It’s been at least six years since I balanced working outside the home almost full-time and having two kids. Friends were always amazed that I managed homemade meals on the table each night. Becoming a stay home mom with three kids made meal planning a bit easier because I was home, BUT several of the lessons I learned as a work outside the home mom still apply. I’ll give you a sample menu for one week to show how I would pull all these easy lessons together.
Several lessons that make meal preparation easier for anyone are:
- Cook once, eat twice (or even 3 times!)
- Your slow cooker is your friend
- Menu plan each week around similar ingredients
- Prepping Ahead
Cook Once, Eat Twice
If you’re throwing chicken breasts into a skillet, why not throw in twice as many? You’re spending the same amount of time to cook the chicken and then you’ll have cooked chicken for an entirely different meal another night with little or no prep time. It also doesn’t have to be the same meal. Cooked chicken can easily go into casseroles, tacos and burritos or Cobb salads. Cooked meats also freeze very well, so you can easily grab the cooked meat from the freezer and save yourself the cooking after the defrosting.
The same applies to baked goods. If you’re making a batch of cookies, bake a double batch and freeze half of them. Baked goods freeze beautifully if you make sure to take the time to wrap them carefully or use quality freezer containers. You’ll be able to grab homemade goodies quickly from the freezer when you don’t have time for baking or don’t want to. It’s especially nice in the summer to NOT have to bake too often. In addition, if you’re a small household, you can save money by baking your own goodies and knowing they won’t go to waste because you can pull small amounts out of the freezer as needed. Casseroles also freeze well.
Your Slow Cooking Friend
I LOVE my slow cooker. I LOVE being able to throw a bunch of stuff into the slow cooker in the morning and come home to dinner. There are ample crock pot cookbooks out there if you’re not sure what to make for recipes. It’s still a great chance to cook once and eat twice as many crock pot recipes make large quantities of food and freeze beautifully. The slow cooking method is also a great way to let tougher, less expensive cuts of meat cook to wonderful tasty tenderness! You can also prep everything you need to put into the crock pot the night before and save valuable time in the morning.
Slow cookers can also save time and money cooking larger items for you like whole chickens, turkey breasts and corned beef which can be divided to several meals. During the summer, slow cookers can be placed outside (on a good day as I’m not sure they’ll survive rain storms) and let you prepare meals without heating up the kitchen (you’ll save on cooling costs and who doesn’t love NOT cooking during the summer!?)
Menu Plan along Similar ingredients
Trying to plan a week of meals along 5 different and very diverse ingredient lists is time consuming and stressful. Try to keep you menu for the week focused along the same key ingredients. You don’t have to eat the same thing every night to do this either. My sample menu will show how the same ingredients create several different dinners.
Even if you like a lot of diversity, you can achieve this by still prepping ahead and then freezing. You’ll notice on my sample menu that I shred chicken for taco/fajita night. You can simply freeze chicken and then take it out for taco night in two weeks if you’d like.
Prepping ahead of Time
This falls in with some of what I’ve already mentioned. If you cook double the amount of chicken breasts, you can freeze half and take out in two weeks or so for another night of easy cooking. All those little minutes you spend prepping to cook really add up! Spending 5 more minutes cutting extra onions and peppers for another evening’s meal is almost like saving 20 minutes because on another night you don’t have to just cut the peppers and onions, you have to take out the tools necessary to do the job and then clean up afterwards.
Here is an example of what I would plan during the week. I always figure one night of leftovers and one night of something REALLY easy like hamburgers.
Shredded chicken tacos or fajitas
On Sunday, I would bake or skillet cook enough chicken breasts for 2 meals. When the chicken is cooked, place half of the meat into a baking dish with a little sauce (save remaining sauce for pizza night) and mozzarella cheese (reserving some for pizza night, as well) on each then cover with foil and put into fridge (chicken Parmesan night).
I would also cut up onions and peppers for my tacos, then caramelize them in a pan (place in container in the fridge for taco/fajita night). Another tip is that peppers and onions freeze beautifully. You can cut them up and throw them in the freezer for cooking down the road.
Shred the remaining chicken meat and then season with prepared taco seasoning or fajita seasoning. Place in container and refrigerate until taco night.
On Monday night you can make egg noodles while your chicken Parmesan is in the oven reheating (you can microwave as well). Throw bagged salad greens into a bowl for a quick dinner.
On Tuesday or Wednesday night you can use a Boboli style pizza crust and your remaining saved sauce and cheese to throw together a pizza. If you like onions and peppers on your pizza, you could have prepped those ahead of time on Sunday.
The other prepped ahead meal is the chicken tacos or fajitas. Reheat your chicken and caramelized onion and peppers, pull together shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, or anything else you like in your tacos or fajitas and you have another meal.
Another way to prep your meals for the week would be to place an entire chicken into a crock pot on Saturday before your Sunday “prep” day. This will give you ample chicken for the entire week (cut away entire breast, whole, for the chicken Parmesan, and then you can remove all remaining bits of meat for the chicken tacos and probably still have plenty leftover for the freezer and another meal at another time, not to mention the chicken broth which you can freeze and use to season rice and couscous side dishes).
So whether you’re cooking for small or large households, work inside or outside the home you can use these tips to make meal preparation easy and simple. The key is to make a menu with meals that have similar ingredients, and then prep as much as you can ahead of time. In addition, by using these lessons you can build up a freezer full of meals and goodies with very little extra effort that will save you time, energy, and money down the road.
Tammy Paquin is a work from home mom of 3 boys and the publisher of Frugal-Families, an online resource for everyone interested in frugality, budgeting and stretching every dollar. Here is another article with time saving meals and tips OAMC Recipes
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