My Daily Family Dinner Hack – How Moving to ‘A Dinner Blueprint’ To Satisfy My Children (and Schedule) Has Saved Me Time & Sanity

#MomsFoodHacks #MomsDinnerHacks #MomsSavingTime

How much time does it take you each week to put dinner on the table for your family? I mean the whole process — from thinking about what to cook, to choosing recipes, to visiting the virtual or real grocery store, making kid-friendly adjustments to said recipes, actually cooking and then the (never-ending) dishes that result. What about dealing with toddler and young child preferences?

Yes…family meals are kind of a part-time job. However, there are some workarounds.

There are not many subjects I give unsolicited advice in, but food – including hacks to make cooking homemade meals daily for a family work – for this, I’m you’re girl! I’ve been the unofficial menu, cooking and all-things-food advisor to family and friends for decades now.  My system saves me at least 1 to 2 hours per week.

So, before I explain my system for dinners I want to caveat a few things.

Recovering Foodie
In my heart, I’m still a foodie and love cooking. There were entire years pre-kids that I didn’t make the same meal twice, I went to culinary school (for fun), I have a collection of cookbooks and food-zines that far exceed the capacity of our urban condo. I see a looming expiration date as a challenge – i.e. well how many things can I make with that almond meal before the end of the month? But I digress…

I realized about a year ago, that I needed to give up fancy-meals or at least, pause them for a while. Several things led me to this conclusion…such as, serving my family dinner at 8 pm (i.e. past my children’s bedtime) more often than I’d like to admit, washing dishes until midnight (swearing like a sailor)…the list is long.  With my system, things are better now.  There are times, however, where the schedule-defeating impulses of foodie-ism are too great to resist. Every once in a while, making a layer cake after your kids are asleep, is okay!

Otherwise, I rely on a general rotation of meals. Please don’t mistake this for the 1950’s version (“Meatloaf Mondays,” “Taco Tuesdays,” “Spaghetti Wednesdays,” etc). My hack allows for as much (or as little) variation as you like. Having a system has saved me considerable hands-on time and precious mental energy.

The Basic Principles of The Dinner Blueprint:

  • You make at least 2, but 3 is better ‘2X’ (feed your family twice) meals every week.
  • You keep your favorite weekday and weeknight grains on hand in your pantry at all times.
  • You have at least 2 ‘weeknight’ proteins in your freezer at all times.
  • You don’t cook anything with a carcass (i.e. whole chicken, whole fish – something to tempt you to make stock) on a Sunday night (or the night before you have to go to work).
  • Every meal has 1 protein and 2 to 3 vegetables, typically 1 grain – but choose your own adventure here, based on how you like to eat.

How to Make the Plan Work
I generally make one (ideally two) 2X (feeds my family twice) meal each week, one during the work week and the other one or two on weekends. I then rotate the ‘go to meals’ that I know they like and limit my experimentation (to about 20% of our meals).

  1. Stock Up! Buy/restock all of the weeknight and weekend grains for your pantry (see my list of my favorite food staples below). Keep 2 bags of each item on hand. Also buy 1 or 2 bags of frozen vegetables to keep in your freezer at all times – i.e. cut corn, peas, broccoli florets.
  2. Shop Smart Each Week – For your big weekly grocery run buy your proteins and fresh vegetables for the week, restock any low inventory pantry staples.
  3. Work on a schedule where you’re cooking meals that feed your family twice at least two times – like this:

Saturday (make 2 X meal – i.e. roast a whole chicken, with butternut squash & serve a salad for you & the hubby, salad ‘components’ deconstructed for the kids – i.e. cut tomatoes, cut carrots, cut butternut squash, cut cucumber).

Sunday (make 2 X meal – Maple roast pork loin, roasted sweet potatoes, sugar snap peas + cut raw carrots).

Monday (Saturday meal part 2 – leftover chicken braised in orange juice & olive brine, over couscous and sautéed peas & corn – from the freezer).

