Tips for Weeknight Dinner Planning

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Fork and plate

What’s for dinner? Is there a question more stressful at 5:30PM on a Monday night?

Here is the formula I use everyday for figuring out, “what’s for dinner?”;

Protein + Vegetables + Extras


My dinners focus on healthy sources of protein; meat, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, or dairy. I prepare meals based on what I find fresh at the markets and what I have stocked in my kitchen. I am not advocating a high protein diet – make sure to include plenty of healthy fats in all your meals.

  • Keep a well stocked kitchen. This is what I routinely store based on what my family prefers;
    • Freezer: ground beef, London broil and other cuts of meat, marrow bones, chicken breast, whole chicken, chicken bones, chicken liver, lamb chops (special treat), sausages (nitrate-free), wild salmon and other fish fillets.
    • Refrigerator: fresh fish, herrings, gravlax (store-bought or homemade), eggs, yogurt, cheese, cream, butter, ghee, deli-meat (nitrate-free).
    • Pantry: canned tuna, salmon, and sardines, jarred anchovies, coconut milk, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, olive oil, sesame oil.
  • Take a few minutes when cleaning up dinner to prepare for the next night.  Place freezer items in the refrigerator to defrost, wash or chop vegetables, soak grains, nuts or seeds, marinate meats, etc…
  • Stock easy to defrost options for hectic days. Chicken breasts, turkey cutlets, and ground meat all defrost in an hour or two in a cold water bath.
  • Keep a list of meals that your family enjoys divided by categories. These are meals I repeat at my house divided by categories;
    • Meat: meatballs, hamburgers, seared london broil, grilled lamb chops, pasta bolognese, tacos, and stir-fries.
    • Poultry: rotisserie chicken, chicken soup, curried chicken salad, and oven-roasted turkey breast.
    • Fish: pan-fried, steamed, roasted, or seared with butter/coconut oil and herbs or with special sauces (time permitting), ceviche, and sushi.
    • Dairy: risotto, homemade sourdough pizza, quiches, and lasagna (made with rice pasta).
  • Try new recipes, ingredients, and techniques but save more complex ones for the weekends when you are not so rushed or stressed to get dinner on the table.
  • Organize recipes in a binder or a recipe management computer program to keep track of recipes you want to try and those that were successful.


  • Choose fresh, local, seasonal, and organic produce when you can.
  • Serve vegetables with healthy fats for maximum nutrient absorption.
  • Prepare a mix of raw, cooked, and fermented vegetables. Most nights I serve a salad, raw cut up veggies, and a cooked vegetable side dish.
  • Prepare what your family likes but expose them often to new vegetables.
  • Vegetable options;
    • Raw: lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, celery, avocado, cucumbers, red/green peppers, fennel, and red onions.
    • Cooked: grilled, steamed, pan-fried, or roasted broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, asparagus, spinach, chard, kale, zucchini, squash, sweet potato fries, and cauliflower rice.
    • Fermented: pickles, sauerkraut, fermented beets or other vegetables.
    • Dressings: Caesar salad, ginger-cumin dressing, or a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper.
  • Stock onions, garlic, ginger, lemons, limes, olives, capers, fresh herbs, and spices to flavor your dishes.
  • Stock frozen vegetables for days you are low on fresh produce.


My “extras” are dishes and sauces that enhance the meal, but can be skipped if pressed for time. Though some dinners the sides may be an integral part of the meal, like spaghetti (gluten-free) and meatballs, often they distract from more nutritious offerings. Sauces can enhance the meal’s nutrition by providing healthy fats. Elaborate desserts are reserved for weekends and holidays, but I do offer low-sugar options a few times a week.

  • Side dishes: oven-baked rice, roasted potatoes, buckwheat noodles, lentils, risotto, rice pasta and quinoa.
  • Stock pantry items like mustard, naturally fermented soy sauces, capers, tomato paste, and anchovies to create dressings, marinades, and sauces.

Have a Backup Plan

Life happens, have backup plans – “dinner in five minutes” types of plan – like when the President is in town and your 20 minute ride home takes two hours, or your child’s friend sleeping over wants another dinner at 10PM.

  • Cook extra when possible and use leftovers creatively for a second meal but freeze them before they go bad (make sure to label with date and description).
  • Keep a list of last minute dinner options and try to always have the ingredients stocked.
  • My backup plans (when I don’t have leftovers): crispy pizza (on gluten-free tortillas I always keep in the freezer), tuna/salmon salad (canned fish are always in my pantry), grilled cheese sandwiches, yogurt/raw milk with nutty granola, and other breakfast for dinner choices.
  • Have a running shopping list in your kitchen and as soon as you are running low on something add it to the list so you’re never out of kitchen staples. A well-stocked kitchen makes last minute dinners feasible.

Weekly and Monthly Menu Planning

“There are only two things required for good cooking: great ingredients and just enough technique to tweak them into a tasty meal.”  Amelia Saltzman, author of The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook.

Some families strive on structured menu planning. It’s also helpful for beginner cooks, those starting special diets, or those wanting extra guidance to prepare healthy meals without having to figure it all out on their own.

If weekly or monthly menu planning is what you are looking for, I recommend the following;

  • Jenny at Nourished Kitchen offers Simple Dinners/Healthy Meal Plans. The plan comes with three full dinner menus per week, plus a soup, dessert, and ferment of the week. (Suitable for gluten-grain free and dairy free diets).
  • Cara at Health Home and Happiness provides Grain Free Meal Plans, especially helpful for those on special diets. Her plan includes menus for 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, plus snacks with shopping lists.

How do you plan your weekday dinners? What are some of your go-to meals for hectic days? What challenges do you face getting healthy meals on your table? What recipes would you like to see on Real Food Digest?

This post is linked to Kelly the Kitchen Kop | Real Food Wednesday.

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 For entertaining, Mark Bittman created a Dinner Party Matrix to simplify what can be a stressful endeavor.

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