No time for a leisurely meal? There's another choice besides fast food!
Meals on the Run
My Story: Coordinated Meal Planning
Meal Planning Made Simple
I am looking for tips on meal planning. My husband works most nights (usually until 11 p.m.), so we seldom have dinner together at home. Also, some of those days he must have lunch on the go as well. This schedule makes it all too easy for both of us to say, "Oh, I'll just pick up some fast food" or for him to end up living on turkey sandwiches. Most meal planning suggestions are based on a 9 to 5 schedule and focus only on dinners to the exclusion of lunches. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!
I plan my meals on the computer each Friday evening for the coming week (Saturday breakfast through Friday dinner). I then scroll through each item on my menu and compile my grocery list. Then, I print the menu and list. I post the list on the refrigerator so we know what is in store for the week. However, on Wednesday night, I plan for soup/salad/sandwich or pancakes. Just something quick and easy to fix. I grocery shop at 6:30 on Saturday morning to avoid the crowd, then swing into our local bakery for a pastry and coffee while I wait for the meat market to open at 8:00. I'm home by 8:15 with all the groceries for the week!
Lunches are made from the leftovers the previous night or from leftovers in the freezer. For example, I fix enough baked spaghetti to pack for the next day's lunch. Any extra (which usually happens with that recipe) I give to a friend or freeze for another time. On weekends, I may do sloppy joes in the slow-cooker. I put any leftovers in a freezer bag, lay it flat on the counter to get the air out, and place it on a cookie sheet in the freezer until frozen. Then, I remove the cookie sheet and the sloppy joe mix is nice and compact. It's also thin enough for a quick thaw.
You should find meals a cinch with this approach. It's totally changed our lives for the better. Also, I have very few leftovers (for example, shredded cheese or pasta) and can easily incorporate them into my next week's meal.
Not What, But Where You Cook
It's time to break out the slow-cooker and the pressure cooker. These two tools are invaluable to a cook, especially to one who is preparing "daily double dinner." Both of these "pots" will tenderize the toughest piece of meat, and keep your poultry moist. And, the bonus is, if you buy a large enough slow-cooker and pressure cooker, you can cook larger amounts and have leftovers for another night's meal or sandwiches.
One of my favorites for beef, is with the slow-cooker. A big chunk (as big as your slow-cooker will hold, with the lid still fitting snugly) with a couple cut up onions and three or four chunked up potatoes, about 2 cups of water, 2-3 beef bouillon cubes, pepper (I don't use salt when I use bouillon), and some parsley (you can add garlic, carrots, celery and anything else you like). "Crock " this in the morning on high, all day long. When you get home your house will smell divine, dinner will be ready and it will be fork tender. This is dinner for tonight (and again later tonight, with reheating!). Your discretion as to whether or not you want to make gravy with the broth.
Now you have options with the leftovers. Sliced thin, against the grain (so you don't get "strings") with horseradish sauce or mayonnaise, this meat makes a delicious sandwich on any kind of bread or roll. If you don't make gravy the first night, skip a night, (serving something very different) make rice, make gravy, serve the meat over rice with gravy another night. Two or three meals from one 'cook!!' Chicken in the crockpot is also very versatile. Sometimes I can find chicken quarters (leg/thigh) for 29 cents a pound. Don't you know I stock up!!. Crocked in the crock, again with water, bouillon, pepper, onion and garlic or what ever spices you prefer, you have the basis for chicken fricassee, chicken 'n dumplings, or just plain chicken and gravy over rice. Also, cold and diced, makes excellent chicken salad for a cold supper or sandwiches.
Once you master the art of the pressure cooker (just be careful and keep an eye on it) cooking time is about the same as a microwave -- and the taste and tenderness just can't be beat!!!
We too are a "DINTY" family--"Double Income, No Time, YUCK!", family that is! My husband works from 6 am to 2 pm, then goes to the gym and attends night school. I work 7:30 to 4:30, and both of us tend to get stuck at the office over our lunch times.
Logistically and financially it had become a real a headache. To manage, I turned to "investment cooking." I devote one day per month to cooking enmass to meet the demands of lunches and late suppers for the next 30 days or so. I do all of the chopping, measuring, and simmering necessary to make 2 of 3 basic sauces--Mexican, Italian, and creamed chicken/turkey.
From these sauces, I create dozens of different meals, and divide them up into lunch sized and family sized versions of those new "disposable" serving containers. The containers survive several washings, but are more affordable than brand named storage containers, and less of a loss in a shared lunch room environment. I freeze everything, and when the urge to grab fast food at meal time strikes, I need only go as far as my freezer to find a healthy, economical, home cooked meal that is ready in less time than it takes to get the car out of the driveway!
