What’s for dinner?

March 18, 2015

Okay, I tried to dive straight into Post No. 2, but I just can’t.

Thank you so much: for the likes, shares, comments, reads, and whatever else transpired with this page yesterday. Laying in bed last night (listening to my beagle’s hypnotic snoring), I tried to think of another time in my life when I started something new and felt so much support from “my people.”

You know what? Aside from our wedding day, I couldn’t.

My dance teacher from my middle school days is probably twitching somewhere right now because I’ve now used the “c word” (can’t, in case you just got really confused and thought inappropriate thoughts) twice in less than 100 words. I should probably go do some push-ups. But I digress. The point is, I am feeling both lucky and grateful for all the love. The poem “The Author to Her Book” took on a very real meaning for me yesterday, and it’s a relief that, as I let this “child” of mine out into the world, she was received with a warm embrace. 🙂

Much better. Now I can start in earnest!

Isn’t the title of this post just the age-old question? What’s for dinner? I remember this phrase as one of those things we probably didn’t want to ask my mom growing up, especially if she’d had a very long day (which was basically every day). However, my dad, being the human garbage disposal that he is (I come by it honestly), just couldn’t help calling up my mother and asking this very question on his super-awesome Nokia (think this) most days. Hilarity would ensue as we listened to my mom’s sarcastic end of the exchange while happily downing a bag of McDonald’s greasy goodness on the way to dance/gymnastics/soccer/piano/baseball/insert activity here. Side note: I swear that blue Dodge Caravan still smelled like french fries when I inherited it on my sixteenth birthday.

When Mike and I went through premarital counseling last summer, our priest told us that deciding what’s for dinner is one of the biggest sources of arguments and general frustration in people’s marriages. Can you believe that? We laughed. Then we stopped. Then we thought, well, there’s probably something to that. We’re still new to this being married thing, and there’s clearly a learning curve. Apparently little things can become really, really big things!

Here’s our threefold plan of attack against the dinnertime blues:

  1. Weekly Meal Planning and Shopping
  2. The Meal Jar
  3. Cave to Cravings

Step No. 1, Weekly Meal Planning and Shopping, is probably the least glamorous of the three, but we find it the most essential. Pretty much every Saturday morning, Mike coerces me into sitting with him in the office, thumbing through a stack of cookbooks, and knocking out a weekly meal plan and shopping list. Full disclosure: in case you couldn’t tell, this is not my favorite weekly activity (I hide it so well, don’t I?). In the moment, it flat-out sucks to be an indecisive person having to make so many decisions in one sitting, not to mention the fact that it’s basically impossible to know what will sound good on an evening four nights away. Right?! Well, maybe, but only a little bit. In reality, our jobs are decision-making frenzies, and when a crazy Thursday night rolls around, we’re basically just happy to come home from our classrooms with a plan! It’s truly a beautiful thing. Here are the files we use:

Example Meal & Grocery Planner

Blank Meal Planning Template: Pages

Blank Meal Planning Template: Word

Once we fill out our trusty planner and hit “Print”, the rest of this is fairly smooth sailing. We bust out a week’s worth of shopping at Fred Meyer, unpack our groceries, clip the plan to the fridge, and dinner just happens for the rest of the week!

As you can imagine, we rarely eat out; since the meals are already planned and purchased (and we typically rely on the leftovers for the next day’s lunch), it honestly feels pretty wasteful. With that being said, sometimes we just have “those days” — you know, when you come home and all your best-laid plans just don’t feel worth carrying out because you’re just so gosh dang pooped? If you never feel this way, please share your secret with me immediately. Assuming that most of you know what I’m talking about, this is where The Meal Jar comes in!


We have Father Tim to thank for this idea. On our kitchen table, we keep a glass jar full of about 15-20 little squares of card stock. On each square, we wrote a super-quick, super-easy, little-to-no-effort dinner idea. Some of my favorites include breakfast for dinner, fried egg sandwiches, big salad, and a whole litany of my favorite take-out options (Dickey’s BBQ, Jimmy John’s, Noodle Express, etc.). No energy to cook? Draw a card from the meal jar. Don’t think that option sounds yummy? Draw again! Although we consult the meal jar only rarely, it’s freeing just to have the decision-free backup plan if we need it. Organization really does make our lives happier.

