Planning family meals every day can be frustrating, especially if you have to rush home to make dinner, or you have childrearing responsibilities that interfere with meal planning and preparation. Too often, we end up falling back on take-out and convenience foods, which tend to be more expensive and less nourishing than a home-cooked meal.
A decade ago, a common recommendation was to set up your menu a week in advance and cook all day Sunday. Although this is not a bad suggestion, few 21st century families have that kind of consistent free time. What’s more, many women consider cooking another form of work, so devoting one day a week to it would be the last thing they’d want to do. If, like me, you are one of those moms, these suggestions should make it easier to get meals on the table during a rushed week.
- Invest in a slow cooker, preferably one with a removal crock for easier storing and cleaning. I highly recommend “The Fix-It and Forget-It” cookbooks for tasty, easy recipes. Keep in mind that toddlers like to identify what’s in a meal, so you might find that sticking to simple vegetables, potatoes and meat works best for you. There are also excellent recipes on the Internet.
- Cook in quantity and freeze half or more. If you’re making spaghetti sauce, chili or stew, double the recipe and freeze what’s left. This also keeps variety in your menu because you won’t be serving the same thing every day until it’s gone.
- If you are a meat eater, buy it in bulk. It’s less expensive per pound and you can make many meals at one time. We buy 6 pounds of ground beef at one time and from that I make:
two 1-pound meatloaves,
four 4-ounce burgers
chili (1 pound of meat)
tacos (1 pound of meat)
sauce for spaghetti (1 pound of meat)
Everything is wrapped and dated before it goes in the freezer. That’s six meals for a family of four at less than 15 minutes prep time. Precook the meatloaves, chili, taco meat and sauce to make final mealtime prep even faster! Thaw it in the refrigerator for 24 hours and you’re ready to go.
- Roasts can also be purchased in larger sizes and portioned for many meals. For example, a pork loin can be divided up for chops, stew meat and a roast. Although the initial cost may seem high, you’re creating many meals less expensively and probably consuming less meat, which is a good thing. And it’s certainly more nutritious than, say, pizza.
- Buy fresh vegetables once or twice a week, clean them at one time and portion them for a few meals. Store them in zipper bags and take them out to steam or microwave when you’re ready to use them. Summer squashes tend to be a bit more fragile, so you may want to use them first. Fresh is always healthier, so resort to canned or frozen veggies only in a pinch.
- Consider serving precut raw vegetables or cut-up fruit as a quick alternative to cooked vegetables. However, be alert to “choker foods” for very young children, such as carrot sticks, celery sticks and grapes.
- Tear up enough cleaned salad greens for a few meals. Add grape tomatoes, croutons, pre-cut celery and other toppings at the last minute, and let each person dress his or her own salad. If there is leftover salad, remove the croutons and put it back in the bag for another meal.
- Learn to make soup. Soups with dried beans are easy to make, require little preparation and can be a repository for leftover vegetables. Most can be started with a purchased soup base of bouillon or canned stock instead of a soup bone, and bean-based soups freeze especially well. A bowl of bean-vegetable soup, a loaf of crusty bread and a salad is a complete meal loaded with vitamins. Most dried bean packages have excellent soup recipes printed on them.
- Precook rice and potatoes in larger quantities. If you prefer starches with your meals, simply pop leftovers into the microwave for another meal.
- If you have a baby who is beginning to eat solids, you can make your own baby food in quantity also. Winter squash, sweet potato, green beans and carrots can be cooked until tender, pureed in a blender and frozen in an ice cube tray. Once the food is frozen, pop it into a freezer bag, label with the date and thaw each cube when ready to use. For older, chunky-food eaters, mash food instead of pureeing. Cooked meats can also be pureed and frozen. Unsweetened applesauce and mashed canned peaches can be prepared at the table.
Whatever shortcuts you choose for meals, always take the time to prepare them safely. That means never preparing raw meats and vegetables/fruits on the same cutting surface, or using the same utensils. Wash everything in hot, soapy water, including your hands, before proceeding from meat to vegetables.
Also, refrigerate all of your leftovers immediately. Cool foods to be frozen in the refrigerator, then package them for the freezer. A final safety note: try to prepare and package meat products the day you buy them.
Once you begin to get foods portioned and stored, you’re going to find that final preparation takes only a little preplanning and coordination. While food is thawing and heating up in the microwave, you can be reading a story to your little one.
It will take about four weeks to get a variety of ready-made meals set aside, but you will find your food costs are significantly reduced when you stop relying on purchased ready-made meals. Additionally, you can be confident that you are serving nutritious meals to your family.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.