Easy Home-Cooked Meals Fit Your Schedule and Wallet
Tired of last-minute dinner plans that tend to be hard on your wallet, your waistline and your stress level? With a few planning and preparation tips, you'll save money and serve nutritious and satisfying meals in a flash.
Pencil me in
Before your weekly grocery shopping, write meals on the calendar for days you know you will be home. Alyssa Raterink, a busy mother of four, plans meals two or three months at a time. Sound crazy? It's really not that much harder than planning a week at a time, she says. In the days before she planned meals, she remembers "coming home to frozen bricks of hamburger at 5 p.m. and thinking, 'What am I going to do with this in 30 minutes?'" Planning became even more important when her husband's cholesterol levels tested high and the family had to start cutting back on red meat.
Now Raterink begins her planning sessions with her recipe index — a spreadsheet of the recipes she makes and where to find them — saving her from having to page through multiple magazines and cookbooks. She chooses no more than one beef recipe for each week and at least one recipe with fish, and then fills in any other days with poultry dishes, soups or meatless meals.
If you have trouble coming up with meals for a week or more, scour the pantry for potential ingredients, browse cookbooks and the Web, and enlist your family to help plan.
To market, to market
Before heading to the grocery store, be sure your list includes everything you need for the week. A little planning can mean you waste less money on food that may spoil. "My weeks go much better if I do this and I'm not aimless at the store," says mother of four Dana Burgess.
If you make a list of your favorite recipes or an index like Raterink's, check the recipes carefully when making a shopping list so you don't start cooking only to be stymied by missing ingredients. And if you double your recipes (see below), make sure you will have enough of each ingredient. Also keep track of your supply of staples — note them on a shopping list when you start running low. Another option is to create a computer-generated, categorized checklist of items you commonly buy and keep it on the fridge or somewhere easily accessible in the kitchen. Check off things when you need them.
Double, double less toil and trouble
Save time and sanity in the kitchen by doubling an entrée and freezing the extra. Use the frozen entrée on a busy night to cut down on prep time and cleanup. Making extra and freezing is also a great way to help friends and family when they need a meal. Just take the prepared meal out of the freezer and write the necessary prep info on an index card.
Some cooks have taken cooking in bulk to the next level with frozen meal exchanges. In the book Cooking Among Friends: Meal Planning and Preparation Delightfully Simplified, Mary Tennant and Becki Visser share recipes and teach readers how to prepare several of the same meal, freeze them, and meet with friends for a swap.
Divide and conquer
If doubling entrées seems too ambitious, scale back your efforts by preparing certain ingredients en masse to enjoy time-saving results.
"I hate cooking ground beef by the pound," says Leanne Van Rees, mother of three. To minimize the mess and time involved, she cooks large quantities purchased on sale, then divides and freezes in roughly 1-pound portions. The same strategy can be used with chicken.
Call for back up
Even with the best intentions, we still may get caught without an answer to "What's for dinner?" For those occasions, keep a list of quick, healthy dinner ideas — like veggie omelets, chicken tacos, or whole-wheat spaghetti and red sauce — that use staples. Tape your backup list to the inside of your pantry door so you and other family members know right where to look when hunger strikes.
Armed with these tactics, you'll be less likely to find yourself at a fast-food drive-through window.
Susan Vanden Berg is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Holland, Mich. She likes sharing ways to increase the enjoyment of family life.
Easy-to-make finger foods
Create tasty tidbits for young children with easy-to-prepare recipes in a newly released book by Annabel Karmel, author of the Top 100 Baby Purees. This new collection, Top 100 Finger Foods: 100 Recipes for a Healthy Happy Child, is packed with nourishing recipes for babies and older children — from French Toast Fingers and Mini Chicken Sliders to Tuna Muffin Melts and Salad Lollipops. Children can help prepare these simple finger foods and also enjoy new tastes and textures.