A Back-to-School Meal Plan for You

All right people, I’m back. Since last we spoke I have been cranking on work — that vacation I was so wistful for? Those handstands on the beach and dinners on the screened-in porch?  They became distant memories as soon as the iphone photos were auto-flowed into their own Apple album. Closed the book on summer vacation! Gone! To quote one of Pixar’s more brilliant characters, “I never look back, darling, it distracts from The Now.” So what is The Now…now? It’s back-to-school. It’s back to eighty-five pairs of shoes by the front door. Back to forgetting to check backpacks. Back to alarm clocks, school lunch-packing, breathless breakfasts, and…structure. To start the year off right, naturally, I’ve put together a little gift for everyone — me included: A Sunday-to-Thursday weekly dinner plan (plus shopping list — click on link at the end.)  But instead of just, you know, giving it to you, I thought I’d also share the reason why I chose each recipe for each particular night — why pulled chicken on Sunday? Why salad pizza on Wednesday? There is a method to the madness and in the spirit of back-t0-school, I figured you’d want a little lesson plan to go along with the recipes. Here you go and good luck!

Sunday (morning or afternoon)

  • Go food shopping
  • Make a jar of vinaigrette that you can use all week.

Sunday Dinner

Why? So you can make extra BBQ pulled chicken. It freezes well, and is a great thing to have on hand if you have to make a quick serves-one meal for an athlete who needs to eat before or after a game or practice. Or a picky eater who won’t touch whatever it is you are serving. Or a spouse who staggers in late, after everyone has eaten. Alternately: You can freeze the entire thing and have a full dinner for four ready for later in the week. The second half of the cabbage will be used for Tuesday’s dinner.


Why? Never start with something ambitious on Monday. Remember: You are in it for the long game. This is easy, fast, seasonal, and requires a minimal number of pots. In other words, total keeper. Also: Feel free to replace the country ham with bacon — or with olive oil if you want to make it a Meatless Monday. Make twice as much salad as you eat. Save the rest (undressed) in a bag for salad pizza on Wednesday.


Why? It works because it has a lot of overlapping ingredients with the Tofu you’ll have on Thursday, but feels like something else entirely. The only thing you have to worry about is spacing them out well so people don’t get soy-overload. Also, this is extremely light — another reason why it’s nicknamed “redemption salad” — so feel free to round out the meal with a baguette or some noodles.


  • Salad Pizza (add some of the basil you have leftover from Monday night)

Why? It’s quick and healthy and a nice warm-weather pizza. If kids won’t touch a salad pizza, top one half of the pie with pizza sauce and mozzarella for them. (Note: sauce and mozzarella are not included on the attached shopping list.)


Why? I love this meal because it’s totally pantry-driven, so if it works on Thursday, great. If you don’t get to it till next Thursday, that works, too. Obviously the tofu will expire at some point — but unlike meat or fish which comes with use-it-or-lose-it pressure, it gives you a little breathing room. Another reason to make this? It’s so freaking good! If someone protests on the grounds of tofu (as my children still do) heat up that extra bbq pulled chicken from the freezer and slap it on a sandwich.

Go out. Call it in. Eat in the car. Whatever you do, take the night off!

Click here for your meal line-up and shopping list.


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Thank you! This is very helpful.
And, not to sound too much like a fan girl, but I have Time For Dinner on my counter all the time, and it’s been a great help on many nights.


Thank you for this plan and, in particular, for giving the reasons behind each dish. I try to plan what we’re going to eat on a weekly basis but more often than not, my plan is not as streamlined as it good be and we end up getting in all sorts of mess. I’ve been devouring your book over the last couple of weeks as well, it’s destined to become a staple in our household!


@Jess – If you like Time for Dinner, you’ll like Dinner: A Love Story, too! @kathryn – glad to help!


um, i came here this morning to see how you fared with all that post-vacation work (which is THE worst) and i end up getting the most lovely – make my shoulders relax – breathe a sigh of relief present. We started school this week and timing of this could not be more perfect. thank you thank you thank you.


Thank you, Jenny, once again. Every time I am in a cooking slump, your blog or DALS picks me back up. I’m inspired not only by the recipes but also the narrative.

I am trying to be extremely conscientious of processed grains for health reasons love these ideas; do you think whole wheat pasta/pizza would work for Mon and Wed; or do you have another suggestion to modify?


Lucy Mitchell

awesome, thanks. Although before i go shopping i have to figure which movie that quote came from. Mainly because I was so sure I knew all the pixars off by heart. We spent most of the summer saying “top bunk, bottom bunk, kids awake!” As you do.


i have been trying to come up with a plan every week lately, to help me stay focused and on budget. it makes much more sense than my previous toss-things-in-the-cart-with-no-regard-as-to-how-they-will-make-a-complete-dinner shop.


Thank you so much for this! Even though I have a 2 year old that isn’t starting school, this time of year always seems like a reset for everybody and “summer’s over and so is the relaxation1” Even at work, everybody is back from vacay and trying to buckle down. So thank you for this, it came right on time (as usual) and I have both the Time for Dinner and Dinner a Love Story and LOVE both of them! They stay in my kitchen.


