Review: Dinner: The Playbook: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal, by Jenny Rosenstrach

I confess … I’m in a dinner rut.


Perhaps you are too.

Our family tends to eat the same meals, every single week. Our repertoire is some variation of Taco Night; Breakfast for Dinner; Soup and Bread (Or Sometimes Salad) Night; Pasta with Sauce; Macaroni and Cheese, and pizza on Friday nights.

Complicating matters are our various dietary requirements and picky tastes:

Me: gluten-free and pescetarian. While the rest of the family tolerates the occasional GF pasta, they really have no interest in converting.

The Husband: a vegetarian who dislikes (but tolerates in small quantities) vegetables, beans, greens, and some fish. If such a thing as a pasta-tarian exists (i.e., a diet that consists mostly of pasta, cheese, and tomato sauce), that’s him.

The Boy:  total carnivore. The more meat on his plate, the better. He’s the one ordering the Meat-Lovers Everything whenever we go out to dinner. Steaks, burgers, chicken – he loves it all.

The Girl: eats white meat and fish, but is strongly leaning towards being a pescetarian, too.

So, yeah, cooking for our crew is no small feat.

I try, though, and generally I succeed. It usually involves a meal with at least one variation. I often say I am going to make more dinners in advance and to plan ahead better. Doing so would help the increasing frustration I feel when it comes to dinnertime.

Dinner The PlaybookWhich is why I was curious about Dinner: The Playbook: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal, by Jenny Rosenstrach.

Rosenstrach, who blogs at Dinner: A Love Story and who has recorded in a Dinner Diary every dinner she has cooked since February 22, 1998, was in a similar dinner rut nearly ten years ago.

“Even though we had built a pretty solid archive of dinners as (childless) kitchen enthusiasts, it suddenly seemed as if all those years had been for naught. Where we’d once approach dinner by asking, ‘What are we in the mood for tonight?’ (or, even more luxuriously, ‘What’s good at the market today?’) now it was, ‘What can we make for the girls tonight that won’t ignite a revolt?'” (pg. xv)

“If you took one look at my dinner diary during that long stretch in 2006, you would notice a lot of one-word meal descriptions:
Cutlets, BURGERS, Pizza
Then the week following:
Cutlets, BURGERS, Pizza

Then …….. BURGERS, Cutlets, Cutlets
Then …….. Pizza, Pizza, BURGERS
Then …….. BURGERS, BURGERS, Cutlets.”

Reading this, I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about my family’s lineup. We’re practically culinary connoisseurs!

Rosenstrach set out on a mission to make 30 new dinners in one month. Most of these included familiar ingredients that her family enjoyed, but there were new elements as well.  The project was, obviously, successful – hence, the blog and the books. She also implemented several strategies, which I was interested in – because, frankly, I’ve read a lot of these types of cookbooks and after awhile, they do tend to give the same “tips” and “hints.”

That said, I’m a firm believer that what works for one family is not going to work for another. For example, there’s no way in hell that the four of us are doing the grocery shopping TOGETHER. (Rule #4 in The Playbook.) You want to talk recipe for disaster? Grocery Shopping As a Family means end times for us. We had to do it for a month out of necessity – when I was recuperating from gall bladder surgery last year – and if we have to do so again, I’m convinced my family will not eat.

What I can do is “gather my recipes” (also known as Step 3 in the book, selecting 30 recipes for my family to try within a month). Out of all the cookbooks I have and all the newspaper and magazine clippings, there’s plenty to pick from – even with our four respective food peculiarities. The caveat for our family is that there will have to be some predictability in there; this can’t be a month of surprises. And again, like the grocery shopping, I’m flyin’ solo. The Husband and I delegated the food preparation and all things thereof to me when we got married nearly 22 years ago and nobody’s interested in changing things up now. (And yes, I’ve tried to enlist the kids’ participation in selecting menus, in shopping, in cooking. They don’t give a damn. They just want to eat.)

Speaking of the kids, what I have tried with resounding success is Rule #6 “Memorize the Phrase ‘I Don’t Know Yet.'”

“You know how your kids are hardwired to ask you what’s for dinner every night? It seems like an innocent question, but trust me, it has the potential to make or break your entire evening. If you tell them what you are cooking, and if what you are cooking sounds remotely weird (and anything brand new is bound to), then your kid has a good thirty to sixty minutes to ruminate about how weird it truly is.  A good thirty to sixty minutes to figure out a way to complain and beg for pizza. A good thirty to sixty minutes to start dreading his dinner instead of looking forward to it.

“That’s why a key strategy in your playbook is the “I Don’t Know Yet” move.”

Now this – THIS is brilliant. This seems to be having some limited success in our house. I’m going to continue this practice, for sure. Other tips I’m planning to try: assembling the non-perishable ingredients on the counter before leaving for work, prepping for the week on the weekend (I always say I’m going to do this, but don’t), and a “kitchen dump” (i.e., looking through what’s left of the produce and vegetables at week’s end to see what can be pureed, frozen, added to soups, etc.)

Rosenstrach provides her reader with several meal plans (My Idea of a Perfect Week; Flexitarian; Winter Warm-Your-Bones; Family Faves) as well as two recipe collections (Go To Weeknight Meals and Keep the Spark Alive Dinners).  These aren’t meant to add to our already-existing to-try recipes, but rather to provide inspiration.  Most of them won’t work for our family, but there are a few that will.

As I said, that’s how I approach most cookbooks. I think the key is about flexibility and making dinnertime work in a way that’s enjoyable and easy for you.  Getting there takes some practice and some planning. Dinner: The Playbook offers practical advice with a side of humor that makes you feel that indeed, the daily family dinner challenge can be something even the most frustrated of cooks can (most days) count as a win.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Dinner: The Playbook: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal, by Jenny Rosenstrach

  1. Trish

    After just finishing and LOVING Dinner A Love Story I’ve been curious about this one. When I browsed the meals, though, I didn’t see anything that jumped out at me. My crew eats fairly widely, but not THAT wildly. I think I might pick this one up just for the meal planning advice. Though I hate when my husband goes grocery shopping with me. Much more junk in the cart, much more money out of my wallet.

  2. Diane (bookchickdi)

    This is such an interesting and thoughtful post. When our children were young, I used to have New Menu Week once a quarter. I would try seven new recipes and we would usually end up with three good ones, which added up to a dozen good quality new meals each year to add to the rotation.

  3. Beth F

    I really liked this cookbook/memoir. What I got out of it was meal planning. Yes, from the 1970s until 2014, even though I was the primary cook (as a single, with boyfriends, and then married) I never planned. I also never really stressed about it and I also rarely repeated a meal. But finally a few months ago I decided to give this idea of planning a try. Weeeeellllll, here’s what I discovered: we are saving money, we are wasting less food, and I’m fun trying a lot of new recipes.

    I’m fortunate because I have help with the shopping but have full control over the meals. What I make, he eats.

  4. Laurie C

    This sounds good but the bulk of the everyday dinner meal preparation falls on my husband (who works from home) so I guess I’m lucky that way and don’t have to plan out all the meals. Although we don’t have exactly the same preferences in the amount of meat we want to eat, it tends to work out OK, so I can decide that I want to try something different and make a meal on the weekend or one night during the week, without having to come up with a weekly game plan like this. I think a book like this would work in a household like yours where one person has the job of preparing all the meals. I hope others do the dishes, though! That’s what I like best about preparing the meal — not having to do the clean-up! 😉

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