Cooking From Scratch When You Have No Time

Most of the working parents I know are completely overtaxed.  A lot of non-parents too.  The sheer number of things to remember, stay on top of, clean, organize, send back to school, finish for work, do around the house…it’s sometimes amazing any of us manage to sleep at all.  And sleep we don’t – 30-and-40-somethings are some of the most sleep deprived people in history.

So it’s not surprising that one of the first things to go by the wayside is homemade food.  Cooking is something I personally find pleasurable, but it’s not for everyone, and often the food you see on blogs and in cookbooks is full of expensive, Lentil Sausage Soup_Readysingle-use ingredients.  For someone who might get home at 6 and need to get food on the table for hungry kids, Frozen Pizza, Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, take-out and all the simple things rule.  And even I, who loves to try new things, has to look askance at some things – who the hell wants squid ink on their pasta anyway?  Even if my kids would eat it (they won’t) I see no reason to, and I’m a cheerful consumer of calamari.

But here’s the thing, you can actually do healthy, homemade dinners at home and be a busy working parent.  You laugh, but it’s true.  Here’s the tricks of the trade:

  1. You prep food in bulk.  On a given Sunday afternoon, I might make 80 meatballs, and portion them out in meal-sized bags before I pop them in the freezer.  Beef Bulgogi is tasty and a huge hit amongst kids as well as adults, gets put in the freezer to marinate as it thaws, and when we  grill it, we might eat 2-3 meals off of the makings.  Whatever ‘it’ is, make a lot of it, and use your freezer.
  2. You meal plan.  Honestly, this is one of the things that will make your life so much easier, because part of the mental load at night is ‘what’s for dinner?’.  This way, you know what’s for dinner and you can do #3 to be ready.
  3. Prep the food in advance.  Early, early in the morning or the night before is your absolute best friend.  Screw cooking when you are tired, stressed from your day and everybody is eating Goldfish to fill the gap.  Put soup makings in the crockpot first thing in the morning and come home to dinner – just add bread.  If you don’t have a crockpot, you need one.  Trust me on this – even if you have only 5 recipes you know everyone will eat, that’s 5 times a month you aren’t stressed about dinner.

    Put a pot roast in there with some broth and seasonings as well as some root veggies, come home and make noodles with a little butter on them, and dinner is ready.

    Plus your house smells amazing, and most importantly, you don’t have to think at the end of your day.  Brilliant you did the thinking in advance.

  4. Keep it simple.   Eggs and toast are great for dinner.  If you have an instant pot, try this amazing Macaroni and Cheese recipe that gives any restaurant a run for it’s money.   And it’s going to be on the table in about 12 minutes from the point you prep it.  Cook time is, no joke, 4 minutes.  You can’t get through a take out line that fast, Mama.  And I promise, even your picky eaters will eat it.  And hey look, if you throw in some hot dogs or kielbasa for extra measure – we all do what we gotta do.  Quesadillas – tortillas and cheese – are very popular amongst the kid set.  Add some cooked chicken or something.  All done!
  5. Do keep some pre-made food on hand.  Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken is a staple here – add rice, a little broccoli, and dinner is served.  I got a rice cooker as a gift over 14 years ago and it’s still going strong, I put the rice in, add water, press a button and….I don’t burn the pot any more.  Put out the word, I bet someone has one they don’t use.
  6. You can honestly freeze almost anything.  Homemade pizza dough.  Homemade cookie dough.  Broth.  Leftovers put aside for another meal.  Even bread.  The key here is to have a bunch of things you can pull out and eat.

What you do have to do is some advance planning.  But a little bit of it goes a long way.

What are your tips and tricks for getting dinner on the table?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meal Planning

It’s been raw and rainy over the last 24 hours.  I braved the rain last night to head to the garden, where tomatoes are still ripening, albeit not for much longer.  We haven’t had a freeze yet, but the average temperatures have been dropping week over week, so by next weekend I’ll need to clean out the garden completely.    I’ve been holding out because the tomatillos are still producing, and I am getting Sungold and San Marzano tomatoes consistently.   The Mexican Torch Sunflowers are still in bloom as well, defying every reasonable expectation for summer flowers.  IMG_1586

Nonetheless, after another batch or two of sauce, it will be time to close up shop for the winter, pulling vines, raking, and rearranging the bricks.

