I think we’ve all been there: you’re walking in the door with your kids coming back from the nursery or childminder’s and a full day of work. You’ve got your bags and your kids school stuff (often with an oddly-shaped-but-extremely-fragile-and-difficult-to-carry craft project your kid made at school – what’s up with that?). You walk in, throw the stuff down, set the baby down, help the kid get his shoes off. All you really want to do is sit down and have a cup of tea and five minutes to yourself but you also know you needed to start dinner about five minutes ago and the baby has started chewing the legs of the furniture for good measure (no? just me?).
This blog post is all about making meal preparation easier – not for Pinterest parents but for real life. I’ve asked other parents for their advice and pain points, as well as looking back at different strategies that have worked for me at different times.
The important thing to note with all of this is that what works for one person may not work for another, and what works for one family at one point in time may not work as well for the same family at another stage in their lives.
Nothing in this post is meant to be overly prescriptive or promises to work for everyone, but by covering a range of ideas, I hope you’ll finish reading this with something that you can take away and make your own. Some mothers I spoke with make everything from scratch or are super planners and others rely heavily on frozen or prepared foods or find planning too stressful. And that’s okay. The important thing with all of this is to find what is right for you right now.
Tip #1: Plan ahead
I have found that taking the mental stress out of the week makes a huge difference. I hate being under time pressure and trying to drum up ideas for dinner (I’m not that creative at the best of times, let alone when there’s a time crunch). And from people I’ve spoken to in writing this blog, planning has been the life preserver for a lot of parents.
I’ve varied the details of how I plan over the years. At one stage, I had a five-week meal plan that I simply cycled through. This meant I didn’t need to plan every week, and after a few months and with the change of season I could do a massive planning session to plan another season of dinners in five-week cycles. This worked well for me when I was really time-poor but it does require a bigger stash of quick and nutritious recipes to have on hand. But it also meant we didn’t have the same meal too often so we didn’t get bored of anything.
Another approach to meal planning I’ve employed in the past was having a basic structure for the week and then varying the specific meals. For instance, Monday would be soup day, Tuesday pasta day, Wednesday salad day, Thursday casserole day, etc. One week, soup would mean vegetable soup. Another week would be black bean soup. You get the idea. This helped as it meant as I planned for the weekly shop, I didn’t have to come up with seven meal ideas completely from scratch. It was easier to think of a soup recipe, a pasta dish, a casserole. I work well with a prompt or a structure.
Lately, you can find me Saturday morning, watching the news and drinking my coffee, and planning the meals for the week and then my grocery list (side note: I also group my grocery list by where things are in the store, as I still like to do a physical shop over an online order and delivery, and I find this saves me loads of time and frustration in the store.) This means I can adapt the meals based on what I know the week has in store for us, such as swim lessons on a Tuesday when I know we’ll walk in the door later than usual and super hungry. Or if I know the weather is going to be really rainy and cold I’ll plan some stews or things or if it’s hot we have a lot more salads or quick pasta dishes. I can adapt based on the week we’re likely to have. I use my iPhone calendar for my diary and often will make my menu plan and grocery list in my Notes app on my phone, so even if I’m nursing the baby while I do this I can make the whole plan and grocery list one-handed (for those of you who can remember the babe-in-arms stage, you can appreciate how much being able to do things one handed matters!).
A friend of mine does something similar. She looks at who is going to be home which evenings and plans accordingly. She goes a step further in a stroke of brilliance and doubles up when cooking certain parts of the meals to create intentional leftovers, which she can use later in the week to save time. For instance, she’ll cook a double portion of veg on the Monday and save the extra veg to serve on the Tuesday, when she makes pasta sauce from scratch (again, a double portion so she has extra to use later in the week or freeze).
Another friend plans meals on a daily basis. She or her husband will pick up ingredients from the shop daily, depending on who gets home earlier or is busy with the kids. This may mean doing a lot of smaller shops but is also more manageable for parents who feel anxious about planning a whole week’s worth of meals in advance.
Whatever approach you take when you plan, a plan means when you walk in the door on a weekday evening, you know what you’re having and that you have all the ingredients you need.
