Making mealtimes easier

By Natalie Hollingshead

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 4 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

For busy parents, it may be tempting to rely on fast food to get through school pickups and soccer practices, or business meetings and conference calls. A drive-through meal is lovely once in a while — no dishes to do afterwards! — but make fast food a habit and your wallet and diet will suffer.

For our book, “Happy Homemaking: An LDS Girl’s Guide” (Cedar Fort, $16.99), co-author Elyssa Andrus and I interviewed more than a dozen experts on universal homemaking topics like cleaning, cooking and budgeting. We learned it is possible to make mealtimes go more smoothly at home without sacrificing time, taste or budget.

Here are seven expert tips for quick and easy, home-cooked meals.

Start with a plan: It’s generally most helpful to plan out meals one week at a time, although some people prefer to plan for longer periods. What you eat in a given week should depend on three things: your schedule, what needs to be used up in your fridge and what’s on sale. Before you sit down to plan the week’s menu, take a look at your schedule. Assign simple meals or leftovers to busy days and more complicated fare to days when you have extra time. Take stock of what’s in your refrigerator, and check the grocery store ads to see what you can purchase most inexpensively that week.

Do something in the morning for dinner: Take time every morning to do something — anything — that will help make dinnertime go more smoothly. Grate cheese for the top of enchiladas. Take frozen chicken out of the freezer and place it in the fridge to thaw. While you chop veggies for kids’ lunches, peel and cut some for dinner, too.

Not only will these easy tasks cut down on time needed during the mealtime rush hour, they’ll also likely help stave unnecessary meals out. After all, if dinner is already started there isn’t much point in hitting up a restaurant.

Use leftovers: Every good menu plan should deliberately include leftovers. This eliminates waste, saves money and saves time. Planning for leftovers doesn’t mean you have to eat tacos three nights in a row. But, if you can get a great price on lean ground beef, buy two and a half pounds instead of one and use it twice during the week. Brown all the ground beef the first night. Use half for tacos and set the other half aside for shepherd’s pie two days later. (Be sure to use it by the use-by date on the package.)

If chicken is on sale, cook it all in a slow cooker at the beginning of the week. Reserve some for enchiladas or a casserole in the beginning of the week, and freeze some for soup a few days later. This can dramatically reduce the time you have to spend cooking each week.

Keep a binder of go-to recipes: Some nights just don’t afford a lot of time to cook. Instead of resorting to boxed macaroni and cheese, it’s helpful to keep a binder of simple recipes that can be prepared with few ingredients and in less than a half-hour. There are many cookbooks devoted to this topic, and websites such as Pinterest.com and Allrecipes.com have a wealth of easy, no-fuss recipes.

Make your appliances work for you: Two of the most handy kitchen appliances for quick and easy meals are a slow cooker and a freezer. Slow cookers cook food at a low heat over a long period of time. You can put all of the ingredients in the pot in the morning and arrive home after work or piano practice to a delicious meal. Along the same lines, when making a freezer-friendly meal such as lasagna or meatloaf, make one batch to serve and one batch to freeze for a later date.

Put everything in its place: One of the great secrets to efficient cooking is concept of mise en place. In French, it means “setting in place.” In English, we use it to mean having everything in place, ready to be cooked before you actually begin cooking.