I can guarantee that at least 90% of the people reading this right now have eaten cereal for dinner, at least once in their adult lives. The reasons may vary- too lazy to prepare a nutritious meal…. lacking those vital ingredients in the fridge to pull a meal together….or had a nightmare of a day with the boss from hell and feeling like the life has literately been sucked out of you.
We’ve all been there at one stage or another. We live in an age where mothers are trying hard to juggle a family, careers, keeping the home in some state of order and relishing in some me-time all the while trying to get some decent stuff out on the table for dinner each night. We’re too tired or we’ve run out of ideas.
It’s becoming easier to drive through at a fast-food place and have a complete meal in under 3 minutes than it is to stand in front of stove juggling 2 saucepans, a screaming baby and Today Tonight. Not to mention the clean-up. So here are some tips I’ve compiled from experience, from friends, from research and from my psychologist (!) and you’d very unsurprised to learn that a lot of it stems from good time management.
MENU PLANNING IS CRUCIAL
I am going to take a guess that you have heard of menu-planning at some point.
Basically, it involves sitting down on a Sunday (or suitable alternative) and plotting which meals you are going to make on which day for the remainder of the week, then shopping according to make sure you have all the vital ingredients.
Sit down and draft up a table with 7 columns and three rows across to address breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you don’t do breakfast, or grab lunch on the run, then just focus on dinner. Plan a meal for each day of the week. Swap and change until you’ve found the right flow. Try to be conscious of a getting a good balance of nutrition across the week- ensure there is a good variety of proteins, lean meats, fish and lots of vegies.
For example, I tend to plan the easiest and quickest meals for the peak days during the week which I know I’m going to be home later. I plan my more elaborate meals for Friday nights and Saturday nights and keep the quick easy meals for the weeknights. I bet you didn’t have to be a genius to know that. My husband plays tennis on Wednesday nights, so we usually have something light that evening. We usually do our shopping on a Tuesday night, so I plan most of my meals that require fresh produce on the Wednesday and Thursday and cook meals that rely on frozen vegies or canned vegies during the later portion of the week.
Plan your menu so that you can use leftover produce from the night before to ensure there is minimal waste. For years, I have been turfing out rotting vegetables from my fridge because they just sat there and rotted before I had a chance to use them. Now, if I make a side of cauliflower cheese, I steam up some extra cauliflower and put the extra in the fridge where it will become tomorrow’s cauliflower soup.
I know this is not anybody’s idea of a fun Sunday afternoon, but I have heard of people doing a big shop-up on the Saturday and then spending all day Sunday cooking and freezing their meals for the week. I can’t imagine anything sweeter than coming home and just having to defrost my dinner without having to dirty a pot or lift a finger.
There’s a few benefits to this idea, the most obvious being that by cooking all your ingredients when they are fresh, you’re getting the best out of the produce (i.e, it hasn’t been sitting in your fridge getting slimy for a week) and you can also multi-task with ingredients. For example, if I’m making a batch of pasta, I can make some extra to put aside for a pasta bake or if I’m making a bolognese sauce, I can also use this sauce as part of a lasagna or to fill canneloni.
For example, one week my main ingredients were rib eye steak, leeks, potatoes, pumpkin and broccoli. On the same cooktop, I had four different recipes cooking away- a hearty beef, vegie and wine casserole; potato and leek croquettes which were served with steamed vegies, pumpkin and lentil curry and potato and leek soup. It certainly didn’t feel like we were eating the same thing every night, but essentially, we used a few ingredients to get four nights meals together.
It this sounds like too much, too soon and you need baby steps to get there, how about starting by doing some minor prep before the week begins- chopping onions, mincing garlic, dicing or filleting meat, washing, peeling and prepping veg and then storing in the fridge or freezer so that when you do get home from work, all the prep work has been taken out of the meal and it’s just a matter of tossing it all together. There will be less clean up as well.
SLOW COOK YOUR HEART OUT
My slow cooker is the best thing that ever happened to me. If you don’t have one, you need to stop what you are doing, get off the internet and go to your local retailer and get one. Or go and bid on one on eBay.
Slow cookers are a heavensend for busy mums or people who just don’t have time to muck about in the kitchen all day. The idea is that you combine budget cuts of meat with vegetables and liquid, set and forget. By the time you come home (yes, you can leave it on while you’re gone, genius!), the house will be filled with a delectable aroma and you’ll have a tender, succulent meal begging to be had.
Because the slow cooker cooks…slowly, the meat becomes so tender and delicious that you can get away with using those budget cuts you normally wouldn’t touch. The meals are more flavourful because they cook in their own juices. You can cook everything from a beef roast to apricot chicken in a slow cooker. The idea is that it always has some liquid in it. Most slow cookers have settings anywhere from 4-8 hours, so you can time it so that you have a deliciously cooked, tender roast waiting for you when you get home on a Tuesday night! Who would have thought!
I tend to use my slow cooker in those winter months, where you crave the delicious hearty stews, soups, braises and casseroles- and believe me (and anyone who has a slow cooker can agree), there is no more delicious smell on this earth than coming home to a slow cooked meal. And the best part- only one pot to wash. Heaven!
HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS
I’m talking about steamers, pie-makers, stick blenders, food processors, breadmakers, knife sharpeners, rice cookers, grills, fancy cheese graters, mortar and pestle. I know many of you buy these things and then stuff into the back of a cupboard never to be seen again, but they really are the tricks of the trade- the little tools invented to make our lives easier. I have cooked whole meals in the steamer baskets. I’ve made bread for the weekend breakfast in my breadmaker. I’ve pretended to be Jamie Oliver while pounding the crap out of my mortar and pestle. I’ve been covered in pumpkin soup muck while trying to blend it to perfection. These tools might take up space and you might decide they’re sometimes too much effort to pull out of the cupboard, but I plead with you to make the effor.
I am especially loving my pie-maker at the moment, it’s genius!
I’ve touched briefly on the benefits of slow-cooking, in that you can keep the whole meal centralised in one pot, but when you are menu planning definitely give preparation time and effort a consideration. The last thing you want to be doing after coming home from a long day is slaving away in the kitchen doing the cleanup. That is why I happily volunteer to do all the cooking in my home, so I can guilt my husband into doing all the cleanup. I would rather work in a morgue than have to clean up after one of my cooking expeditions….it would probably be cleaner too.
So wherever you can, plan meals that you produce in one pot, tray or appliance- ie, steamer, pie-maker, slow-cooker, oven tray, frying pan, wok or saucepan/pot.
TRY TO GET YOUR PARTNER, HOUSEMATE OR KIDS INVOLVED
Involving the other people in your home in menu-planning and cooking can be a rewarding experience. And by rewarding, I mean sharing half the workload rewarding. Asking them to help choose the meals for the week can also help if you’ve run into a brick wall when it comes to inspiration. Also, once they’ve made a suggestion, like let’s use my husband for example, who suggested we have shepherd’s pie, you can ask them to help you with the preparation and if they say no…you can use it to guilt them into helping you. Example.
“Hold on! You mean, I’m standing here in this kitchen, making the shepherd’s pie you wanted, and you’re not willing to help me? That’s pretty low, buddy, even for you. Hmmph!” Storm off, no sex for a week.