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How are moms supposed to feed our kids? Well, everyone tells us to do healthy meal planning for dinner with kids. They tell us to carefully organize recipes, buy fresh foods, and create a new meal every night (because we’ve got oh so much time between working, parenting, and self-care!). Just whip it up and your family will magically eat it! they imply.

I don’t think this works anymore. Kids never liked eating what they were forced to eat and today’s parents just don’t DO that. So even when we meal plan, we still make a million little changes to please everyone in the family. I think enough’s enough! I think it’s time for us to do something radically different when it comes to feeding dinner to our families: adopt a restaurant mindset.

Woman Shopping for Groceries

Photo by ArtsyBee on Pixabay

I feel like I’ve tried everything to make dinner less stressful, including HelloFresh. It took until 2020 for my productivity coach to convince me that planning ahead of time was way better than figuring it out that day, and she was right. I embraced the meal plan, finally! First I started with themed meals but we got bored of the same thing all the time, then I found Plan to Eat and rotated recipes, and this month I found Real Plans and was trying their automated system based on what’s in my pantry (spoiler alert: the pantry feature is not what I hoped it would be, don’t bother).

But it still wasn’t working. My pantry, fridge, and freezer are all overflowing with forgotten food I had to buy for one recipe. The kids (and sometimes my husband) don’t eat what I make– like, a lot of the time (and it’s not because I’m a bad cook!). Or, I’d be too tired to cook, and then the ingredients would stack up, as was the case with HelloFresh.

Healthy Meal Planning For Dinner With Kids is Excruciatingly Hard

I was listening to a podcast recently about meal planning for dinner with kids and it really got to me. The host was sharing about how feeding her family goes and all of the microdecisions she makes each day based on her large family’s needs and preferences. She shared how she is constantly choosing who is going to have to fend for themselves if they don’t like or can’t eat the meal she’s prepared. And how only she knows all these things and what an emotional burden it is to bear all of it alone, with her husband in the dark about who loves what. I especially felt her pain when her husband threw out the soup he didn’t want after she’d given him the best bites of beef, that she would have loved to have.

It made me feel all the feels. Number one, I could feel the anxiety. I’ve been there. I used to be so incredibly anxious and perfectionist about getting everything just right and not asking for help while doing it. So it was nice to go down that memory road and see how far I’ve come, which I tend to not think about all that often. Then, it had me seriously pondering this dilemma that moms across America face each night! It brought up questions like:

  • Is meal planning for dinner with kids really serving ANYONE but the food suppliers?
  • Do we just not let our kids get hungry enough?? Why so many preferences?
  • How did parents do this 70 years ago without complaint?
  • What is the advantage to family-style meals when you aren’t feeding a crowd? And if I was feeding a crowd, I’d have variety so everyone could find something they like.
  • Why do we make this so hard?
  • And how can we make it easier?

Family Dinner’s Dead – And Meal Planning to Feed Our Families Should Be Too

Chef

Photo by antonytrivet on Pixabay

Well… as you know, I love to optimize things and make them better. So if the root cause of the problem is everyone’s differing tastes and preferences, how can we manage that? I thought. Meal planning for dinner with kids isn’t taking into consideration our unique tastes and preferences.

I considered how others are managing it now. Of course! A restaurant! Restaurants provide a menu of what they’re willing to cook. Guests can order exactly what THEY want from the menu. Chefs have their own signature dishes. I’m going to guess that Gordon Ramsay has made something like a million beef wellingtons by now, if not more. He stocks the same thing in all of his restaurants and does his favorite dishes really well. People who visit those restaurants have tastes aligned to his. And they can buy everything in bulk, saving money.

Replacing Meal Planning With “Mom’s Kitchen” & A Restaurant Mindset

So that got me thinking…. in our family, we do all have similar tastes, but we definitely have different preferences. My daughter loves soup and proteins, my son loves potatoes and bread, and my husband loves anything spicy. Oh, and no one in my house BUT ME eats leftovers!

I could easily devise my own menu of signature dishes – complete with a “kids menu” – and just stock what I need! This could totally work!

