Dinner vs. Child

The Fight to Plan Dinner Better (With One Solution)

By • August 29, 2013 • 31 Comments

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Nicholas wants to know how you plan dinner, and offers a solution of his own. 

Grilled Peanut Tofu on Food52

I have no faith in New Year's resolutions. (We have talked about this before.) I have little faith in resolutions of any kind. I change my life at the speed of a highly distracted tortoise. But I am still a child at heart: I still believe that when I move, everything will be different.

We have just moved from Chicago to Buffalo. (We are only a century late.) I have modest expectations. That the day will be thirty hours long. That the children will take up silent meditation. That the snow will taste like freshly shaved ice, with hints of maple syrup that wafted over from Canada. 

In Defense of Food

More: The many ways tofu can save dinner.

And that dinner will materialize on the table every night with zero forethought, like manna from heaven, like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, except without the apocalyptic ending in which we all barely escape death by pancake and are forced to flee on stale-bread sailboats. 

Every time I sit down to plan dinner for our compact car-sized family -- a no-goodnik father, a carnivorous mother, a translucently thin four-year-old, and a toddler who eats like a goat -- I think, Surely this could be easier. Surely there’s another way to do this. Surely I don’t have to sit here and think, I know we’ve eaten things in the past. But what were those things?

I have meager strengths: I’m OK at shopping. I’m OK at improvising. I’m OK at getting something vaguely dinner-like on the table. But I’m horrible at planning: car-crash, naked-dream, end-of-the-semester-and-you-forgot-you-were-even-registered horrible.

I should emulate Dinner: A Love Story’s Jenny Rosenstrach, who’s famously kept a dinner diary for a decade and some. But that’s a muscle you have to stretch. We write things down for a week -- and then five weeks later we find the diary again and discover that we apparently haven’t eaten for the last month. But to predict the future, I need to at least remember the past. (August 3: cereal.) So I’ve resolved to try the diary again -- because in Buffalo, after all, everything will be different. 

Grilled Peanut Tofu on Food52

That’s part of the problem, but not the entirety of it. And the other part is why I bring this up, because I suspect I’m not alone here: we live in an embarrassment of recipes. Whether from this site, or elsewhere on the groaningly overstuffed interwebs, or the renaissance of cookbook publishing, there’s a surfeit of dinner ideas. It’s too much of a good thing -- and yes, I’ve mentioned this before. I’m sort of obsessed with it. Making non-problems into problems is my thing. It’s charming.

Think of it this way: if you’ve ever cooked through a single book -- and not, like, Alinea -- you know how liberating it feels. Weirdly, the confinement is what’s liberating. But most of us, me included, and especially our resident small humans, don’t want to always cook like this. So the question is how to take the current embarrassment of recipes and confine it, rope it off, make it more manageable. (Of course, if you only cook from Food52 recipes -- pro tip, people -- your problem is solved.) 

This is where I’m turning to you for help. How do you do it? When you sit down to plan out the week, what does that process look like? What’s your system? Is it online or on paper? Do you have paper files for recipes in cookbooks and virtual files for recipes online? Or do you just scribble favorites or to-dos in the back of books? Any apps to recommend?

Alternately, if I should just bury my ambitions and spend the rest of my days cooking in quiet, predictable contentment from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, tell me that too.  

Grilled Peanut Tofu on Food52

The recipe below is for Food52er enbe’s grilled peanut tofu because: 1) I don’t want to forget it again; and 2) even if you failed to plan anything for dinner, even if you have no milk for cereal, you can still make it. It is shopping-proof. (You already bought the tofu three weeks ago. Go check.) I swapped half the peanut butter for roasted tahini and grilled the tofu in long slabs, rather than on sticks. We scavenged for the assorted vegetables. Then we ate it all on the porch, and not just with our hands, and watched the sun fall down and let the baby play spin-the-bottle with the empties and tried to remember the particular feeling we were feeling. The day, it turns out, is 30 hours long here. 

Grilled Peanut Tofu 

Serves 4 as a main dish

Two 12-ounce packages of extra firm tofu
2 cloves garlic
1 handful cilantro
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut butter (smooth works best if making by hand, otherwise chunky is fine)
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablepoon dry sherry
1 tablespoon peanut oil
Chili garlic sauce
Sugar snap peas, onions, asparagus, peppers, or any other vegetable you have on hand

See the full recipe (and save and print) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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Tags: Nicholas Day, kids, parenting, tofu, vegetarian, grilled, special diets, everyday cooking

Comments (31)

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4 months ago Laura

If you live in Buffalo, that means you live in the promised-land that is anywhere with a Wegmans. Cherish that.

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6 months ago Anne

My method for planning dinner has worked for the past decade or so. It's similar to Jenny's at DALS, but I do my recording in advance, not in hindsight: http://carters0804.blogspot...

