Whether you’re a working mom, single dad, parent who works from home or stay at home parent, there’s no doubt that keeping up with day to day responsibilities can be a challenge. With plans constantly in flux due to over-communication and over-scheduling, it’s getting more difficult to stay on top of things like dinner prep. And yet… people have to eat, and nightly take-out isn’t a healthy or cost effective option for most of us.
Are home cooked meals a priority for you despite the pressing demands of life? If it’s your goal to feed your family fresh food as often as possible while saving money and time, then read on for tips on how to plan, shop and prep to ensure that dinner’s on the table almost every night.
Keep shopping lists. Anyone who doesn’t like shopping lists is leaving a huge time saver on the table. We all know the frustrating feeling of coming home from the grocery store to realize you failed to bring home some needed items. (“Darn it! I forgot half and half again!”). It’s worth keeping a running list in a central location like the kitchen, with a pen in easy reach. Family members can jot down items they may want, without having to send random texts at inconvenient times or make requests out loud that are soon forgotten.
Even better… categorize your list. Some excellent planners take the time to type out a shopping list template that’s organized by grocery store department. Include the items you typically buy, such as milk, eggs, bread, meat, or lunch box favorites such as a type of juice box that your children prefer. Then, when it’s time to shop, you can print it out, check off what you need, add extras, and be on your way.
If you’re not a computer person, at least take a few moments to re-write the list that was posted in the kitchen, according to section, i.e. produce first, then deli, then meat, and so forth, according to the physical layout of your favorite grocery store. If you’ve never done this, it may seem excessive at first. But you really will spend a lot less time fumbling around if you get your shopping list in ship-shape.
Plan ahead. Have a general idea of what you’ll be making and serving for the 5-day work week. So if you usually grocery-shop on Monday, you might say to yourself: “Pork is on sale. I can get a roast and cook it in the crock pot. The remains become tacos for Tuesday. Mid-week we can have a vegetarian meal. Thursday is pot luck. Friday, we make homemade pizza.” Then, before you leave, jot down all the items you’ll need to buy to make this happen. Some things, like veggies and sides, can be flexible. But if you have a general idea of how the week’s meals will go, you won’t flounder when it comes time to make dinner.
Utilize frozen sides. Frozen foods are a huge time saver, and even meats come to life pretty quickly thanks to modern conveniences like the microwave. Stock up on your favorite bagged vegetable selections from the frozen foods aisle.
Have one or two “heat and eat” options for a busy night. Chicken nuggets warm up quickly in the toaster oven. Frozen French fries can be baked in less than 20 minutes, with easy tray cleanup after. Buy or make soup, then stash single or double servings in the freezer for use as needed. To thaw soup in a hurry, just run the frozen container under warm water. Then, place in a sauce pan with lid with a bit of water in the bottom, and turn the stove on medium. When the soup begins to liquefy, lower the heat and stir occasionally to break up frozen chunks and get the contents to warm up.
Stock starches in the fridge and freezer. Rice, pasta and whole grain sides such as brown rice noodles make easy grab-and-go selections to cut significant time from dinner prep. For example, if you’re busy and work and thinking ahead to dinner, you can mentally prep for a quick one-pot meal that involves a quick zap of some broccoli in the microwave, a sauté of chicken, and the addition of pre-cooked noodles and sauce which can be added at the end. It takes the same amount of time to cook four cups of rice as twelve. I let the extra cool, put it in zip-close bags and pop them in the freezer.
Plan and shop for a cooking day. This can be a Saturday morning, or any other day when you know you’ll be home. You can make more complicated meals like lasagna, casseroles, meat sauce, pot roast, stew, chili, soup, or something else that would take several hours to prepare and cook. Freeze in single or double portions to thaw and eat on another night.
Clean as you go. This is key. When it comes time to hustle through dinner cooking, you can make easier work of the post-meal clean-up by tackling things as you go. Items like peelers, colanders and boiling pots don’t require much soap to get clean. So you can quickly wipe and rinse them directly after use. After chopping vegetables, wipe the knife on a clean cloth and store back in its proper place immediately (keeps people from cutting themselves, too). Waste not a moment in getting food out of the pan you cooked it in, and running water into the pan to rinse and wipe before things get sticky and stuck. When all’s said and done, you’ll have only dinner plates, serving bowls and utensils to wash.