When my kids were still at home, I learned quickly that bad things happened at dinner time – or rather, when I was trying to fix dinner. I remember things like the toilet overflowing, the dog getting in something and needing a bath, a car breaking down and having to go pick someone up. You name it. If something bad was going to happen, it happened during dinner prep.
It got so frustrating that I decided to do something about it. I started preparing as much as possible as early in the day as possible. Then when it was time to fix dinner, if something happened, as it frequently did, it didn’t ruin dinner. We may not have had as many dishes as planned or we might not be able to eat when I planned or even sit at the table, but we at least had something to eat – usually something in the crock pot.
Now that the kids have moved out, not as many things happen when I’m trying to fix dinner but they do often enough that I still like cooking early. In fact, it’s part of my routine. I don’t even think about it. It’s just something I do.
In case you’re wondering what cooking early actually means, here are some real life examples of things I do.
- Chili, Cornbread & Honey Butter
- Brown the beef and then mix all the ingredients in the crock pot. Put the crock pot in the refrigerator until later. About four hours before dinner, pull out the crock, put it in the base and turn it on.
- After mixing the chili, grate the cheese (we like shredded cheddar on ours).
- Mix up the cornbread muffins and put them in the refrigerator. At dinner time, cook the muffins (add a little time since they’re cold).
- Make honey butter and put it in the refrigerator so the flavors can blend.
- Marinate the chicken as soon as I get up or the night before.
- Cook the mashed potatoes and put them in a crock pot. Put the crock in the refrigerator. About four hours before dinner, pull out the crock, put it on the base and cook on low, stirring occasionally.
- Make the salad.
- Stir fry
- Cut up meat.
- Cut up vegetables.
- Either make the sauce ahead of time or set out the ingredients.
- Tacos & Cheese Dip
- Cook the beef and season it. Put in crock pot in refrigerator. Cook the chicken and season it. Put in crock pot in refrigerator. Cut up cheese cubes and add chilies and pimientos for cheese dip. Put in crock and put in refrigerator.
- Cut up lettuce, tomato and onion. Shred cheese.
- Get out tortilla warmer and set on counter.
- Get out taco shells.
- About two hours before dinner, pull out the three crocks, put on bases and start heating.
- Sloppy Joes, French Fries, Green Beans
- Brown beef, add seasonings and put in crock pot or casserole dish. Put in refrigerator. Heat crock a couple of hours or reheat meat in microwave or skillet right before dinner.
- I use frozen fries so there’s nothing to do ahead.
- I usually go ahead of open green beans, put in sauce pan, put on the lid and leave them until time to heat them.
These are my most-used strategies:
- Use crock pots whenever you can. I have about five crock pots: 6 quart, 5 quart, 2.5 quart, 1.5 quart, mini. I’ve been known to use them all at the same time! Keep in mind that you don’t have to cook something all day to benefit from using a crock pot. They can be used for re-heating as well. In my opinion, this is probably one of the most under-utilized tools in most people’s kitchen.
- A LOT of foods can be made ahead and then cooked at mealtime. I do this all the time with casseroles, muffins, side dishes, etc. If you’re not sure, just try it! Remember that you can’t put a cold dish in a hot oven so be sure to either bring the dish to room temperature first OR put the dish in a cold oven and then turn the oven on. Start the timer when the oven reaches the correct temperature.
- You don’t have to do EVERYTHING ahead. Some meals can’t be made ahead – like our family favorite, chicken piccata. So even though I can’t make it ahead, there are things I can do. I can prepare the sides – usually garlic bread and salad. I can get the ingredients out and on the counter. I can even set the table. Every little bit helps.
- Lay out your recipes. If I’m making dishes that require recipes (which is usually the case), I pull the recipes out in the morning and lay them on the counter. Then I look them over to be sure I have everything I need and know how much is involved in making them. Sometimes at that point I also write on my planner page when I need to do certain things. For example, if I was making baked potatoes, fish and steamed vegetables, I might write:
4:00 Put potatoes in the oven
5:30 Start vegetables & fish
I usually write the times in my planner when I’m feeling frazzled or have a lot going on. I also do it when it’s a new recipe and I want to be sure I get the timing right. The notes aren’t just to remind me, they’re also to help me figure out the timing.
- Doubling. This can be a HUGE time saver. When you’re making chili, make a double batch and freeze half. When you’re making sloppy joes, make a double batch and freeze the extra. When you’re making rolls, like these Refrigerator Crescent Rolls, make a double batch and freeze half. When you’re cooking and shredding chicken, make a bunch and freeze the extras for another day. If you’re chopping peppers and know you’ll need some tomorrow, too – cut them all now! It makes me SO happy when I need shredded chicken and there’s some in the freezer. Or chopped green peppers and I have a bag of them. Doubling can save a LOT of time.
On that same note, when you have a serving or two of something left over, don’t throw it away. Freeze it. Then some night when you don’t feel like cooking, you can pull out the leftovers and enjoy them without having to cook.
I’ve been using these strategies for the last 30 years and I promise they work! Even if you work outside the home, these techniques can help you. When I worked full-time for a couple of years, I did a lot of preparation the night before when I was cleaning up from dinner or in the morning before I left for work. It made meal time SO much easier!
Do you struggle with mealtime madness? Have you tried any of these strategies?