Everyday Cooking

The Fight to Plan Dinner Better (With One Solution)

August 29, 2013

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

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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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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


Laura March 17, 2014
If you live in Buffalo, that means you live in the promised-land that is anywhere with a Wegmans. Cherish that.
Anne February 6, 2014
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.com/2014/01/whats-for-dinner.html
Sofia January 4, 2014
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...
AndreaT October 7, 2013
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!
emilyt September 19, 2013
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.
Melissa L. September 26, 2013
I really like that idea of the two lists. Stealing it! :)
Chitown_girl September 10, 2013
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.
smonfor September 4, 2013
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!
Kimberly G. September 2, 2013
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.
AntoniaJames September 3, 2013
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)
Kimberly G. September 3, 2013
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.
AntoniaJames August 30, 2013

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)
smonfor September 4, 2013
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!
AntoniaJames September 4, 2013
You're welcome, smonfor, and thank you for your kind words, as well. I'm glad you think so! ;o)
Anna F. September 17, 2013
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!
AntoniaJames September 18, 2013
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)
smslaw August 29, 2013
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.
Rana D. August 29, 2013
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.
Nicholas D. August 29, 2013
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 don't. I really should.
JadeTree August 29, 2013
Yes, to the sitting down with cookbooks and yes to the disillusionment by Wednesday!
So what I do now is keep a notebook called Good Things to Eat. It's just a double-spaced list of good things I have made with little fuss (obviously if we're doing a party or special meal I can do a real cookbook quest). Some of the things I just list by title because I know exactly how to make them and others I annotate with the source next to the title so I can go straight to the source (like F52, JoC, DM etc.). Whenever we eat something that delights most diners (we also have the starveling four-year-old and goatly two-year-old) it goes in the book. At the back of the book I have a list of special sides that I don't want to forget, too. Sometimes I'll enter a brief menu (like marinated flank steak and Texas caviar) when we find a combo we like.

So on Sunday, I sit down with grocery list and notebook. I generally add one new recipe to my weekly plan (wishing for more but I am into surviving the week). That way, I'm not making the same "favorites" so much that they're not favorites anymore and the only time it takes is to just write it down in one place and the notebook lives with the cookbooks. Easy to find and return to its home.

So if you do the notebook, I suggest starting by going through your cookbooks (fun, right?) to remind yourself of things you loved and forgot - once it's in the book you won't be miserably scrambling around for a weekly meal and you can enjoy looking through the book for fresh ideas instead of chasing a vague memory!
Nicholas D. August 29, 2013
This is great, JadeTree. Thank you. Exactly what I'm looking for.
rapearson August 29, 2013
I'm looking forward to reading the comments. For a while I would plan weekly menus (myself, my husband and toddler). Usually I'd sit down on Sunday with some cookbooks and a piece of paper. What I found was I could never actually cook 7 dinners in a row from my plan. Better to plan 5 or 6 meals (I don't worry about lunch or breakfast when planning, unless we are going camping). Often there are leftovers if you make enough, or I would not feel like what was planned (maybe a need to rebel a little, who knows?). I recommend maybe one or two new meals, and the rest old favorites. I like savorthis's recommendation to have lots of snack foods for emergency picnics in the park. That sounds like a wonderful idea.

Also, cooking up a big batch of grains and beans on Sunday has worked well. I try to freeze a lot of it -- frozen cooked rice has really helped me out on more than one occasion. The beans can be used through the week as can the grains. Another thing I want to try is to prep a bunch of stir fry veggies that will be used for a few dinners, then use different sauces to when making dinner each night. I also found when I did this that I could make a quick stir fry for lunch as well.
savorthis August 29, 2013
I completely agree about not being able to follow through with all the great ideas gathered in the beginning. I settled on just a couple ideas here and there and relied on leftovers for the rest. Otherwise we were wasting food which just kills me. VB6 introduced a new issue for me because I could not eat many of the combined leftovers for lunch the next day. So I have learned to try to cook the meat separately so I can still enjoy the side the next day and use the meat for sandwiches for my husband and daughter. I am also lucky to have a mom nearby and we pawn leftovers off on each other which helps with boredom!