Do they have to wait for dinner after selecting? Yes. They already have shown me they’re willing to do this because we eat out all the time.

Do I have to cook a bunch of things at once? Yes. I already do. I was already making “kids meals”, deconstructed versions of whatever I was cooking. But we don’t ALWAYS all eat dinner together at once (focusing on connecting other ways, not over food), so I won’t always be trying to get everything ready at the exact same time. Heck, even when I do, they rarely all show up to the table at once.

Will I waste food? Possibly… but right now I waste a lot of food when they don’t eat what I’ve made. If I make something more traditionally family-style like a casserole, it’s ME trying to eat all the leftovers! I hate it. AND, I already waste food by buying stuff that never gets eaten. Here’s what happens: we buy food that looks good at the store, then stuff for my meal plan. Somewhere along the line I either don’t cook it or we end up eating out, and the result is a pantry and freezer STUFFED full of ingredients for phantom meals. It’s ridiculous!

What about variety? I can still switch out three things each week: soup, dessert, and a “special.” If there’s a sale on meat or something traditional or seasonal that week, I’ll add it to the rotation.

Shouldn’t they try new food? If you’ve followed me for a while or read my New Food Rules for Kids, you know that I don’t believe in forcing kids to eat things they don’t like or for having really any anxiety about feeding our kids since I don’t want them to create an emotional attachment with food. I believe in controlling what food’s in the house and the way I cook it (air fried vs. fried, in the case of my son’s french fries) rather than controlling my child.

So I’ve created two menus:

Kids Menu - Meal Planning for Dinner With Kids: My Short-Order Cook Experiment

A very simple kids menu where they can choose their entree, fruit, veg, and carb. These are the basics on every kid’s menu out there, like chicken nuggets and grilled cheese. I can easily stock the same fruits and vegetables each week (and already do). I’ve put the menu in a sleeve and they’ll just mark off what they want each night. Those usually take me 10 minutes or less to prepare, or they’re old enough now that they could easily do most of it themselves.

Adult Menu - Meal Planning for Dinner With Kids: My Short-Order Cook Experiment

 

Our favorites menu for my husband and me. It has sandwiches we enjoy, our very favorite entrees, a soup and salad option with the soup of the week, a place to write the special, and a dessert (I’ll be able to make one a week of those as well).

And One Golden Grocery List

After I made the menus, I went through each and added everything I’d need beyond staples to a grocery list. It honestly wasn’t that much, or bigger than a normal grocery list when I meal plan. And I think there are a lot of pros to this:

  • We’ll be using what we buy, so I only have to restock when I’m low and not start out with something new each week (that I may not use up).
  • I’m going to get really good at making these dishes!!
  • I’ve chosen foods that I can make and freeze or otherwise store until I need them.
  • I’ve also chosen meals that are quick to prepare, though sometimes I’ll be cooking the proteins ahead of time.
  • I can track what we pick (yep, I’ve already made the spreadsheet) and eliminate dishes that no one ever picks (and add any new choices over time).
  • Because it’s always the same, I can buy in bulk (and save $$$!!).
  • I can go through and purge or donate almost everything in our pantry, fridge, and freezer that’s not on the list. YESSSSSS!!!
  • I chose foods and meals that are zero or low points on WW, so no guilty meals… oh AND I can eat whatever works for me that day instead of having to eat what everyone else wanted!
  • These kids’ meals are so easy that they can either help me make their plates or make them on their own!
  • My busy day and mind don’t have even one more thing to remember… everything’s the same all the time.
  • The onus is on THEM to decide what the heck they want to eat each day!!!! I thought I’d have a hard time with buy-in, but my husband easily gave me his order and the kids are excited to do theirs.
  • Speaking of my husband, since he works 3rd shift now his first meal is our dinner… he’s not always in the mood for “dinner” foods. I think I’m actually going to tweak this and give him a breakfast option, too!

