As we continue with our Independence from Kitchen Chaos week I am happy to
share with you a featured post from my friends, Susie. She is the mother
of two grown children, a devoted grandmother, and a whole foods cook
extraordinaire! Thankfully, I can call her my mentor! Take a moment
to read Susie's meal preparation ideas.......
and then go enter our current Plan to Eat give away!
It’s 5:00 p.m. and Dad will be home in an hour. Mom, eyes glazed over with weariness, is staring into the refrigerator, one child glued to her leg and the little one balanced on her hip as she tries to pull out the ingredients for the supper meal she had planned. Some time back, she learned that she had to have a plan, a menu for the week so that she wasn’t waiting until the last minute to figure out what they would have for supper. But even with the planning, she still finds that mealtime preparation is difficult, especially when she is already exhausted from the day. . . Does this sound familiar? It’s important to have a plan in place but if the plan cannot be executed well, chaos still reigns. For me, it basically boiled down to the fact that late afternoon and early evening are not my best times for preparing the evening meal. I was tired, my little ones were hungry and sometimes cranky, and often there were interruptions at that time of day that prevented me from beginning dinner. With most meals prepared from scratch, interruptions at meal preparation time can seriously hinder the meal-preparing process and push back the mealtime itself to an unreasonably late hour. Since I function better in general in the mornings, I found that making the evening in the morning worked best for me. I could give my full attention to the children later in the afternoon when they were more needy than they were in the morning when they had just eaten breakfast and were ready to play. I continued this practice after they got older. I would get them started on some home schooling project while I made evening meal preparations, and late afternoon became our time to take a walk together or play games. Even now, with just the two of us, I find that preparing the evening meal in the morning works best for me. I might put together a casserole, throw ingredients into the crock pot, or just do some of the preparation depending on the planned meal, but whatever early preparation I make, it helps me immensely to get the meal on the table in a timely manner. This plan of making supper earlier in the day worked very well, but after awhile I realized that weekends were still chaotic. We had obligations on Saturdays as well as Sundays at church, and it was hard for me to come home on those days and prepare proper meals. Eating out was not an option very often, and making our evening meal in the mornings was also not possible on those days. So, I began preparing three main dish meals on Friday mornings. After several years, Thursdays became my preferred morning to cook, freeing up Friday mornings as well, so I would prepare four meals instead of three. This saved even more time for me during the week. It also saved time clean up time after the meals themselves! My “weekend meals” preparation begins with the menu and shopping list. Our payday comes every two weeks, so my menus would typically cover a two-week period at a time. My written menu only consists of the evening meal because breakfasts are usually oatmeal, homemade granola, muffins and smoothies, or eggs and toast, and lunches are usually leftovers. I have compiled a master menu list on the computer, which consists of a list of meals we like, categorized by headings based on types such as “chicken,” “vegetarian,” “fish,” and so on. This has made it easier to put together the two-week menu. I choose menus based on what is in the pantry, and I keep the pantry well-stocked, purchasing items, especially staples, in bulk and when they are on sale. This has been one of the keys for me in saving money on the grocery bill overall. If there are any leftovers in the refrigerator from the previous menu, I consider whether these can be used as part of a new meal, or whether they will be a lunch item. And in planning the menu, I always plan to make extra quantities of some dishes because I like “planned over” meals, which shortens preparation time on other days of the week. I might make Baked Chicken Cacciatore and later turn it into Minestrone Soup by adding a few other ingredients. Another favorite is turning Chicken Rice Pilaf from the first meal into Fried Rice for the next meal, simply by adding a few veggies and some scrambled eggs and seasoning. My master menu includes the name of each dish, a code for where the recipe is located, and a list of ingredients needed for the dish. This way, I can easily look at the master list, choose which meals I want for the two-week menu based on what I know I already have on hand, and see what I need to add to the grocery list. The master menu also includes the key for the recipe location code at the top of the page. The code I use usually consists of the first letters of the name of the cookbook plus the page number on which the recipe is found. Wednesdays are my chosen shopping and errand day, so after I have chosen the menu, made the list and shopped for the needed ingredients, I would prepare anything that needed to be done in advance, such as thawing meat. If beans or rice are needed for any recipe, I would generally soak and cook these before Wednesday so they would be ready by Thursday morning. Since I have little counter space in my kitchen, the first order of business after breakfast on Thursday morning is to do the breakfast dishes. No dishwasher here, except me. :-) Next order of business is to prioritize the tasks. I find it helps simplify things to do all the chopping, peeling and slicing all at one time, so I chop all the onions at the same time for all the meals I’m making that morning. Same with other vegetables. Anything that is duplicated in the other meals is done at the same time. If I need to slice or cut up raw meat, that is the next thing. Once the ingredients are prepared, I would begin assembling each dish before moving on to the next, starting with the one that requires the most preparation and cooking time. Some meals are cooked entirely at that time, but keeping in mind that their will be reheating, some dishes might not be quite fully cooked so that the reheating doesn’t overcook them. I do not have a microwave by choice, so reheating is done in the toaster oven, on the stove pot, or in the oven, depending on the dish. There are also some recipes that I would only do only partially, to finish preparing just prior to mealtime. Some of these would include meats and fish that would be marinating or breaded for cooking, vegetables for stir-fry that would be sliced and kept in water in the refrigerator until needed. (And the water can be used for part of the stock for soup later.) Dishes that require pasta are made to the point of cooking the pasta and then finished refrigerated, with the cooking and adding of the pasta occurring just prior meal time so that the pasta does not become mushy. This is particularly important when using whole grain pasta. (The exception to this would be lasagna, but I layer my lasagna with uncooked noodles.) My main objective is just that something needs to be done earlier to make the meal preparation smoother later. After all preparation and whatever cooking ahead is finished, all meals are refrigerated. (I don’t usually freeze weekend meals, unless I have made a double amount for a later time.) If someone else in the family would be the one to do the actual reheating or cooking of the meal on the day it would be served, the instructions for reheating or finishing would be placed in a handy spot for their information. Now all that is left is cleaning up the kitchen. To save clean up, as well as space while preparing the meals, I use a minimal amount of bowls and pans. Whether an entire meal is prepared ahead or only part of a meal, this method of morning preparation and preparing weekend meals ahead has really saved me time and enabled me to concentrate on activities and needs as they arise, eliminating the feeling of being a “slave” to the kitchen, particularly since cooking from scratch can take more time and planning than prepared foods. One of the best parts was that while the boys were still at home, we were often enjoying one another’s company while taking a walk or playing at the park with our meal warming in the oven, while other moms were home preparing their meals. . . or still trying to figure out what they were going to have for their supper!
To read more great ideas from Susie visit her blog Everyday Glimpses!