by Debra Caffrey

Just because I love cooking doesn’t mean I always enjoy meal planning. Even though I’ve managed to cultivate lots of habits to make the process of planning meals for my family easier, it can be a tedious task to complete, especially since it’s never ending! I don’t mean to complain about planning meals. It’s probably the number one thing you can do to save money at the grocery store and stay organized in the kitchen. But sometimes we can all get into dinner ruts, no matter how creative and diverse we aim to be. It’s challenging to come up with a different meal every night while also dealing with schedules and various dietary needs and preferences within the family. And while it’s important not to become a short order cook in your own home, nor indulge picky eaters, I think it’s respectful to honor certain needs and choices within reason.

So what’s a meal-planning mom to do? May I introduce my absolute favorite way to take the pressure off of planning dinner for everyone? Enter the Dinner Grazing Table!

The grazing table is a down-to-earth, relaxed, large spread of various food items that offers enough choices to appeal to and feed everyone. (Think: buffet table on a smaller and more casual scale.) Grazing tables have become a trendy concept for catering, parties and other foodie-friendly entertainment experiences, but why should all the fun be reserved for formal events? I’ve recently started smaller grazing tables for dinner at home and let me tell you … it’s a game changer!

So what makes this concept so awesome? In order to ease the pressure of meal planning, first you need to loosen up your idea of what constitutes a meal to serve your family. I used to struggle with this as I continued to meal plan a protein, vegetable and starch to serve traditionally on dinner plates for my family members. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t have to be so exact every night. Nowadays, families are reaping the relaxed benefits of make-your-own Taco Tuesdays and similar construct yourself type dishes. A family grazing table is similar. Prepare a bunch of diverse, yet simple, items. Then arrange and spread them out in the kitchen, hand out some plates, and let your family go to town!

You can display your spread buffet style on the countertop or leave everything right in the middle of the table for everyone. When you keep the ingredients simple, it takes the pressure off of you; most of the spread can be more assembly than cooking or technique! A sharable spread for dinner gives picky eaters the freedom to select more independently and takes away the chore of checking what everyone’s eating. Kids love choices, right? A grazing table slashes time and expedites the clean-up process, and it also welcomes a more relaxed atmosphere where conversation and family bonding can be paramount.

Here’s a few “themed” grazing table ideas to get you started. Be creative, but also remember that this kind of weekday dinner is supposed to be easy, relaxed and free of lots of technique and pressure. Play around with the idea and I hope you find it as much of a dinner game changer as I have!

Mediterranean Grazing Table:

  • couscous or other whole grain
  • grilled chicken or lamb
  • grilled red onion
  • Tzaziki
  • Kalamata olives
  • greens
  • grape tomatoes
  • cucumbers
  • feta cheese
  • pita bread

Antipasto Grazing Table:

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  • greens
  • Italian breadsticks
  • artichoke hearts
  • tomatoes
  • fresh mozzarella
  • cubed provolone
  • marinated olives
  • pepperoni, salami and other Italian deli meats

Tex-Mex Grazing Table:

  • rice
  • beans
  • guacamole or diced avocado
  • rotisserie chicken or shredded pork
  • shredded Mexican cheese
  • tortilla chips
  • thinly sliced radishes
  • diced tomatoes

Game Day Grazing Table:

  • chicken tenders, nuggets or wings
  • ranch dressing or hummus
  • bleu cheese crumbles
  • celery sticks
  • carrot sticks
  • crackers
  • grapes
  • baked potato wedges
  • crumbled bacon