Save Money~Time~Eliminate Daily Struggle~and Still Have Family Dinners!

Do you find yourself…

in line at the drive-thru more often than not?

eating on the run, grabbing a bite to eat for you and your children to eat on the way to a child’s practice or activity?

and your family eating whenever and whatever you feel like, everyone on his own schedule?

and your family eating in front of the computer or TV or alone in your bedroom?

I get it, it seems impossible to make a dinner AND have everyone home to eat at the same time! I have kids on swim team, so understand the challenges of having practice right during dinner hour and also a husband with a long commute who gets home very late each day. Having a spouse who travels frequently is also something we have had to deal with for several years of our marriage.

However, as I covered in "What's the Big Deal about Family Dinners Anyway?," there are a lot of benefits to eating dinner at home, together. Even if this can be accomplished sometimes, striving to increase the frequency is going to be a worthwhile endeavor.

Trust me, this is an area I struggled with so long. I was pretty good at baking because I did a lot of it growing up. Baking was something I enjoyed, and it was rewarding to see my treats quickly devoured by my brothers and—when I was older—my husband and children.

My cooking skills, however, were not as good. Growing up, I did help my mom with some cooking, but she had to do very quick dinners because of her work schedule. She taught music lessons in our home, so she usually worked from the time school got out each day until 6:30 p.m. It was the late 1970s and early 1980s; we were happy that the microwave had been invented! Much of our food was fried or microwaved. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have a lot of diverse cooking skills when I was married. The kids always joked, “Mom is a good baker, but not a very good cook.”

However, as our kids grew older and became involved in more activities, preparing food and eating together at home became a big challenge for our family. I knew I had to figure out something when I had 5 young boys and our days were filled with home schooling, then heading to swim team practice at about 4:30 pm each day. With a long commute to swim team, we would arrive home hungry and tired, well past dinner time and I was struggling with dinner. My husband was traveling extensively for work, so I had to get this figured out!

It was about this time that I first went to a meal prep business; they had the recipes and

ingredients all laid out, and customers like me would go from station to station filling a Ziploc bag or 9x13 aluminum pan with the ingredients. It took trying a few venues before I found one I liked, but it worked out very well for our family. My kids tried new foods, and I learned to cook, one recipe at a time. Better yet, I had food that could be cooked in a crockpot or was ready to bake as soon as we got home from swim practice or whatever other activities took us out of the house for the day. I no longer dreaded the infamous question of “What’s for dinner, Mom?”

We relied on that meal prep business until Dave and I moved across the country from Seattle to Delaware; at that point, we had five sons, a 15-month-old daughter, and I was 30 weeks pregnant with identical twins. Two weeks after that move, the twins were born by emergency C-section and spent their first month in the NICU; I spent a lot of time traveling to and from the hospital to be with them.

We were in a new state, settling into a new house, with new babies in the family, and no friends or family nearby; I had to figure out some method of feeding my growing family. So, I took all I had learned at the meal prep business and started to figure out how to do it myself.

I sat down and wrote down all the meal choices I had and included some new ones as well. With those recipes in hand, I enlisted my five older boys to help with meal preparation by assigning each boy one day of the week. It worked best to plan five weeks at a time, so each boy chose five different meals he wanted on “his” day. This took care of all the weekdays; on weekends, we ate things like leftovers, pancakes, grilled cheese, and pizza. My kids chose each meal only once in that five-week cycle, so we didn't get too tired of the meals. However, you don’t have to have 5 or more kids, just pick what works in your family. Some of my kids grow up and leave and some of my younger children get old enough to be paired with an older sibling for meal prep day, so meal making evolves. When people are gone for various reasons, a few of us all help to get it done.

Once we had our meals decided, I checked my cupboards and refrigerator to see what I needed to make the meals. Then I went on a large shopping trip to gather what we needed for the meals. Don’t worry, you don’t have to MAKE 25 meals because not all meals will require prepping.

3 LEVELS OF MEAL PREP

  1. Meals that I just need to have on hand to make the night of that meal. Popcorn chicken or tortellini are examples of this type of meal. There is nothing for me to do ahead of time, I just need to have them on hand to make for that dinner. They also require very little effort on the night I serve that meal.

  2. These meals are not made ahead of time either, but I will need to get the ingredients and will have some prep work to do on the night these meals are served. Examples of this type of meal are naan bread mini pizzas or tacos.

  3. This type of meal requires meal preparation to be done on our meal making weekend. They are either prepared in 9 X 13” disposable aluminum pans or put in gallon Zip-locks bags. I always double bag my baggies so I don’t have leaks in my freezer or refrigerator when they are thawing. Even though these meals do require time to make them ahead of time, they are so easy to prepare the night I am serving them. It is a matter of putting the contents from the baggie into the crockpot, grilling it, or baking it in the oven. Examples of these meals are lasagna, soup, or a roast.

For the meals that required advanced preparation, meal level number 3, we take a day or two to prepare all of them. I discovered that marinating the meat before freezing it, as well as freezing it in individual meal sized packages instead of a solid chunk, kept me from throwing it out like I had for so many years.

Over the years, this has revolutionized our dinner time.

PUT MEALS ON CALENDAR-very important step!

Once we make all the meals and freeze them, I mark on the calendar what we are having each weekday for the next five weeks. This way, I can space out different kinds of meals so that we aren't having too many similar things in a week. Best of all, I don't have to think about dinner; I just have to remember to take it out of the freezer a day or two ahead of time and then pop it in the oven, cook it in the crock pot, or grill it. This takes the stress out of preparing meals on a daily basis. Writing it down on a calendar is crucial. If I don’t do this, I still am paralyzed by the “What’s for dinner?” question. If my meals are written down, I can still change things around if needed, but it takes a lot of stress out of my day to be able to look at the calendar and know exactly what I need to get out.

This method of meal planning does take focused time and effort for 2-3 days every 5 weeks, but frees up time making dinner during those 5 weeks. Over the years, I also have learned to make two of everything. That way, when the kids sign up for a meal, I take a frozen meal inventory, and they only have to make that particular meal once every ten weeks. For example, in 5 weeks, we need 25 meals for Monday through Friday. Some of those meals are things like pancakes or tortellini which just require me to have the food items, no meal prep needed. Out of the 22 that need to be made ahead of time, usually about half of them, my kids had made last month so we still have 1 in the freezer. That leaves 11 meals my kids and I make up this time, but we do 2 of each one so we have one already made for the next meal cycle. Yes, it does require extra freezer space, but makes this system very doable.

If you love to cook daily and that is working for you, keep it up—that is awesome! If you have a cooking routine that works for your family and encourages everyone to sit together and engage with each other at the dinner table, then don’t feel any need to change it. The method my family and I use is only one way; remember, there are many ways to put a home-cooked meal on your family's table. What’s most important is that you and your family are eating together as often as you can.

I no longer dreaded the infamous question of “What’s for dinner, Mom?"

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