It’s been a typical day in our homeschool family of eight until 4:30 p.m. when a child asks me, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” YIKES! What am I going to make for dinner? I forgot to pull something out of the freezer this morning. The pressure sets in. I don’t have time to make anything and I don’t want to order pizza—again!—on our way to the evening activity.
Avoiding mealtime madness boils down to one thing: planning. Love it or hate it, you can’t pull together a meal without forethought. Here are seven planning tips to make your dinners a little less stressful.
#1: Brainstorm Your “Top 25” Meals
Ask your family’s help to create a list of their favorite meals. Keep the list on the side of fridge. Our list includes homemade pizza and salad, sloppy joes and French fries, chicken burritos and guacamole, and a loaded baked potato bar. Check the list weekly before you head to the grocery. If all the dinners I ever made were only these twenty-five meals, it would be over three weeks’ worth of dinners, enough that we wouldn’t get bored. Tweak the list seasonally for the sake of variety and ingredient availability. For instance, we enjoy BLT sandwiches in the summer but chili in the winter.
#2: Search by Ingredients
Search by ingredients. If you want to go beyond the Top 25 and try a new recipe, sites like allrecipes.com make it easier to work with the ingredients you already have. Enter several ingredients you want to use and it generates recipe options. For instance, type in “pasta, carrots, chicken” and it would give you new recipes for chicken noodle soup, chicken pasta salad and a twist on chicken cacciatore.
#3: Look at Your Calendar
Which nights do you need quick meals due to evening commitments? Which days will you be gone for appointments or co-op and not have much time to cook? Plan your meals (and your crockpot) accordingly.
#4: Create Your Grocery List
Create a grocery list. After you have completed steps 1-3, now you can make a shopping list. I can’t stress this enough! Wandering through the grocery or a huge membership warehouse without a shopping list is a waste of time and a source of great temptation—plus you’ll likely arrive home minus many of the ingredients you need. A list keeps you on time, on budget and simplifies cooking when you get home. I keep my list on the kitchen counter, asking everyone in the family to add to it throughout the week as they finish items. That’s Inventory 101.
#5: Keep the Staples Stocked
In our family, that means never running out of about 20 items: milk, eggs, bread, shredded cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, tortillas or flatbreads, (homemade) pizza sauce, onions, sweet potatoes, olive oil, butter, baby carrots, green peppers, salsa, applesauce, oatmeal, chicken breasts, ground beef or turkey, and frozen meatballs (store bought or homemade). If our schedule changes and we need an “emergency” dinner, these staples let me quickly pull together chicken quesadillas, meatball subs, or a kid favorite, breakfast for dinner. Your family’s staples might be different than ours, but keeping them on hand at all times can be a big help.
#6: Work With Leftovers
Keep a container in the freezer for accumulating leftovers. Gradually add small portions of leftover veggies, meat stock, rice or pasta. When the container fills, add more broth, a can of diced tomatoes and spices for a great soup. Use leftovers creatively in quiches, stews or wraps.
#7: Work Smarter, Not Harder
Thanks to your freezer, you can pre-chop onions and store them for future recipes that call for small amounts. Buy rotisserie chickens, shred the meat and freeze in ziplock bags. Brown several pounds of ground beef and store 1-lb portions. Peel and freeze overripe bananas for later use in smoothies. Cook twice as many chicken breasts as your recipe calls for so you can freeze some for later use. Whether you are making pumpkin bread, cookie dough, or spaghetti sauce, double the recipe and put half in the freezer.
As a homeschooler, you have a cooking advantage since you are home (mostly) during the day. But you ARE busy! Put in some planning to avoid the mealtime crazies. You’ll thank yourself later.