Often times I’m asked, “how do you have the energy to cook (almost) everyday?” And honestly, the truth is, I don’t. But I do try and manage mealtime to the best of my ability. Many people actually enjoy cooking and would love to cook for their family more often. But because of the stress it comes with and lack of time, they just can’t seem to fit it into their busy schedules. The key to it is this…simplify yourself. There are several tips you can use to not only simplify your dinners but reduce stress during mealtime.
As many of us parents know, dinnertime comes with a monsoon of other stresses. One of them being the preferred time of evening when children choose to have their meltdowns. They’re tired, hungry and likely overstimulated by this hour (and so are you). Throw in after school activities, bath time and bed time into the mix and dinner seems like an impossible hurdle to tackle. Getting home late from work or trying to squeeze in a quick workout after work gives little time for preparing dinner. For this very reason, I try and plan as much as I can ahead of time and take shortcuts where I can.
Here are my 5 basic tips for managing mealtime.
One of the first mistakes I made when I first moved out on my own was going to the grocery store for my weekly shopping with no meal plan in site. I’d often come home with just the basics and as the week progressed I’d make a few more stops to buy what I needed for that night’s spontaneous dinner. I remember calling my mom and asking her “How do I avoid going to the grocery store every single day?” And in her wise words she told me “You need to set a menu”.
This has been one of the most imperative pieces of advice I’ve every received when it comes to cooking. A menu is the perfect way to save time at the grocery store and also money. It also helps you stick to a healthier lifestyle rather than resorting to fast food or takeout. Even when it comes to entertaining, having a menu is vital to hosting a smooth event from beginning to end.
I like to buy my groceries on Monday’s. Which means that by Sunday, I’ve got to have a menu in mind to avoid wondering aimlessly at the grocery store (with toddler in tow). When I create my menu, I like to give myself a night off either mid week or at the end of the week. This means that I need to plan on making enough food on one or two nights for leftovers. Or plan on ordering takeout that night. If you’re family doesn’t eat leftovers, hang on tight. I’ve got other options for ya below!
Another thing to keep in mind when creating your menu are your after school/work activities for the week. Do you have back to back activities like soccer and swim on Thursday’s? If that’s the case, plan for leftovers on that night or (if your family doesn’t eat leftovers) plan a crock pot meal. And remember to keep your weeknight meals simple. Save the more elaborate meals for the weekends. There’s no need for a 7 course meal on a Tuesday night. Just a main dish and one or two sides is plenty to keep their bellies happy!
Wondering what to do with the fresh meats and veggies that you’ll need for the meals later in the week? Freeze them. When I do my groceries, I plan to cook the meals that require the freshest ingredients earlier in the week. For the rest of the meals, rather than let the vegetables and meats spoil, I’ll clean the meat and chop the veggies, freeze them and let them thaw out the night before I need them.
Moms and grandmas are some of the best people to go to for advice! My mother in law is an incredible cook and loves to cook for the masses. Because of this, she’s great at planning and prepping ahead. Pre-chopping certain vegetables like onion and garlic and freezing them is a shortcut that she taught me and it has come in so handy!
I use diced onion and minced garlic in just about every meal that I make. Having to chop onions or mince garlic before each meal can take up a great amount of time. Being able to have them pre-chopped and on hand saves me a great deal of time and trouble!
I like to chop them in bulk in my mini chopper. I then separate them into one meal portions in ziplocks and freeze. When it comes time for cooking, just grab the ziplock from the freezer and let it thaw out a little. Voila! You can use snack size ziplocks or even use ice cube trays for freezing minced garlic. If you prefer not to freeze your vegetables, you can still chop your onion and garlic or any other veggies, earlier in the week and store them in your fridge.
Having the freezer and pantry stocked with a few basic essentials can save you from several of the headaches that come with mealtime. If your freezer and pantry are stocked, it can help you save tons of money rather than letting your fresh vegetables and meats spoil. You can also whip up a super quick meal in no time on those nights that you’re crunched for time or lacking energy.
For example, you can make a baked pasta dish in 30 minutes by boiling some frozen stuffed pasta, pouring some pasta sauce and cheese on top and baking it. Or a cheesy Mexican Quinoa with a few canned goods and some quinoa. Or a shrimp stir fry with frozen shrimp (which thaws in minutes), rice and frozen vegetables. Or spaghetti and meatballs with whole wheat spaghetti, pasta sauce and frozen meatballs. The list goes on and on.
Some of the essentials I like to keep in my freezer are frozen vegetables, frozen meats, frozen stuffed pasta, frozen shrimp. And in my pantry are pastas, rice, grains, canned diced tomatoes, canned beans, pasta sauces and chicken broth. By choosing just one of your meals to be a (as I like to call them) “pantry meal”, you can save yourself a great deal of time and energy and money and still prepare a home cooked meal for your family.
Ahhh, what would I do without my crock pot and my rice cooker? On nights that you’re running a tight schedule or you’re feeling less than energetic, let dinner cook itself. I like to plan at least one crock pot meal a week particularly on nights where we have busy schedules. You can either cook your crock pot meal before going to bed, turn it off in the morning and refrigerate it (let it cool to room temp) and come home to a nice warm meal. Or set it to cook on low before heading out the door!
The rice cooker is something that I use daily. I use it to cook quinoa, rice and other grains. Rather than slave over the stove top stirring and watching the pot like a hawk, let the rice cooker do the work. There are so many meals you can make in the rice cooker. Some of my favorites are, Mexican quinoa, “fried” rice, “dirty” rice and the list goes on.
You can buy a rice cooker and/or crock pot at Target, Bed Bath and Beyond or Amazon! They’re definitely worth it!
Now let’s get to the dirty part of cooking…the cleanup! There is nothing I hate more than doing dishes. Which is why I married the man that I married who has deemed himself “the human dishwasher”, haha! However, when he’s not around, the last thing I want is to have a pile of dirty dishes at the end of the night.
Trying not to be a messy cook takes practice and one thing that definitely helps is cleaning as you go.What I like to do is rinse and load the dishwasher as I’m cooking. The cutting board, knives, the mini chopper, the blender, etc. Those are all things you dirty at the beginning of the meal prep process. Wash those once you’re done using them or if if you’re like me and you rely on your dishwasher most nights, rinse and load those dishes and load them in the dishwasher once you’re done with them.
If you’ve made your pasta and your sauce, combine the two in one pot and clean the one that’s now empty…The point is to rinse and load (or wash) as you’re cooking so that by the end of the night, the only dirty dishes are the pot(s) that have the hot food in them, the plates and silverware you ate with and the cups you drank from.
So there you have it! There are my 5 simple tips to managing mealtime! I hope these tips will help you in your kitchen and make cooking a little more manageable and enjoyable!
Let me know what you think and comment below 🙂