Better not avoid it, create a system for meals you and your family will love.
As much as we would like to ignore it, home life is a series of circles. Those particular facets of life that continue to have no beginning or end. A series of repeating tasks that you can never completely check off.
Creating sustenance for your loved ones, unfortunately, just happens to be one of those tasks we cannot shake and seems to come back every day, if not, every few hours.
Today let’s explore how creating a system of meal planning and kitchen organization can relieve the stress of the DREADED “What’s for dinner?” A phrase that you hear repeatedly beginning at 5:00 pm in which you, yourself, seem to be wondering the answer to as well.
Claim back your power to bring joy and security to your home, family, and by extension, to your life, just by having the answer to this nightly question firm in hand.
Perhaps you have considered meal plans in your past and followed a menu plan in a cookbook or magazine? Maybe you’ve even subscribed to a weekly meal plan email service complete with an entire shopping list and instructions?
The problem here is relying on a total stranger to know that your kids would never chew on a mushroom, you gag at the smell of tuna, and your husband is allergic to stone fruits. Therefore making portions of the menu unusable, which sort of defeats the purpose, and only ends up wasting money and time.
Family Favorite Meals List
Instead, spend an hour and create a Family Favorite Meals List of every single dish you know that you, and your family, enjoys eating. You know the ones that get the “YES, my favorite!” exclaimed as their bums hit the kitchen chairs.
The last thing a busy momma needs is to get frowns and looks of disgust when she’s just spent the last hour enslaved at the stove on a dish no one will touch. There’s NO JOY in that experience!
Creating this Family Favorite Meals List will give you a resource to turn to when you are planning meals for the week and also a help when you just don’t know what to make. This is not to say that you are bound by this standard of meals to choose from. It is just a memory jogger when you find yourself cooking the same five meals each week.
As you do try new recipes, feel free to add to your Family Favorite Meals List as you discover new winners your family enjoys. Scour every favorite cookbook and recipe cards for the recipes that are dog-eared, highlighted or wrinkled from water hitting the page while cooking with the book open, you know the ones. The favorites.
Write them all down on your Family Favorite Meals List, making room to jot down the source (the cookbook title & page number) to make finding the recipe a breeze at cooking time.
Consider keeping a copy of your Family Favorite Meals List in a sheet protector taped to the inside of a cabinet door or on your family command center for easy reference.
Now with your Family Favorite Meals List in hand, create your plan for the next week. Two weeks out at the most. You want to allow for flexibility in your schedule and you want to ensure that your ingredients are fresh.
Once you have decided the menu for the week, create a list of ingredients you will need based on each recipe. These are the items you want to be sure you pick up from the grocery store on your next trip. Go one step further and actually lay out your meal plan on the calendar for the upcoming week. Then when the kids ask “what’s for dinner?” you can point them to the calendar.
Grocery Shopping around your plan
Photo by Jakub Kapusnak
With your grocery list in hand, the first place you will want to shop is your pantry. This may be your cupboard, basement, or your walk in pantry. Whatever space you have for pantry items, check that to see that you don’t already have what you need.
This will save you lots of money, time and energy in the long run. I don’t know how many times I have gone to the grocery swearing I already had salsa in the cabinet to discover I had used it up last week (or my husband did) and forgot to write it down.
I think the ease of preparing a meal quickly is that you have all the ingredients necessary to make it taste great, just how the chef intended. Cross off your list those items you already have at home. Pick up the rest at the grocery store. Planning out a week at a time allows groceries for the week to be at their freshest, and prevents spoilage.
Thaw, gather and prep the ingredients
Nothing discourages this home chef worse than a block of rock hard frozen chicken thighs when that’s the meal for the night.
Knowing your meal plan for the week can help you pick the days when you are cooking and what. This way two days before this you can begin thawing meats in the fridge safely and easily.
Once your meat is thawed, gather and prep the other ingredients before you get started. This will help you speed up the process when cooking and help you avoid your meat from getting tough, or your broccoli from overcooking while you are cutting up peppers for your stir-fry, for instance. Tossing ingredients in at the right time will help ensure your meal is a success.
Get your tools ready
One of the habits I am trying to instill in myself is not to assume I know what’s coming in a recipe. Reading it through completely before I start is a habit I am trying to form.
Mainly because I have had the dreaded experience of realizing all too late that I needed to dig out my three-quart oval baking dish delaying the cooking process by ten minutes while I frantically searched the basement closet with a flashlight crooked under my neck.
I was distressed one afternoon when I discovered at the end of a recipe that I needed cheesecloth to strain fruit for making baby food, bummer. Or that one time I needed to put two trays in the oven and didn’t arrange the shelves properly and then had to handle blazing hot metal wire oven racks.
Do yourself a favor and read through the recipe and have your tools ready to go.
Clean up as you go
Let me start by saying the motivation here. A shiny kitchen sink can make the entire kitchen feel cleaner. Even if the rest of the kitchen is a bit disorderly, I prefer the term “lived in”, when the sink is spotless it just feels calming.
Whether you wash by hand or by dishwashing machine, handle your dishes as they get dirty. With an empty dishwasher, it is easy to fill as you go.
When cooking, however, there are few things worse for a mom than being forced to rinse raw chicken juice over all your baby’s dishes that were piled up in the sink. GROSS!
And think about this, starting the dinner meal with a clean functional sink will make filling an 8-quart Pasta Pot that much easier. It’s the little things, my friend.
I cannot be the only person who has had a pile of dishes so high that I had trouble fitting my fingers in edgewise to rub them clean between the faucet and the teetering pile of dishes and pots.
Cleaning up as you go along will also help after dinner clean up seem so much easier, and it might actually get done. Do you really want to wake up in the morning to a piled high sink of dishes and POTS? NO thank you! After all, happiness can be found in a clean sink.
That was easy
Photo by Anda Ambrosini
Once you master these systems, perhaps you will find like I have, that preparing delicious family favorite meals becomes a source of relaxation and creativity, and that your family will rave at the delicious feasts you are regularly preparing.
Expressing that they mean something more to you than a box of mac and cheese and dino shaped chicken nuggets. I am talking to you sister!
Do it all over again
Again, eating is a circle activity. It just doesn’t go away. It isn’t satiated with that last meal that took 2 hours to prepare. Your body and those of your loved ones will insist on being fed again tomorrow night, if not hours later.
Prompting you to say, “Didn’t you just eat, young lady?!!!” So remember to keep it simple, and create healthy eating and cooking habits. Then, when you have to do it all over again, it will get easier and easier each time.
Need a great easy to follow and nearly fool-proof cookbook? Look no further than Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food. An excellent resource that is highlighted, wrinkled and stained in my kitchen. All the signs of a well-loved cookbook.
Chandra is the chocolate-chip loving mother of 2 teenage girls who started over again with a baby boy in her 40’s! She is the author of The Mom’s Playbook to Conquering Softball Season. She gives other moms the tools they need to prepare their daughters for real life. Her content is centered on helping girls grow up to be well-rounded, equipped, expressive, confident, intelligent, capable, kind and independent.