By Cathy Haynie

It’s the thing I hear the most. Out of all the home responsibilities, the dinner hour seems to be the biggest challenge for many. Considering busy schedules and the cost of eating out, we are compelled to try harder. To make matters worse for the guilty conscience, we often hear of the difference the dinner hour makes in the lives of children as they grow up and form their own life’s moorings. Here are some ideas—see if you can’t find one or two to help you out.

Find easy recipes. Whether you use a cookbook with a short list of ingredients (try Take Five by local writer, Debbye Dabbs) or pick out your own easiest recipes, cultivate a few quick meals.  This is a common mantra for me, and meals like shrimp fried rice and sausage tortellini are among my list. Ask your friends and peruse your own recipes, but a list of five or so quick meals that your family enjoys can be a difference maker.

Buy a few things for convenience. My easy meals often call for a few convenience foods. Some of my favorites are Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice in the brown rice variety, refrigerated whole wheat cheese tortellini, Jimmie Dean’s turkey sausage crumbles, and even something like a prepared brisket from Sam’s. I have been known to serve refrigerated mashed potatoes or Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese without any complaints at our dinner table.

Establish a freezer inventory. Find a way to get some things in the freezer. One approach is a cooking day, such as that organized for you in the cookbook, Once a Month Cooking, by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg. An easier approach might be to double and freeze every chance you get. Spaghetti, soup, and chili are easy places to start. Helpful habits are keeping a list of what you have on hand and taking meals from your freezer in plenty of time for it to thaw and be heated for serving.

Plan for the week. Taking a little time over the weekend to look at your calendar and your pantry can result in a well thought out plan for the week. After you shop, do a little prep work to get you started and even more committed.

Cook for the week. This one works for someone who enjoys cooking, and has the time on the weekend but not during the week.  Perhaps you could see yourself grilling pork tenderloin while a roast is in the Crock-Pot and chicken is in the oven. I have been known to make a salad or pot of beans to last for more than one meal as a modification of this solution.

Set up menu cards. We often have foods that we always serve together, such as spaghetti, salad, and French bread. Write those menus on an index card, then turn the card over and make the grocery list for that menu. Set up about five of these to help you through busy days—even carry them in your purse to make quick decisions and grocery store runs on busy days.

Make a dinner rotation. Take your menu cards a step further to set up a four-week menu plan complete with grocery lists. This is a more involved planning process, but I do know several who have made this their method for many years.

Set up a few dinner baskets. Designate several plastic containers or baskets in your pantry for a few simple meals. Keep all the staples that you need for a few particular meals, such as tacos, soup, or a favorite casserole. This works best for those meals whose frozen or refrigerated ingredients have a long shelf life and can also be kept on hand. I find a method like this helpful for a busy season, like back-to-school in the fall.

Create some traditions. I use my Crock-Pot most Tuesdays. Saturdays is a great grill night for us. Maybe you will designate a Mexican food Monday or Italian food Tuesday. Take some of the guesswork out of meal planning and designate what kind of food you will prepare on different days.

Involve your family. I like planning a grill night for several reasons, especially because I am not the one cooking! Maybe a teenager could take the reigns one night a week, or at least weekend meal planning and shopping could be a family affair. Give some thought to how your family might help.

The must-do solution. Whether you try any of the other 10, this is probably the most helpful thing you could do to get dinner on the table every night: Make dinner decisions in the morning. If you will commit to your dinner plans early in the morning, you can actually have the meat thawed or make a quick stop by the store earlier in the day. It is a difference maker for me to decide before I leave the house, or even the night before, what I will cook for supper. If I don’t do this, eating out becomes far more tempting.

Pick and choose what new habits might transform the way you look at meal management and the time your family has around the table.

Cathy Haynie and her husband, Jack, have three children and live in Madison. Cathy is the Headmaster of Christ Covenant School in Ridgeland. Contact her at