Three Little Words to Ease Dinnertime Angst

If you’ve spent much time here, you know that meal planning isn’t my strong suit. I often decide what goes on the dinner table round about the time I need to cook dinner. I’m getting better though, thanks in part to a new book by registered dietitian and writer, Maryann Jacobson. What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners grew out of Maryann’s own struggle with meal planning. The book is  chock full of terrific dinnertime solutions, the most fundamental of which she shares in the post below.  

By Maryann Jacobsen
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Even with an internet overflowing with recipes and advice on how to get dinner on the table, I still struggled with family dinners. At least once a week, I called my husband to bring an ingredient home that was missing.  After dinners, my kitchen looked like a bomb hit it. And my weekly meal plan had a meager 50-60 percent success rate, meaning half the time I deviated from it.

Even more frustrating was the fact that very few of the new recipes I made (and I was trying a lot) were sticking. And to add insult to injury, very few lived up to their “simple” and “30-minute meal” claims.

It’s easy to sink into the mindset that perfect family meals are reserved for expert cooks and foodies. With social media and sites like Pinterest, the family-meal bar has been raised with the relentless pursuit to serve perfectly crafted meals. When you throw in picky kids and a packed schedule, the result can be the constant bad feelings that you don’t measure up. Worse yet, is the feeling of dread that can go hand in hand with the six o’clock dinner hour.

I felt all these things and more. I knew it wasn’t right and I started to make some changes. But my “aha moment” came soon enough. A friend of mine used to go on about what a great cook her mom was growing up. When I finally got a chance to talk to her mom, her description of family meals was not at all what I expected.

Instead of tales of elaborate meals, she described how she rotated a set number of very simple dinners. She admitted her struggles with one child a vegetarian and the other a meat lover. But it was the simplicity of her approach that struck me most. She didn’t rely on endless meal ideas and recipes, just a good rotation of meals that worked for her family.

I came home and looked around at my very different approach:

Did I need 30 cookbooks, cooking magazine subscriptions and email recipe updates? (No!)

Was the solution really about finding the perfect recipes? (Heck, no!)

Could it be, all these ideas were getting in the way of figuring out the type of family dinners I want? (Yes!).

Everything about parenting today is more. We volunteer in our kids’ schools more, we bring more snacks to their games, our kids are involved in more activities, we help children do their homework more and we work more. The meal requirements are also more. Not only is nutrition and clean eating on the table, but so are the millions of recipes plastered all over the internet.

This realization comes at a time when I’m rejecting the “more is better” message in almost every aspect of my life. Now we have apps and products to help us keep all this stuff we supposedly need organized. But how much of our time is being used to manage all the stuff? I’ve come to learn that the key to managing time is doing less by developing a laser focus of what matters most.

So I completely revamped how I did dinners. I went through all my cooking resources and kept only what I really used. Instead of trying random recipes, I developed a meal vision for my family table, testing recipes until they became my own. I’ve taken my top recipes and rotate them, making meal planning and preparation super simple.

After all of my searching, it’s hard to believe that the answer to what to cook for dinner lies in just three simple words: 


All anyone needs for successful family dinners is a streamlined list of meals to rotate for good enough variety. None of this means I’ve stopped adding new recipes, but it does mean I’m vowing to keep it simple. 

Maryann Jacobsen is a registered dietitian and creator of the popular blog, Raise Healthy Eaters. She details her meal planning strategy in her latest book: What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners. You can find her book over on Amazon.


03.29.2016 at9:06 AM #

Anne Mullen

I have no kids at home, I don’t work, but I still stress about dinners. I’m not an enthusiastic cook and would probably be happy living on PB&J for simplicity’s sake, but I do have to fix something for my husband. I stress way more than I should about it, so I really appreciate the reminder to keep it simple. A few more simple recipes in the rotation would be good, but I’ve also found that make lots of a more complicated recipe so I can freeze it for later is a help. Thanks as usual, Katie.

03.29.2016 at11:08 AM #


This post was just what I needed to hear! I am definitely buying this book!!

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