Dinner Makeover: Help With Menu Planning
"Eating Out All the Time Is Blowing Our Budget"
Michelle Muse, 31
What does dinner usually look like in the Muse household? Fast-food burgers, frozen lasagna, or take-out pizza. Michelle, a registered nurse, knows that’s not a healthy diet. “Plus, going to restaurants gets so expensive,” she says. But she and her husband have exhausting, polar-opposite schedules. (Michelle clocks in from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. three days a week, and Steven, 34, also a nurse, works the overnight shift.) So that leaves little time for planning and preparing dinners. On the days when Michelle is at the hospital, Steven’s mother watches the children—Andrew, 12; Alexis (Lexi), 8; and Emily, 3—and is willing to pitch in with cooking. But she often relies on Michelle for meal plans, which are rarely forthcoming. “Explaining what I have in mind always feels like too much work,” says Michelle. That’s not surprising, since Michelle finds the kitchen a bit intimidating. “I never really learned to cook,” she admits. “And I avoid buying fresh produce, since I worry it will rot.” But now she wants to set a good example for her kids, who tend to be picky eaters. “I hate shopping for food and making meals. Dinner has become my downfall.”
Michelle needed to establish a system—and get over her cooking fears. First, organizing expert Chip Cordelli provided tools to help Michelle plan her meals and communicate them to her mother-in-law. Then Real Simple staff food editor Charlyne Mattox gave Michelle a handful of helpful kitchen strategies, including budget-conscious recipes and ways to prep ingredients ahead of time.
Get Everyone on the Same Page
All too often, Michelle runs off to work without leaving dinner instructions for her mother-in-law. Here are three simple solutions.
This vibrant dry-erase calendar ensures that everyone in the family will know what’s for dinner.
To buy: Magnetic glass dry-erase weekly planner, $35, shop.threebythree.com.
Corral Dinner Ingredients
Before work, Michelle can place the fixings on a quarter-sheet tray in the refrigerator.
To buy: Vollrath Wear-Ever heavy-duty quarter-size sheet pans, $6 each, acemart.com.
Keep Food in Plain Sight
These clear containers make it easy to identify anything Michelle is able to prep in advance.
To buy: Pyrex 10-piece storage set, $21.50 at supermarkets.
Don’t Wilt Under Pressure
Michelle was so worried about tossing old, uneaten produce that she tended to buy canned vegetables “to be safe.” Charlyne shared this healthy alternative: Plan meals that use the most perishable items at the start of the week, then make dishes with hardier vegetables toward the end. She gave Michelle this shelf-life cheat sheet for fresh produce.
Prep (Way) in Advance
In addition to shopping on one of her days off, Michelle can simplify her busiest nights by doing some cooking on the weekend. A big-batch recipe, like chili, can perform double duty: “She can serve it straight one day and use the leftovers for tacos or burritos later,” says Charlyne.
Get the recipe for Sunday-Night Chili.
5 More Smart Get-Ahead Ideas
- Roast two chickens at once. “It’s just as easy,” Charlyne told Michelle. “You can eat one tonight and reheat the other a day or so later. Or serve it shredded in enchiladas, sliced on a sandwich, or tossed into a pasta dish or a salad.”
- Cook pasta. Rinse to cool, then refrigerate. To use, add pasta sauce and reheat.
- Bake potatoes. Both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes can be baked in advance and refrigerated. “Just wrap them in a paper towel and pop them in the microwave for two to three minutes to reheat,” says Charlyne.
- Roast vegetables. Serve them reheated as a side dish or in a pasta, or at room temperature in salads.
- Cook rice, quinoa, and other grains. Make a double batch and reheat, as needed, in a bowl covered with a damp paper towel in the microwave. Or serve at room temperature tossed with nuts and herbs as a side dish or in a green salad.
Keep It Cheap
The family’s fast-food habit had wreaked havoc on their pocketbook. To counter the damage, Charlyne offered three recipes that cost just $2.50 a serving.
Get the recipe for Crispy Chicken With Broccoli Coleslaw.
Get the recipe for Huevos Rancheros With Black Beans.
Get the recipe for Teriyaki Tilapia With Herb Salad.
Enlist the Kids
Having her children underfoot in the kitchen often made meal prep even harder for Michelle. Here are 21 useful ways that they can lend a hand.
See Kitchen Chores for Kids.
Two Weeks Later…
Thanks to her menu calendar, Michelle has made fewer trips to the drive-thru, giving a boost to the family’s diet and bottom line. “I had no idea how affordable—and delicious—it was to use fresh produce,” she says. “We’re even thinking of joining a CSA farm share now that I know what to do with real vegetables.”