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7 months ago Sofia

We plan every Saturday before going to the farmer's market, when we don't do a CSAs. CSAs help because you gotta figure out how to use it up... Liberation through limitations. I try to do one legume/bean-based dish, one soup a week, a fish/seafood and then 2 meat-oriented dinners. Figure a night or two of left-overs, or if time is tight eating out or take out. We brainstorm our list of recipes we want to make, group them into meals and figure out what is reasonable to make when based on the activities of the week. We write it all down on little yearly planner calendar, but I never go back to see what we ate before. It's just to remind us what the plan is when we arrive home starving. We have a couple of cooking magazines that we subscribe to, for new recipes and then we have plenty of cookbooks that we've used over the years, so we have an idea of what might work. Trying to figure out how to use seasonal ingredients is a good starting base. Here's the other hint--I cook dinner for the adults. I might leave off sauce or specific ingredients for the kids, but we make meals that appeal to us as adults. Our kids are now 12 and 8 and have finally reached the stage of being willing to try almost anything...

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10 months ago AndreaT

I have the "what to eat" list from knock knock stuff. I meal plan, then take a picture of the list with my phone....food diary complete!

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10 months ago emilyt

I love these questions, these responses. I cook for our family of four (two adults, two school age girls) and what has helped me is to keep two lists taped up on the inside of a kitchen cabinet. "Meals We Like" and "Things To Try." They are actually documents on my computer - I tend to scribble additions or crossouts on the actual lists on the fly, and then every once in a while I edit the lists on the computer, print out fresh ones, and retape. I wouldn't have guessed this but I too completely forget what we've eaten and what we like. So I actually do often open up the cabinet to scan the list - either before shopping (I try to keep on hand the ingredients for some of our faves) or when I have no idea what we should eat tonight. It's great to have reminders of both our more-involved basics (a vegetarian chili slow cooker recipe we love in cold weather) as well as one I hit on, in desperation, the other night: Baked Potatoes with Toppings. I had forgot that, but somehow had 4 baking potatoes in the oven within a minute. An hour later, after scavenging toppings (leftover veggies, fresh-steamed broccoli, a quick-sauteed can of black beans with cumin, plus cheese of course!) we were all eating a pretty decent homecooked meal. Nothing fancy, but both my girls (usually somewhat picky) ate up every scrap and declared it all yummy. Ice cream in the freezer for dessert sealed the win.

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10 months ago Melissa LaNette Brown

I really like that idea of the two lists. Stealing it! :)

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11 months ago Chitown_girl

I seperate the tasks of grocery shopping and meal planning, that way I can keep the fun/novelty of both. If coupled, the entire task seems unacheivable. Plus, where I live, grocery sales start on Wednesday and I usually don't plan meals until Sunday night or Monday morning. I'm a pretty experienced home cook at throwing things together with no recipes. I generally consider recipes as guidelines or inspiration (except when making baked goods). When I'm shopping, I focus on "what looks good," "what I enjoy to cook," and "what I remember being successful." Finally, when my groceries have had 24-48 hours to sit in my fridge/pantry they generally start to migrate towards things that loosely resemble a meal plan.

I also keep my grocery list and meal plan on Evernote (accessible from many devices). I don't assign meals to specific days, but number the list 1-7 in order to keep things flexible. I also include in my meal plan a list of "things that need to be used". That way I don't forget about the tupperware of stock/beans that I made last week, or the tofu that I bought two weeks ago.

I will need to start tracking a notebook of successes/failures. That's a great idea. Also something extremely helpful: find a buddy to do this with. I talk meal plan and groceries with my sister, who also loves to cook. Thus our meal plans serve as great email chatter.

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11 months ago smonfor

I've been trying to get organized since as well. I've found Pepperplate to be excellent as it syncs so well bewtween so many divices and allows me to primarily enter recipies from my computer - which is where my recipe stock pile is. That and the half scribbled notes o recipes I've jotted down and made and stuff in a folder - hoping I'll remember what it is for when I rustle through it again. My biggest problem with actually using it as a meal planner - Is I feel I need a week to get all my recipes moved over to it. Mostly I've just been adding new recipes and only putting a few of my "standbys" in!

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11 months ago Kimberly Groves Kamsickas

We have three cookbooks stored in an online site. Daily Meals, Recipes to Try, and What If. Saturday I plan meals for the week and go tot he grocery stores, Sunday I pre-cook, portion and prep everything I can. The rest of the week I cook when needed, heat when needed, or mix as needed. For a busy single mom, it works for us. My 10 year-old chooses two dinners a week and his breakfast and lunches.

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11 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Kimberly, I'm intrigued by the "What If" cookbook? What types of recipes are in that, and what determines whether a recipe goes into it? Thank you. ;o)

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11 months ago Kimberly Groves Kamsickas

The "What If" is a collection of recipes I would love to make with more space, more time, different ingredients. I am just starting to experiment with variations on recipes, so it's our space for the variations we come up with. It's also where my son attempts to put together ingredients that sound appealing in his head. Sometimes they turn out really good (a little cocoa on seasoned fries is really good). Some not so much, but he enjoys experimenting and I don't want to lose the successes he comes up with.

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11 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.



