The kids are seated silently and properly at the dining room table with napkins in their laps awaiting that moment when Mom enters the room with a warm turkey, fresh whipped potatoes and healthy green beans. Sounds like the perfect night at my house. Wait, no—silly me, that was a rerun of Leave it to Beaver that was on last night. This has never happened in my house.
Dinner time at my house is whenever everyone can manage to sit their butts down and I can think of something to whip up at the last minute. Chances are if it’s a matter of cleaning up the kitchen, meaning first unloading the dishwasher then reloading it with yesterday’s dirty dishes, we’re looking at a pizza or takeout night. We all want to serve a home-cooked meal to our family every night, but life tends to get in the way, time gets away from us and suddenly it’s 5:30 and we’ve got hungry kids tugging at our sleeves about filling their tummies. Sound familiar?
Busy and conflicting schedules are making family dinners a thing of the past in many households. Soccer practices, meetings running late and play rehearsals mean we are constantly on the run and shoving fast food and granola bars down the hatch whenever we have a free moment. Research shows that families that eat together not only eat healthier, but save money and have stronger bonds with one another. Making time for a home-cooked meal is not always easy, but with some simple planning and preparation it is an attainable goal.
Start with a clean slate.
Nobody wants to cook in a dirty kitchen. If you’re anything like me you might put off doing the dishes until there is nothing clean but a single fork and an old Tupperware container in the cabinet. Walking into a dirty kitchen when you’re already hungry tells you that cleaning up that mess will push back dinner at least another half hour if not more. A great way to make yourself actually want to cook in your kitchen is to clean as you go along. It’s a lot simpler and actually saves time, plus you won’t have to scrape all that crusty cheese off the bottom of the pan if you rinse it while it’s still warm. Simple enough, right?
If you take any one thing away from this read, I hope this is it. Planning ahead saves SO much time and leaves the stressful guess work out of getting dinner on the table. Every week, gather together some recipes and plan out your weeknight meals so you’re not scrambling at the last minute. What makes this even simpler is that… wait for it… yes, there’s an APP for that! In fact, there are tons of apps for that. My personal favorite is Food on the Table which combines its recipe database with a shopping list and meal planner so it does basically everything for you but cook the food.
Stock up on the basics.
Things like rice, beans, canned tomatoes, boxes or cans of chicken or vegetable stock, and other dried or canned pantry items are called for in most dinner recipes. If you have these basic items on hand at all times you can definitely whip something on a whim. Just remember to only stock up on the things that last, though—things like produce and meats spoil pretty quickly and are better left for a later purchase.
Embrace the slow cooker.
Repeat after me, the crock pot is my friend. I’m pretty surprised at how many people have dusty slow cookers in the back of their cabinets that they’ve never used. I have made some pretty outstanding things in my crock pot—eggplant parmesan, buffalo chicken tacos, tomato and rice soup, not to mention the most delicious pot roast you’ve ever tasted. Slow cookers are especially handy in the summer when it’s too hot to turn on the oven. It’s just so simple—dump ingredients in, turn dial to low, cover and walk away… seriously, it’s that easy. Just make sure it’s plugged in before walking away or you’ll set yourself back a few hours. Yeah, it sounds funny until it happens to you…
Love your leftovers.
So obviously nobody wants to eat the same old cold spaghetti in the fridge from last night’s dinner, but there are ways to be creative with leftovers. Leftover meats and cheeses can be added to omelets for breakfast, stick sautéed veggies into a quesadilla, and those tiny bags full of halved onions, celery stalks, carrots and whatever else can be thrown into a pot for some delicious homemade stock for soup. Check out Premeditated Leftovers for some fabulous ideas on how to dress up yesterday’s dinner.
Friendly freezer meals.
I really wish I would have embraced this more during my pregnancy like those smart moms did; I would have eaten a lot fewer hamburgers and pizzas! Casseroles, meatloaves, even marinated chicken and vegetables can be prepared ahead of time and frozen until its ready to be popped in the oven. Joelen from What’s Cookin’ Chicago has an amazing list of frozen meals she prepared during her pregnancy and was kind enough to share with the world.
Don’t feel bad calling in the back-up plan.
Some days, no matter how hard you try to plan ahead, time just REALLY gets away from you. Don’t feel bad if you have to throw a pizza in the oven or call for delivery from your favorite takeout spot. Hey, everyone needs a night off every once in a while and as long as it doesn’t become a regular thing it can even become a bit of a treat. In our house we make Friday nights our “special dinner night” where we order in from a favorite restaurant and watch movies. As long as dinner time is spent as a family, the effort won’t go unnoticed.
Written by Sarah Antrim