The school year is well under way again and this signals the return of the routine.
That means another 200 plus lunchboxes per child ahead of us (gulp). Plus, a meal every night that ticks everyone’s boxes.
We all have a different method for staying sane and desperately trying to avoid a last-minute trip to the grocery store or a takeaway, and preparation can be the solution. I know I’d never make it through the week unscathed without it. Some things are small time savers, and some are the difference between a meal on the table and a sobbing puddle on the floor!
The first step is to work out where help is most needed. If Wednesday is swimming and soccer night, then get this meal covered prior to the evening so you’re cruising into dinner without a care. Anything you do in advance is a help, and 15 minutes saved can make a huge difference on a busy morning or a late night.
If you’re looking to ensure you have healthy meals, lower stress and are more in control, check out what some of the expert planners suggest:
1. Plan meals and shopping. Create your menu for the week and shop accordingly.
2. Have the storage options ready. An organised fridge, freezer and pantry can save a lot of time. As can well-labelled storage jars or pots. There is nothing worse than defrosting a salsa only to discover it’s a pasta sauce as I have learned (more than once).
3. Set up the kitchen to bulk cook. If you are doing a big cook, then make things easy for yourself. E.g, have a collapsible table to add bench space. Then call in the troops … partners and kids can give you a hand. Many hands make light work (mostly).
4. Bulk cook and freeze. Figure out meals (or parts of meals) that will freeze well and make in large quantities when you cook:
- Casseroles, stews, soups, mince dishes. There are many dishes that you can cook in advance and then pull out to provide all or most of a family meal.
- Sauces. Make large amounts of tomato-based or cheese sauces, pestos, salsas etc. and split into smaller portions to freeze. You then have the start of a meal or can add to pasta, veges, jacket potatoes or meat.
- Double it. If you’re making something that will freeze, then double the quantity so you’re cooking once and serving twice (or more). I often do this with things like chicken drumsticks.
5. Precook. Many foods can be cooked at the weekend and then stored for later in the week. Even better if you have versatile base ingredients that can be served multiple ways:
- Grains – rice, quinoa and buckwheat can all be pre-cooked and then used either as a side, as part of a main dish or baked again, for example, in a muffin.
- Pasta – boiling up a big pot of pasta to be used across the week saves time. Marry with a pre-made tomato-based sauce from the freezer one day and cook with some tuna for a bake on another.
- Chicken – a simple roasted chicken can provide meat for a meal, sandwiches, fajitas, stir fry etc. Add a sauce and then use it with pasta.
- Cook meat with different flavours separately but simultaneously. Eg chicken pieces in the oven, separate with aluminium foil and add different spices/sauces to each section – honey/soy, lemon/thyme, satay.
- Veges – baking a big tray of roast veges provides a base for a few main meals or to bulk up a salad for lunch. Add some cheese sauce or pesto for a new incarnation.
- Roasts – beef, pork or lamb can also provide the protein portion for a few different meals. Serve once roast, slice for sandwiches and add to curries or salads.
- Greens – I often steam a range of greens at the start of the week and then swap them in and out over a few days. Repeat Wed/Thu to cover the rest of the week.
6. Prepare. Getting a few things done at the weekend can make a big difference during the week. It doesn’t have to be a big cook-off, it can be some simple, time-saving actions:
- Wash fruit and veg. Having fruit to grab and go saves a few minutes. Similarly, if veges are cleaned and ready to chop, it shaves time off the prep.
- Pre-chop veg. Many veg can be chopped ready to use. Imagine how quick the stir fry is if you have all the veg ready in a sealed bag and just have to cook. Or brassicas ready to steam, or salads ready to chuck in a bowl.
- Marinate meat. Put your meat into sealed bags with the marinade and then bring out to barbecue, grill, roast or fry as needed.
- Portion meat as you buy. Store meat according to meals, so you have it ready to use.
- Salads. The trendy mason jar method is a good way to have a salad all ready for when you need it. Or wash greens and then store against a paper towel to absorb moisture ready to use later in the week.
- Bag up smoothies. If you like an early smoothie you can always bag up the ingredients so it’s blitz and go in the morning. Or freeze bags of ingredients for use later.
- Slow cooker recipes. Prepare the ingredients and then tip into the slow cooker of a morning so you have a meal ready for the evening.
- Eggs. Boiled eggs keep super well. You can whip up a batch at the beginning of the week (did you know you can cook in muffin trays in the oven?) and they are perfect for lunch, as sandwich fillers or in salads.
- Spiralise. Prepare zoodles and store. Match with some sauce and pre-cooked chicken and you have a super quick and nutritious dinner ready to roll.
- Portion snacks. If you’re sending nuts or dried fruit or splitting up cracker packets for lunches, then doing that in one session saves heaps of time later.
7. Bulk cook. If you’re roasting one chicken, why not do two? It makes a lot of sense when you realise you then have plenty of leftovers for sandwich fillings, a quiche and a gourmet pizza. This applies to many other foods. Roast pumpkin to have with the beef, on skewers with the lamb, whizzed up to make soup and then combined with chickpeas for a hummus.
8. Think multi-purpose recipes, e.g. meatloaf. Hot with sauce for dinner, cold with salad or sliced in sandwiches.
9. Bake mini versions. This may sound counter-intuitive but I often bake frittata, muffins, quiches etc. in mini muffin tins. I can then freeze and use for lunches or serve several as part of dinner. Making smaller ones means rotating and providing variety is easy.
10. Cheat. If you are really time poor, then look for options that save time like pre-chopped veg and salads or shop roasted chickens. These can prevent the expense of a takeaway and be on the table in minutes.
Judith Yeabsley is a mum of two boys who is passionate about healthy food for kids. She runs a food art website, theartofnutrition.com, focusing on presenting fruit and veges creatively. She also works to change the food environment in schools, community groups and lunchboxes. For information on this and great recipes, see theartofnutrition.co.nz.