Tip #2: Find cheats that work for you
This tip really has to be personalised based on what matters to you and what makes you tick. For some people, having everything made from scratch really matters, in which case cheats such as cooking double batches and freezing like my aforementioned friend does or doing your prep work in one go at the weekend may work well.
I’ve never found the energy to do lots of prep work on the weekend or for some reason cooking double batches feels much too organised, smart, and grown up for me. I also am happy to use some prepared foods amid my home-cooked meals, so one of my cheats is to use a jar of pasta sauce instead of homemade (I love the Sainsbury’s Tomato and Hidden Veg sauce, which doesn’t have the sweeteners a lot of pasta sauces have). I also use a pouch of Mexican rice for my stuffed peppers recipe rather than making my rice from scratch. It’s not for everyone, but this works for me.
Some mothers avoid pre-processed foods, but still find a cheat in the form of frozen whole foods. A friend of mine whose husband and she both work as musicians has to travel a lot for work and struggle with the planning tip, so the freezer has solved the issue. Stockpiling frozen salmon, chicken, and just about any kind of veg has meant that they have options each day even if they haven’t planned a weekly menu or have just returned from a gig and haven’t made it to the shops.
Several mothers swear by their slow cookers or electric pressure cookers. This can be a godsend for parents who are time poor in the evenings but can throw ingredients into the slow cooker in the morning so dinner is ready by the time they get home in the evening. One friend has an electric pressure cooker and hasn’t looked back. Meals are quick and it’s also good for reheating frozen stuff if you have managed to cook and freeze some meals. She says you can leave things on keep warm for up to 10 hours too. It also does yoghurt and proves dough, so if you’re like me and cannot reconcile yourself to buying a kitchen gadget unless it’s a good all-rounder, both slow cookers and pressure cookers come with a lot to offer.
Tip #3: Separate elements to work for everyone
A lot of families will have divided tastes. Mum and Dad want something more adventurous but kids wouldn’t enjoy it. Some kids are picky eaters and will dig their heels in at the whiff of a sauce or seasoning. This is where pick-and-mix meals can be a lifesaver.
A good staple in our weekly menu is pasta, but my son doesn’t like sauces or the vegetarian meatballs that my husband and I like. So my son always has his pasta shells plain with some microwave-steamed peas while my husband and I have the pasta shells with sauce and meatballs. When we have roast veg and vegetarian sausages, we keep the gravy on the side for my husband and me and son dips his cut up sausages in ketchup. Even if you cannot find many recipes that everyone in the family enjoys, you may find that if you can keep the elements somewhat separate, there will be something on the table for everyone.
Another friend of mine offers salads as a pick and mix, which somehow seems to overcome the kids’ objections to salad because they can make their own. Instead of a big bowl of tossed salad, offering six mini-bowls with peppers, grated cheese, boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber and diced carrot means everyone can have a bit of what they fancy and gives kids a feeling of choice and independence, which at some ages can be particularly important for them.
Tip #4: Become a magpie for quick and easy nutritious recipes
If a recipe doesn’t go from me walking into the kitchen and pulling out ingredients to sitting down to eat within 30 minutes, it just won’t work for me and my family. By the time we all get home from work and childcare pickups, the timer is ticking and we have to race to get dinner done before baths and bedtime routines need to start. It’s helpful to have a selection of quick and easy go-to recipes up your sleeve.
I share some of these here on this blog (look for keyword ‘recipe’), but I am also not above things like some frozen Quorn chicken nuggets with frozen peas. Whenever I find a recipe that I can whip up quickly, I cut it out of the magazine or save it in my internet browser and eventually write it down on an index card that goes into my recipe box. This also makes meal planning easier, as if I can’t think of anything I can simply open my recipe box and dig out something we may have forgotten about.
For example, at a friend’s house recently, she pan-fried some halloumi and put them on a store-bought baguette with mayo, cucumber and tomato for our lunch. It was so simple, but you better believe that after lunching at hers this has become a summer favourite, which we’ve tweaked by switching hummus for the mayo.
