Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Twelve Time-saving Tips

As most of you have probably guessed looking at my blog these past few months, I have anything but extra time these days.  Baby #2 really is a big adjustment.  Even more than #1, I think!  But now that Michael's school year has started and I'm back to work, we definitely have a time shortage.  Any time we have together we want to spend, well, together.  So we've had to get more creative and plan ahead to make meals happen.  Here's some of my time saving tips (not just for new parents!) for getting weeknight meals on the table:

1.  Chop ahead
:  Although it's one of my favorite parts of meal prep, it's also one of the most time consuming.  Since I have anything but extra time, I've been making an effort to chop everything ahead, including veggies for Mike's lunch, and storing them in labeled ziplock bags.  That way, no matter who starts dinner, all we have to do is grab the veggie bag and dive into the recipe.  Imagine how much quicker dinner would be without all the washing and chopping!  Not to mention, you can use the chopping time as a nice break.  It's almost therapeutic when there's not a two year old's fingers you're trying to avoid the whole time. Which brings me to...

2.  Nap time:  As hard as it is not to lie down and nap myself, I've been trying hard to make nap times productive.  Use it to prepare as much of dinner as possible.  Making a casserole?  Put it together and ready to go in the oven.  Can it be made ahead and reheated?  Do it!  Chop everything for the whole week even.  Never underestimate the power of a parent at nap time.  

3. Get up early:  This is a tough one for me.  I am not a morning person and lately, I do not have an abundance of time for sleep.  But even an extra 20-30 minutes in the morning before the kids are up can make a world of difference.  I use this time to prepare/put together lunches/snacks for the day (although I'm always so proud of myself for getting this done the night before, it just doesn't happen until morning most days.), get a headstart on dinner, or work on menu planning and grocery lists for the week.

4. Slow cooker:  This old friend will get you through anything!  Not only can you toss it together and forget about it until dinner time, but it gives you some flexibility as to when you start it.  Usually, I try to get it ready in the morning and put it on low all day, but lately I've found myself not having time to start on it until afternoon and just cooking it on high.  It's really helpful once I go back to work because I can cook dinner for my family even on nights I'm not there to eat with them. 

5.  Leftovers:  Please don't ignore the power of leftovers!  Not only do they save time, but they help stretch the grocery budget.  By taking a little extra time to cook one day, you can have dinner ready for the next two days, or use them as healthy lunches.   If you're feeling really creative, you can often transform leftovers into a whole new dish.  Oftentimes, the new dish is even better than the first!  We've been on a roasted whole chicken kick lately, and I've had a lot of fun creating fun dishes with the leftovers.  We usually eat the breasts the first night, then shred the remaining meat to use in the next night's dish.

6. Freeze ahead:  Especially when you can foresee upcoming busy times, freezer meals are clutch.  Usually, they just need thawed, reheated, or tossed in the slow cooker and dinner is served.  Most pastas and casseroles are good candidates, as well as my favorite and always versatile, taco meat.  One good way to build up your freezer stash is to double one meal a week and freeze it.  Be sure to date and label it with how it should be reheated/thawed.  

7.  Say yes to help:  Whether it's with dinner, housekeeping, or the kids, never say no to help!  If your friends/family offer, they are probably sincere about wanting to help you.  Ask them to do the weekly chopping, or to play with the kids while you do it.  See if they mind running the vacuum, or taking the kids outside while you try to find your kitchen again.  If they want to bring dinner over, let them!  Our friends and family have been amazing this summer, and we wouldn't have what's left of our sanity without them.

8. Shopping list/menu planning:  Honestly, I don't know how anyone can shop without a list.  I have to rewrite mine in order of how they appear in the grocery store, or we end up running back and forth the whole time.   I've also been trying to plan meals in order of how long the ingredients will stay fresh.  For example, this week I made this low fat Greek chicken salad using a rotisserie chicken (hello, leftovers!), then two nights later we made these buffalo joes (using prechopped veggies from the first night), and lastly, a quinoa enchilada bake (again with chop ahead ingredients and canned non-perishables that could stand to wait until the end of the week).  Planning ahead like this keeps from wasting perishable ingredients and spending more time at the grocery later in the week.  You can also freeze meat that won't keep until later in the week (or cook it ahead and freeze to save cook time later. This is especially helpful come soup/chili season!).  Twice a week grocery shopping seems to be our magic number.  Once a week usually doesn't keep fresh ingredients fresh long enough for us.  

9.  Super easy sides:  I love complex salads and sides just as much as the next person, but for weeknight meals, keep it simple.  Toss together a quick salad, some frozen veggies, or some raw veggies/fruit.  You don't have to have 4 courses for every meal.  

10.  One pot wonders:  Less dishes = less time.  It's that simple!  Soups, chilis, casseroles, pastas, and slow cooker dishes all equal less post-dinner cleanup.  

11.  Microwave it:  Don't forget about the quickest/easiest way to cook, the microwave.  In a pinch, you can cook just about anything in the microwave.  We use ours for steam-in-the-bag veggies, reheating leftovers, and even corn on the cob.  You'd be surprised how much you can actually cook in there.  It's also great for kick-starting things like baked potatoes/sweet potatoes to lessen the amount of time in the oven.

12.  Go-to meals:  I love trying/creating new dishes, but for times that we are crunched for time, I turn to the old standbys.  Several years ago, I made a photo book with some of our favorite go-to meals.  Most are family recipes, or ones that we made a lot when we were first married and still in college.  Having them handy is always nice when writing menus for the week.  They are quick, easy, and familiar enough that I can make most of them without even looking at the recipe.  You don't have to be adventurous every night.  When we first got married, we would try one new recipe per week.  Honestly, a few of those became old standbys.  Others we tried once or twice and moved on.  Either way, it's ok!

And there you have it!  My latest advice for getting good food on the table as quickly/efficiently as possible.  It's been a challenge, but healthy family dinners are too important to skip.  And who wants to spend extra time in the kitchen when you could be playing dress up with these two cuties?  Not this mama, that's for sure! :)

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