Necessary Evil: Meal Preparation

My daughter Kayla was home from college for spring break last week. A few days before I picked her up, she started texting me with her favorite meal requests to have while she was home.

Her requests reminded me that when you are away for an extended period of time, looking forward to a favorite home-cooked meal is just one of the benefits of returning to the comforts of home. So, with each of Kayla’s text messages I made a note and started a shopping list.

It got me thinking, why don’t I always plan ahead like this? Sometimes I do, but some weeks I’m more organized then others. Some weeks I am motivated to try new recipes, and some weeks I fall back on our old standbys.

Preparing family meals is a task that can’t be ignored unless you are willing to go out to eat every night of the week. I’m guessing that’s not a practical solution for most of us. And even if it were a cost-effective solution, restaurant food is typically not as healthy as home-cooked meals.

Our family meal “rotation” includes about 25-30 standby favorites. Now that I’m primarily cooking for just my husband and me, I’m lucky because we aren’t picky eaters. He always says, “I’ll eat anything but Anchovies.” I’m the one with the gluten intolerance, so that’s really the only variable I need to consider. But if you have picky eaters in your home, that’s all the more reason to plan ahead.

Although I haven’t done this much recently, I have been known to make a few meals ahead over the weekend and throw them in the freezer. I have friends who have done this for years and they find it works for them. For working moms or for those who deliver meals to family or friends occasionally, this is a great option.

This winter we have been trying to mix the week up with a variety of dishes that include meat, pasta, fish, soup, and at least one night what we call our “meatless meal.” My husband may say is that he will eat anything but anchovies, but what he really likes is variety. This combination of recipes seems to work well for us.

Whether you are a Senior cooking for yourself, an empty-nester like me primarily cooking for two, or cooking for an entire family, spending a little time each week planning ahead will make the task of preparing meals that much easier and less stressful. During my “more organized” weeks, this is what I typically experience:

  • Less frustration: Have you ever started making a particular recipe, and realize you don’t have all the ingredients?   I find it very frustrating and never like running out to the store for just one or two things.
  • We eat healthier: When I plan ahead, I have fresher ingredients in the refrigerator. Not only does this offer more variety, it also leads to a healthier combination of meals for the week.
  • Save money: Selecting recipes ahead and shopping only once for the entire week avoids multiple trips to the store and therefore multiple opportunities to buy items you don’t need!
  • Easier meal preparation: It’s much easier and faster to create meals your family will love when you know exactly what you are going to make, and have all the ingredients available.

I can’t say that I love cooking dinner every night (I’d rather bake), but what I really don’t like is figuring out WHAT to cook at the last minute. I feel much more well ordered when the workday is done and I have planned ahead.

And in case you were wondering, this was Kayla’s list of the meals that she wanted me to cook when she arrived home for spring break:

  • Shepard’s Pie
  • Pasta with Vodka sauce
  • Salmon with Mashed potatoes
  • Pork Chops (on the bone)
  • and as a bonus, we had a traditional boiled dinner for St. Patrick’s Day!

What resources or systems do you use to help you plan meals for your family?  Leave a comment and let me know.

TA DA Tip of the Month

Here are a few of the systems I use that motivate me to stay on track with meal planning:

  • Use a calendar: I use a calendar to write in a brief description of the meals I’ll be making that week before I go food shopping (this is the calendar I use).   With all the recipes picked out, building my shopping list is a breeze.
  • I use my crockpot as much as possible, especially if I am going to be out of the house for the day.   Nothing is better than coming home after a long day to a yummy smelling home and knowing dinner is done.
  • Research new recipes: In addition to spending time looking through your favorite cookbooks every once in a while, there are tons of places to look for recipes online. One of my favorites when I am looking for inspiration is the weeknight meal planner on myrecipes.com. Another great source is allrecipes dinner spinner app for your phone or tablet. This app will help you find recipes with the ingredients you already have in your refrigerator and pantry.
  • Save recipes you like: I have set up a dropbox folder where I save .PDF versions of our favorites. This way I can keep them for future reference (see previous post on this topic) and easily share them with friends and family members.   Pinterest is another great way to save recipes when you find them.   Here is my recipe board.
  • Get help: There are a number of companies popping up that will help with meal prep at what appears to be reasonable prices.   Blue Apron and Just Add Cooking allow you to pick the recipes you want for the week, and they deliver local, fresh ingredients to your door. Another is Dream Dinners where you go to their store and prep the meals yourself. I haven’t tried any of these yet, but I’m tempted!
  • Make meals ahead of time: If you have time on the weekends, use a portion of it to prepare meals for the week and store them in the freezer.   Or if you are making a family favorite during the week – double the recipe and place the leftovers in the freezer for the future.

Most of us don’t look forward to preparing the family dinner every night – but with a little bit of upfront planning (or help) this task is much easier to complete.   Ta Da!

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