Tuesday – (Sunday meal part 2 – pork leftovers, warmed up & put into wheat burritos, with hot sauce, avocado & baby spinach leaves and grape tomatoes for mom/dad, pork with avocado/grape tomatoes, warmed wheat tortillas spread with hummus on the side for the kiddos)

Wednesday – Quick 1x meal (cous cous + turkey ‘meat’ balls & corn, pea & grape tomato salad on the side)

Thursday – Quick 1x meal (wheat pasta with sausage, spinach & acorn squash)

Friday – (2X weeknight friendly meal – Brazilian-style chicken & rice with peas and olives)

My ‘Go-To’ Food Staples:

Grains

Weeknight grains (cooks stove-top in 12 minutes or less) Weekend grains (20 – 40 minutes cook time)
·      Israeli-style Cous Cous

·      Quinoa

·      Whole wheat tortilla (fresh)

·      Whole wheat pasta (dried or fresh)

·      Egg noodles (dried or fresh)

·      Rice noodles (dried or fresh)

·      Fresh/frozen pasta tortellini (occasionally, treat night)

·      Barley (stove-top, about 40 minutes)

·      Brown rice (traditional – stove top, about 40 minutes)

·      Rolls (i.e. burger rolls) or biscuits – (I bake from scratch so allow 1 – 2 hours total time. If you pick up from a bakery, add these to your weeknight rotation)

·      Quick cooking rice (20 – 25 minutes, I cook 1 weeknight dish with quick rice so if you have the time can be done)

·      Polenta (pre-cooked sliced into rounds & warmed in the oven or instant via-stove top, about 15 minutes)

Proteins

Weeknight proteins (Less than 15 – 20 minutes cook time) Weekend proteins (longer cook times, but easier meals to make 2X)
Eggs (scrambled or hard-boiled & put into a salad)

Chicken breast (boneless, skinless pan seared then finished in the oven – 12 minutes)

Chicken thighs (boneless, skinless – pan seared then braised, stove top about 20 – 25 minutes )

Ground turkey (sautéed with spices for a quesadilla or burrito or stuffed into a cut tomato about 10 minutes or combined with garlic/1 egg & spices – rolled into meat balls and sautéed stove top for about 6 minutes)

Ground pork (same prep/cooktime as ground turkey)

Pork tenderloin (Pan seared on the stove then baked in the oven, high heat about 15 minutes)

Ground beef (same prep time as ground turkey or pork, just add 1 or 2 minutes cooking time)

Fish fillets (braised, stove top in white wine or artichoke heart brine or broth about 8 – 10 minutes)

Scallops (fresh or frozen/thawed – pan seared, about 3 minutes total time)

Shrimp (fresh or frozen/thawed, peeled & deveined – pan seared or braised in a simple sauce – like coconut milk + curry, 3 – 5 minutes)

·      Whole turkey breast (slow cooker 4 – 5, oven roasted – 1 to 1 1/2 hours)

·      Whole chicken (roasted in the oven 45 – 55 minutes, slow cooker 4 hours)

·      Chicken parts (i.e. thighs, legs, etc) on the bone (40 – 45 minutes in the oven, roasted)

·      Pork loin roast (in the oven, roasted 35 – 45 minutes depending on weight)

·      Pork shoulder/Boston Butt (slow cooker, 8 – 10 hours; oven 2 ½ to 3 hours.)

·      Whole fish (oven roasted or stove-top, 15 – 25 minutes depending on size of fish)

·      Tofu (the time here is to press the tofu, which has to be done ahead. Then cooking it stove top is super fast/easy – i.e. 10 – 15 minutes, braised or sauteed).

Vegetables

Weeknight veggies (served raw/steamed or sauteed minimal chopping, on the table in 5 – 10 minutes) Weekend veggies (can experiment with longer cook times, but still within 30 – 40 minutes)
·      Avocado (raw – cut for the kids, sometimes as guacamole for mom/dad)

·      Cucumber (cut/sliced raw)

·      Carrots (raw, cut)

·      Baby spinach (raw, sometimes sautéed)

·      Zucchini (cut into thin rounds, sautéed stove top or steamed for just 2 – 3 minutes)

·      Sugar snap peas (fresh, when in season – trim ends and either steam or saute about 3 minutes)

·      Green peas (frozen – steam, boil or saute, 3 minutes)

·      Corn (frozen – boil or saute stove top 5 – 8 minutes)

·      Corn (fresh, when in season – boil or braise, stove top – 8 – 11 minutes in whole ears or cut into rounds)

