Conquer the Dinner Drain


In the movie The Grinch, Jim Carrey’s cantankerous character stands atop the blustery Mount Crumpet and considers each name on a list of Whoville citizens, declaring in angst, “Hate, hate, hate. Hate, hate, hate. LOATH ENTIRELY.” There are many times this scene reminds me of popular sentiments regarding household chores—especially dinner.

Why is dinner planning and preparation such a drain for so many families? We know that eating family meals regularly is good for kids. Research shows that kids who eat regular meals with their families perform better in school, have better self-esteem and resilience, are less likely to participate in risky behaviors like substance abuse, develop eating disorders, and experience teen pregnancy. When kids and adults eat home with their family they eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods and less sugar-sweetened beverages and fast foods than kids who do not. Healthier weights are also reported among kids who eat family meals, and when you involving kids in food production and planning, it can give them a sense of ownership and leads to improved eating patterns. These benefits have been shown to extend into young adulthood, even after children leave the home.

So if most of us are aware of the many benefits of family meals, why is it such a struggle to get dinner on the table? Some cite picky eaters, restrictive diets, limited income, and busy schedules as culprits. Another big reason is the repetitive and tiring process of making dinner decisions. Research has shown that making decisions can be mentally tiring, and that our brains have a limited capacity to exercise executive function. With all that is happening in our busy lives, if we wait until the end of each day to plan dinner, make a last minute stop at the grocery store, and then do all of the food preparation, there’s a good chance we will suffer from decision fatigue, as well as physical fatigue. Our mind-maker-uper may be three times too small!

Here are some tips to help you conquer the dinner drain:

  1. Make a master list of meals. This should be list of tried and true entrees your family enjoys. Make it a collaborative activity–each family member will have different favorites to add. To help you brainstorm, organize the list into categories (e.g. meat, ethnicity, etc.) and post it list in a visible place, like on your fridge or inside a kitchen cabinet.
  1. Consider your Schedule. Before you begin assigning meals to days on a calendar, answer these questions:
  • How many days in advance do you want to plan?
  • Which days do you have the most or least amount of time for meal preparation?
  • Who will be home for dinner on the days you are planning?
  • Who will be around to assist in preparation?
  1. Sit Down with a Calendar. Using an electronic calendar, a spreadsheet, a piece of scratch paper, or a planner, start inserting meals from your master list. Start with the main dish, and add sides. Aim to make half your plate fruits and vegetables.  Place low-key options like crock-pot meals on busy days. Consider prep work that could be done ahead of time to simplify things the day-of like thawing meat, cutting vegetables, or grocery shopping, and make a note of these things.  Adding new recipes to a meal plan is a fun way to add variety and interest, but don’t plan more than one new recipe a week. New recipes always take more time to prepare when you’re learning the routine. Too many new recipes can be overwhelming. When you find a new winner, be sure to add it to your master list.
  1. Try It On.  Finding a routine that works for your family may take time. Be prepared to make adjustments and try again. With some old-fashioned elbow grease and stick-to-itiveness, dinner can go from a drain to a delight!

Great dinner resources online:

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Written by Erica Hansen MS, RD, CD

Erica Hansen is a registered dietitian who owns the nutrition consulting company, Foods That Fit. She specializes in working with individuals and organizations to make their health and lifestyle goals fit into real life. She believes that getting back to the basics—preparing good, wholesome foods at home—is the first step to improving health.