First, I should say that cooking and meal planning require discipline and commitment. Meaning, it takes little bits of daily decisions which lead up to an efficient day (or two) of meal prep. My streamlined approach may not work for every family. I pretty much cook everything on weekends. I never come home and say "What should I make my family for dinner?". There's always something already made.
Here is what my fridge looks like on a Sunday night, before the work week. Twelve servings of breakfast, 18 salads for lunches, 6 second lunches of soup and some sort of protein, 28 dinners of which include vegetables and a protein, 14 days worth of snacks for my boys. And breast milk, of course :) I don't make breakfast for more than 3 days at a time because it doesn't taste as good and it's easy to make.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I use a free app called AnyList. I highly recommend this app. It allows you to create recipes and directly populate ingredients into shopping lists from the recipes. It also allows for user sharing which means if my husband stops somewhere and sees we need something on a list, he can grab it and cross it off of mine. I add all of my meals - even salads - to my recipe lists, no matter how simple, so that I can easily add items to the grocery list. As we run out of things throughout the week, we both add things to the list. Before I go to the store, I make a list of the things I plan on making for the week and complete my grocery list based on my menu plan. Bam! Meal planning is complete!
Getting to the grocery store is one of the most difficult parts to meal planning. I do most of my food prep during baby sleep times, which leaves me with the challenge of finding time to get groceries while juggling my 3-year-old's extremely busy social life. I'm going to start taking advantage of the service where the store shops for you and you just pick it up. It's only $5, which is worth the time it takes me to squeeze it in between work appointments.
So here are the rest of my "tricks":
- I make meals in a mix and match format. Usually four options for a protein and vegetables. For example, egg and kale scramble for breakfast can be mixed with roasted veggies, almond slaw, or some sort of vegetable soup. We don't eat starches for the most part, and snacks are usually fruit, nuts, yogurt and for the kids my zucchini carrot oat muffins.
- I make everything in enormous batches. This makes it annoying but overall more efficient. I have a recipe I cook in a crock pot (which I will post in part 2) that I will make in two large batches without even washing the crock pot in between. I will then freeze the second batch and make it just twice a month.
- When cooking in huge batches, it's very important to be efficient with time management. To begin making salads for our lunches, I lay down 18-20 containers ahead of time. I pull out all of the ingredients from the fridge at once. I wash and chop each vegetable and put that particular vegetable in a bowl, then add it to the container. I keep a large bowl near me at all times to discard trash, instead of walking to the trash can. Here's what it looks like on my dining room table when I'm making salads.
- I pack lunches for everyone at least 3 days in advance. When I make soup, I will set aside portions for everyone. This is so good - we rarely have to pack lunches the night before. This is not only great for convenience but for health and weight management. Whether or not I workout at 6 am or I'm teaching at 6 pm, I have to fuel my body appropriately for the intense workouts in which I participate. I simply cannot eat a heavily carb-loaded food for lunch and expect to have energy needed to get through Body Attack.
- I use the crock pot. A lot. So much in fact, I'm probably going to buy myself another one sometime soon. Today I roasted a 7.5 pound pig. I slow cooked it for 20 hours, and it is so delicious and tender, yet I spent more time opening the package than I did actually doing anything special to it. I highly recommend getting a crock pot and learning how to use it.
- Going back to time management, don't bother to clean what you don't need to clean while you're in cook-mode. Just get as much prepped as possible. I clean things when I need more space in my small kitchen or if a tool needs to be washed. Like I mentioned, I'll recycle the crock pot.
- Set aside time to do this. Two-three hours at least. It doesn't need to be all at once. I make everyone breakfast usually on Sundays and make a large enough batch to get through a few days. While two or three hours seems like a lot, it's significantly more efficient than trying to make everyone's individual dinners and lunches the night before.
- I don't make anything overly complicated and I get to know my recipes very well. Yes, I have some complex recipes on this blog, but I don't take the time to make most of those during my weekly food prep. Also, anything I wrote during my pregnancy isn't an accurate reflection of how I eat or cook, because I indulge much more while I'm growing a person :)
So those are some of the basics to time management and cooking as much as I do. Yes, it's a lot of work. For those that know me, now maybe you have some insight as to why I'm so against giving my kids junk food on a regular basis, especially between meals. I make it a huge priority to feed my family healthy, home cooked meals. So I want them eat the food I take the time to make for them.
In Part 2, I'll post what my weekly food plan looks like, including recipes, to help you and your family eat healthier and more conveniently!