I write a lot about dinner for several reasons. One, I like to eat. Two, I love my family and treasure spending time with them. Three, it’s the best time of the day to relax, reconnect, de-stress and enjoy preparing something healthy together.

Meals on the run are not only bad for your health, they’re also terrible for your family relationships and they will kill your budget. If you have more than one night a week where the family can’t have dinner together, you need to say no to some outside stuff.

(And if you’re single, that’s no reason to ignore dinner. Honor yourself and feed your body and your soul well. You’re worth it!)

Some people have told me they don’t have time to cook dinner, or that they just hate to cook, or that planning ahead is too complicated. Well, you have to eat, so you might as well eat healthy.

And while you may never love spending two hours over a stove, 95 percent of the dinner ideas I post are meals that can be prepped in five minutes or less and cooked in 20 minutes or less, less time than it takes to run out for fast food or a grocery store rotisserie chicken, or for the pizza guy to arrive. And taking one hour once a month to plan your meals will eliminate all those wasted moments standing in front of the pantry or fridge wondering what’s for dinner.

So get over it. 🙂

Invest one day a month to plan your menus, buy your ingredients and prep your kitchen. Yes, you’ll likely spend a whole day doing it, but you’ll reap the benefits of that investment every evening when you relax with your family and enjoy a simple, healthy dinner together. Plus, you’ll save hundreds of dollars a month and countless hours by not going to the store so much.

Here are some tips:

1. On the last weekend of the month, deep-clean the kitchen including the pantry and refrigerator. It’s no fun to stock fresh food in a cluttered pantry or dirty fridge. Throw out any old food and wipe down all shelves. Group like things together and be careful not to stack anything too high. Keep healthy snacks within kids’ reach.

2. Pre-wash, cut and chop fruits and veggies. Make it easy for you and your family to make healthier choices every day by having healthy snacks and side-dish options at the ready.

The French have a term for this – mise en place, it means “everything in place,” and is the French practice of getting everything ready before cooking actually begins. Think about it: if you need 1/4 cup of chopped onion for a recipe, how much longer does it take to just chop the whole onion? Really no time at all.

This is how my counter looked Sunday afternoon. Pretty fabulous, no? Starting at the oranges at the top left corner and going clockwise we have:

-fresh oranges

-washed and ready-to-eat grapes

-washed baby carrots

-shredded broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and carrots (for Asian chopped salad)

– washed and prepped Spring mix salad

– fruit salad (mangoes, grapes, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries, etc.)

– sliced squash and zucchini

– diced white onions

-sliced mushrooms

– washed and sliced celery

– fresh asparagus

– diced Roma tomatoes

– more Spring mix salad

– chopped red onions

– washed and diced strawberries

How easy do you think it is to make sure we’re eating plenty of fruits and veggies? And I know what you pessimists are thinking: food doesn’t last as long once it’s washed and cut. True, but on a busy weeknight, there’s about a 95 percent chance you’ll be too tired / lazy to wash, chop and slice, and therefore a 95 percent chance you won’t eat fresh fruits and veggies. There’s a 100 percent chance we will be eating healthy, and I almost never, ever have to throw out uneaten produce that’s gone bad.

3. Keep an eye on the menu two to three days out. If you see pot roast on the menu for Friday, the meat needs to come out of the freezer for thawing no later than Wednesday. Think ahead. You can also prep many of your main dishes a day or two before you plan to cook them in order to save time. I thawed this chicken on Saturday afternoon, prepped it with seasonings including garlic and onions, salt and pepper, then let it sit in the fridge overnight before popping it in the oven for an easy Sunday dinner.

4. Go for color. White food is the enemy! Try to serve as many different colors of fruits and veggies as you can at every meal. Avoid white bread, white rice, potatoes and heavily processed foods. Avoid canned stuff and go for fresh or at least frozen.

Here’s one of my favorite veggie dishes: pour about a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan, add about 1/3 cup water, chopped onions and baby carrots. Cook until carrots are tender, then add sliced squash and zucchini and place fresh asparagus on top. Add more water if needed. Let remaining veggies steam about five minutes and serve hot.

5. Don’t offer a plan B. The dinner menu at our house is take it or leave it, with a few rare exceptions. Each kid should get a couple of things that they just don’t like and I don’t believe in forcing it on them. But those should be rare exceptions. (Brussels sprouts are cruelty!)

For example, Kendall just doesn’t like stir-fries. I’ve tried every possible combination, but it doesn’t appeal to him. I don’t fight it. I ask him to try a couple of bites but then I do allow him to go make himself a peanut butter sandwich and have a banana. But this is a kid who drinks milk by the gallon and eats fruit and broccoli by the pound, so why fight him on stir-fries?

6. Don’t allow your kids to be picky eaters. We all have things we don’t like (see number five) and that’s okay. But I feel ill when I see parents overly indulge their kids’ food preferences. If we left our children to their own devices, they would likely eat nothing but chicken nuggets, pizza and mac & cheese. If you never introduce new foods and strongly encourage variety, they will grow up to be picky adults.

7. Talk! Have fun. Laugh. Relax. Regardless of what kind of day I’ve had, I make it a point to chill out and be ready to focus on them by the time we sit down to eat. (And about two percent of the time I’m still tense and irritable, but I’ll fake it. Hey, I’m human.)

What are your tips? How do you make dinner special? And how do you make it easier for yourself?

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