It’s Day One of Killing Meal Planning for Dinner…

I felt compelled to share this idea right away so you’ll get to follow along with me and see how/if it works out. I’ll update in a month with how it’s going and if I’ve actually just lost my mind, or if it’s the best thing ever! Better yet, do it with me and share in the comments below how this has worked out for your family. Let’s change this outdated way of feeding our families and start saving time and money by buying our ingredients in bulk but serving meals that will be eaten!

Meal planning for dinner with kids doesn’t work for today’s families… but menu planning for dinner with your family just might.

Results: Do My Kids Eat Healthier? And is it Easier to Kill Meal Planning and the Family Dinner?

veggie burger

Day 1: Ok, checking back in here. So some pros:

  • Everyone cleaned their plates (and the kids got seconds on their fruits and veggies!)
  • Everyone was able to eat exactly when they needed to. The timing actually worked out really well because the kids got their food fast and I was able to cook and eat mine in peace.
  • It was a little weird to eat exactly what I’d order at a restaurant. It was a very satisfying meal but cooked in a healthier way (like air-frying some steak fries).
  • It was freaking easy! No, seriously. The kids’ meals are so fast and ours were way easier than creating one big meal.
  • It feels really good to know that everyone enjoyed what they ate, that they got plenty to eat, and there was NO WASTE!!!!!
  • ALL of us ate more fruits and veg than we normally would.
  • I actually used up ingredients in our house that have sat there waiting for someone (we bought them because we like them but then they were never part of my meal plan).

Some cons:

  • I mean, dishes and pans to wash. Technically there weren’t really MORE of these but gosh (one for our chicken, one for the pulled pork I made to get it out of the way, one for my daughter’s soup because I felt like cooking it on the stove… that’s it), eating out does have its advantages!
  • It felt like I was in the kitchen longer but only because I ended up cooking the pulled pork I wanted to and our dessert for the week… I could see doing the special, soup, and dessert during a lull on the weekend to have them done and ready to go. It wasn’t offensive, but I had to get back up to assemble my husband’s dinner when he woke up (later than usual) and then I had to make the dessert. But on a normal week, I NEVER make dessert so it’s not like this took longer… I just did more. And the kids were so excited to have a real dessert!

Day 1 Score: 10/10

Day 2:

Pros:

  • I “cooked” almost nothing besides my daughter’s soup.
  • I’m running out of fruits and vegetables!
  • I decided to eat my “special” and everyone else picked almost the exact same thing again, so that’s interesting. I wonder when they’ll get bored with their favorites?
  • Oh, and my daughter’s friends came over for a while and it wasn’t clear if they were staying for dinner or at least hungry after school. It was really nice to say, “Here’s what we have if you’re hungry!” and know I had enough to feed them if I needed to.

Day 2 Score: 10/10

Day 3:

All of our freezer food pulled out

All of our freezer food pulled out

WIN: I reclaimed my freezer!!! My refrigerator freezer has been jammed full of stuff and I haven’t used it in… months. Maybe years? I had no idea what was in there and since it was full, just gravitated toward our extra chest freezer in the garage.

Well, today I decided to empty it out and make sure ONLY foods for our new menu were in there. It turns out that a lot of it was sooooo-olllldddd and ready to be parted with anyway, a lot of it was stuff we just never freaking eat, and quite a bit had freezer burn or was icy from the kids leaving the freezer open at some point.

 

So I used the bins I just grabbed at the dollar store the other day for organizing and emptied it all out, then used the rectangular ones IN the freezer WITH labels to help me keep it organized.

The bottom shelf organized!

The bottom shelf organized!

I can easily see when I’m getting low on something and what it is (turns out I’m NOT low on french fries or chicken nuggets!!) so shopping should be easier. And then the top two drawers still had room so I added extras of some staples and some other meats that were still ok to use as my weekly Specials.

So we’re not even at dinner time and already this plan is helping me feel organized! And my husband picked something different for dinner tonight, so we’ll see how that goes!