Thanks for the menu, it looks great. I have both of your books and have to say Gramma’s Meatball recipe has been added to our fall rotation as as the breaded chicken. I make that so often with many variations that it just doesn’t get old.

Quick question. When is the next book? I remember the poll you posted a while back and I’m really hoping for another book from you. No pressure……. 🙂


@Kristin – 4 out of 5 of these are vegetarian/pescatarian or give suggestions for how to make it meatless. Just replace meal 1 and you’ve got your plan.

Ruthy @ Omeletta

Wow! this is helpful for me, and I don’t even have kids in schools! I love the “why” for each meal- so much more detailed than most meal plans I see nowadays.


I just started reading your blog at the beginning of the summer, and I’m obsessed, I’ve even gone back to read old posts because I cannot get enough. I’m not really a commenter, but I think that good work should be acknowledged. Thanks 🙂


Jenny, this is the best back to school gift ever! Thank you!
Since you mention The List, I must mention workflowy. It is great for The List (and free, and I don’t work for them, I just love it).

Margit Van Schaick

Jenny, what I’d also love to have you write about is ideas on how to celebrate the abundance of harvest in the CSA you said you joined earlier this Summer. Weaving all those great veggies into a weekly meal plan could be very helpful to folks trying to feed their families as healthily as possible.


Oh, boy was your description of the school year so scary and true. This menu plan is genius. And! You’re in Reader’s Digest. They left out my favorite one about effusive gratitude, but I guess they had to “digest” something. You’re my favorite. xox


You are a goddess! Thank you for this. I have and love your book, but I promise to order a few for gifts now!


thank you, thank you!! more please! i’m grateful for your willingness to share your great ideas and help me create healthy/tasty meals while working full time. thanks, again!


Thank you, Jenny! I’m so excited to try this menu plan for back to school!
I refer to my copy of DALS often, and read your blog every day!


I am so grateful for this – I’m keeping a dinner diary, inspired by yours, and this week we’ll be following your meal plan, especially as it’s really easy to customise to non-meat-eating. If you did nothing else this week, you can be pleased with yourself for making my planning that bit easier! And if you did it every week, well let’s just say you could charge for that app.


Thank you, this is wonderful. I love your cookbook, website and I think every one of your recipes that I’ve made. 🙂


“Never start with something ambitious on Monday.” This is where I always go wrong, I jump on Monday’s dinner like a horse out of the gate. No wonder I’m over it all by Wednesday. Thanks for the meal plan and this tip!


Naw! Iris is such a sweetie! I’m new to your blog (first visit) and I am amazed at the quality of content in every post. Such great, accessible recipes and inspiration to make any home cook smile. I do love salsa verde. Love the idea of having kale ‘snuck in’ to delicious dressings like this… nutrition packed in! x

Jules M

Such a great idea for the week. We are working on our back to school / practice schedules & meals. It is going to take some tweaking before we get it right. Love the Friday’s off. My mom cooked every night when I was a kid except for Fridays. Friday was fend for yourself night. Thanks for sharing your ideas.


This just made me cry. Thank you for putting this together because it is exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. Thank you!


I like your blog, recipes, and ideas, but I love Iris most. We have a Violet, a BT who’s just as cute! She’s my granddoggie.


Hi, Jenny.

I had spotted your recipe for Pulled Chicken Sandwiches on the Wednesday Chef blog recently and had tagged it as one to try. (FYI: I am copying parts of the comment I also made on her blog)

I finally got my chance last night. Feeling noble, I made the BBQ sauce myself – the “All-American BBQ Sauce” from the July 2012 issue of Bon Appetit (they used it on their ribs, which were outstanding). I guess I shouldn’t feel too noble – homemade or not, there is a fairly high sugar content in that BBQ sauce, thanks to the Coca-Cola, ketchup and molasses in the recipe. Nonetheless, it is delicious. I made four chicken breasts’ worth. I made do with store-bought coleslaw – a working girl can only do so much, right? But I DID try out the quick-pickled red onion and jalapeno slices on your recipe page.

I wasn’t sure whether hubby and/or I would like it, but it was a huge hit. I don’t think I could eat tons of it at one sitting – it was quite sweet, b/c of our BBQ sauce. But we each scarfed down one slider and shared another. And I couldn’t help but notice hubby used the last bit of his bun to wipe the plate clean.

I put two portions in the freezer; it will be great to pull one out of the freezer on a November day when Vancouver is particularly cold and rainy.

Also, you were right about the red onion and jalapeno – they were terrific, just the right spicy/vinegary hit to counteract the sweetness of the chicken. It was only my second foray into pickling (the other was some pickled red cabbage to accompany Yotam Ottolenghi’s outstanding lamb shwarma). Having done it twice now and finding it both fast AND delicious, I think I’ll be doing it a lot more.