How a “Dinner Formula” Changes Meal Planning Forever

How a Dinner Formula Changes Meal Planning Forever

I officially found my goal for the new year: Get a whole lot smarter about meal planning. I was totally inspired by the new book What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners by fellow dietitian blogger Maryann Jacobsen of Raise Healthy Eaters. I’ve been meal planning for a long time, but this book made me realize that I could be doing it better, faster, and easier. If you find yourself stressing out over what to make for dinner, if you can’t seem to get organized enough to plan meals, or if you feel like you have “a million recipes with nothing to cook” as Maryann puts it, this book is for you. Here’s an excerpt that really spoke to me–and it’s full of advice I plan to put in place!

By Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD

Traditional meal planning just wasn’t working for me. While I blamed myself when things went wrong, I can now see decision fatigue as the real culprit. It took a lot of energy to choose five weekly meals out of my big book of recipes. I thought switching to monthly meals would help, but it didn’t (I just procrastinated even more!). I put off meal planning until a few minutes before shopping and often did a quick and sloppy job. Monday and Tuesday were usually good, but by Thursday I had no interest in making the dish I planned. My meal plan had a meager 50–60% success rate.

My turning point came while talking to my friend’s mom about how she did dinner when her kids were little. She described how she rotated a set number of meals: a fish dinner, a vegetarian meal, a meat dish. I decided to create a formula for dinner meals using theme nights. Here’s how it looks:

  • Mondays: Mexican
  • Tuesdays: Italian
  • Wednesdays: Kids’ Choice (hubby works late). It has to be something easy as it provides me with a break from the usual dinner routine.
  • Thursdays: “Square Meals” (protein, veggie, etc.), an ethnic dish or grill night in the summer
  • Fridays: Something easy. I keep it flexible, though. If one of my kids has a late-afternoon activity, dinner is made in the slow cooker, or I choose something that needs little in the way of preparation.
  • Weekend: We eat out Saturday and go to my mother-in-law’s Sunday. I plan a meal just in case that falls through.

One of my blog readers does Mediterranean Mondays, Taco Tuesdays (any Mexican dish), Whatever Wednesdays, Fish Fridays, and Spaghetti Sundays. Your formula should fit you and your cooking style.

For every meal, I brainstorm a side strategy. Basically, these are familiar sides to share at the table to ensure kids have something to eat if they aren’t ready to eat the main entree. Predictable sides mean kids know what to expect, which makes it less stressful when trying something new.

For example, my daughter disliked tacos until she was about seven years old. I kept serving them with liked sides, and now she eats tacos. If you have young kids with plain tastes, over time they will tire of that plain food, their appetites increase, and they gradually partake in more and more meals. A side strategy is vital to this process.

The last part of my formula is to serve meals family-style instead of pre-plating food. Each part of the meal goes on the table in a dish and gets passed around for self-service. I encourage my kids to take each component, but the decision is ultimately theirs.

I took advice from Kay Toomey, pediatric psychologist and developer of the family-centered Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) approach to feeding, and incorporated a learning plate at dinnertime. Basically, the items my children don’t want on their plates go on this small plate next to them so they can learn more about it by touching, looking, or tasting if they want.

I don’t want to give you the impression that mealtime is perfect in my home. I wish! But it is improving a little more every day. When I look back to where I started, the change is significant. My wish for you is that dinnertime becomes your family’s happy place. And, even more importantly, that you never, ever have to agonize over what to cook for dinner again!

Adapted from What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners by Maryann Jacobsen. Copyright © 2015 Maryann Jacobsen

Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and blogger at Raise Healthy Eaters. She is author of What to Cook for Dinner with Kids: How to Simplify, Strategize and Stop Agonizing Over Family Dinners, From Picky to Powerful: The Mindset, Strategies and Know-How You Need to Empower Your Picky Eater and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

Disclosures: I received a free copy of How to Cook Dinner With Kids. This page contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you purchase a product through these links, your cost will be the same but I will receive a small commission to help with operating costs of this blog. Thanks for your support!

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  1. says

    I like the idea of a a formula for menu planning! I plan on 4 meals per week – I find it difficult to cook much more than that – the rest of the nights are leftovers, eating out (usually once) or super simple. I include one vegetarian, one chicken, one seafood and one other (usually beef or pork) main dish, plus simple sides and fruit I know my family likes. We follow the same formula on My Menu Pal as it is what works for us!

    • says

      Ann–I usually leave one meal for leftovers (or “scrounge”) and one night for going out or ordering in. Great to know that you use a formula on My Menu Pal too. It really does help to simplify things.

  2. says

    I’m notoriously bad when it comes to meal planning with a picky husband who often fiends for himself and rotating between butternut squash mac & cheese, frozen veggie burgers, spag & meatballs and pizza just about every week with the 8 year old. Thank you for this post – this is a goal of my for the new year – to expand our meal horizons without the stress!

    • says

      Deanna–I find myself in those ruts too. I’d really love to do exactly what Maryann does in the book and put a “laser focus” on the recipes that work best for me and then create a meal plan that works around those recipes and makes our lives easier. And yes, hopefully without too much stress either!

  3. says

    The weekly menu that has worked best for our family is to alternate dinners with sides and one pot meals (soups and casseroles). This generally gives me a pretty good break between having to cook multiple things and being able to toss every thing and be done with it! I’ve definitely learned the hard way though that while I enjoy trying new things, my family wants to sit down to dinner and actually be able to eat their food haha. Thanks for this post!

  4. mangomama says

    Meatless Mondays; Try Something New Tuesdays, Winner Winner Chicken Dinner Wednesdays, Fish on Fridays, Salad or Soup Saturday, Slow Cooker Sundays…(Thursday is up for grabs 🙂 )


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