Dinner Update: Everything went well. I had my son’s dinner to him in about 3 minutes, my daughter’s in 4, and my husband asked for tacos so I had to cook the meat, but now I have portioned it out with some going in the freezer and a couple of portions in the fridge. Since it was done and everything was out, I just ate tacos with him. Then we went to the store to refresh some of the stuff I was already running out of and grab a few things I didn’t have but had put on the menu. When I’m out of something or don’t have it, I’ve just crossed it off the menu and no one complains. That Aldi trip was $86. It would have been more if I hadn’t cleaned out the freezers today and found some of the stuff on my list! The kids are actually eating MORE vegetables and fruit than they ever did before… and they are less snacky. Another weird thing that happened – my son asked for grilled cheese and ate the ENTIRE sandwich! That is super duper rare around here.

Day 3 Score: 10/10

Day 4:

Ok, so today sucked a little bit. It felt like I was in the kitchen from 4-6. I fed my son when he got home. Then I made my own dinner. My daughter had friends over so she waited until after they left at 5:30, so then I fed her, and then my husband woke up so I fed him. In the past, I would have just made a dinner, it would have been cold when he woke up, I still would have had to make my kids what they like or they would have picked at it, so it’s not really like the situation was WORSE, just that it was LONG. I worked on a decluttering project in-between each meal. I think to mitigate this I’m going to see what I can do to get everyone up and ready to eat around the same time, at least. Maybe my little restaurant needs to have hours!!

On the plus side, my little guy is eating like I’ve never seen him eat before. Like, nothing left on his plate, asking for seconds. And no one is asking for snacks after dinner, so that’s probably a good thing too. From a health perspective, this is working very, very well.

Day 4 Score: 8/10

Day 5:

Since I decided to declutter and organize our playroom, I was super busy with that well into the evening. Being able to stop and just say, “Ok, pick your dinners!” was soooo freakin nice! I knew I had everything. Before I would have just stopped what I was doing, panicked, and took them out for dinner. But I was able to get them fed, and quickly, then get back to work.

Day 5 Score: 10/10

Day 6:

We ate out, at my favorite restaurant!

Day 6 Score: n/a

Day 7:

We went shopping today at Costco, and it was SO HELPFUL to know what we might need in bulk and what we definitely didn’t need. It was easy to put everything away, too! I’m going to start making notes of what might be easier to buy in bulk so I can compare prices. Normally I shop at Aldi. As for dinner, it was another busy day where I got carried away in decorating and it was nice to stop and just ask what they wanted to eat and prepare it quickly.

Day 7 Score: 10/10

Day 8:

So today I learned that I can’t just reheat the taco meat and beans in the taco shells. It made them soggy and fall apart, so I’m sure it was a disappointing meal for my husband. Otherwise, everything still going great.

Day 8 Score: 10/10

Day 9:

Tonight he picked something new on my menu that I’ve actually never made (but we both love), the Philly cheesesteak sandwich. After the fact he told me it was also soggy and he likes his bread toasted. But otherwise, I thought it was pretty tasty. I had just put the steaks in the freezer the day before and didn’t remember to thaw them so I used roast beef. I am learning that I need to refrigerate my rolls because they are getting used up more slowly. It’s helpful to have meats already done and frozen, too. I still need to start buying more of our groceries in bulk.

Day 9 Score: 10/10

Day 10:

Another new choice, the club sandwich. I toasted the bread this time and I don’t think I’ve actually ever heard him rave about a meal so much! And I had fun putting it together. The kids are still doing great and still eating more veggies and fruits and fewer snacks.

We went back to the grocery store, so that’s three times since I started. I know that I’m making sure I have enough of my new staples but I do think I need to work now on my supply management. Maybe I’ll watch a course on this meant for restaurant owners! I also downloaded a couple of apps I want to check out that are supposed to help you manage your pantry. Finally, I still need to do a total clear-out of my refrigerator and pantry. Though sometimes I find myself making whatever for me, so I might be able to use up more of what we already have.

