Yesterday’s post on the relative feat that is family dinner seems to have started a larger discussion (hooray!  Nothing a blogger likes better than discussion); both on the comments board and in my inbox, personal Facebook account, etc., people are asking questions.  Two examples:

How are you able to cook almost every night while working? I try to rely a lot on the crock pot and cooking large batches on the weekend as my DD is starving by the time we walk through the door during the week.

I’d love to hear how you do it on a weekday – is everything prepared ahead of time? That’s been working fairly well for us (preparing all the week’s meals on Sunday), but kind of falls apart when we have a Sunday committment (sic) or go out of town for the weekend…

Time to deconstruct the art of the weeknight meal, with a few disclaimers.  First, let me say that as always, I can only speak about what works in our house.  Our kids are still young, my husband and I work full-time but in an office close to our home, and we get home by 5:45 at the latest on most weeknights, so that all may help to put in context the big picture of weeknight cooking and eating in our home.  I’m well aware that for many families, the commute may be longer; the kids may be older and have more evening commitments; there are homework assignments and so forth to be tackled…. The list of reasons why family dinners can be challenging is endless, but I choose to continue to believe that we can all find ways to make the family dinner more possible.

That being said: Plan, plan, plan.  And plan some more.  And plan wisely.  I haven’t gone deeply into the art of the monthly meal plan, really — in some ways, it is so much an intuitive process for me at this point that it can be hard to articulate how I do it.  But I have to try, because planning well is the cornerstone of how we pull off weeknight meals.  Both of the commenters I quoted above allude to crock pot cooking and/or cooking things ahead of time; while I sometimes do these things, I wouldn’t say they are crucial to our family dinner success.

When I sit down to plan, I keep my calendar handy.  Step one is filling in Fridays, because I know they’re always fend nights.  Step two is writing “slow cooker” on every Tuesday of the month — because I have to be back out the door by 6:45 on Tuesday evenings to get to choral rehearsals, it’s the one night when slow cooker dinners are absolutely necessary.  I fill those meals in first, because while there are a number of things one can make in the slow cooker, my repertoire of recipes using that piece of equipment is smaller than the rest of my arsenal, so deciding on four slow cooker meals for the month is a manageable step.

After I do those things, I match the calendar against the meal planning page and write in any unusual conflicts that might require me to adjust our meals accordingly, like evening rehearsals or concerts; special days like birthdays and anniversaries; out-of-town guests; or late-day therapy appointments for L.  I then deal with planning the meals for those days immediately, while my brain is still fresh to the task and I’m feeling energetic.

All that remains, after those steps are completed, is the run-of-the-mill planning.  I keep a few things in mind:
Mondays usually mean more time to cook after work, because the kids are with J.’s folks that day and there’s no daycare pickup.  I can plan something on a Monday that takes up to an hour to prepare, if I want to.
Wednesdays are usually hectic, for no good reason at all.  They’re also a day when I often find the need to replenish our stock of good lunch options for the boys.  Things like pizzas and big salad platters and hearty sandwich nights work well here.
Thursdays tend to be good nights for either fish or pasta; fish because I can often make a run to the seafood market at lunchtime on a Thursday, and pasta because it’s quick and easy, which is appreciated late in the week.
Saturdays are my day to have fun in the kitchen.  I might try something ethnic, or something simple and a little less fussy, like a nacho or quesadilla bar.  The sky’s the limit, too, on Saturdays, because we’ll have done all our shopping Friday night or Saturday morning and thus I’ll have tons of ingredients on hand to work with.
Sundays are generally devoted to either a leisurely traditional Italian dish, like a baked pasta, or an old-school roast, like my Roast Chicken or a pork loin.  I cling firmly to my memories of what Sunday dinners used to be at my grandmother’s table, and J.’s recollections of family affairs with his Italian great-aunt at the helm; I want to recreate those things as much as I can for our boys.  We hold Sunday dinners sacred.

The other considerations are balance — too much chicken?  Too many pasta dishes? — and time.  Most of the things I make can truly be prepared, start to finish, in 45 minutes or less.  It’s rare that I’ll experiment too heavily on a weeknight.  I need to come to the stove or the prep counter knowing how to make what I’m making, and knowing how much time it takes.

However, as I consider all of this, I realize that there are some strategies I should list that help shore up the plan so that it (almost) always works.  In no particular order:
1) Keep fruit and frozen vegetables on hand at all times for a five-minute side dish substitution.
2) When you make rice, cous cous, or potatoes, you may want to make a double batch.  The extras can go into lunches or round out another weeknight meal, if need be.
3) Always make extra marinara sauce and keep it in the fridge or freezer.  Always.
4) Have in mind a fall-back position for true dinner emergencies that does not involve take-out, then make sure you keep the necessary items on hand.  For us, the fall-back positions are grilled cheese sandwiches or quesadillas, or a quick round of pancakes or eggs.  In any of those cases, we serve up some fruit alongside and consider it good to go.

Yes, there are certain things I may make ahead of time; last night, after the boys went to bed, I mixed up some pizza dough so it could rise and be ready for tonight’s meal (and that extra marinara sauce I mentioned?  It’s hanging around from Sunday’s eggplant, ready to be pressed into service).  Last week I made a double batch of cornbread over the weekend, half of which went into stuffing, and the other half of which was wrapped well and saved for a weeknight side.  But in general, I do believe that weeknight cooking is possible, and good meals are salvageable, if you know what to make, how to make it, and you have the ingredients on hand.  That’s it.

No big secrets, I’m afraid, but a small, further glimpse into the method behind the madness, perhaps?  What works for me is laying out the big picture, then taking things day by day and meal by meal, so our whole week doesn’t get derailed by an unexpectedly long and wonderful trip to the park that ate up weekend cooking time, or a Wednesday evening scheduling/traffic snafu that waylaid us and meant we didn’t get in the door until 6 p.m. or later.  It’s amazing, I find, how having a good foundation can provide me with the freedom to be flexible as needed.  Now.  There may be more questions than answers, after this post.  Ask away.  This week, I’m devoting the blog to what you want to know.