I have rushed home many evenings only to find myself completely stressed out with dinner preparation, and the rush to get my child bathed, fed, brushed, and cuddled off to sleep within a 2 or 3-hour time frame. If you do not have children, you are probably thinking, “3 hours! What’s the big deal? That’s plenty of time to cook, eat and have a shower!” Believe me, the time goes fast and depending on the age of your child/ren, it can feel like you’re herding cats for 3 hours! It’s a hard job… often more stressful than any day job I have ever held. To ease the evening tension and enjoy those precious moments with my family, I have come up with a few tricks that help me to help myself! They are simple tasks, but to successfully utilize them they require a little pre-planning at the beginning of the week and often 15 minutes each evening after my son is in bed.
- Wash as many veggies and fruit as you can right after you bring them home from the market. Unless they are fragile and hold up better without being pre-washed (e.g., certain berries, mushrooms), you can save a lot of time and increase the chance that someone will eat that fruit or vegetable if you wash what you can when you bring it home.
During a busy evening or when packing lunches, it is so much easier to just pull the item out of the fridge or fruit basket and put it to use.
- Have a general plan for the week, or at least for that evening. I try to have at least 2 or 3 meal ideas for the week in my head on Monday, especially Monday’s meal. Each evening before bed, it is helpful to look through the fridge or freezer and make a plan for the next evening. Just 5 minutes of planning can make it so much easier to get dinner on the table in the evening. The worst situation is to arrive home with no plan and to have to scrape something together slowly while giving the kids a bath and all the while feeling stressed that time is passing too quickly. It’s like not knowing what to wear in the morning and spending a good 20-30 minutes trying to pick an outfit, feeling more desperate as the clock ticks.
- During your commute visualize the steps you will need to prepare dinner when you get home (a trick I adopted from working in a laboratory). For example, while sitting on the metro I begin to visualize how to get dinner on the table –“ turn on the oven to pre-heat, put the 5 year old in the bath and wash, let him play while I chop the veggies and meat (no need to wash them!), make a large pot of rice and quinoa that can be used for more than one meal, take child out of bath and have him dress while I cook the chopped foods. Ahhh… sit down to a hot meal!”
- Try to avoid shopping for groceries during your commute. Unless you need to just stop and quickly pick up a small item, or the grocery shopping is easily incorporated into your commute (e.g., buying a baguette on the way home is part of most Parisian commutes), try to avoid entering the grocery store at rush hour. There is nothing worse than battling the rush hour crowds at the grocery store, and then finally making it home exhausted with the task of preparing dinner, feeding children, and starting the nighttime routine still ahead of you. Reserve major grocery shopping for less busy times (i.e., weekends, lunch time). Another grocery shopping technique is to “graze” throughout the week during your daily routines. For example, when we lived in the busy heart of Paris, I would often stop at my favorite food vendors as part of my commute. If I took my son to his piano lesson, I would then quickly stop at my favorite butcher and bakery during his lesson since they were just around the corner. On the way to my weekly French class, I would stop by the neighborhood wet market for organic produce. These quick trips added only 5-10 minutes to my commute, but saved me the hour or more it would have taken if I had tried to do the errands all at one time.
- Prepare meals that can transform throughout the week. I like to cook things that can be either frozen for another meal on a difficult night, or changed into something else for a different night. For example, a roast chicken one evening can become chicken and pumpkin soup another night, chicken pot pie a third night, and fried rice or stir fry with chicken a 4th or 5th night. These meals do not have to be eaten all the same week if you prefer to avoid eating chicken all week, instead you can freeze the meat in one-meal-size packets, and when ready transform them into quick meals.
- When you buy meat, cut it up and freeze half. I do this often with pork so that I can thaw a portion of already cut meat in the morning for a quick pork sauté or green chili stew in the evening.
- Plan vegetarian meals a couple of times a week.
Without worrying about meat, dinner preparation is often faster. I find that a quick vegetable tart or quiche is a great way to get our greens and it is fast work… no need to clean, dry, and cut up any meat! Bean dishes are also quick when they are meatless. If you make beans from scratch like I do, prepare a large
- Learn how to maximize what you are doing in the kitchen. Making the rice while cutting the veggies can save a lot of time. Meals are made much faster when you figure out what you can do while another item is cooking or soaking, etc. This skill takes time to develop, but it comes with experience. Start by trying to be organized and conscious of each of the steps you regularly repeat in the kitchen each week.
- Watch cooking shows or read blogs and magazines to get ideas. Inspiration is half of the battle. If you can get excited about a meal and preplan it in your mind, meal preparation becomes much easier.
- Set the table at the beginning of your cooking preparation. Having the table set before the flurry of food prep begins can have a calming effect on you and your family. This is a tip that I got from my Mom, who in turn, got it from her Aunt when I was a child. I often have my son set the table while I begin to prepare dinner. It gives him the sense that dinner is almost ready and it allows me to focus on food prep, knowing that the table is ready for the food! And as an added benefit, I get to hear all about my son’s day as he finds the forks, knives and spoons and puts them in their places.
Sometimes the rushed feeling from the evening before extends to the morning rush. I find that mornings are more enjoyable when breakfast is already prepared or easy and quick to prepare, so the last tip is related to breakfast (… so as not to enter the morning commute in the same mood as you ended the evening commute).
Prepare breakfast the night before. There are many breakfasts that can be quickly assembled in the evening after dinner or just after the kids are in bed. Some of my favorites are hard-boiled eggs and egg/bread strata (either sweet or savory versions). The sweet can incorporate fruit and the savory green vegetables.
Soon to come, an easy morning recipe for savory breakfast strata!