Even as a Work At Home Mom, dinnertime at our house is often a very chaotic time. Hubby is getting home from work, Farmboy is running off his extra energy, and I’m trying to figure out what I can turn into some semblance of a meal. If I’m not careful, we could end up eating dinner around 9-10 pm, and I’m skipping the vegetable sides.
Does this sound familiar to you? There is a better way, it just takes a little planning. I really don’t like chaos and I hate wasting food, so I try to prevent it from happening as much as possible. Here are six tips I’ve found for simplifying my dinnertime routine.
6 Tips to Simplify Dinnertime
Create a Meal Plan
My weeks go best when I make time on the weekends to create a plan. This is when I sit down, look at what ingredients I have on hand as well as what’s on sale and think of recipes I can make with those ingredients. Some weeks it’s easier than others. A lot of times I end up looking through recipe books or searching online based upon the proteins I have in the freezer and looking for recipes that either sound good or call for ingredients that I already have. My spice cabinet is busting at the seams and I keep my pantry pretty well stocked with staples, so it usually comes down to which vegetables are in season.
If you have a difficult time choosing a unique recipe for every day of the week, consider doing themed nights, like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc. We do a lot of pizza on Fridays. You can also consider making a large casserole that you can eat from for a couple nights in a row. However, if you choose to go this route, I recommend freezing part of it. I’ve made lasagna and eaten it for lunch and dinner three days in a row. No matter how good it tastes the first day, it gets old fast.
Leftovers in the traditional sense may not be your thing. I’m the oldest of four kids, so leftovers were a way of life growing up. Another consideration is to make a roast (or two) at the beginning of the week and base a few of your week’s recipes off of leftovers from the roast. For instance, roast a couple chickens, then use the meat later that week as a salad topper or taco filling. Bones can also be boiled to make stock, then add shredded meat, vegetables, beans, rice, noodles, etc. for a tasty soup. Look at traditional regional and ethnic dishes like Shepherd’s Pie, Gumbo and Pot Pie for ideas to use up leftover meats and vegetables. These recipes were originally created with the purpose of using up the week’s scraps.
I definitely believe in consolidating ingredients as much as possible when creating your meal plan. This will not only make your planning easier, but it will save you money at the grocery store and create less waste.
Prep Meals Ahead of Time
You’d be surprised how many things you can prepare ahead of time. There are entire meal plans and services based upon doing all of your prep over the weekend to make dinners quick and easy during the week. Jenivieve from Attached2Parenting.com even shared her tips with us on Saving Time with Freezer Meals, where she prepares all of her meals for the week at once and stores them in gallon ziplock bags in the freezer until she needs them.
How you approach prepping is up to you. While I would love to prep for the week in one fail swoop, it doesn’t usually work out for me that way. If anything, I actually have less time to get things accomplished on the weekends because that is our time to do a lot of our farm chores and errands. What I may do is prep dinner for that night during naptime. This week, I had one dinner that called for chicken breasts and a dinner on another night that called for dark meat, so I took one night to break down a whole chicken and separate the parts into ziplock bags (I’ll also use the rest of the carcass to make stock). I had a recipe that called for a spice blend, so I mixed up a large batch and stored the rest in a glass jar. Figure out what works best for you and make it part of your routine. The less you have to scramble when you’re 4 year old is crying, “I’m so starving!!”, the better off it’ll be for everyone.
Your prep may be limited to making sure everything is thawed a day or two ahead of time. At a minimum, I would recommend chopping vegetables in advance because that tends to take the most time and energy at dinner time. It’s also the one thing I’m apt to skip if I’m running low on time or energy, which means no veggies with dinner. Don’t get into that rut. It isn’t healthy. It can also be very wasteful and expensive if those veggies spoil.
Developing a weekly menu will help a lot in your prepping efforts. It will make it easier for you to see what’s for dinner the following night and what needs to be done for it. I actually print my menu and recipes for the week and post them on the fridge, so they are easily accessible and visible.
Get the Kids Involved
I know, this one sounds a little counter productive. Having kids “help” cook usually makes the whole process take twice as long, right? Actually, it doesn’t add as much time as you may think. For me, it actually saves time because I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to find out what Farmboy’s up to or why he’s crying or yell at him to stop chasing the dog. As much stress as his assistance may cause sometimes, it’s far less stressful than when I leave him to his own devices.
