I Created A Meal Rotation Schedule To End The What's-For-Dinner Nightmare

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
kid feeding mother with cooking food in the kitchen

“Mom, what’s for dinner tonight?” one of my kids asks. Her other siblings overhear her and then chime in the exact same question. The truth is that once again it’s four in the afternoon, and I have zero motivation to make anything. Despite the fact that my kids have just finished their after-school snack, one that rivals a football player’s post-game meal, they want to know what chow is coming their way next.

The what-are-we-eating-for-dinner cycle was vicious. Hungry kids are whiny kids, and scrambling to come up with a semi-healthy and filling meal for them every night was frustrating. With six people, we have different dietary needs and strong preferences on what we do and don’t like. I felt like I was always trying to complete a puzzle that never had all its pieces—one that would inevitably get jumbled up every night when I started to near completion.

When I did take the time to make a nutritious meal, there were always at least two people who complained. They didn’t like pasta, or the sauce was too spicy, or the veggies need more flavor. I couldn’t win. Then their bad moods would turn into terrible table manners and even some food flinging.

My husband and I tried to do a mass meal prep on Sunday afternoons that some of the Pinterest gurus swore by. We’d arrive home from church, the kids would watch a movie or play, and we would buy groceries, prep all the ingredients, and cook four meals that would be readily available during the week. I envisioned that we’d wear aprons, sip wine, and listen to jazz while tag-teaming the tasks of chopping and simmering. First, that rom-com scene never happened. Second, this was unsustainable. We were exhausted on Sundays. Spending four or five hours cooking was miserable.

We attempted to jump on the freezer meals bandwagon. The problem? We kept forgetting to properly label the meals and unthaw them in time for dinner. We wound up with soggy containers of God-knows-what. Yes, we contemplated getting an Instant Pot. However, the last thing I wanted was another trendy kitchen appliance that wound up costing a few hundred bucks and then served as nothing more than countertop decoration. No, thanks.

Something had to change, but I wasn’t sure what that would look like and how it would work out, considering all of our previous failures. My Pinterest searches turned up nothing but ridiculously elaborate meal planning and execution that not even Martha Stewart could carry out in real life. I mean, sure, we could take our family to grab fast food, but that gets very expensive very quickly.

One day, I opened a rarely-used kitchen cabinet to find cookbooks and recipes I’d torn out of magazines over the years. I purged every book and paper that I knew the kids wouldn’t eat (which, yes, was basically everything). Sure, veggie lasagna with homemade pasta sounds amazing, but I’m not a chef. Then there’s the kid with the dairy sensitivity. Oh, and I don’t even like pasta. I knew I needed to be realistic. Plus, I couldn’t pronounce some of the ingredients in the saved recipes, nor did I own a garlic press. I’m not that fancy.

I narrowed down the recipes to just five. They were mostly favorite soups that could easily be paired with cornbread. Then I started researching recipes online. I needed our meals to meet several dietary restrictions including no dairy, no tree nuts, no gluten, and preferably no meat. (I know, we’re a real fun bunch.) I picked out several new meals for us to try, and then I got to work on creating a recipe calendar. I alternate types of meals, so we aren’t eating tacos and chicken tortilla soup back-to-back, for example. Variety is the spice of life, right?

Making a meal rotation schedule has made my life a lot easier. I’ve taken 15 meals that my entire family will eat, typed them into a Word table, and then follow the schedule. That’s it. I couldn’t believe how simple it was once I narrowed down the recipes. We had enough different meals that we didn’t get bored, and the food was pre-approved so we weren’t wasting anything.

I worked some super easy meals into the schedule for the sake of my own sanity. For example, one night we have scrambled eggs or Cajun salmon, baked fries, and a frozen veggie. Friday nights are always reserved for frozen pizza. I make double or triple batches of soups and chilis and store them in the freezer. During even-busier-than-usual weeks, I can throw a frozen cube of veggie chili in the Crock Pot in the morning and go about my day.

The most popular meals I make for my family are buffet-style rice bowls. I make organic brown rice, and we either have a Mexican or Asian buffet bowl with each person choosing which veggies, proteins, and sauces they want to add in. We also make gluten-free pasta and mix in jarred tomato sauce, chopped broccoli, crumbled tofu, and sliced black olives. The perk to these is that they make for easy lunches the next day.

I know that so many parents struggle to make sure they can feed their family on a budget, make the meals nutritious and filling, and avoid any food allergens. Mostly, none of us want to — or can — spend hours in the kitchen each night, whipping up a meal our family will probably not appreciate. Who has time for that?

After school is absolute mayhem in our home between basketball practice, music lessons, and homework. The last thing I want to mess with is figuring out what to make for dinner. It has taken us 11 years to get to the point where we aren’t scrambling at dinner time and then entertaining thirty minutes of complaints over the texture of the roast. Like many parents, I refuse to become a short-order cook. The meal rotation schedule has redeemed me from wanting to cancel dinner forever.

Yes, creating a successful schedule has taken some time, but the up-front work has saved me from stressing out every single afternoon. Plus, my kids can no longer tell me they don’t like what I’ve made, since they’ve each given the meals their stamp of approval.

Less time in the kitchen has meant more time for the things we have to do each evening, but also the things I want to do. Like eat from my secret chocolate stash while binging the latest on Netflix.

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