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Meal Planning: How to Maximize Time Together at the Table

I am becoming a man of routines.

Each Saturday my alarm goes off at 6AM and I am on the ice by 6:30. The guys I play shinny with are now old enough to bring their teenage sons. Playing against kids 25 years younger certainly ups the pace and keeps the games interesting. We skate until the Zamboni emerges at 7:45, chasing us from the ice.

I am home by 8:30 to put the coffee on and to start breakfast for the kids. Coffee in-hand, I search out a TV that doesn’t have a kid in front of it to watch a soccer match to see if my real madrid betting paid off, and sort out what’s for dinner for the week ahead. Saturday is my day for meal planning.

It’s not so much that I enjoy planning a week’s worth of meals (I do) as it is that I want to avoid the downside of not planning our dinner in advance.

When we don’t plan our meals, we spend more time trying to figure out what to eat than we do cooking and eating. Other times we don’t eat until very late, the kids get hangry and often have to go to bed shortly after we finish our dinner.

The awful truth of it is, without a meal plan we often find ourselves late in the week staring into an empty fridge and/or contemplating the frost entombed vegetables on the bottom of the freezer. It’s not pretty.

Making a meal plan gives me a chance to think about the week ahead, be reminded of what’s in our busy oft-changing schedules (I do need reminders), and to re-confirm if we need to book a sitter and for what night(s).

All that aside, the biggest reason I’m a proponent of doing a meal plan is that it means we can spend more time together as a family. No plan can lead to everyone eating different things at different times, so we don’t end up sitting together as a family and I don’t have as much control over what my kids are, or more worryingly, aren’t eating. I’m well aware that a lot of common eating disorders are triggered by childhood food habits, so I like to keep things as consistent as possible.

With Girl Guides, karate, soccer, dance and tutoring each week, planning our meals in advance is the only way we can maximize time spent together at the dinner table. As our kids get older (they’re nine and 11) it’s becoming increasingly rare for the four of us to spend quality time together, as we do at the dinner table, without distractions.

Sitting around the dining room table-where TV, phones, games, movies, tablets and toys are forbidden-allows the four of us a chance to reconnect, talk about our days, or to scheme about our next road trip or family vacation.

Maximizing family time at the table gives the kids a chance to ask questions and for all of us to be engaged in bigger conversations. It’s an opportunity to try out new jokes, make each other laugh and, for all of us, it’s a chance to vent about our days. The world can seem a horribly unjust, unfair and confusing place when you’re a kid and we hope our dinner table is a place where complaints can be made, questions posed and empathy offered.

We try to sit down to a family meal at least six, if not seven, nights a week. It’s often my favourite part of the day and I’d like to think my kids enjoy it too.

Making a Meal Plan

With the game on in the background, I’ll pull out two or three favourite cookbooks and check in on Nigel Slater and Felicity Cloake in the Guardian, maybe visit a few food sites such as Food & Wine and Fine Cooking to see if there are any recipes I want to try or any ingredients I want to work with.

The other components of a meal plan:

1. How many dinners? I’m usually only looking to plan four dinners: Monday to Thursday. Every Friday we make pizza, Saturday we call an audible, and on Sunday we usually do a roast.

2. What’s our schedule? Mondays we have Guides and karate and have to be out by 6:30. The kids don’t have programming Tuesday or Wednesday, which means we have a bit more time to prep and cook. Thursdays they have tutoring and we have to be out of the house by 6:30. So two nights with some time and two nights that need quick meals.

3. Reducing food waste: As I plan the three or four dinners for the week, I’ll try to identify ingredients that can be used in multiple dishes to reduce food waste. This is especially true of buying large bunches of fresh herbs. I’ll also try to sort out what dishes will provide leftovers for lunches.

4. Reducing duplication: If we’ve sent the kids to school with pasta for lunch, I’ll try to avoid making a pasta for dinner. If we’re having a variation of sandwiches on Wednesday, I’ll try not to make grilled cheese on Thursday.

5. Are we eating healthy? We try to do meatless Monday. Friday we do put a little bacon on the pizza but that’s the only meat at dinner. The kids are good about eating their veggies; salad is still a bit of a push. I try to make at least one other dinner vegetarian (or use meat more as a flavouring than as the main part of the plate).

The Results

Sunday: Roast chicken with root vegetables
Monday: Gnocchi with black olives and sundried tomatoes, green salad
Tuesday: Butter chicken, curried chickpeas, naan and rice
Wednesday: Chorizo, potato hash and eggs
Thursday: Salad Nicoise
Friday: Pizza

I’ll post the some of these recipes and the kids’ reactions later in the week…

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Michael Forbes

About Michael Forbes

Michael, a communications professional by day, is a father of two, an avid (but bad) hockey player, and an amateur cook. He finds it incredibly challenging to write about himself in the third person. View all posts by