1. First and foremost, if you don’t conceptualize it as a “fight”, it will be much easier to handle.
2. Planning dinner? That is, singular? Much better to plan “dinners,” plural. I do a week at a time. When I was a trial lawyer with a more uncertain schedule and away for many more hours per week, I planned two weeks at a time. Today, as then, I allow flexibility, incorporating whatever looks good at the farmers’ market, etc.
3. When planning multiple meals, look for ways to double or triple up tasks most nights, to give yourself a leg up on future meals. E.g., grill twice the chicken you need tonight; use the rest over a big salad in a few days. Or chop and sweat three onions and 6 cloves of garlic tonight and save 2/3 of that for the curry and second soup or braise you’ll make on two other nights later in the week. Always make double batches of legumes and freeze half, or incorporate the rest into another dinner within 3-4 days.
4. Find an organizing principle and stick to it. We eat 18 vegan meals out of 21 in a week (averaged over several weeks). Three dinners feature legumes as a protein, one involves tofu, two feature fish and the 7th is a wild card -- typically chicken but sometimes egg-based. Make a list of your favorites in each category, plus ones you want to try. Plan the order of meals so you can most effectively implement #3.
5. As for method, I write all seven meals on a piece of paper (8.5” x 11”) that I’ve folded down the middle lengthwise. The menus go on the left, and the right side is used for notes, ideas, etc. E.g., “Make rice for Thursday” next to the Tuesday dinner, when I need pre-cooked rice for a cashew-broccoli pilaf or tofu-over-rice dish planned for that day. I also jot down notes on new recipes tried. I save these lists and review them every few months.
6. I keep an enormous quantity of vegetables and salad greens on hand so I generally just worry about the main dish on my menu plan. I also look for ways to prep fresh veggies or other ingredients for upcoming meals on an ad-hoc basis, i.e., I don’t write that on the list. E.g., when baking bread – which I do at least once a week -- I almost always bake slices of tofu for use within a few days. It steams up the oven, by the way, improving the crust of the baking bread. I usually roast veggies at the same time, for use in grain salads , dressed with vinaigrette, etc., for one or more dinner.
7. Hope this helps. I’m interested in everyone’s strategies and tactics on this topic! As you may be able to deduce from items 1 - 6, planning or preparing dinner never feels like a fight, thank goodness. In fact, it’s one of the true loves of this wonderfully interesting life I lead. (I have my own business transaction law firm, with a challenging full-time practice.) ;0)

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11 months ago smonfor

Such great tips! I love the suggestion to do extra ingredients for future meals - it is something I do when making shepherd's pie (it is always a second night dish) but I forget about do it on the other nights - Thanks for all your practical suggestions!

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11 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

You're welcome, smonfor, and thank you for your kind words, as well. I'm glad you think so! ;o)

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10 months ago Anna Frandsen

Wow! This is amazing! I just took notes. Can you leave us an example list of actual dishes for one week? My husband is a doctor, I'm a nurse and have a medical translation business and my three year old daughter eats EVERYTHING (including sardines, tofu, and probably fried grasshoppers if I offered them to her). We live in southern Spain and have a hard time getting lots of foreign ingredients (fish paste, tofu, certain spices, etc.) but I'm pretty good at improvising. I look forward to your insight and thank you!

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10 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Anna F, I'll respond in more detail on Friday or Saturday with this week (exactly). My law practice has been crazy busy (in a good way!), plus we're having very-last-minute dinner company this evening, but I should have time later this week. ;o)

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11 months ago smslaw

Every morning, one of us says-"What shall we have for dinner?" A brief discussion ensues, with one of us tossing out a suggestion and, depending on the reaction ("We just had pasta yesterday!") the non-suggesting party may up with something else. Like most people, we have several favorite recipes we both like and like to cook. Once the primary decision has been made ("Let's do something on the grill" or "how about Paella [which she always makes] or risotto [I make], we move on to details-i.e. do we need to take something out of the freezer? I think deciding what to eat is the hardest part of meals. Cooking is the fun part.
Every so often, we come up with a new fave (often from Food 52) and add it to our list. We also play around with recipes once we've made them a few times. For example, we love the black pepper tofu from "Plenty" but tonight we're making it with shrimp instead of tofu.

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11 months ago Rana Danesh

I break it down based on food type. 3 nights we have pure veggie meals (eg tonight was minestrone soup, ceasars salad, spinach raviloi with ricotta cheese) and 3 nights we have meats (eg last night was roasted drumsticks in spiced tomato sauce and coleslaw) so i definitely rummage through my cookbooks and online for ideas but also ask my husband and kids what they feel like. But honestly time-tested menu for the week will most likely look like this:
a pasta night; a roast night, a salad medley night, a stew night, a theme night (Chinese, Mexican etc), one dining out night, and one I-cant-be-bothered-to-cook-night where we usually will have left overs or order.

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11 months ago Nicholas Day

You know, Isaiah's now old enough -- 4.5-ish -- that I can ask him for suggestions (if only to make it more likely that he'll eat whatever ends up coming out of the suggestion) but I d