It's 4 p.m. Do you know what you will fix for supper? Only about 25% of Americans do. Many of us are time and energy crunched for planning and preparing meals. Because of this, we resort to convenience, take-out, or eating out which is harder on the food budget and usually not as healthy.
Set a time to plan meals each week
Planning meals for a week is ideal, but even for a few days at a time is helpful. When planning, consider your food budget, time for meal prep, food on hand, evening activities, and the food needs and preferences of everyone in the household. Check out store specials. Flyers are often available in the newspaper, at the store, and online. Write down your plan. Make a list of needed food items and take it to the store with you. Using a list helps prevent overspending. But be flexible, when your budget allows, if you find a bargain on an item you will use.
Plan for healthy snacks
Make snacks count towards the day's nutritional needs. Healthy snacks can curb the appetite until the meal is ready and improve a cranky child's disposition. Snacks may even help with managing weight by keeping a hungry cook from eating a meal's worth of calories before the meal. Fruits, nuts, crackers and cheese, and fresh veggies and low-fat dip or hummus, are examples of healthy snacks. Keep the portion size reasonable. Also, some parents find that a hungry child, who normally does not want to eat vegetables, will eat fresh vegetables while waiting for the meal to be ready.
Focus on one portion of the meal
If the main dish requires a lot of attention, make the rest of the meal simple.
Prepare foods in advance
Cook foods ahead in larger quantities. For instance, if you plan to prepare two recipes this week that each call for one pound of cooked ground meat, cook two pounds at the same time. Use one pound and chill the other pound, then it is ready to go for the next recipe. If you will not use it in a day or two then freeze it. Chopping extra vegetables and shredding cheese for future meals also will make for faster cooking later. Assemble a casserole the night before for the next evening meal. Be sure to refrigerate until ready to cook and then heat thoroughly.
Try one-dish meals
They are easy to prepare. Often you can use food on hand and less time is spent in clean up.
Use time saving appliances
Microwave or stove top versions of recipes are often faster than in the oven. Slow cookers and pressure cookers also help to speed up meal prep. Keep food safety in mind when using timed appliances. Putting food in an appliance and not starting the cooking process for several hours may result in food borne illness. Cooking should start soon after the food is taken out of refrigeration. Visit Foodsafety.gov for more information.
Cook Once, Eat Twice
When making a recipe, make enough for two meals. Chill, and then freeze half for another meal.
Eat breakfast at supper
This is one of my favorite quick to fix suppers. Scrambled eggs, a vegetable, whole grain toast, fruit and a glass of milk is my specialty and can be put together quickly when time is short.
Use the freezer to your advantage
The freezer can be a big help in getting meals prepared quickly. Whether you have a stand alone freezer or a combination refrigerator/freezer it's a help. A popular "cook once, eat twice" (or more) item with my family is meatloaf. Leftovers are cut into slices and chilled. Once chilled the slices go into a freezer bag and are frozen. When time is short or it's been a tiring day it is easy to pull meatloaf slices from the freezer and heat. Adding a vegetable and a potato or rice completes the meal.
Use tray freezing for meat loaf slices, chicken parts and other appropriate foods. Put the food on a cookie sheet, cover, and freeze. Once the food is frozen put it into a freezer quality bag or container. When needed you don't have a blob of frozen chicken breasts, for example, but can take out the amount you need. Ice cube trays also work to freeze chilled foods. I have seen this done with winter squash and soup. To use, take out the number of cubes needed and heat. This works great when cooking for one or two. If you find that the food will stick to the cookie sheet or ice cube tray, spray lightly with cooking spray first.
Recruit others to help
This may make the meal prep longer at first, but should eventually make it easier. It's also a way for family members to spend time together after being apart all day. In fact, studies have shown that there are benefits for families who spend more meal times together. Kids do better in school, the language development of young children is enhanced, and teens have fewer problems.
When children help in the kitchen be sure to supervise activities. Match the task to the child's skill and provide detailed instructions with words and by showing. Cleanup is part of the process so expect help here too. Make up a cleanup game or give a reward such as reading a book when cleanup is done. Another benefit of kids helping in the kitchen is that they are more likely to try a new and healthy food if they have helped to prepare it. Check this link for more information on kids in the kitchen.
Lastly, if you have foods prepared for future meals be sure to label them as such. Otherwise, you may go to the refrigerator or freezer and find that a hungry family member ate what you had planned for supper! Some families have a designated shelf in the refrigerator that is off limits for snacking.