|Photo courtesy of one of my favorite blogs for recipes and healthy living tips: www.wordofwisdomliving.com|
When I'm not feeling well, dinnertime (and meals in general) are a bit of a joke. Even under normal circumstances, meals can be a source of stress and frustration — especially if there are picky eaters in the household. At our house, we jokingly refer to the time frame between, oh, 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. as "the witching hour." If someone is going to pitch a fit or a full-on meltdown, it's likely to happen then.
Now, I'm no expert on cooking or meal planning. However, I have interviewed many experts for stories on everything from pleasing picky eaters to shopping for food storage to saving money with coupons. And I've even learned a thing or two or of my own.
So, here are my tips for mealtime success:
1. Plan, plan, plan. You know the old Covey mantra: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This is true in many aspects of life, including meal planning. I don't know what I did before meal planning. Seriously, I'm wondering what the heck we ate. In college I remember going to the grocery store and adding things to my cart willy-nilly. I don't think I ever had an idea of what I was going to make. This approach isn't horrible — as long as you actually buy enough ingredients to make a meal — but definitely leads to a lot of waste and overspending on groceries. These days, I don't go to the store without first formulating a list of meals for the week, including lunch and snack items, as well as staples that we are low on. I'll put together another post on how I formulate that list to maximize our grocery budget, buy/rotate food storage items and use mainly to REAL, unprocessed food — too many details to cover here.
2. Be flexible. Although I love meal planning, I'm not a slave to it. My meal plan is typically a list of five or so meals, although with some lunch ideas and maybe a dessert. I vacillate between assigning each meal a specific day and just waiting until the day of to decide. Either way, it is important to remember how long food will last and prepare meals that include a lot of perishable foods at the beginning of the week. For instance, no matter how fresh cilantro looks when I buy it, it never seems to last more than a few days without looking slimy. So if I'm going to make a dish with cilantro, I'll plan that for the day or so after a grocery trip. Also, look at the family calendar when planning. Crazy days when no one will be home are great for using a slow cooker or doing something quick like homemade pizza or soup.
3. Do something in the morning for dinner. Thaw meat in the fridge. Prep vegetables for stir-fry. Throw together a marinade. No matter how big or small, doing part of the work ahead of time will save you a lot of time come dinner time. That's a lot of time. :) Plus, I am way less apt to want to blow off cooking and get take out/feed my kids cereal for breakfast when I've already got dinner in the works.
4. Cook food you want to eat. This is a no-brainer, but I had to include it. Don't feel stuck serving the same meals you had as a kid if they really don't appeal to you. Seek out recipes and experiment. A caveat: try to find recipes from reputable sources. Find a few blogs whose recipes you've had success with or ask a friend whose cooking you like. Few things are worse than putting a lot of time in cooking a new dish only to have it be inedible.
5. Keep it simple. If you are a trained gourmet chef, your meals will probably be quite elaborate. For the rest of us, it's best to stick with meals that can be thrown into a slow cooker or made in an hour (maybe half-hour) or less. Quick and easy doesn't mean tasteless or unhealthy. If you want to cook a more elaborate meal, like lasagna, save it for a weekend when you have more time in the kitchen. And, while you're at it, prepare two and freeze one for later.
6. Expect distractions. You've got a meal plan and the groceries to go with it. But if your kids are in chaos mode it may seem impossible to execute your plan. I've found cooking goes a lot more smoothly when I have a plan in place for my kids. If you stopped by my house at 5 p.m. on most days, you'd find my kids watching Curious George on PBS. They look forward to it all day (I can't stand having the TV on, so they don't watch a lot), and it gives me around 30 minutes of time to cook without someone begging for a snack or offering to "help." I also keep crayons and markers on the table and we have a kitchen drawer filled with coloring books, sticker books and paper. If George is over and I'm still in the midst of cooking, I'll have them color or play with a board game or Trios/Lego. I find if I take a minute to anticipate their needs — I'm thirsty, I can't find my blanky — dinner is less likely to burn/boil over/overcook, etc.
What about you? Do you meal plan or wing it? Tell me what works (and what doesn't work) for you.