Years ago, I remember seeing a Pret a Manger salad that, but for the ham (as I’m vegetarian) looked really tasty. I thought, “I could make something like that,” and I did: romaine lettuce, boiled and cooled new potatoes, chilled peas, chunks of feta, pine nuts, and a dollop of honey mustard salad dressing and presto! Another summertime recipe.
You can get inspiration from lots of places, friends, cafes, magazines, and websites, if you keep your eyes open.
Tip #5: You get to decide when dinner is
I remember feeling guilty once when I realised my little boy went to sleep later than a lot of his peers at nursery. Then I learned that his friends didn’t have any dinner when they got home. Their last meal of the day was at nursery and when the got home they immediately started baths and bedtime routines. The parents ate after the kids were in bed. Another friend regularly makes dinner for her school-aged children, often before her partner gets home from work. They then get the kids to bed and have dinner later, just the two of them.
Again, there’s no right or wrong. I’ve realised that my son’s natural clock means there’s not much point getting him in bed much before 8pm, even when he was a baby, so for us waiting to eat dinner until after he’s in bed just won’t work. We also enjoy eating together as a family and are fortunate that neither my husband nor I work particularly late. It does mean our meals are made quickly, and it can add a bit of pressure to find quick, nutritious, and kid-friendly meals, but we also get to sit down together and share that meal. But that may not work for a family where the child needs an earlier bedtime, or when one of the parents doesn’t get in until later.
Think about what works for you. No one else gets to tell you when you have dinner but you.
Tip #6: Have some staples at home at the ready
As prepared as you may be, and as much as you plan ahead, there seem to always be those nights when things just don’t work out. It can be a godsend to have a few staples at home that you can throw together for a quick and easy dinner without needing to go to the shop.
I’ve already mentioned that we tend to always have some frozen Quorn meatballs in the freezer and a jar of healthy sauce and a package of dried pasta. I know even if I get home late and the baby is crying I can cook this one-handed in 20 minutes from walking in the door to food on the table. I also almost always have a loaf of homemade bread (well, homemade in the bread machine) and tins of baked beans for a quick but oddly satisfying beans on toast.
My husband recently stopped eating eggs for animal welfare reasons, but when we used to have eggs in the house regularly a good standby would be ‘breakfast for dinner’ – eggs, toast, orange juice, grilled tomatoes, maybe some sauteed spinach if you have it.
More recently, I’m trying to make sure we’re always stocked for a salad – crunchy peppers, tomatoes, crispy lettuce, and a selection of dressings (or some English mustard, olive oil, and lemon juice for whisking together).
What your staple is depends on what you can easily have on hand, but it’s nice to know that you always have certain things in the larder, fridge, and/or freezer for those rainy days.
Final thought before we go…
I just want to close this by saying I was surprised at how much there can be to say about meal preparation. When I asked for thoughts from a facebook group of local parents I was surprised at how different we could all be, and how much interest there was in the topic of getting dinner on the table. This post is already one of my longest and we haven’t even touched on lunches, snacks, or weekends!
So if you have been reading this with any trace of panic or guilt or shame about what goes on in your house, I hope you can appreciate that it isn’t easy for everyone, even if it seems that way sometimes. We all have to cut the cloth to make it fit, and sometimes that means reaching for the frozen fish fingers or the takeaway menu.
And that’s okay.
Interested in more about this subject? Here are some additional resources you might like:
The Mom Hour podcast about meal planning – Meaghan and Sarah are real moms who do a really funny, light, and engaging podcast. They have a feeding a family series that I enjoyed listening to, from dinner to breakfast & lunches to sweets and snacks. It’s US-based so some of the stuff they talk about may be unavailable to UK parents, but it’s fun and super non-judgemental.
Love food hate waste – https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/ has portion guides, storage tips, and recipes to use up leftover food.
Vegetarian Society – http://recipes.vegsoc.org/ has great recipes if you’re also vegetarian and looking for inspiration (or simply want to try a meat-free night)
Good Housekeeping – http://www.goodhousekeeping.co.uk/food/recipes also has a wide array of recipes, many of which I’ve adapted to make work for my family, either by substituting something veggie-friendly for the meat or by making simpler/faster/easier to pull together.