Let’s be honest, here. Using theme nights to plan dinners sometimes gets a bad rap. In fact, it took me a while to get on board with it. I thought it would be boring or even unhealthy to rotate weekly between pasta night, taco night, casserole night and pizza night. I chatted with a retired friend of mine a while back and she said when she was raising her girls, every Tuesday was ‘no peek chicken’ casserole night. Which is GREAT if your family LOVES that casserole as much as I love burgers. If not, though, then we run into problems.
I take a different approach to theme nights by using them as the base of my meal planning system. Each week, I have a starting point when I sit down to choose which meals we’ll be eating. I used to hate meal planning (I know…WTH?) because each week I would sit down and feel like I was pulling recipe and meal ideas out of thin air. And, because I had so much time on my hands to meal plan (said no mom ever!), I just kept choosing the same go-to recipes, which quickly resulted in dinnertime becoming a pretty uninspired event.
Once I started using theme nights to narrow my choices, though, meal planning became much less of a drag. It became something I looked forward to because I used the various theme nights to add variety to our otherwise boring meals. So, here are 5 ways to adopt a modern-day approach to using theme nights at dinnertime.
1. Use categories, not specific recipes.
Seriously, who wants spaghetti with red sauce EVERY Monday? Even the most exciting meal can get boring week after week. So, I meal plan using general categories of meal types. That spaghetti with red sauce meal fits nicely under the theme of ‘Pasta Night’. So do plenty of other great ‘pasta’ recipes like baked spaghetti squash, pad thai (rice NOODLES!), stuffed shells, and crock pot lasagna. Taco Tuesday is still a staple, for sure, but I use a variety of specific recipes and meal ideas to throw a twist on the regular version. Sure, ‘br-inner’ COULD be eggs, bacon and toast. BUT, it could also be a quiche (great way to empty the fridge!), pancakes, or huevos rancheros.
2. Choose how often you’ll serve each theme.
No need to pick just 7 themes and rotate them over and over again. By using a theme night rotation, you can repeat some themes weekly, and other themes every other week. Maybe you have a TON of variety in your theme nights and want to make a month rotation, featuring 30 different themes. Good on ya! The important thing is that you have a rotation so that when you sit down to choose specific meal ideas and recipes, you have a starting point, not a blank slate of all the meals you’ve ever cooked OR all the recipes on Pinterest.
3. Keep the basics.
As we look at the possibilities of theme nights, let’s not forget the basic, tried-and-true ones. I love having a pasta night and pizza night in our rotation. Pasta night looks different week after week, and pizza night includes a great mix of run of the mill red sauce nights, crazy toppings, calzones, takeout pizza, and going out to dinner. Here are 11 Flatbread and Pizza Recipes to prove it. It all depends on what our week looks like and what we’re interested in eating.
4. AND get creative.
Here’s where the real fun happens. You have my full permission to add in themes that are playful and exciting for YOUR family. Love curry? Throw in an Indian night. Obsessed with your InstantPot? Definitely, include a theme night with all of your IP favorites.
One of my favorite themes is ‘Easy Night’. These meals are always served on Mondays (duh) and can range from a DIY potato bar to grilled sandwiches to a meat and cheese board served with fruit, crackers, and jam.
I recently created a ‘Special Saturdays’ theme to curb us from going out for a mediocre dinner just because we were bored of our weekend meals at home. So now, our ‘Special Saturdays’ theme is chock full of more exciting meals than what we have during the week because…hello. I have more time. Great ideas here are a seafood night where we get shrimp and oysters or crabs when they’re in season or an in-home sushi night.
My friend Kristie over at She Chose Health uses a Takeout Fakeout night, where she recreates some of her family’s favorite takeout dishes. GENIUS! And Dina Rose, PhD and author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, suggests throwing in a ‘Favorites’ night, where you’d serve one family member’s favorite dinner however often you decide. Really, the sky’s the limit.
5. Be flexible.
Not all themes are created equal and, for this approach to work and be fun, you’ll want to embrace this. You are under no obligation to make sure the themes are organized by similar characteristics. Some themes may reflect cooking style—like Grill + BBQ or Slow Cooker Nights while others might reflect the type of cuisine like Asian or Mexican night.
Another way we’ve made theme nights work for us is by grouping some meals and recipes together under a heading that might be totally different from other nights. We have a Miscellaneous category for recipes that I don’t want to ‘forget’. We rarely make casseroles, but I do love a good poppyseed chicken casserole every once in a while. So, I tag as ‘Miscellaneous’ in the bank of recipes I have saved in my Plan to Eat online meal planner and check it every now and again. It’s not even in our rotation, but I can easily choose one of those meals if I start feeling bored.
Hopefully, you’re more open to using theme nights to meal plan and now see them as a tool, and not an acutal meal plan. Post in the comments what YOUR favorite theme night is…I may need to steal it. 🙂
And, if you’re on board with the concept of using theme nights to simplify meal planning but need a little help in creating a simple system that works for your busy family, check out my e-course, What the Fork is for Dinner?
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