Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Independence From Kitchen Chaos: Susie's Time Saving Plan

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! 

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