I was recently commiserating with a friend about how stressful dinner can be. (Neither of us even have children yet!) Amy works during the day and then comes home to prepare a meal for her husband Justin, who doesn’t care for leftovers, and her grandma, who prefers to not have Mexican often (even though Mexican is one of Amy and Justin’s favorite cuisines). If Amy gets home on time she has forty-five minutes to prepare and serve a meal before her husband leaves for a class. Trying new recipes is difficult because she has limited time — plus, it’s easier for her to stick to foods she knows her husband and grandma will eat.
For me, dinner is stressful when I don’t have sufficient time or energy to pull something together. I enjoy cooking and trying new things, but not seven nights a week! I used to feel guilty when my husband Andy would ask what we were having for dinner and I’d say, “I don’t know.” I even felt like I was being a bad Christian, because like many Christian women, I compare myself to the seemingly perfect “Proverbs 31 woman.” That woman would never serve her family frozen French fries… right?
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that there is no wrong or right way to handle dinnertime. The important thing isn’t preparing a three-course meal every night — it’s providing nourishment for your family and creating an atmosphere of togetherness.
Letting go of your ideal dinner routine
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself I’d make a new meal every night for seven nights, or how many cookbooks I’ve dreamed of conquering Julie & Julia style. I love the idea of constantly trying new recipes and whipping up fancy meals, but we like leftovers and often times Andy will ask me to make the same kind of meal three times in one month. I was able to let go of dinner guilt when I realized that the pressure I felt over preparing meals each night was put on entirely by me, not by God or my husband.
If your family is content with how things are, maybe you don’t have to change a thing! Or, if you do have dinner goals, make sure they are attainable. One of the most recent aims in the Rennie house is to have healthful dinners. We might eat out a night or two, but at least we know our dinners at home will be balanced and nutritious. It might take time to establish a practical routine that everyone is comfortable with, but the result is worth the effort.
Make a plan
The most obvious solution to combating dinner stress is to have a plan of attack. For many women, meal planning is the answer. This method involves thinking ahead, whether you plan meals for a week, a month or even a year. It’s a helpful method not only because it takes the guesswork out of what to eat, but also because it provides opportunities to plan meals around items you already have as well as items you might be purchasing for another meal that week. Some families even install one night a week where they eat the same food, such as Taco Tuesdays or Pizza Fridays.
But meal planning isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The thought of sitting down and planning meals for a week can be intimidating to someone who doesn’t have a variety of meals programmed in her mind to pick from, or who might not feel comfortable trying a bunch of new recipes. Don’t knock it until you try it, though, because you’ll never become familiar with making new meals if you don’t ever try them!
I’ve found that I don’t always have to write down a meal plan in order to be prepared, though I do use that method now and then. Instead, I mentally map out the week and pick at least one or two meals that I want to make a big batch of, and then I let what is already in my fridge and pantry determine what we eat the rest of the week.
More than meal planning, I believe the secret to stress-free dinners is keeping a well-stocked kitchen. For me, that means having all or most of the ingredients for our favorite meals as well as items that make for quick and easy dinners (tuna + cheese + bread = tuna melts). Easy dinners are a great way to take the pressure off of dinnertime.
Embrace the easy
It’s easy to feel intimidated about cooking when you eat at a friend’s house and they pull together an incredible meal that leaves you jealously asking for the recipe. Just like I struggle with comparing myself to the woman described in Proverbs 31. I also struggle with comparing myself to my friends, who I might think are “better” wives than me because they seem to cook more often.
I remember feeling so relieved when my other married friends admitted that cooking isn’t something they want or love to do 365 days a year. Imagine the weight that lifted when I learned that like me, they also occasionally serve grilled cheese and tomato soup to their husbands!
No one is perfect, so why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect in the kitchen?
Breakfast for dinner is a much-loved easy option, but what about lunch for dinner? Dinner at my house might be grilled meat and cheese sandwiches with apple slices and chips, or a platter of hummus, raw veggies and pita. We’re programmed to think that dinner means meat, a green vegetable and a starch, but dinner can be anything you want it to be. If your family adores Thanksgiving, why not make a turkey and side dishes other nights of the year? Sometimes I catch myself not making something because I’ll determine that it’s a “winter-y” dish, therefore I must wait until winter to make it. That’s silly! We should cook what we love to eat.
Practice honesty and humility
Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes the stress we feel over dinnertime is put on by our own personal expectations of how we think dinner should be. We can become prideful, whether we think of ourselves as the next Top Chef or we think so negatively that we get stuck in a pit of insecurity and dread. Guard yourself against such thoughts!
My friend Amy’s honesty over her struggle with dinnertime has helped me to become more open about my own “embarrassing” cooking secrets (tuna melts aren’t exactly a fancy entrée). We can talk about what works and what doesn’t work for us without feeling guilty or judged by each other.
We can become so absorbed in how we think things should be done that we aren’t willing to admit that a different method might work better. The more honest and humble we are with our friends and family, the more opportunities we have to learn new routines and recipes to try! We also learn that everyone has a secret, whether it’s a pantry stocked with Ramen or a freezer full of frozen lasagnas.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of my friends asked her husband to cook one night a week. Another friend does a meal swap with her sister where they each cook two big meals a week and share all the food. My mom is always willing to send me home with something, whether it’s a bag of potatoes or a container of chicken soup.
I’ll be honest — I still get stressed out now and then around dinnertime. That stress can always be attributed to something that I have control over, though, which means we CAN change how dinner preparation affects our heart rate! I either need to give myself more time, pick a less time-consuming meal, use ingredients I have on hand instead of dashing to the store last minute, or acknowledge that I simply can’t pull something together and it’s going to be take out for dinner.
I’m learning to show myself grace. My ability to put a meal on the table every night is not what makes my family, friends or God love me.
So, friends, my new dinner goals are simple: serve food, whether it’s tuna or roast chicken, and serve it with a humble heart.
Laura Rennie lives in Maryland with her hilarious husband and constantly shedding dog. She loves reading, writing and playing word games. Her greatest desire is to share Jesus through her words and actions as she learns how to be a better wife, daughter, sister and friend.