Of course, as with any system, I believe balance, flexibility, and realism are key. Cue the super-rebellious option: Cave to Cravings. Sometimes it’s Tuesday, but the Friday dinner sounds so much tastier. Live it up, you rebel, you! Crazier yet, sometimes we jump ship altogether.  Case in point: last night it was cold and rainy, Mike wasn’t feeling so great, and we both really wanted chicken noodle soup. So that’s what we ate, gosh dang it!  I know — we are such crazy kids. Basically, we are married to each other, not our meal plan, and the point is to simplify, not imprison. Zapping the joy of cooking is just about the last thing these foodies would want for you! Don’t forget: planning can lead to freedom, but…

overplanningOkay, time to go snag a piece of leftover pie from Pi Day.

Before I go…

How do you meal plan? What systems do you have in place that make dinnertime a little bit simpler?


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    April 12, 2017 at 11:32 pm Reply
  • Holly McNeil

    I’m in love 🙂 This is wonderful

    March 19, 2015 at 8:32 pm Reply
    • Carolyn

      Holly — it’s so wonderful to hear from you! I’m so glad you’re reading along. I hope you’re doing well!

      March 19, 2015 at 10:04 pm Reply
  • Susan Edwards

    Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a wonderful friend taught a women’s retreat I attended… don’t remember the spiritual lessons, although I am sure they were wonderful, however I remember what she taught about budgeting for the family. She bought groceries once a month (teacher salary), She would plan out her grocery list based on their menu ideas and she would buy all the “fun” stuff…. like chips or extra, or special ingredients. Then she allowed a certain value to “fresh” food needs each week and she would buy milk and fresh fruits and veggies, etc with that allowance. She refused to spend money on the splurges because she had already splurged for the month. I found it so helpful to think by the month since my paycheck was by the month. I loved that splurges were OK but were limited…. controlled freedom saved us so much money! The other thing I learned from this was food needs were taken care of for the month first…. right after the basic bills of life. What was left , was free for extras like a movie, etc. There usually wasn’t much left and if there was more month than money we had our basic food needs covered. There is freedom in planning whether by the month or week!

    March 19, 2015 at 2:46 am Reply
    • Carolyn

      Sue, I also love those tips — teachers definitely have a unique financial situation with the monthly paycheck, and sometimes it’s challenging to manage the amount for such a big chunk of time. Also, there are times when those splurges just feel so good (especially when we’re working extra-hard at school), so I love that she built that in to the plan. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

      March 19, 2015 at 10:08 pm Reply
  • Jessi

    Matt and I follow a very similar plan, but since adding Cora to the mix I shoot for two weeks of planning and shopping at a time bc I know it’s likely something will come up and we won’t make always make it to the grocery store. I can also buy more in bulk then to lower our grocery bill. I love to find ways to use similar ingredients across meals so nothing goes to waste. Case in point: remnants from a big batch of homemade marinara became the base of creamy tomato basil soup this week. But, I love the meal jar and can’t wait to make one! (I type this as we finish eating pizza bc with both of us fighting colds and coming off an all-nighter with the baby, neither cooking nor cleaning up afterwards was a possibility!) love this blog!

    March 19, 2015 at 2:04 am Reply
    • Carolyn

      Jessi, I have often wondered what will happen to our “system” when we throw a baby into the mix someday — it’s reassuring to know that it can still work with some tweaks! I am also so impressed with your ability to make ingredients multitask in your weekly recipes. You just gave me a new goal for our next menu! I’m laughing about your pizza side-note…because we jumped ship on cooking last night for free burritos at Taco del Mar. “Cave to Cravings,” right?

      March 19, 2015 at 10:12 pm Reply

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