We used to live a carefree cooking life: very little planning, very elaborate recipes and a lot of midweek shopping. A big part of me misses those days, but the necessary meal planning that comes from having kids, has definitely contributed to more organized evenings and significantly less stressful dinner times. So much of what we do now would have been helpful pre-kids, but it would have been hard to convince me five years ago.
We’re only three years into this life, but there are a few tricks that have helped us figure it out. First, here’s what I want you to know. One of the things I struggle with most in life is organization. I am the ultimate post-it-surrounding-the-computer-screen girl. I’m constantly upset about the state of our basement, but I have no idea how to fix it. It is not uncommon for my husband to decide to clean up my closet and straighten my belongings (and me) back up, or to close cabinet doors as he walks through the kitchen. So, while all of these tips below may sound Type A, they’re easily attainable and for me, have gradually become natural.
- Whenever possible, shop on Saturday (or, the day before you intend to cook). This forces you to think about your week ahead of time and start making a list Friday night, or, as is often my case, Saturday morning. When you wake up Sunday morning the only thing that comes between you and getting started is a big cup of coffee (in theory).
- If you’re committing to one big day of cooking to get yourself through the week, that’s awesome. But, do yourself a favor and choose dishes that require different cooking methods. You’ll lose your mind, and never get out of the kitchen if you plan to roast vegetables and make a lasagna, enchiladas and muffins. Instead, I like to break it down to oven, stovetop (2 at the most) and slow cooker (baked oatmeal, a pot of soup and pulled chicken, respectively).
- While it can be boring, meals that serve you more than once will be your best friend. Sometimes I wish we ate less stews and soups, but there is major beauty in reducing the time spent in your kitchen. I often double a dish to feel like the process was worth it. Ingredients that have been cooked are good for the inevitable days that do not have a plan (leftover roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli are just excuses to throw together an omelet or a salad).
- Prep, prep and prep. Even if you love to cook, the process always feels daunting if you know you have 6 onions to chop, 10 ears of corn to shuck, a block of cheese to grate, nuts to toast and a head of garlic to roast, just to get started. On our best days, we try to do some of that work on Saturday, for a Sunday cook, or on Sunday, to use throughout the week. Everyone I know is more likely to actually make good on their intentions when the ingredients are just ready to be emptied into a pan.
- Along those lines, do not be afraid to break a recipe into tiny parts. Spending days with babies has made me crazier, sometimes crankier, and without question, scrappier. If the baby falls asleep, I don’t know if it’s going to be for 20 minutes or two hours, and I don’t know if that’s the last nap that I will see that day. There have been many, many recipes that have been made in several 10 minute increments: I peel and slice the onions, later I mix together a sauce, next time I measure out the rice and dry spices and finally I cook everything. Bonus: when it’s time to cook, you can pretend you’re on TV since everything has been prepped for you already (who cares if you were the one who did it?).
- Read the ingredient lists for every recipe you plan to make that week. Peel and deal with all your onions at once (I guess we use a lot of onions). If you need two chopped for two recipes and one sliced for another, chop the two, divide between to containers and label before storing (chili; sauce). Slice the other, put it in a container and label that one, too (fajitas). Whenever possible, combine your prepped ingredients into the same container. (Wash, halve, seed and slice your pepper now and add it to the fajita container.) I love masking tape for this.
- While you’re prepping, let the kids help. One Sunday, when our older daughter, Easton, was about 2-years-old, we went downstairs to begin our morning. My husband went to grind the beans for the coffee as I turned the oven on. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Easton get up on her toes, grab an onion from the counter and start peeling. She was included, occupied, and even if it took triple the time it would have for me to do it, she’s helping.
- Put the food away, and freeze future portions, as you intend to eat them. If you’ve made enough soup for two nights and one lunch, measure out the amounts into all three containers ahead of time, so on the night of, you have eliminated the guesswork and dirtying any extra pans. Pull out the masking tape again and put a quick “Tuesday” on your container.
- Lastly, as ridiculous as this is, if you’re home, set the table whenever it stops seeming like a silly time to do so. (It’s crossed my mind at 9am, but so has organizing my closet – not going to happen.) But at 4pm, when we’re not eating until 6:30? Yes, I’ll do it. For me, it’s just one of those things that can make me lose my mind: I’ve spent a lot of time making dinner (or maybe I’ve thrown tortillas and cheese into the microwave), the food is hot and…there aren’t plates or forks or napkins out. As everything gets cold, I get sadder. Sadder = deciding that all of the above steps were not worth it = me really wanting to just order a pizza tomorrow. When the girls are older, this will certainly be one of their jobs, but for now, I save myself the heartache.
- OK, no really, this is lastly. We all have weeks that we’re too busy: we have parties, or obligations or just want to be outside. Sometimes the last thing we want to do, is step into the kitchen. That’s why you have a freezer, a carton of eggs and a drawer full of take out menus. And that’s OK. It has to be.