Something happens after you turn 40. Well, a lot happens, much of which I won’t go into now, but one thing that I have noticed now that I’m 43 is that I think about time so much more than I used to.
Once you get up on top of that 40 hill, you can see clearly. You were climbing, climbing, climbing for the first four decades of your life, and now you’re up on top looking out over everything and going, wow, this is amazing! My life is pretty awesome! I still feel good (hopefully)! And I’m not clawing my way up this mountain trying to prove myself anymore. I’m here. I’m enough. And I have perspective. I can see ahead of me and behind me. I can use the tools that got me here to keep getting better and stronger and driving forward. But not because I’m hustling for others’ approval, because I now can see what’s important, what I care about most.
I love being in my 40s. I’ll take the gray hairs and the weird lines on my neck and creaky knees if it means I can have that mountaintop view of life. No contest.
I’m not nearly as concerned with appearance or external success as I used to be, but what I am a tiny bit obsessed with now is time and how I use it. I now see time as a finite thing. I of course knew that before I turned 40, but now I feel it. I hear it like a jungle drum beating constantly in the distance. There is only so much time to do the things I want to do, and it makes me hyper-aware of what I’m doing with each minute.
So what does this have to do with meal planning? I thought there were going to be recipes, you’re saying to yourself.
Planning a month of meals at a time saves me time. Not just a few hours here and there, but exponential amounts of time. That’s time that I can use to train for a marathon, write a novel, garden, volunteer at school, be a good friend, sister, aunt, wife, daughter, mom. You know, big stuff from my life list that is way more fun and important than going to the grocery store.
Also meal planning saves us money. Since I started sticking to a meal plan, I only go to the grocery store once a week. (Every time you walk into the grocery store, you buy more than just what you came for, so staying away as much as possible means you spend less.) But the big way we save money is by not eating out. We can easily blow $50 feeding our family of 5 by eating out. And that’s fine if it’s a treat that we are all excited to enjoy. But if we spend that kind of money just because I forgot for the third time in a week that I can’t drive and make dinner at the same time…then that is not a treat. That just hurts.
But really my main motivator is saving time. I want hungry people to be fed, family dinners to be a priority, and I refuse to spend hours upon hours making this happen every week.
So before I reveal my arsenal of dinners, I have a few tips:
Tip #1: Use Google sheets to create your meal plan, then add your grocery lists as additional tabs at the bottom of your sheet.
You can see in the screenshot below I have created a Google sheet with my dinners plugged into a calendar. Then, at the bottom of my meal spreadsheet calendar thing, I have different tabs for each week’s grocery list. This is where things get really nerdy and amazing. I can just re-use these grocery lists each week for the rest of my life if I want to. Or I can copy and paste and tweak them if I want to change up the rotation a bit. And I can always see and edit them, because I can access my Google drive from my phone. OMG, I know.
Here’s my week 1 grocery list. It includes stuff other than just what I need for dinners obviously. I needed cilantro twice apparently. But only once did I need it to be capitalized.
Tip #2: Add your meals to your digital calendar.
Once you’ve got the above setup, you can add your dinners to your Google calendar or whatever calendar you use. This will help you see that, oops, Back to School night is on Tuesday and it’s not a good night for that super complicated recipe you clipped out of Food and Wine magazine.
So without further ado, I am sharing a month’s worth of dinners my whole family will happily eat. I am breaking these dinners up into categories so that you can plug them into your specific schedule. For example, if you know you have a crazy driving day on Wednesdays, pick a meal from the slow-cooker category. You will feel like a genius when you roll into your driveway at 6:30 with a hot meal ready to be dished out to hungry loved ones.
So here’s what’s for dinner at my house this month:
Slow-cooker/Instant Pot Meals
- Spaghetti with meat sauce: Brown 1 lb ground beef and 1 lb ground mild italian sausage. Drain fat. Add 3 cloves of chopped garlic and cook with ground meat for 30 seconds. Add half a cup of wine (any wine or no wine is fine) and cook until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Add 24-oz jar of Rao’s marinara sauce + 1 8 0z can of (unseasoned) tomato sauce + 1 tablespoon of Italian seasoning + tablespoon of sugar + salt and pepper to taste. Let everything simmer for as long as you have. Add water if sauce seems too thick. Serve with pasta and any veggie your kids will eat!
