If you polled our four children about their fondest memories of home, eating dinner together would likely be toward the top of the list.
Of course, we couldn’t eat dinner as a family every night. Thinking about those years when we were a tag team of getting this child to ballet, that child to soccer and another one to baseball makes my head spin.
There were plenty of nights when we ate dinner in shifts and more than a few times the kids ate in the car while en route to a practice or other event.
Yet still, I always tried to make eating together — at least for the majority of the week — a priority.
Now, it’s no secret I love to cook. And even when our children were babies and toddlers, I still spent a good chunk of my day in the kitchen.
Whether I threw a bunch of ingredients into the slow cooker first thing in the morning, or herded everybody into the kitchen with a snack-bribe while I started dinner in the late afternoon.
Before you think I’m trying to earn the title of “Super Woman,” let me assure you family dinner did not happen without strategic planning.
My plan usually came together Sunday afternoon. Often that was the day when things were a little more low-key. Well, as low-key as they get with a house full of young children and dogs.
I used to gather up my tools, which included cookbooks, pen, paper and my meal-planning notebook. That notebook was critical for helping me stay organized with meal planning.
A notebook is simple to make and can work for people with young children, or for any family who struggles with getting a healthy dinner on the table every night. It’s also a terrific way to help save money and eat more healthfully.
Putting together the notebook may seem a little time intensive at first glance, but once you get the hang of it, it can save you time, frustration and money.
First, buy a three-ring binder and some dividers, preferably with pockets.
Next, label the dividers as follows: menus; weekly menu plan; emergency meal menus; keepers; and to try.
Behind the first section, “menus,” list every combination of menus the family typically enjoys. List side dishes and dessert as well.
For example, tacos, refried beans, nacho chips, ice cream. Or another menu might be spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, salad and fruit.
The more menus, the better.
The next section is the “weekly plan.” One day or night a week, spend 10 minutes to decide on the weekly menu plan. If your family is a busy one, do the planning with the calendar handy.
Before making out a plan and subsequent grocery list, check the refrigerator and freezer to see what’s on hand.
The next section of the meal planner is paramount. Behind the “emergency meal” section, list menus consisting of ingredients typically on hand. For example, pasta, canned fruit, frozen vegetables, garlic bread (the frozen variety).
The point of this section is to save you from ordering takeout and/or allowing a free-for-all in the kitchen, which in my household usually meant some unhealthy choices.
As with all the sections in the planner, when you think of other menus, simply add them to the lists.
The last two sections of the meal planner are really for recipe organization.
When you try a recipe and like it, stash it behind the “keepers” section.
When you print an interesting recipe off the Internet, or clip one from the newspaper or a magazine, stick in behind the “to try” section.
Once the meal planner is organized, you’ll wonder how you functioned without it. I also use mine to organize dinner parties and large holiday meals.
Many grandmothers tell me this is also an excellent system to preserve all of those family heirloom recipes.
Even if making my meal planner seems like too much trouble, I would encourage you to make dining together as a family a priority. There is something so important about reconnecting and breaking bread together.
Now that three of our children are grown and on their own, it’s particularly meaningful when we are all together for dinner.
And now I no longer have to tell people to take their elbows off the table or to chew with their mouths closed.
Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.