Oh, another thing is that I didn’t set up a special, dessert, or soup this week. They weren’t requested at all last week. So I think those will be more up to me and will happen when there’s a sale at the store or I just feel like cooking something different or having some soup in the house. I don’t need the dessert so I haven’t been motivated to have one around (since I polished off last week’s!)… And I’m still trying to figure out what to do for Christmas next week and bearing in mind that I’m going to go through groceries faster while the kids are home for their break.

Day 10 Score: 10/10

Days 11-23:

Ok, so life got busy with Christmas upon us. I decided to do a major decluttering and also had to decorate, wrap presents, and get ready for company and travel. But through it all, one thing remained consistent: dinner is now a non-issue!!!!!  (Cue the choir singing hallelujah!!) I mean truly, it’s been amazing. The kids are eating well, I feel way less stressed, I feel good about having a meal on the table for anyone without the panic. Sometimes if everyone is hungry at once and all eating different things I feel a LITTLE stressed but it’s honestly kind of a little adrenaline rush for the evening and it’s also totally self-induced, like I don’t HAVE to get things out fast or all at once. I’m not an ACTUAL restaurant.

So yeah, score is still 10/10. I’d give you a grocery savings run-down but we’re going to have to watch the budget a while for this one as I had to first make sure I have everything I need and then also had to shop for a holiday meal in there, too. I do notice that I’m consistently out of about the same things each week. Had we not bought a bunch of household stuff yesterday at the store, the bill should have been quite small. But, we were there for my husband’s drinks and snacks too and it wasn’t outrageous so that’s a good sign. Normally I get the groceries and then he spends almost as much on his stuff (I usually just drink water and don’t need all the snacks this man seems to need). I still need to do a bigger fridge and pantry clear-out of the stuff we no longer need so much (or that’s expired), but I am not in a rush to do it unless I can find a food pantry to give it to. One thing I have noticed is that I don’t go through the specialty breads and rolls very fast, so I may end up keeping those frozen. I also need to get my husband’s “order” in the morning to make sure I have any needed meat thawed. He’s not great on giving it to me unless I ask first so perhaps I can come up with some system to facilitate that (that’s the kind of thing wives of ADHD do!).

Results:

So guess what? Mom’s Restaurant is here to stay!

  • My kids have no complaints and are still eating healthier + they LOVE choosing their meals
  • My life is wayyyyyyyyyyyyy, seriously, like 10,000,000 times easier now
  • My husband has no complaints and seems happy with his meal and getting to choose

How about the money? Well, traditionally we have spent about equal amounts on groceries and eating out. I can’t really give an honest comparison of before and after spending yet as we’re still adjusting to having just what we need, we had a special Christmas meal to purchase during this experiment, and we ate out a little more due to the holidays as well. Remember also that my kids were home for two weeks as well, which means that I was making lunches too (normally they eat the school lunch).

However, this was the first month we flipped from spending as much or more on eating out to spending $313 LESS eating out. Our grocery bill was $253 MORE than our average, though. That’s easily the cost of the holiday meal, and considering that I had to feed more people for more meals, this still might be ok. I also bought some larger bulk things during this month that I don’t separate out from the grocery budget, like laundry soap, paper towels, and toilet paper.

So, financially, time will tell. I’m starting to learn that I can buy cucumbers, blueberries, and bread in bulk so we’ve just started getting those at Costco. My grocery list itself has gone from like 30 items to about ten a week. Almost nothing is going to waste except rolls and buns — I may have to start freezing those because those menu items are requested less, or start using them for the things that are (like garlic bread and sandwiches). I haven’t because I was afraid of using them up, but that would be the obvious way to handle this.

And, my husband still buys a bunch of snacks, meals, and drinks that he consumes while he’s working his shift.

I’m glad to see that we’re eating out less and in the end… I’m just grateful for the sanity. I don’t want to see another meal plan again. I don’t want to buy a cartload of groceries for a meal I’ll eat one time. I don’t want to throw away half a meal because no one but me ate it. We have NO FOOD WASTE now!!! And ironically, the kids are actually trying MORE things. I think my daughter is ready to graduate to our menu soon, but I’ll be keeping the kids’ menu for their lunches anyway.

Overall? 10/10. Will be keeping this system!

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