on my computer) and look at six weeks.
I assign a TYPE of meal to every day. For us, Mondays are roasts (in the oven, on the grill, or in the crock pot...crock pot roasts are great for work days) with corresponding sides. This one type of meal allows many options...turkey (I buy many on sale at Christmas), chicken (watch the loss leaders for roaster chickens about every six weeks), ham (lots of sales at easter), pork loin (best price I've found is at costco), lamb, you name it! And within those options are many variations...different prep styles, marinades, sides, herbs...all fairly easy!
Tuesdays are soup or stew, salad, and bread...I usually take the remaining roast/bones from the day before to make this soup. If we're already sick of said roast, I'll freeze this soup/stew and pull another "flavor" out of the freezer. I often put the bread in the bread maker and the soup in the crock pot, and this is also a "gonna be gone all day" "quick" meal. There are so many possibilities with soup...noodles, rice, dumplings, stews, cream base, veggie soups, you name it.
Wednesdays are international days. So pasta is
a possibility, but only every six weeks! Otherwise, we do thai, chinese, mexican, other italian...we're irish, so good irish meals, french...this allows for some spice and "mixing it up." Within those "nationalities" are so many options that we rarely have the same thing on wednesdays for a minimum of 8-12 weeks, rather than the usual six.
Thursday is breakfast day. Pancakes, waffles, blintzes, crepes, french toast, and within those types lots of variations (we have five variations of pancakes alone). Also, we vary the protein (sausage, ham, eggs (and TYPES of eggs)). We will often have fruit, berries, and orange juice with breakfast night.
Friday is Pizza night. Pizza, believe it or not, has lots of possibilities. Thin crust, thick crust, normal crust, calzone, barbeque, alfredo, all meat, all veggie, a little bit of everything...depending on how much vegetable matter is on the pizza we may or may not include salad that night.
Saturday is leftover night. If there aren't leftovers, we'll have sandwiches (egg salad, tuna salad, grilled cheese, tuna melts, grilled peanut butter, cold cuts if there are some left that need to be eaten) and raw veggies.
Sunday we often go to either my in-laws or one of my parents' houses for dinner, just because we like to spend time with family. We usually bring a dish to pass. If by some chance we're home that night, its a vegetarian meal night.
So, in planning, I do all the mondays first. I make a rule that I am not allowed any repeats in that six week block of Mondays. Then the Tuesdays, and so on and so on.
So, these are meals I KNOW how to make, even if they're not something I've made in a while. Often I WILL try one new recipe a week, on a night I know my husband will be there to help out, to hopefully add to the repretoire. Because they're stuff I know how to make, I dont always have to think about serving sizes, 'cause I know how much of it we eat. However, the rule is that leftover night in our house is most often sandwich night...we are pinching pennies, so if there are leftovers, dh often brings them to lunch, and if there is STILL some leftover, the kids and/or I will have them for lunch as well. We really try to keep waste down to a minimum.
EVERYTHING I make is from scratch, whole foods based, and just about everything I make I can make double of and freeze for a crazy day, and often do. DH occaisionally travels, so knowing when he'll be gone, I'll make sure I have a meal frozen for just about every day he's out of town...and all I have to do is reheat it. This means that we can be out and about (keeping busy keeps the kids from missing daddy QUITE so much), and still have a low cost, yet quick, meal on the table at dinner time!
Eight month old twins aren't going to eat that much for dinner. Even if they are eating table food, remember that the rule is to give them as much as the size of their fist, as that is the size of their tummy. And that is the total quantity! So a half dollar sized piece of meat, a table spoon of veggies, a table spoon of starch...
Hope some of that helps. If you really need good recipes, ask friends and family members for their best and favorite dinner recipes. Give them a try, one a week. Get THE NEW BEST RECIPE, give some of the roast and other dinner recipes a try. There's a great crock pot book called something like"Not youre mother's crock pot recipe book" that has really REALLY yummy not boiled recipes in it. Think of it as a challenge...try to mix it up and save money while you're at it.
Plan on an hour or so for planning when you start...I've got it down to about 45 min. now, sometimes a half hour.
It just plain makes life easier, especially with kids and a husband who is at work all day!