Cookin' from Whatcha Got on a Busy Schedule

Cookin' from Whatcha Got on a Busy Schedule

Our family is ridiculously busy, and some nights it’s hard for me to figure out how to feed the kids before, or even after, their activities. With two kids with autism in the house, we have more than the average load of activities and appointments after school, making it hard to find healthy meals that are quick, easy, and not too messy. Here are some of the ways I keep up.
Plan Meals Ahead of Time
I’ve developed a two-week rotating menu, and I write it on a chalkboard so the kids know  what to expect at dinner time. With myself and one of my sons being vegetarian, and the other being an absolute meat-eater, I’ve even come up with ways to satisfy all of our needs with some simple substitutions.
In warmer months, my go-to’s include a lot of vegetarian ‘salads’ that include protein such as lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu. I also haul out the traditional summer fare of burgers, cooking a pre-made, thawed meat burger for my meat-a-tarian, and lentil vegetarian burgers by PC that we absolutely love, or black bean burgers that I make ahead of time and also thaw and cook as needed. In the wintertime, soups, stews, casseroles, nut loaf (vegetarian version of meatloaf), pasta with vegetarian meatballs or pre-made, pre-portioned thawed turkey meatballs, quiches, stuffed squashes, and other comfort foods make the menu.
Cooking From the Pantry
One of the things I’ve always done was to stock up on pantry basics and freezer goods when they’re on sale so that I only have to focus on fresh foods most of the time when I buy groceries. My pantry is chock-o-block full of pastas, rices, flours, oils and vinegars, soups, soup bases, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and garlic galore, and dried lentils and beans. I also keep staple items in the freezer, such as vegetables, pre-made pie shells, and pre-cooked freezer meals.
On nights when I have little time to prepare a meal, I’ll make the meal in the afternoon, whether it’s a salad, or a soup/stew, and on days that are crazy busy, I’ll make crock pot chili and I have a stock of pre-mixed cornbread that takes me very little time to prepare ahead of time; then I just take what I need from the cornbread mix I’ve made ahead, add the wet ingredients, chuck it in the oven, and set the timer. On really busy days, they just get the crock pot meal without cornbread, rice, or other sides. (did you know you can even make lasagna in the crock pot? True story!). Other times I’ll take quiches, soups, casseroles, and other pre-made meals out of the freezer the night before to thaw, then just reheat it at supper time.
The trick is to have a stockpile of food in your house that you can just grab to make the meal without having to run off to the grocery store for the ingredients, or even have to shop for frequently. With a menu of at least two weeks worth of go-to meals, it’s easy to be prepared and even make a last-minute decision on what’s for dinner without having to run out for the ingredients.
Cookin’ Fo’ da Fuchah!
Whenever I make a casserole, soup, stew, or even meatballs or nut loaf and quiches, I cook enough for two or three meals, we have one of the meals that day, and the other one or two get put in the freezer for those lazy or crazy nights. I’m using the ingredients already, doing the same prep work, and making the same mess for one night’s dinner; so when I have time, I double or triple the recipe and freeze the extra. When I do nut loaf, meatballs, burgers, or other freezable fare, sometimes I’ll spend a quiet day doing up huge batches so that I don’t have to replicate the work too often. This allows me a lot of flexibility in the kitchen when things are absolutely cray-cray!
When you freeze foods, be ABSOLUTELY sure to follow these simple tips:
-always freeze ‘dry’ vegetables – never freeze freshly washed veg, and always stick a paper towel or two in the bag with them to prevent freezer burn.
-use FREEZER SAFE containers. Otherwise, you’ll have that gnarly freezer-burn flavah that none of us wants.
-write the date and type of dish on the container lid with erasable marker or ‘soft chalk.’ You may think you know what kind of soup or stew you put in there initially, but trust me, it looks oh-so-different once it’s frozen.
-try to get most or all of the air out of bags containing frozen goods – again, to prevent freezer burn.
‘Fresh’ Herbs
I used to get really frustrated when a recipe called for fresh dill, rosemary, or other herbs. I’d pick up the herbs, use what I needed, and then the rest would sit and rot. Now, I have a kitchen gadget that easily chops up herbs, and I use it to do the whole bunch of herbs, then freeze it in a plastic container, or, if they’re wet from washing, use clean dishcloths to pat off the excess before chopping up, and then freeze them in a ziploc with a few paper towels before transferring them to a container a few days later. When you need some, just measure it out of the container and pop the rest back in the freezer!
What About School Lunches?
After I go shopping and pick up all my fruit and veg for the week, I’ll cut up all the veg for the kids’ lunches for the week, as well as any fruit (such as melons and pineapples) and cheeses. They go in the fridge in proper portions in containers or ziploc bags, and the kids can just grab what they want in the morning, and they’re well on their way to meeting their 4 – 6 servings of fruit and veg per day. Have yogurt and any other lunch staples on hand to allow choice; I also boil about half a dozen eggs ahead of time, make homemade tapioca and portion it out into containers for the kids to grab and pack, cranberry sauce (they love it mixed with plain greek yogurt) and make a huge stock of homemade canned applesauce in the fall that can be put into small lunch containers for snacks. Then leftovers, wraps, subs, and sandwiches comprise the larger part of their lunchtime fare.
Canning – I HAVE to Mention This
Yes, I know the title says ‘cookin’ whatcha got on a busy schedule,’ so you’re wondering why I’m including canning. In August and September I get busy with my canning, and use down days when there’s nothing going on to prep for the winter. I have made my own homemade canned tomato sauce almost every year since our little family started to grow. This year, I only canned 6 bushels of tomatoes into sauce, but normally I will do twice that to last as much of the year as possible. At $8/bushel for Roma tomatoes at the farmer’s market (or, if you’re a gardener, grow a garden of Opalka tomatoes, which are high-yield, almost all flesh, contain little excess juice, and contain only 2-3 seeds). I also make jams and jellies, and applesauce galore out of berries and apples we picked ourselves. Once the work is all done, I don’t have to shop for these staples, and I’ve saved a small fortune. When it’s time to use it, just grab it from your pantry, pop off the lid and go.
The idea is to have a well-stocked pantry and freezer, and be able to limit grocery shopping to fresh foods like eggs, milk, cheese, fruit, and so on. With a menu of options and a little creativity, you CAN get a healthy, home-made meal on the table even on the busiest of nights, without killing yourself to avoid the time crunch that comes with crazy schedules and busy lives. Happy cooking!
 

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