·      Grape tomatoes (raw, sliced in half or into quarters/eights for babies/toddlers)

·      Canned white beans (simmered stove top with garlic/anchovy – does not taste like anchovy when done, it’s delish & then mashed)

·      Butternut squash (peeled, cut into large chunks, de-seeded, oven roasted about 25 – 30 minutes, included with pasta week night cut very small and can simmer in stock/water for about 15 minutes)

·      Spaghetti squash (Oven roasted about 45 minutes)

·      Sweet potato (oven roasted cut into pieces, about 25 minutes or braised stove top then mashed)

·      White (i.e. Russett or Yukon Gold) potato (oven roasted or sautéed stove top in thin slices or chunks, about 20 – 30 minutes depending on how small the pieces are).

·      Lentils (dried, rinsed, cooked stove top about 35 – 40 minutes)

·      Black beans (dried, soaked then cooked stove top, 1 hour +)

·      Garbanzo beans/aka chick peas (dried, soaked, then cooked stove top 1 to 1 1/2 hours)

·      Eggplant (baked in the oven stuffed 20 minutes or sautéed stove top 10 – 15 minutes)

Is This Meal System Right For You?

Maybe. This systematic approach to dinner may work well for you if:

  • You’ve accepted the transition to a ‘lapsed’ or maybe even ‘recovering foodie’. If you haven’t… rock on and send me notes so I can vicariously enjoy your menus!
  • Your children are young (i.e. babies, toddlers, kids under age 8) – I would cook differently if my kids were older – at least I hope I will.
  • You value cooking (or the idea of cooking) and having homemade meals for your family every day or much of the week is important to you.

This is not going to work for you if:

  • You insist on remaining a foodie in the pure sense – this system requires you to kind of push that energy aside for a little while.
  • You really hate cooking. This can work for someone who isn’t a super confident or experienced cook, but if you just plain don’t like cooking this is not for you.

The Benefits Of Doing Family Dinner This Way
Here’s what I’ve been able to accomplish following a ‘blueprint’ or plan that relies on repetition to work:

  • Cooking mostly healthy, homemade meals for my family (four people) every night.
  • Work night meals that can be on the table within 30 minutes of my stepping through the door, even faster (i.e. 15 minutes) if needed.
  • Meals that minimize the amount of dishes to be dealt with afterwards.
  • Dinners that can be (mostly) enjoyed by my particular (read picky) 6-year-old and more adventurous 2-year-old and food-loving husband.
  • Meals that can be made within the construct of no more than one ‘full’ grocery store visit with a possible smaller ‘mini-shop’ visit as needed each week.

Avoid common pitfalls

  • Not planning ahead – having a stocked pantry (with your grains), having a weekly grocery run for vegetables and proteins is worth spending the time on. Back up strategies, grocery delivery (if it’s available to your area), lunch hour small grocery run (put your cold items in the office fridge until you head home).
  • Allergies – you may be thinking, but I have a family member who is…insert the right word here (dairy, gluten, meat, tree-nut, shellfish)_____free. My daughter was allergic to milk protein and we went dairy-free for her first 14 months. It’s completely do-able, this system can easily be used with allergy-friendly ingredients.
  • Kitchen or other catastrophe (i.e. fire drill at work) – you know, you have that perfect chicken and then set the oven mistakenly to 325º F versus 425º F in haste and at dinnertime it’s just not ready or you (in a rush) to leave work forget your groceries in the office fridge, etc. Traffic is insane you get home 40 minutes late… If stuff happens, well – this is when you fall to a plan B super quick dinner (i.e. burritos with scrambled eggs, avocado & grape tomatoes; grilled chicken breast (from your freezer protein stash) over salad or cous cous, quesadillas with quinoa, baby spinach, pan seared steak, etc. Or plan C – take out. Hey, I rarely pull the take out lever but in times of extreme fatigue or circumstance, it’s always an option.

So this requires a little bit of planning ahead – but of course, you already excel at that!  Once you get used to cooking this way, you can rotate what you do on weekends and week nights.

I imagine you have recipes you and your family already like that fit within this criteria – however, I will (soon) post a couple of sample menus that I really love. If you have questions, special requests, suggestions or worries about the pitfalls I didn’t address above, please leave a comment and I’ll respond.

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