There’s also a dual benefit to letting him help because I’m teaching him how to cook. I may not be ready to turn a 4 year old loose in the kitchen yet, but soon he’ll be a 7-8 year old who could potentially make dinner by himself (or at least part of it). He can already measure and dump ingredients, plus fetch anything I may need. He gets a kick out of stirring what’s cooking on the stove, topping pizza and helping to shape dough. He stays occupied, and I get free labor. We also work on counting, math and reading (watching him try to read a recipe card is super cute). It’s a win win.
Give Yourself Plenty of Time
This should go without saying, but it’s also the one thing that trips me up the most often. I’ll admit, I’m a huge procrastinator. I really have to force myself to do things early. (Early meaning not at the absolute last minute) I actually have an alert set on my phone to remind me to start dinner at 5pm. That’s not to say that I always pay attention to it. This is where forcing yourself to stay on schedule really comes into play.
You also need to be realistic about how much time it takes you to create a meal. The recipe may say it only takes 30 minutes, but that may be based on the cooking time. How many ingredients still have to be prepped and measured before you start cooking? How well do you understand the recipe? How much experience do you have in the kitchen? How long does it take you to skin and dice a potato? What kind of pan are you using to cook with? These are all factors that can increase or decrease your overall meal prep and cooking time. If you really don’t know how long because you’re fairly new to this, then give yourself extra time. You will get better and faster with time, but it’s better to have dinner done a little early than to feel rushed.
Keep an Organized Kitchen
One thing that my chef instructors always drilled into our heads at culinary school was to keep a clean and organized work space. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, it reduces your risk of food borne illnesses and cross contamination. It reduces your risk of making mistakes, especially if you have all of your ingredients laid out and measured before starting a dish. And most importantly of all, it allows you to work more quickly and efficiently.
The most basic step toward keeping an organized work space is to clean as you go. Put away ingredients, wash dishes and remove anything that does not need to be there. I keep a compost bucket on the counter to put all of my food scraps while I’m cooking. The biggest thing is to keep clutter to an absolute minimum.
Enlist the help of your kids and significant other to help with clean up after dinner. There will end up being some mess after the meal is finished, no matter how much you stayed on top of it while you were cooking. Clear the table, run the dishwasher, wash the pots and pans and wipe down the stove and counter tops. It’ll just mean you’re that much more prepared for the next meal.
Recognize When You Need Help
We all have our limitations. You may feel completely stumped when it comes to thinking of recipes. Your cooking abilities may be limited to boiling water (and even that is risky). You may simply have no time to do any prep (especially if you work outside the home). That’s ok. It still doesn’t mean you have to eat out every night or stock your freezer with frozen pizzas. Produce and frozen food sections are full of pre-cut and prepped vegetables. Most meat departments also sell pre-prepped and seasoned meats/entrees.
Stick to crock-pot or one-skillet meals if cooking intimidates you. Cooking is one of those things that you’ll only get better at if you do it. Most good recipes will guide you through exactly what you need to do with every step. The best thing you can do is to practice. Just allow yourself plenty of time when you’re first starting out. Prepping ahead of time and having all of your ingredients and tools laid out before you start will also make the whole process easier.
Signing up for a meal planning service, like The Six O’Clock Scramble, can also go a long way towards simplifying dinnertime. They’ll give you a menu every week, complete with recipes and a shopping list. It really takes the guesswork out of meal planning. Plus, the great thing about The Six O’Clock Scramble is that you can customize your meal plan to your family size and dietary restrictions, like Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, Vegan, etc. The recipes are delicious. Plus, I like that the main entrees are paired with sides and desserts. There is also a breakfast recipe included in each week’s menu. And most of the recipes are designed to be ready in 30 minutes or less.
You pay a small membership fee, but it saves you a lot of time and results in less waste every week. We’ve been using the “The Scramble” for a few years now, and really enjoy it. The recipes are simple to make and are generally made from scratch. Want to give it a try? Sign up for a 14-day free trial.