- Lasagna (Make extra spaghetti sauce and freeze half for lasagna night. Woo! I use whatever recipe comes on the box of lasagna noodles.)
- Chicken and dumplings (Make your own stock with a whole chicken or use a rotisserie chicken with store-bought stock. You are your own boss!) I have concocted what I believe to be the perfect chicken and dumplings recipe. Sorry, I need to figure out how to share recipes on WordPress. Once I do that I will share that in another post. Stay tuned!
Sheet Pan Dinners
- Sausage with Roasted Vegetables: slice up your favorite sausage (I like Pederson’s), add chunks of red onion, and veggies, toss with olive oil and salt and pepper and roast for 20ish minutes on 425.
- Sheet Pan Meatballs with Crispy Turmeric Chickpeas
Dinners You Can Make With Your Eyes Closed*
- Crispy Tacos=ground beef + Old El Paso seasoning + Crispy taco shells + fixings
- Fish Tacos=frozen battered fish fillets + southwestern salad in a bag + tortillas + fixings
- Grilled Chicken=I actually make this in a pan, not on the grill. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and season salt on the chicken. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter to the pan. Cook on medium high heat on both sides until done. For extra thick chicken breasts, consider cutting them in half lengthwise to make them thinner. Better seasoning to chicken ratio that way. And they’ll cook faster.
- BBQ Chicken=See above method for grilled chicken but add barbecue sauce to chicken at the end and throw it in a 425 degree oven to let it caramelize a little.
- Homemade Pizza**=buy a ball of fresh dough from a pizza place near you and flip and toss it around like you made that thing yourself. Or make it yourself using this recipe that is super easy, but just takes some time for the dough to rise. For anyone still reading this, you are awesome, and please know that an envelope of yeast is equal to 2 and 1/4 teaspoons.
- Baked potato night. The potato is your canvas. Get creative. Expert moms have baked potato night after BBQ chicken night and put leftover BBQ chicken on their potatoes. Just sayin.
- Quesadillas=tortilla, cheese, other tortilla. Put them in a pan and melt the cheese. We are a simple folk and don’t need anything else but a little guacamole to make this a meal. But you will likely have extra pulled chicken or pulled pork sitting around at some point, so just think about that. Don’t cook more. Cook smart!
Dinners You Can Outsource. For us Sunday night is usually Daddy-grills night. Yay!
- Grilled hamburgers
- Grilled hotdogs
- Grilled anything. I don’t care because I am not cooking!
Fancy-ish Dinners that Make You Feel Special
- Skillet Cod with Lemon and Capers
- Cashew Chicken
- Pan-Fried Pork Chops
- Teriyaki Salmon and Quinoa Bowl
- Sesame Chicken
- Beef Fajita Tacos
- Parmesan Chicken: I use store-bought Rao’s marinara sauce instead of making my own sauce.
- Grilled Chicken with Mango and Mint Lime Dressing
*Don’t do that. Just saying these are really easy meals.
**We eat pizza once a week, which is how this meal plan stretches to be a month’s worth of dinners.
It’s a little embarrassing how excited my month-long meal plan makes me, but I don’t care. I will shout about my meal plan from the top of my 40-something hill.
This kind of stuff used to seem unimportant, like if I had nothing else to do I might get into meal planning if I felt like it. Now I see how much of an impact doing a little planning can have on the rest of my life. I estimate that I used to spend at least 3-5 hours a week planning what to make for dinner. Between looking online for recipes, making lists, and going to the grocery store multiple times a week, the time really adds up. Now, that I have a system that works, I spend only the time it takes to go to the grocery store one time once a week. The rest is already done. It blows my mind.
How do you get dinner on the table every night? Do you have any tips or tricks that keep the meal train chugging along? Please share!