I’d like to finish the garden fence as well, assuming we can before it gets too cold.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll wrap our baby fruit trees in fleece jackets for the winter, clean up the yard, and start battening down the hatches for cold weather.

We still haven’t been apple picking, so we’ll squeeze that in on Sunday, but a few local, fresh apples have worked their way into our last few weeks of the CSA, as have winter squash, so tonight we’ll be working our way through a batch of Apple and Brie soup with Pumpkin Granola, along with a salad, fresh bread, and a roasted chicken for the kids

We’ve been lucky over the last several days to enjoy deliciously warm fires in the wood stove.  After we bank the fire for the night with one final log, we close the door to the living room, and in the morning the room is still cozy warm.   We invested in some new log racks this year, and we can now store all our wood on the porch and in the house, which makes fires so much easier.

We’ve taken another step towards local food here – starting next month we’ll see monthly deliveries from Walden Local Meat , key to our efforts to reduce our food miles, control meat intake a little bit better, and stop eating quite so much residual plastic.  While the $207 each month for 10 or 11 pounds of meat, another couple pounds of local fish and ground beef and bacon added in is a large chunk of our grocery budget, I expect it will be offset by us not having to think about running to the store for ingredients.  I’ve ordered our Christmas Turkey as well, ensuring our holiday dinner is taken care of with a click of my mouse.

Which gets me to the really important point.  While I love to make new recipes, and I keep lots of ingredients on hand so that we can eat a variety of food, most of the meals here are based on what we might have on hand.  I have a lot of Salsa Verde and chicken, so Enchiladas Verdes are going to be on the menu every couple of weeks.   I turned a roaster chicken into Chicken Soup with Rice last night, adding popovers for a quick and easy side.  I buy flour in 25-lb quantities so that we always have baking ingredients around, and of course we always have plenty of eggs now.

I know I have about two weeks of lettuce and tomatoes for salads before they are replaced by roasted vegetables baking in the oven once or twice a week, or cold-weather greens like spinach.

So what does a menu plan here look like?  Well, it’s flexible – we might get busy and a labor-intensive meal gets pushed for something similar.  What have we had a lot of lately, and do we need a break from repetition?  What needs to be used up?  We have a few bananas past their prime, so banana bread or muffins.  We also have a pileup of root veggies, so a roasting pan full on Sunday night is probably just the thing.

What kind of time do we have?  If there’s lots of commitments, we might make something simple, like Rosemary Ranch Chicken, or if there’s lots of time I might make something more intricate.
Also key are kid requests – no matter what’s in season, we periodically spend the time chopping and prepping for Taco Night, complete with homemade guacamole, because, well – it’s always a hit.  The key here is not to over-plan, but to constantly assess who’s eating, what’s around, and whether everyone has a good appetite.

Here’s our meal plan for this weekend:

Friday Night: Chicken Soup with Rice, Popovers, Salad

Saturday: Eggs and Bacon for Breakfast, lunch out or whatever’s available, dinner Apple Brie Soup with Pumpkin Granola, Salad, Bread, Chicken

Sunday: I’ll get up and bake – banana muffins to go with scrambled eggs or something similar.  Lunch will be leftovers, and dinner will be roasted veggies and some kind of grilled meat, maybe turkey burgers, which are always a hit.

Simple Roasted Veggies:

Cut up a variety of root veggies – mushrooms, onions, beets, carrots, leeks, sweet potatoes, turnips – whatever you have.
Drizzle with olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar
Bake at 375 for approximately 4 hours, occasionally turning.  Remove foil after 2 hours

Veggies will caramelize with the oil and balsamic vinegar.  Make enough for leftovers.

Monday: This is a holiday here, and the kids head to their Dad’s after breakfast.  Dad just bought a new house, so the kids are excited to go set up their rooms.  We’ll probably make pancakes or waffles for breakfast, have leftovers again for lunch, and dinner will be something Eli and I enjoy, like Grilled Scallops with Salsa Verde and Salad, along with leftover roast veggies.

Happy Eating!