The Key Is. . .
The key is to be organized. When you do make a meal, cook for 4 instead of just 2. The next night send him with a variation of the meal that you just had and a fruit/dessert.
For example, if you're having burgers for supper, cook extra hamburger and you'll have everything ready for hamburger gravy, spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes, etc.
I try to plan the menu at the beginning of the week, doing extra prepping as needed, then everything is ready to send off in the mornings without all the hassle. Roasts, turkey, chicken can be made ahead and sliced/diced up for sandwiches, salads, etc The divided dishes help for portion control. I also cook 5 lbs. of potatoes at a time. Portion them out into a cupcake pan and freeze, just pop out when frozen and bag. Saves time and work from doing this every day. My husband has had the same schedule for over 25 years and this works for me for lunch or dinner.
For busy couples or families who have trouble with different schedules but still want to eat balanced, healthy meals that are inexpensive, try making a large portion of food, such as a casserole (double the recipe), or grilling twice as much meat at one time when you get the rare opportunities to eat together. Then package up the leftovers into single serving containers and freeze them.
Many recipes can be frozen before cooking, too, if you want that fresh-made taste. Then when you don't have time to cook or you are too tired after a long day, just quick thaw in the microwave, and heat, or get it out the night before and let it thaw in the fridge.
Also try a thermos for meals on the go. A lot of soups and stews can stay hot this way. Or to keep drinks cold in a thermos, try freezing part of the liquid the night before, leaving the lid off so the thermos won't break. Then in the morning, add the rest of the liquid and it will stay cold for several hours! Enjoy!
Buy groceries, earn cash back at Checkout 51
Homemade TV Dinners
As shift workers, my husband and I had to come up with ingenious ways to eat properly. Since we were unable to leave our workplaces to go out, we had to bring our food in. One of the best ways we found was to make up TV Dinners out of leftovers. These could be heated in a microwave, which most workplaces now have. We would make casseroles or crockpot dinners and individually package them in plastic containers and freeze them until use.
By freezing them, you eliminate the need for a fridge, as by the time you are ready to eat, it is thawed. The only thing that wasn't great thawed, then reheated, was potatoes, as they become mushy. Pasta and rice are fine, as is most any kind of meat. Put salad in a bowl, and add a small container of dressing, and there's lunch. Cold pizza and tortilla wraps could replace the sandwiches.
We found that by shifting our meal times around, we could still eat normally. Who says that supper has to be at the end of the day? I would quite frequently have breakfast at my supper break, and have supper before I left for work. Anything will work if you use a little imagination.
Ready for Lunch
For those of us who are busy cooking can sometimes be too time consuming but take away meals are expensive. Here is one solution that my family uses in regards to lunches.
Once a fortnight, I shop late in the afternoon when local stores are discounting their bread for the day. I pick up several packets of buns, a cooked chook, some sliced cold meat and a dip (a great way to add flavour to buns). Total cost under $15. For tea that night we have fresh buns and cold meat. Then straight away we all make twelve or so buns up. Enough for each of us for a fortnight. Then all buns are wrapped in sandwich bags, piled into separate bags with each of our names on, and popped into the freezer.
Then each morning all we have to do is pull out a frozen bun, plus a frozen drink, and a couple of pieces of fresh fruit and we each have lunch ready to go. In this way it takes less than five minutes each day to prepare our lunches, with no mess and it costs less than 50 cents per bun. Even when we make the buns up, it takes no longer than cleaning up from a average meal, and is a great family together time. Even better is the fact that some nights, when we don't feel like cooking we can draw on the supply of buns in the freezer, pop a bit of cheese on and under the griller and save ourselves the expense of fastfood. The only other hint that I can offer is for those who live in cold areas, is wrap the bun in a paper towel while defrosting to avoid soggy buns.
This method has made our mornings less stressful, and my eight year old has managed to make her own lunches for a year now under this system.
Debt is preventing me from taking a vacation this year or the vacation I'd like to take this year! Tell us: Yes, debt is affecting my vacation plans! or No, we're going exactly where we want to go but we'd love to learn make our trip as inexpensive as possible!
Take the Next Step
- It's tough raising kids today! You need every time and money saving idea you can find. That's why you'll want to get our free weekly Dollar Stretcher for Parents newsletter. You'll find great ideas designed just for parents that will help your family 'live better...for less'! Subscribers get a copy of our ebook Little Luxuries: 130 Ways to Live Better...For Less for FREE.
- Visit our "Smart Couponing and Grocery Budgeting" & "Recipes to Fit Any Budget" boards today!
Share your thoughts about this article with the editor