And that reminds me of a soup group a friend started a while ago. We all brought 6 servings of a soup and swapped them once a month. The idea was that it was for our kid's lunches but I know most of us ate it ourselves. I still think this is a great idea, though it does require a good, reliable group of good cooks. It would be terrible to have to "break up" with a not very good cook in a group (and I have heard of this happening!)
Nicholas D. August 29, 2013
Yes, my experience exactly, rapearson: the vagaries of everyday life will screw you every time. Planning an entire week never works for me either. I now aim for roughly four meals. It's not nothing! I figure the floor has enough calories on it for the other three meals.
NM August 29, 2013
The Paprika app has changed everything. Every eyecatching blog recipe is easily captured (with photos!) and categorized. So once a week or so I pick out a few recipes and have the app make a grocery list. Combining those recipes with a few 'whatever's around' basics like frittatas, soups, salads, or 'piece of meat with roasted veggie' gets us through the week nicely. And maybe we go out once. :) It also helps that my 'basics' are much more beloved by the family after completing Rouxbe's level one roadmap cooking course online. Thank you, technology.
Nicholas D. August 29, 2013
OK! Will look.
Kwan August 30, 2013
I second the Paprika app. It makes meal planning and shopping a breeze. Plus you can plan on your laptop/ipad and then have the shopping list automatically sync to your phone so it's always in your pocket.
savorthis August 29, 2013
I have also started and stopped many plans for making all this easier. Most recently it was when I started to follow VB6 (now on week 6 or so). For the first couple weeks I spent what seemed like most of Sunday shopping and prepping all sorts of things thinking each week I'd prep a large batch of one or two things adding little packets to the freezer. But all that planning made me explode and eat a three day weekend full of sausage, cheese and bready things packed with white sugar. On week 4 the pendulum settled a bit and my current happ(ier) middle to accommodate me on the VB6, a hard working fella and a 4 year old is this:

- have plenty of good snackables on hand like nut butters, fruit (fresh and dried), cheese sticks, hummus so in the event of a complete meal meltdown we can have a "charming" picnic in the park full of snacks
- allow myself to let go of recipes/prep sometimes to just buy a rotisserie chicken, store made hummus or the whole grain pizza dough from Whole Foods because I am still cooking, I am just a little less crazy
- be sure I have the pantry down: canned tomatoes and beans, quick cooking grains, condiments galore
- try to cook something that requires the rubber mallet so my daughter can demolish nuts (sprinkled on a vietnamesish rice bowl), crackers (folded into meatballs) or cookies (a rare pudding treat) while I piece the rest together
- quick pickle some vegetables and make extra grains once during the week for quick salads
- make more of everything so that at least half goes directly into the freezer

My freedom comes in the restraint of using what we have so when I only buy good things that make us all feel better we are generally happier.

And referring to the tofu, I now keep at least two packages in the freezer, sliced, drained and ready for the fast and amazingly delicious caramelized tofu banh mi (also good with avocado, sesame seeds and rice): http://tinyurl.com/7jf6qne (I just use a little less pepper when cooking for the kid too)
Nicholas D. August 29, 2013
I like all of this, of course. And here's to "charming" picnics in the park! I have to remember this more often: that there's nothing wrong with a meal of mezze(s), even if -- gasp, horrors, shock -- you didn't make all of it yourself. Basically, I have to learn to accept that things will fall apart, at least sometimes, and that I have to plan for them falling apart.
savorthis August 30, 2013
Isn't that a funny way of thinking about it? But it's true. Plan for things to fall apart. In my family we also call that "pre-dreading" ... it is useful in chasing away all sorts of fears.
smilebluemonday August 29, 2013
I don't know if this would help you, but usually on Wednesday nights, I sit down with my computer, ALL my cookbooks, and a pad of post-it notes and I find a recipe I feel like spending money on, cooking, and eating for most of the following week. To be fair, I cook for just myself, and since I'm broke, I cook a bunch of food on Sundays, and I eat it for lunch and dinner the rest of the week.