Conquer the kitchen chaos: Feeding a family without losing your mind or wallet

August 5, 2020 at 12:36 am (Cooking tips, Menu planning tips)

Feeding a family is hard. It’s a challenge to figure out how to keep a family fed with nutritious, tasty meals without spending your entire life in the kitchen or spending a fortune. I also cannot meal prep to save my life! Alma (at now 5.5-years-old) still doesn’t like most “mixed” dishes or dishes with lots of flavor/spice, so making big one-pot stews or curries or soups or things doesn’t really work for us. And I’m a vegetarian but Derek and Alma are not. Feeding us all is hard! Over two years ago I wrote a time-saving kitchen tips post. This is really a sequel to that post, so let’s call it “time-saving kitchen tips part 2.”

I definitely don’t have everything figured out but below are some things that have been working well for us.

1. Meal plan, but not for a whole week: Plan 3 or 4 days at a time, rather than an entire week at once. When I try to plan a whole week out I inevitably end up wasting food. Life happens and a planned dinner often doesn’t get cooked. Maybe I’m too tired, or it’s too hot, or we stayed out too late at the park and there’s not enough time. Or we ate a super late lunch and no one is very hungry. There are many reasons my plans just don’t end up working. If I only plan 3 to 4 days at a time, I can just push everything down a day (or two) and the purchased food still doesn’t go bad. I do try to schedule the more perishable produce at the beginning of the plan, so I’d plan something with fresh spinach or broccoli on day 1 or 2 and something with cabbage or sweet potatoes or jarred tomatoes on day 4. That way if day 4 gets shoved to day 5 or 6 it’s no problem. We usually plan on Friday evening (right after we get our CSA veggies for the week, so we know what we have to work with) and shop on Saturday. We usually plan dinners for Saturday-Tuesday night. Then Derek and I do another shorter planning session on Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday (depending on how much the original plan got pushed) to get us through Friday.

2. Eat leftovers for lunch. With the whole family at home due to Covid I just couldn’t handle cooking three meals a day, so I decided we will do leftovers for lunch. Occasionally we eat everything at dinner and have no leftovers, but usually Derek and I can still manage to put together a meal from whatever is in the fridge. Alma usually refuses to eat leftovers, so we came up with a weekly lunch plan that she can have instead if she doesn’t want the leftovers. Her “lunches” are pretty easy, and based on things we always have in the pantry or freezer (see a list at the bottom of this post).

3. Make a list of standbys. Make a list of your family’s standby recipes that everyone likes and are reasonably fast/nutritious/cheap. When menu planning choose items off that list. If you don’t have enough items on your standby list, try to try one new item each week to see if it’s a keeper. I can’t do the “taco Tuesday” thing. It just doesn’t work for me. I need more flexibility in terms of scheduling than that. But I do try to have my standby recipes sorted by themes, like Mexican, Asian, Pasta, Soup/Salad/Burger (choose 2). Then when menu-planning I try to choose one from each category that I haven’t made recently. So for Asian for example we have stir-fry, okonomiyaki, sesame noodles, spring rolls… For pasta we have pasta puttanesca, lasagne soup, pesto pasta with veggies, beans and greens, ravioli with chard, hazelnuts, and caramelized onions…, for Mexican we have black bean and sweet potato burritos, bean bowl with frozen corn or sweet potatoes, taco salad, … But I’m not strict about it. Some weeks we might not have any Asian dishes, and some weeks we might have two. Here are some of our standby items. It’s a work-in-progress. I’m always looking for new additions.

4. Make extras and freeze. I can’t seem to meal-prep ahead of time but I sometimes do manage to make extra and freeze it. For example, we all really like lentil beet salad with walnuts and tahini dressing, so when I make it I make extra lentils, cook extra beets, roast extra walnuts, and make a ton of dressing. I can freeze the whole dinner in a glass jar and then I just have to wash some lettuce and dinner is on the table. We also all love black bean and sweet potato burritos, so I also plan to make that recipe on a Sunday and triple the recipe, so we can freeze a bunch of burritos. Then I use these frozen “dinners” on days when I know I have no time to cook or on days when my plan fell through and I need something fast. For other dishes I might just freeze a component. For example, for sesame noodles I just make extra sauce and roast extra sesame seeds, then freeze them so the next time the whole meal goes faster. When I make pesto I make a huge batch and freezer it in small jars. More things I freeze.

5. Have a backup plan / backup meals. Have a handful of super easy, no-shopping-required meals in my back pocket for those nights the plan falls through. Our backup meals are bean tortillas, pasta puttanesca, and roasted veggies with chickpeas.

Bean tortillas we eat at least once a week. Whenever I make beans I always make extra and put them in jars in the freezer. And I always have whole wheat tortillas around. So I can easily defrost a jar of beans and throw in whatever veggies we have on hand. Spinach, chard, kale, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, parsnips, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts, … I find that most vegetables work great in a bean tortilla. Throw in some sharp cheddar and salsa and everyone is happy. Even if I put in veggies Alma doesn’t usually love (like mushrooms) she doesn’t mind. If I don’t have any fresh vegetables than I use frozen spinach or frozen butternut squash or things like that, which I always have in the freezer.

Another fallback plan is pasta puttanesca with whole wheat pasta. If I have salad veggies I might serve it with a salad or with a side of beans or fruit or frozen broccoli or green beans or whatever other fresh veggie with have on hand. But sometimes it’s just pasta puttanesca for dinner. Derek cooks it so it’s a good fallback when I’m just too beat or busy to make what we planned. We always have jarred tomatoes and capers and parmesan around, and we keep olives in the freezer just so we can make this dish.

Our third backup meal is roasted veggies and chickpeas. I always have jarred chickpeas in the pantry, and I usually have potatoes or sweet potatoes in the cupboard. If I have carrots or turnips or jerusalem artichokes around I will roast some of those as well. In the summer I might add eggplant or mushrooms or tomatoes or bell peppers, or just use some frozen root-veggie mix. It’s easy, super quick to clean up, and cheap.

I have a friend whose “fall back” meal is scrambled eggs and good bread with raw or frozen veggies or fruit. Cheaper than going out and probably at least as nutritious. Derek and Alma wouldn’t go for it (“eggs are breakfast food!”), but it works for her.

6. One last thought for those with little kids. Don’t feed your toddler/preschooler a separate meal. To avoid this, either feed the toddler a later/bigger snack or move the whole dinner earlier. Or feed the toddler an appetizer that’s basically a component of the meal you are preparing. Alma is often hungry before dinner is ready and then she can have leftovers from the fridge, raw veggies, or whatever component of the meal is ready. So if we are making sesame noodles with broccoli for example, I will make the broccoli first so it can cool down and she can have that as an “appetizer” if she wants, which she usually does.

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