If you have a family to feed, I cannot extol the virtues of planning meals ahead enough. I know this is easy for some of you….you are planners by nature. This sort of thing maybe even excites you a little. You can make dinners on a weekend, freeze portions ahead of time and pull little packages out during the week: Turkey Chili, anyone? Cheese Enchiladas? Beef Stew? I personally don’t have the foresight or the freezer space to take meal-planning that far.

But getting a list of dinner ideas together on Sunday night is a very, very good thing indeed (to quote Martha). I find it is the only way to feed your family a variety of interesting meals while not driving yourself crazy with the 5 o’clock panic. You don’t have to plan anything fancy and don’t feel pressure to come up with new things all the time (unless that is what makes you happy). Plenty of moms I know do the “Taco Tuesday” and “Friday Pizza Night” thing. The point is, think ahead, shop ahead, and meals will be more enjoyable to prepare and to eat. On my blog, I try to post “Meal Planning Monday” each week. I find this keeps me on track.

I’ll admit I was reluctant to switch over to this sort of cooking. Before kids, I prided myself on living (what I thought was, anyway) a very European lifestyle: shopping almost each day for fresh foods and cooking spontaneously. And that, my friends, is a fine way to live, should you have all sorts of time on your hands and no dependents to take care of. I am guessing that is not your situation if you are reading Design Mom, however.

I’m not going to give you a list of menu items and recipes (even though I am tempted!), because each family is different in their tastes. You know what you like and what your family will eat. But I will share one idea with you. We could eat salads almost every night in our house, and I know that’s true for many of my friends and their families. The trick is to, again, plan ahead so that you have the makings of a fresh and interesting salad at your fingertips. So, I recommend buying the lettuces you like and washing and drying them for the week. Just wrap the clean leaves in paper towels and store in plastic bags. Then (and this is the important part), make a good homemade dressing or two (it really makes a big difference!), and maybe even some croutons.

Herbed Buttermilk Dressing
from The Gourmet Cookbook

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
½ c. mayonnaise
2 T. olive oil
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
2 T. chopped fresh chives
1 T. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. It will keep, covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. But it will be gone before then. Trust me.

Parmesan Balsamic Vinaigrette
from The Gourmet Cookbook

This is my son’s favorite dressing. He calls it “the brown dressing.” Not very appetizing-sounding, I realize…. He will dip just about anything in it, which is handy for getting him to eat his veggies.

1 garlic clove
½ t. salt
2 T. balsamic vinegar
1 t. fresh lemon juice
3 T. minced fresh basil (optional)
¼ c. finely grated parmesan cheese
¼ t. freshly-ground black pepper
½ c. olive oil

Using a large heavy knife, mince and mash garlic to a paste with salt. Whisk garlic paste with vinegar, lemon juice, basil, cheese and pepper in a bowl. Add oil in a slow stream, whisking until well blended. Add more salt and pepper to taste. This will keep for a week or more covered in the refrigerator.

Homemade croutons are super easy and much tastier and cheaper that buying them at the store.

Cube or tear day-old bread into small pieces. You can use a nice crusty European-style loaf, but honestly, if you use the Honey Wheat Sandwich Bread from Trader Joe’s (or something similar), that will taste great too.

Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. (You can get fancy with herbs or parmesan cheese or such, but it really isn’t necessary.) Bake in a 400 degree pre-heated oven for about 10 or 15 minutes (or until slightly crisp and golden). Give the croutons a stir or two while they are baking.

Let cool completely before tossing with your salad. Store the cooled leftovers in a zip-top bag.