Friday, October 17, 2008

Meal Planning

This past Monday I opened the cookbook and started to do some meal planning for the week. I decided that I wanted simple recipes so I wouldn't spend a lot of time in the kitchen and I couldn't possibly have failed more in this attempt. In fact, I got so excited by all of the yummy looking side dishes, that most meals I planned actually involved two recipes - one main dish and one side dish. I think I've mentioned before that while Cooking Light recipes always taste good, there are often a lot of steps and prep work.

So, I completely failed at limiting my time in the kitchen, but there are still some good ideas buried in my failure. I think cooking is one of the biggest challenges for working and busy families. You want to eat healthy, interesting dinners, but you don't want to spend your life in the kitchen. Plus, there's the fact that it's a never ending cycle. In light of that I've put together a few of my personal kitchen ideas for you.

When I'm on top of my game - which happened about once a month while I was working, but happens most weeks now that I'm not working - I plan out our meals for the week. I can not tell you how valuable this is. You will save yourself SO much stress and hassle. Even if the meals are blindingly simple - pasta, eggs and toast, etc. - this one step makes our evenings so much better.

In our kitchen we have a chalkboard that I use to write out the 5 meals that we have the ingredients for (ingredients that I shop for on Sunday or Monday). I don't get fussy about each meal having a designated day because it all depends what you're in the mood for and what you have time for. But this way there is no thinking involved. You just consult the board and pick a dish for the night. If you do nothing else, do this.

The second step I don't do that often, but when I do I always wonder why I don't do it every week - prep work. I used to do this on Sunday afternoons when I was working, and now I do it on Mondays. I look through the recipes and see what I can do ahead of time. Cutting vegetables is one of the biggest things. If you can dice an onion, slice a pepper, cook and crumble the bacon, grate the cheese, and mix the ravioli filling ahead of time, you'll be loving life when you cook your week night meals. This is what they do in restaurants and it's why the chefs can put things together so easily. And of course this is easier for me because we don't have kids yet, but if one parent can take over for two hours on a Sunday, you're weeknight meals will be far less stressful. Also, this method saves on kitchen clean-up time since a lot of work is done at once with one cleaning.

The last tip is one we live by - freezing. I think freezing is the single biggest way to spend less time in the kitchen, while still eating healthy and homemade meals because you can work once, but get two meals. If we're having burgers for dinner, we make the entire package of meat into the burgers, cook 2 and freeze the rest. If I make chili, I save enough for one or two meals and freeze the rest. When I buy pizza dough, I immediately cut it in half and save one half for this week and one half for next week. Another thing we'll do is bake a chicken breast, cut it up and immediately freeze it. This way you can have pasta with pesto chicken in no time.

We frequently will have two weeks in a row where we eat the same things because the second week we're eating the portions we froze. Or we'll have Freezer Week where I look at everything we can use in the freezer to eat and then I'm only left buying side dishes, condiments, or fresh vegetables to go with everything.

I hope that helped - let me know if you have any tips of your own to save time in the kitchen!


Last night we had Onion and Shitake Soup from the latest issue of Cooking Light, along side Gouda/Sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches. It was an amazing meal!!! And between the two types of cheese on the cheese toasts for the soup (Gorgonzola and Emmentaler Swiss) and the Gouda in the sandwiches, it was a cheese-lovers dream. Very hearty and fall-like.

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