A Working Mom's Meal Plan
The hardest part of my day is when we get home and everyone is immediately hungry. I love to cook and prefer
home-cooked meals, but I don't like to cook much during the work week. And yet, dinner has to get on the table...
My solution: make-ahead meals, freeze-ahead meals and recipes so easy that I'll make them on a Monday. I cook
mostly on the weekends, always doubling recipes, and rely heavily on my extra freezer and a decently-stocked pantry.
This cooking style saves me time and money, and it makes my life simpler—so I can actually enjoy sitting down
to supper at 6 with my family. I hope these recipes will make the witching hour a little better at your house too.
Tips and Tricks
*Dinner by six (or 7, or 8...) is something nice to strive for, but try not to stress over it too much. Realistically, there are nights when you'll just need to throw a frozen pizza in, so find a brand you like and keep one in the house.
*Preheat the oven or start pasta water boiling the minute you walk in the door.
*When you have a free weekend afternoon coming up (or a snow day), plan to cook two double batches at the same time. You'll have dinner for that night, plus at least three more dinners for the freezer. Get the first dish simmering, and start chopping veggies for the next one while you wait. Plus, you can often reuse a lot of the same dishes which saves time.
*I don't actually write out a weekly menu, but it helps to somewhat plot out a week of dinners in your head, so you remember to take things out of the freezer in time. Sunday's leftover soup can be Tuesday's dinner, a casserole might feed you Monday/Wednesday, plan a homemade pizza for Thursday...
*I sometimes shop and plan to cook with the best intentions, and then our plans change or I just run out of time. It happens. Just stick whatever's perishable in the freezer, and get to it when you can.
*Always make a full box of pasta, even if the recipe only calls for half—you can always use up the extra in a different way later on. I also make extra rice whenever I can. Add some veggies and whatever else is leftover in the fridge for a speedy meal. (This also works great for lunches on the weekends.)
*A good tip from my sister Carolyn: if you need white wine for a recipe and you're not a big white wine drinker, buy one of those 4-packs with smaller bottles instead of a large bottle of wine.
*Get out all ingredients before cooking, as well as any pots/pans, measuring cups etc. that you'll need. It speeds things along. It also helps to keep out a large bowl for all the scraps and garbage, then you can just dump stuff into it as you go instead of making repeated trips to the trash.
*Stretch out meals with big salads on the side. This also helps lighten up heavier casseroles. I like to make a batch of dressing for the fridge, and add things like nuts and dried cranberries to the salads to keep them interesting.
*Don't be afraid to use a mix in a pinch. My favorite cheat is peanut butter cookie mix, the kind in a bag. Roll in balls, bake and then stick a hershey's kiss or small peanut butter cup in each one. No one will know the difference.
*Use cookie cutters to make any food more interesting for your kids. Sandwiches, cheese slices and french toast all taste better in shapes. Likewise, a quick shake of rainbow sprinkles makes sliced bananas more appealing. Or, add a little cinnamon sugar "fairy dust" to apple slices, applesauce or toast.
*Cut-up veggies help keep everyone happy while the soup is simmering or the casserole is in the oven, without spoiling dinner entirely. I buy a lot of green/red peppers, edamame, cherry tomatoes and carrots.
*Cover casseroles with foil, then use a Sharpie to write the baking instructions (oven temp/timing) right on top so you won't need to dig the recipe out again.
*Stock up on extra pyrex and glass casserole dishes when possible—watch
for a good promotion at Target, or keep an eye out at tag sales. Disposable containers are OK for freezing soups, but don't use them for reheating.
*I highly recommend investing in an extra chest freezer if you have the space for one. They're not overly expensive, especially if you watch for a good sale, and it's great to have the additional storage space for stocking up.
*Keep a written list of what's in your freezer. (If you're super organized, you can even jot down when you put items in there.) That way you'll always have a quick reference of your extra meals and ingredients. I usually put things in the fridge to defrost the night before we're planning to eat them.
*Pick up cheap aluminum dishes at the dollar store—they're good to have in the house when you want to bring food to a friend who has just had a major life event. Ditto for disposable containers. Write what it is on the top with a Sharpie (in case of allergies), along with any heating instructions.
*Take advantage of buy-one, get-one sales. I often pick up extra pizza, english muffins, bagels, ground turkey, bacon, ice cream, shredded cheese and butter this way—and all can go right in the freezer. You'll be happy when you go to make cookies and there's butter in the house.
*Choose your recipes, then check your cabinets (and freezer list) to see what you have and make a list of what you still need—then write down items in order of the store layout. It will make your grocery shopping go faster.
*Watch the weekly ads, and you can even get them delivered by email. If you save money because of a promotion, then you can splurge for the good imported parmesan without feeling guilty.
*Grocery shop during your lunch hour if it's at all feasible. Stick a cooler in the back of the car, and pick up a big bag of ice at the store. This works especially well in the winter when the car stays cold!