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Family Meal Planning for Real Life

This story was originally published on July 31, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

Once upon a time, I got to cook whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. My husband and I would sleep in on a Saturday, laze around, get hungry and then decide to pick up ingredients for dinner based on the last thing that had looked good on TV or in a magazine or cookbook. If it came out a little too salty or spicy or overcooked or ended up taking forever and we tucked into dinner at 10 p.m., it didn’t matter because — surprise — we didn’t have kids yet. I rather like the two I have now, and I’m not hoping for a do-over, but it’s hard not to look back at that era with a glowy, rose-tinted filter over it. Having kids has a spectacular way of both increasing the amount of cooking required of you and reducing the chance that what you’re cooking is the thing you wanted to eat.

What’s more, dinner generally needs to be prepared quickly at the end of a workday capped off by a commute, preschool and day care pickups, and errands. This situation leads to a family full of extremely hungry, extremely exhausted people clamoring for dinner in a small window of time, and lacking the reserves to take the high road about it not being the exact thing they want to eat at that moment. Or in TL;DR terms: My kids are having a tantrum because I put out “green broccoli” (steamed) and they wanted “brown broccoli” (roasted).

I am not here to lecture you about cooking homemade meals for your family. I staunchly believe that if on-the-fly cooking or takeout or meal kits are working for you, that is fantastic; please keep on doing that. Further, if you have kids who are naturally inclined to eat all the food you crave, no matter how green or spicy or new to them, please enjoy your lottery winnings — or, perhaps, consider distributing them to the rest of us.

[Related: “If food is love, my kids must hate me.”]

But if you’re someone who wishes you were getting some meal-planning done on the weekend to better arm yourself for a busy week ahead but feel daunted by it, let me tell you a few things that have worked for me, a lady who runs a cooking website for a living:

It can come from websites, cookbooks, magazines, friends, message boards, wherever. I didn’t say, “Find a recipe your kids might, with some bribery, agree to eat,” or “Find a recipe that can be made in the six minutes you have when you get home before everyone collapses into a hangry meltdown.” This is purely aspirational. It’s extremely hard to motivate yourself to cook something if it’s not a dish you genuinely want to eat. Focus first on your cravings. Be a tiny bit (gasp!) selfish.

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