Friday, September 30, 2016

Skip the Drive-Thru and Hamburger Helper


Three most-used responses to "How are you?"

Fine.

Good.

BUSY!

My peers are hardworking men and women, leaving the home at 7:00am (or earlier!) and working 8+ hours a day before returning home just in time for kids' activities, volunteer work, or any number of other possible scheduling nightmares.

I recently presented the topic of how to eat well, no matter how busy you are, at a Women in Business luncheon, so I thought I would share my pearls of wisdom for the rest of the world.

Food is often an afterthought, with adults looking for the easiest way to provide themselves and those under their care with some sort of nutrition in the fastest way possible. Unfortunately, “nutrition” is usually buried somewhere underneath a layer of greasy, genetically-modified, and laboratory-produced food look-a-like items. You don’t have to continue this way. Our family doesn’t follow this path.

I’ve heard all the excuses. “You don’t understand – we are just too busy!” “Our kids refuse to eat XYZ.” “Fresh food is too expensive.”

I get it. We don’t live in an era when the dutiful wife stays at home, spending all afternoon creating a beautiful meal to serve her adoring family when they return from their day at school and work. Two income families are the norm, often with parents working opposite shifts to ease daycare costs. Gone are the days of gathering around the dining room table as a family unit, no matter how often the benefits of eating as a family are presented to the public. I get it, I really do. We leave the house before 7:00 and don’t get home until 5:30 or later. My husband? Who knows when he will get home from his full-time job or the farm. The kids have activities. The parents have meetings. But my family still eats REAL FOOD because I have made this a priority. Of course the kids would prefer to visit the golden arches or pick up a grease-laden pizza. They get over it and I’m sure someday will appreciate the alternatives they are exposed to everyday. They might be 32 when they appreciate it, but someday they will.

How do we do it?

I focus on three concepts that help me get real food on the table, real fast. Preparation, Freezing, and Kitchen Techniques/Tools. Today’s post will focus on PREPARATION.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” This quote from Benjamin Franklin is overused, I know. But it’s overused because it is true in so many situations. Meal prep should not just be a fad – it is critical to making sure you have healthy meal options whether you are a single career-driven person or a farm family of eight. Even companies that sell exercise programs and nutrition supplements encourage meal planning to make sure you do not sabotage the expensive programs you are purchasing! Meal planning takes all sorts of forms: writing out the meals you plan to make each day of the week and a grocery list to match, batch cooking proteins/grains early in the week to make a small variety of meals, or even just prepping fruits, vegetables, and spices the night before. I encourage you to find the technique that works best for you and your family to make sure you stick to a plan. Without a plan, I guarantee that you will find yourself turning to the foods that are bad for your waistline as well as your pocketbook! (Stay tuned for future posts about how I keep food costs down if you are on a budget.) My friend Kim of Dream Lily Designs is an organization guru. She has implemented this awesome magnetic meal planning kit that makes it fun and easy for this busy young family to stay on track!

Kim said that this plan has eliminated fights about dinner since everyone gets to help make the plan each week. She plans her meals based on the activities they have each night, even making sure that the meal chosen for Dad’s night of cooking include a recipe that he is comfortable creating.

I use several techniques to make sure I am prepared for each day’s meals. Before planning a grocery list for the week, I check out our calendar to determine how much (if any!) time we have at home each night of the week before needing to move on to the next activity of the evening. Some nights we have 30 minutes or less to cook the food AND eat it. These nights will depend on reheated leftovers or a simple scrambled egg sandwich with fresh fruit like grapes or apple slices.

Leftovers are always key to my weekly plan! When cooking proteins such as whole roasts in the slow cooker or ground meat in the skillet, I make sure that I prepare at least two meals worth of the protein. I hate doing dishes, so the more I cook at once, the more time and effort I can save doing dishes and preparing the meal for round 2! My chili recipe always makes leftovers for our family (at least until our boys are teenagers). You can check out that recipe and leftover ideas here: Chili Your Way

If I know that I will need chopped onions (or other veggies like carrots, peppers, or celery) for a couple of recipes this week, I will do all of the chopping at once and store the onions in a tightly closed container. Again, saving on time doing dishes and meal effort later. I always grate my own cheese (I’m not a fan of the extra ingredients like cellulose - aka wood pulp - that can be found in pre-shredded cheese, plus it melts better and tastes better), so I grate all the cheese I need for the week at one time and store it in containers.

Have others in your family help with the prep whenever they are available! Potatoes can be scrubbed by some of the youngest in your family. Wash fruits and veggies like apples and peppers as soon as you bring them home from the market. Having them washed and ready to go will make it far easier for you to decide to cook at home when all you really want to do is buy a bucket of fried chicken.

If a recipe calls for a mixture of spices, I will combine those spices at least the night before I will need them. If pantry items like canned beans or tomato products are listed in the recipe, I will set out what I need the night before or in the morning if I have time. This small step will save you precious minutes when the meal-time crunch hits. No searching the dark corners of your cupboards or pantry for the can of whatever that you THOUGHT you bought a week ago.

My last tip as part of the preparation theme is to have a prepared pantry, fridge, and countertop.

*In my pantry you will always find canned tomatoes and beans, dried pastas, boxed low-sodium broth, and a variety of spices. You can make any number of vegetarian meals with just these ingredients!

*In my refrigerator, you can find eggs, a wedge of Parmesan cheese and blocks of other cheese, milk, and a number of fruits and veggies that require little or no prep to eat! One of my go-to meals when time is super crunched – scrambled eggs, toast, and fresh fruit like grapes or apple slices. Dinner on the table in 10 minutes or less (and not a lot of dishes)!

*Fresh potatoes, onions, and garlic are always on my countertop (with the potatoes and onions stored in separate areas to prevent the potatoes from rotting prematurely from the fumes of the onions). Potatoes and onions are great for frugal cooking. Baked potatoes are perfect as either a side dish or a filling main dish when topped with chili, broccoli and cheese, bacon, or any number of ways! Fresh onions and garlic add great flavor to most dishes.

These are just a few of the many preparation steps I use to save time in the kitchen. I would love to hear what techniques you use to save both your time and sanity when hunger hits and there seems to be no time to get a healthy meal on the table!