“Mom, what we havin’ for dinner?” Five words that are totally innocent, a question that is certainly valid, and yet, I admit that at times I feel panic. Or irritation. Or despair.  (I have to feed them again?) Ask any mother of children how much she enjoys preparing for mealtime; nine times out of ten you’ll get an “Ugh!” response.  And that tenth mom? She’s got a personal chef.

But next time, don’t despair. There are several tools available for the mom in need of help at meal time.

Master Your Menu

One of the most helpful tools is having a master menu list.  Starting with breakfast, list five of your family’s favorite morning meals.  You can include the simple and easy choices, like cold cereal or bagels.  Throw in a few more involved favorites, and your short list is done. Many families love syrup breakfasts – which includes anything on which you can pour syrup.  The top choice is French toast, with waffles as a close second. Of course, eggs and toast is an option that many enjoy as well.

Your lunch list can include sandwiches, pasta, ramen, or a favorite many kids: English muffin pizzas. Rotating through your lists keeps variety in your menu, and you’ll soon learn what ingredients you need to keep on hand so that you can easily choose from your master breakfast or lunch list.

Dinner gets a little more complicated, but it becomes easier to plan when you break it down into parts. Dinner typically includes a protein, a carbohydrate side dish, and a vegetable.  While protein options are rather varied, frequent choices can include chicken, ground beef, or beans.  Three popular main side dishes are potatoes, rice and pasta, and these can be prepared in many different ways.  When you tire of these – choose bread, in the form of yeast rolls, corn muffins, or grilled flat bread. A vegetable selection can be as simple as carrot sticks and cucumber rounds, or you can go beyond that with a full salad, or frozen vegetables steamed to perfection. When you are ready to prepare dinner, choose one protein option, then select a carb side dish and vegetable that will complement your main dish.

Turn to the Digital Experts

Technology is on your side in the meal planning efforts. Here are just a few of my faves. Allrecipes.com has thousands of recipes, covering a wide variety of food choices. One aspect particularly helpful to meal planning is the Ingredient Search. You can enter in the ingredients you have on hand (ground beef, tomatoes, and cheddar, anyone?) and Allrecipes will come up with recipes containing those ingredients.

Food on the Table is a new addition to the food app market, allowing users access to local sales. This enables app users to plan a weekly menu around the sales at the grocery store.  You’re probably already buying groceries based on what’s on sale; why not get suggestions on recipes to use those ingredients?

Another web site favorite is the Smitten Kitchen blog, written by Deb Perelman.  This New York mother of a toddler provides delicious food that even a picky two year old will eat.  The blog provides step by step instructions for her offerings, including gorgeous photographs followed by a recipe. Her sense of humor makes looking for great recipes that much easier, and the end result is food that will get you a thumbs up.

Meal time need not raise your stress level.  You’ve got kids to help with that already. Set aside 10 minutes at the beginning of your week, and make a plan.  You will be thankful when 5:30 rolls around, and the question comes again.  “Mom, what we havin’ for dinner?” Now, you’ll have an answer.