By Claire Tansey
Do you ever feel like you make the same six meals over and over again? Me too. But when it comes time to decide what’s for dinner, we’re usually tired and hungry—not the best frame of mind for creative ideas! And so, faced with this and general decision fatigue after a long day, we go back to our tried-and-trues and just make “the usual”.
The trouble is that we also get tired of the same-old, same-old!
It turns out that there are five common roadblocks in between the average person and dinner: no time to cook, no groceries on hand, not having the right equipment, not having consensus about dinner (due to dietary restrictions, picky eaters, different schedules, etc) and the one that always catches me by surprise, not having an idea for what to make.
You would think, with gazillions of recipes at our fingertips, that coming up with an idea would be the easy part. Alas, despite all the suggestions from cookbooks, blogs, tasty videos, Pinterest and more, choosing one thing to make tonight is actually really tough.
So how can we make dinner exciting again without adding stress to our days?
It’s easy—it just takes a little forethought. Yes, I’m talking about meal planning. Before you throw something at me, know that I used to hate meal planning! But it really is the best, fastest way to de-stress dinner. And there’s good news: There are five different types of meal planner.
The five types are:
- The Classic, who happily schedules a week or two of meals and follows that plan to the letter.
- The Camper, who assigns a theme to every night of the week, like Taco Tuesdays and Vegan Thursdays etc.
- The Batcher, who spends a weekend day prepping and stocking the fridge and freezer with meals for the week.
- The Semi, who just pencils in three or four meals for the week.
- The Wingnut, who keeps the pantry well-stocked but otherwise flies by the seat of their pants!
I’m a Semi with flashes of Camper and Batcher. What are you?
Meal planning makes breaking out of a dinner “rut” so much easier. Once you settle on your best system for planning, simply incorporate some new recipes. I recommend two to four new recipes per month: more and you’ll get overwhelmed, less and you’re not making progress.
And how to choose these new dishes? My favourite way is to sit down with my family and three or four cookbooks. Everyone can flag recipes that look and sound appealing, then you decide together which ones to work into the plan. This also makes everyone feel like they’re contributing, which often solves lots of “picky eating” issues—bonus!
I’m also a big fan of doubling a batch of one thing (like cooked and seasoned taco beef), freezing half and then using it in two different ways—burritos one week and fully-loaded nachos the next. Sure, it’s the same taco meat, but using it in different ways makes it feel exciting again. We do the same with steak: I always grill twice as much as we need for one meal, then transform the leftovers into a sweet and sour Thai salad or beef -fried rice.
Finally, it’s important to remember that, especially during these topsy-turvy pandemic times, making the same few recipes over and over again is totally acceptable! When I was growing up, we lived on a two-week rotation of meals that included pan-fried pork chops, spaghetti, meatloaf and a strange mish-mash dish called Spanish rice. If that makes life easier for you (and no one is complaining too loudly), stick with it. The most important thing is to enjoy dinner time with your family, no matter what’s on your plate.
Modern Sloppy Joes
Sloppy Joes are easy, inexpensive, fast and loved by almost everyone.
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) canola oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 lb (500 g) lean ground beef
- 24 oz (680 mL) jar tomato passata
- 19 oz (540 mL) can lentils, rinsed and drained
- 1 1/2 cups (375 mL) beef broth
- 5 1/2 oz (156 mL) can tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) Worcestershire sauce
- 4 large buns, toasted
- Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan over medium. Add the onion, celery and salt and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the beef, increase the heat to high and cook with out stirring for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the beef becomes golden on the bottom. Stir well, breaking up the beef into little bits, then add the passata, lentils, beef broth, tomato paste and brown sugar.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until the mixture thickens a bit. Stir n the Worcestershire sauce. Serve on toasted buns.
Make it Ahead: Make the beef and lentil mixture, then cool completely and pack into a large freezer bag. Flatten the bag to remove the air. Freeze up to 2 months. To use, thaw overnight in the fridge, then simmer until piping hot.