How to Plan Family Dinner

04/05/2012 11:11 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2012

Last weekend I was in my friend Nina's bright, airy kitchen, taking in the expansive view of the Hudson River out the back window, when she motioned me over to the kitchen table. "Please sit down," she said. In front of me, there was a small pile of cookbooks, some old Gourmet magazines, and a well-loved, yellowed recipe booklet that once belonged to her grandmother. Nina handed me a pad of paper and a pencil. She took a seat next to me and said, "I feel like maybe I should be lying on a couch."

Her 10-year-old came bounding into the kitchen and thanked me -- unprompted! -- for the meal Andy cooked for him at our house the night before. We laughed. We talked about last night. He left and she turned to me again, a serious look on her face.

"OK, Nina," I said. " What seems to be the problem?"

She took a deep breath. "I just can't get organized when it comes to grocery shopping," she said. "I really need help."

Because of my line of "work," I seem to land myself in these kinds of dinner heart-to-hearts all the time. I imagine my friend Kate, a psychologist and the world's best listener, helping her friends through stress and anxiety and deeply personal issues, offering them comforting advice with phrases like "that's normalizing." Not me. My patients' issues -- at least as they present themselves to me -- tend to center more on pork chops and grocery lists. Last year, at pick-up, a mother of three approached me and said "I get angry -- really angry, when my kids say they don't like the food I've spent time cooking for them." She paused then added, "Sometimes I have to get up and walk away from the table." About a gazillion times a month I hear this complaint: "We eat the same things week after week. I can't seem to break out of the rut!" Last year, after a book talk I gave at a local school, a mother asked me: "What do you do if you don't know how to make sauce?"

But of all the issues that can face a dinner-maker -- no time, no skills, no inspiration, no help with the cooking -- Nina has the big one down: Family dinner is the house default mode. She and her husband (who both work from home) and their two kids sit down to a meal together every night.

"What are you so worried about?!" I told her. "That's the hardest part to nail!"

She didn't quite see it that way. "I guess. But I never have a plan when I go shopping," she told me. "I never seem to have what I need to improvise." She led me to her pantry and, Vanna-White-style, swept her arm across the shelves. There were three full bags of Panko breadcrumbs, about a dozen bags of pecans, but no evidence of canned tomato products or rice or chicken broth or things that I think of as my typical pantry staples. Nina told me she hits the supermarket once a week for the kids' school lunch and breakfast staples, but on that shop doesn't ever think about dinner ingredients. "Honestly," she told me, "I don't really think about dinner until the moment I'm standing in front of my refrigerator at 6:00."

I had a sudden urge to rewrite the first line of Anna Karenina: Every unhappy family dinner-maker is unhappy in his or her own way. But instead I started scribbling some strategies that I wanted her to put into play immediately.

Strategy 1: Think about dinner before you have to make it. It's not exactly breaking news, but if the goal is to make dinner something to look forward to -- as opposed to one more task in between "pay taxes" and "schedule root canal" on the to-do list -- you need to plan ahead. And planning ahead comes in all shapes and sizes. It means on Sunday, you look at the schedule for the upcoming week to determine which nights are going to be home-cooked meal nights and which ones are going to be store-bought dinner nights. (And which ones are going to be Moo Shu pork in front of American Idol.) It means on a Monday or Tuesday morning taking two minutes to ask yourself: What can my 8:00 AM self do to help my 6:00 PM self? Marinate something. Chop something. At the very least, decide on something. Get the momentum going.

Strategy 2: Try something new once a week. Nina's kids eat almost any meat and love salmon, but they don't love things mixed together, and could use some help expanding their vegetable repertoires. We looked in my upcoming book for some salmon recipes that were familiar to the boys, but different enough to feel like she was busting a rut. We also looked for interesting ways to upgrade the vegetables so the grown-ups could get a little more joy out of the steamed broccoli. I always feel like the trick to trying something new is to introduce it gradually -- and preferably when there's something else on the plate that is universally loved and embraced.

Strategy 3: Give yourself at least one From-the-Freezer night. Whether it's thawing something homemade or chucking in the store-bought default dinner you picked up at Trader Joe's. Nina's go-to in this situation is Trader Joe's Mandarin Chicken. (Note to self: That stuff looks goood.) Don't put pressure on yourself to cook something from scratch every night of the week. I don't have to remind Nina, a sustainability consultant, that the name of the game is to create a sustainable dinner system.

Strategy 4: Be your own sous chef. Make something on the weekend (or at least a Sunday dinner) that can carry over to one meal during the week. It doesn't even have to be a bolognese -- though that would be nice. Even a five-minute homemade salad dressing will end up yielding some seriously happy dividends.

Strategy 5: Go out on Thursday or Friday night. No matter what your dinner issues are, you've earned it.

For a downloadable PDF of Nina's weekly meal plan (with shopping list) please go to Dinner: A Love Story.