10 meal planning tips from Sandi Richard

The Food Network Canada host and mother of seven shares her secrets for getting dinner on the table

Chatelaine and the CBC asked 1,000 people about their dinner-making habits. Only 11 percent make a weekly menu plan, 39 percent start thinking about dinner the morning of, and 35 percent don’t start thinking about dinner until they are looking in the fridge at dinner time. This sounds familiar to Food Network Canada host and meal planning expert Sandi Richard – she’s been helping families fix dinner for over 20 years. Richard lists her top 10 tips for getting homecooked food on the table in no time:

Don’t change yet!
“This is the first thing listed at the top of each of my recipes. When we get in the door after a day’s work we want to change before doing anything else. I always joke there’s a direct relationship between the fabric in sweats and not making dinner. First take out the ingredients, commit to the meal and maybe even get started. It may sound counterintuitive to cook in your nice work attire but buy a full length apron or change once you’ve started. At that point you’re not going to give up on dinner.”

What’s for dinner?
“Families say the biggest obstacle to getting dinner on the table is thinking about what to have. One person (with input from the family) should list the week’s five dinner recipes at the top of a grocery list. These are sourced from recipe books and websites, etc. Neatly transfer all the ingredients from the five recipes to a master grocery list (as if you have no groceries in the house). Put this list in a plastic sheet cover then check off the ingredients you already have with washable marker. Now you have a complete list of outstanding items you need to buy for five dinner meals.”

Time yourself
“Use a timer other than the one on your oven or microwave and time yourself. This is probably the tip that I get the most feedback on and it got me through raising seven kids. For parents especially, you set the timer before you prep (my recipe preps don’t exceed 20 minutes). When children inevitably start to ask questions, you simply say ‘I’m yours as soon as that timer rings.’ It sets boundaries.”

Sharpen up
“A good veggie knife and a good meat knife are necessities. They’re an investment in your health. We’ll buy the $50 face cream to make sure we don’t wrinkle but we feel like it’s a luxury to spend money on good quality knives even though we’re cooking dinner everyday. The funny thing is – if you have dull knives you’ll get frustrated, you’ll feel like it’s a chore and you’re less likely to enjoy the process.”

Stop guessing
“So many people don’t feel confident cooking foods like ground beef or fish because of their insecurity. People tend to buy things like boxes of preformed hamburgers because they’re at a certain depth and they feel safe. A digital instant-read thermometer will take the guesswork out. Within seconds of being inserted it’ll read the internal temperature of your dinner so it’ll cook perfectly.”

Don’t overschedule yourself!
“We always suggest families plan five dinners a week – not seven. Let’s admit we’re going to go out once a week, we’re going to make something easy like grilled cheese and soup or we’re going to have leftovers and there’s nothing wrong with that. Never prep the night before unless it’s five minutes or less. You can take out the recipe and defrost your dinner but don’t go too far beyond that.”

Get the kids involved
“Get the kids cooking once a week and don’t feel bad about it. We see a nation of guilty parents that say, ‘But my kids are in basketball and hockey and they study so hard.’ Get them involved in choosing the recipes for dinner and ask them to cook dinner once a week. You’re not overloading them but giving them a great legacy. It’s so crucial to give them the gift of independence, self-esteem and knowing how to take care of themselves. They’ll take those skills with them and be healthier too.”

Grocery lists
“Shop once a week. You’ll notice that grocery store flyers go in a rotation. For example, beef will be their big feature sale one week and chicken the next. Pick up a couple extra packs on sale if you know it’s something you use regularly. Otheriwise, be very clear on what you’re purchasing to ensure you have groceries in the house for five meals. If you don’t have a list, you’ll probably end up with slimey vegetables at the bottom of the fridge drawer.”To print a blank grocery list, check out Sandi’s website.

Lunch-snack ready
“Have an off-limits bin in the pantry to store lunch snacks. That takes the pressure off parents for having to replenish food in the work week. Families should also keep a small plastic bin in the fridge with packages of things like cheese, enchiladas or pizza. Teens will eat at school more if they have a hassle-free lunch. Make two pizzas for dinner and freeze one for lunch on-the-go. Wrap a slice in two coffee filters (the unbleached ones). The filters serve as a plate and are easily recycled.”

Measure up
“I always hear: ‘I know how to bake but I don’t know how to cook.” I believe with baking we have permission to do 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, etc. We know it’s a science and there’s permission to measure everything. When it comes to cooking, unfortunately, if you’re not a chef you can’t do a splash here and a splash there. You won’t know what flavours go together. That’s why it’s wonderful to use measuring cups and spoons when cooking. Over time, you’ll become familiar with what ingredients work together in what quantities.”