Cornelia Hoskin uses an Excel spreadsheet. Every weekend, she sits down at her computer and plans the upcoming week’s breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners. She chooses recipes she’s collected on the social networking site Pinterest, organizes them by day and meal, and prints out a hard copy to post inside a kitchen cabinet. From there she makes a grocery list and a game plan.
“The last thing I want this to sound like is black-belt parenting,” says Hoskin, 43, of Jamaica Plain. She has a day job as marketing director at FarmAid in Cambridge, and on top of fixing dinners, needs to provide her toddler son’s day care with daily lunches and snacks. “I’m so frazzled and busy, if I didn’t have a checklist I wouldn’t remember what to do.”
With schedules and appetites flying every which way, weeknight dinners have the potential to stress out families, rather than bring them together. To streamline the dinner hour, many home cooks swear by weekly meal planning. Whether the motivating factor is children, a New Year’s resolution to do better, or a pledge not to let CSA produce go to waste, planning menus, shopping lists, and cooking tasks help keep everyone organized and food costs in line.
While Hoskin relies on social networking and Excel, John Kolodij, 39, of Newton, a father of three girls and former restaurant line cook, says he keeps a weekly plan in his head. His restaurant days inform the way he runs his family’s kitchen, he says. Kolodij builds six menus around a weekly project and a well-stocked pantry and freezer. If he braises a pork shoulder, for example, half might appear as carnitas on the night he cooks it, and the rest will be frozen and go into something like pozole the following week. “I try to run things so I’m not wasting food,” he says.
Buying food that is never consumed is a big concern in many households; no one wants to throw groceries out at the end of the week. For Amy Bevan, a mother of three from South Berwick, Maine, who commutes to Boston every day, reducing waste was just one benefit of signing up for a subscription to Thefresh20.com, a Los Angeles-based meal planning service that designs weekly menus and grocery lists for members all over the country. “It’s nice knowing that food isn’t going to waste,” Bevan says. The plan keeps new dinner ideas flowing through the household and introduces her children to a variety of foods that might not otherwise make it to the table.
Her four-hour round-trip daily commute could easily force her to get takeout or find another solution. The menu service forces her to cook every weekend, when she preps ingredients for her husband to assemble during the week. “[Cooking] is important to me,” she says. “I didn’t want to let it fall by the wayside.”
Whatever your intentions — to sit down as a family more often or cook healthier meals — planning is key to successfully meeting your goals, says Sue Levy, a personal health coach and natural foods chef. Through her Brookline-based business, Savory Living, Levy helps clients readjust diets as part of overall lifestyle changes.
One of the main things she teaches, she says, is how to plan for the week without getting overwhelmed. “For some people, the idea of mapping it out freaks them out,” says Levy, who works with the clients to break down a week’s plan into tasks and to simplify whenever possible. “You can outsource,” she says. “Why are you roasting your own chicken? It’s not necessary.”
Every meal can be transformed into a series of simple steps, she says. On the weekend, make a list of meals you plan to prepare that week. From there, write up a shopping list. Do some up-front prep on Sunday — make a pot of soup stock, blanch vegetables, cook some grains or beans and plan recipes that require quick assembly.
Weeknight suppers don’t need to be elaborate, says Levy, but you need to plan and prioritize. Otherwise, she says, it’s chaos.Leigh Belanger can be reached at email@example.com.