Are home cooked meals a priority for you despite the pressing demands of life? If you’re aiming 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 help get a home cooked dinner on the table almost every night.
It all starts with a good shopping list.
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 forgot 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 rewrite 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.
Avoid meltdowns with a little planning ahead of meal time.
Plan 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 leftovers 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.
Embrace the possibilities of frozen foods.
Frozen foods are a huge time saver, and even some individually quick frozen meats can be used on the fly with the fast defrost method (directions for safe defrosting of these IQF items can be found on their packaging). Stock up on your favorite bagged vegetables from the frozen foods aisle.
Remember you’re aiming for a fast dinner and while frozen foods are not often associated with gourmet meals, many do have good nutritional value (often better than their fresh counterparts) and the very real benefit of being widely available and affordable.
Have one or two “heat and eat” options for a busy night.
Simple chicken tenders and frozen potatoes can be baked in less than 20 minutes, with easy tray cleanup afterwards. Adding a bottled sauce (teriyaki, BBQ, Thai peanut, etc.) is an easy way to change up this standby meal.
Soup and sandwiches are a classic for a reason! Buy or make a big pot of a favorite 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. Meanwhile make sandwiches or pull out the fixings for a make-it-yourself night. Even toast with melted cheese will work in a pinch. 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.
Rice, pasta and whole grain sides such as brown rice noodles make easy grab-and-go choices to cut significant time from dinner prep. For example, if you’re busy at 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.
Plan and shop for a cooking day.
This can be a Sunday 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.
When it comes time to hustle through dinner prep, you can make easier work of the after dinner clean up by tackling things as you go. Items like peelers, colanders and boiling pots don’t require much scrubbing to get clean, and are actually much easier to clean immediately after they’ve been used (dried pasta starch stuck in colander holes = pain to clean!!) 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 become a sticky mess to deal with later. When all’s said and done, you’ll have only dinner plates, serving bowls and utensils to wash or load in the dishwasher after dinner.
With a little planning ahead, simplifying choices, and keeping cleaning needs to a minimum there’s no reason you and your family can’t regularly enjoy a super fast and simple home cooked meal.