Tuesday, January 5, 2016

When NOT to Make Dinner


freezer meals

Two things:

First, this is a post about when NOT to cook dinner, in the sense that there is a good time to make dinner and a bad time to make dinner.  It's not a post about when NOT to cook dinner in the sense of suggesting that you make reservations instead.  Sorry.

Second, it might interest you to know that I cannot type "When NOT to cook dinner" without hearing it in my head in a British accent.  My mind immediately follows it with "How NOT to be seen."  If you don't know what I mean (or even if you do), I suggest that take 3 minutes to watch this video.  (NOTE:  I don't endorse or watch Monty Python as a whole.  Having said that, there are a couple of their sketches on YouTube that appeal to the deranged side of my sense of humor.  This is one of them!)

There.  Are't you glad you watched that?!  In the interest of always keeping things real on this blog, I guess I should say that I find this particular sketch almost endlessly amusing.  It makes me laugh every single time!

On to when NOT to make dinner . . .

I very strongly suggest that whenever possible, you refrain from making dinner at dinner time.  The hour or two before dinner should be served is often the hardest time of the day.

Little ones are bouncing off the walls, or cranky, or both.  Big kids and teens are extra-energized and the house is getting loud.

There is a last minute push to finish homeschool work (or in the case of my friends whose children go to school, there's that craziness of picking up kids, getting homework done, and possibly dealing with after school activities.)

The house has quite possibly descended into a bit of chaos and there's a push to try to get it tidied back up so that the evening can be enjoyed more.

I'm tired, sometimes frazzled, and just plain DONE.

The things on my to-do list that did not get done are nipping at my heels as I realize the day is ending and they'll need to stay on that list for another day.

The errands that I saved to run after the bulk of our school day was over are all taking longer than I planned and I find myself zooming around town instead of getting dinner prepared.

Moms who work outside the home may be walking in the door exhausted right at dinner time.

All in all, it's not an optimal time to dig in and tackle the kind of big homemade family dinner that I like to serve.

It's clear that the many families have a hard time dealing with the challenges of making and sharing a meal at night.  Despite the undeniable importance of having regular family dinners, many families end up frequently grabbing something on the road or leaving each family member to just "grab something to eat."  In fact, according to the Food Marketing Institute, only 40% of families eat dinner together even 2 or 3 times a week!  There are many widespread societal issues that can impact the ability of families to eat together, and it's not the intent of this post to address these issues; but if you are looking for practical tips to reduce evening stress and get a great meal on the table, then these tips should help!!

Rather than tackling all of your meal prep immediately before meal time, I suggest you implement one or more of these ideas for as many meals as possible.  They fall into three broad categories.

1. Choose main dishes and side dishes that can be made ahead of time.  This would include food that is fixed far in advance of serving: freezer meals, pressure canned soups and stews, frozen breads/cookie doughs/muffins, etc.  In these cases, the meal prep is done days or weeks in advance, leaving you only to thaw and heat.  You can make these meals in huge batches in a big cooking session, or add to your stash by making a few freezer meals each weekend.

This also includes food that is prepared the day before or earlier in the day - a casserole put together when the children are in bed and popped into the fridge to cook the next day, salad veggies washed and chopped and ready to assemble, bread baked earlier in the day ready to warm and serve at dinner time, a dessert made ahead of time, fruit washed and prepped and waiting in the fridge, your chicken or roast seasoned and waiting in the pan in the fridge to pop into the oven, soup ingredients put into the pot and waiting in the fridge, or even large parts of the entree pre-prepped - the veggies sauteed, cheese shredded, meat cooked and ready to add to the entree, etc.

2. Choose main dishes and side dishes that can be started early in the day.  This would include crock pot meals, long-simmering soups, dry beans, and slow-cooked oven meals that are put together in the morning or the night before and set to cooking by late morning so they are hot and ready to eat at mealtime.  It would also include homemade breads that are started in advance of the meal so that rising times are completed for them to simply be baked at meal time. Even putting a chicken, ham, turkey, or roast in the oven a few hours before dinner can be a huge help! These foods often also fall into the first category - as I write, I have about 2 dozen crockpot meals in my freezer - I pull one out at night, put in the crockpot or roaster in the morning, and try to be sure that all sides are put together or baked by early afternoon.

3. Utilize a number of ways for dinner to be made very quickly.  If you can't make your meal ahead of time as in #1 or start it earlier in the day as in #2, your best bet is to choose an option that is very fast to make.  This would include:

-- Super simple meals like scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, and fruit; spaghetti and garlic bread; grilled chicken or burgers or hot dots; hearty sandwiches; simply prepared fish (we love to heavily season salmon fillets with dill and seasoning salt, then saute over medium high heat in lots of butter), etc.  Leftovers also fall into this category.

-- Quick cooking convenience foods like canned soup, breaded chicken patties for chicken sandwiches, battered fish fillets, chicken nugget or strips, frozen chicken cordon bleu, and the ultimate fast meal of ramen noodles with some cheese and leftover meat and/or veggies tossed in!   While I prefer to serve as many "from scratch" foods as possible for health and budget reasons, there's certainly nothing at all wrong with prepared convenience foods in moderation!!

--Meals that rely on pre-prepped ingredients or homemade or store bought convenience ingredients.  I keep a supply of homemade pancake mixes, muffin mixes, corn bread mixes, etc. on hand for super quick breakfasts, side dishes, or "breakfast for dinners."  Having cooked chicken, ground beef, and rice in the freezer allows me to throw many meals together very quickly.  (Having pressure canned chicken, ground beef, and roast beef makes it even faster since I don't even need to thaw the meat!)

Home or purchased canned fruit, steam in bag frozen veggies, brown minute-style rice, pasta that can be quickly cooked and tossed with sauce or butter and parmesan for a quick side dish, canned sloppy joe sauce, precooked bacon, pre-washed bagged salads, frozen bread dough, seasoned and frozen taco meat, canned tuna and salmon (and chicken if you don't pressure can chicken yourself), all natural macaroni and cheese, purchased or home canned jarred sauces (red pasta sauce, alfredo sauce, and sauces for Indian recipes like tikka masala), frozen meatballs, and canned beans can all be big time savers.

I'd be remiss if I neglected to quickly mention the fact that no matter when you cook dinner, children from preschool on up can be a big help at mealtime, and one of the best ways not to make dinner at mealtime is to have an older child or teen who can make it for you!  If you are a parent, you should keep the end in sight from the beginning and be sure that you are teaching the skills your children will need in adulthood - and food preparation is something every adult needs to know!  I'll cover age-appropriate cooking skills in detail in a different post but felt it had to be mentioned here as well.

I plan to share a lot of recipes on this blog, and most of them will fall into one of these categories.  I'm also going to share tips and ideas for bulk cooking sessions and techniques.

I'd LOVE your feedback - what are your favorite stress relievers and time savers at mealtimes?  What works for you?  What are your biggest obstacles to getting homemade dinners on the table?  Are there any specific kitchen or cooking topics you'd love to see covered here?  Leave a comment and let me know!!


1 comment:

  1. I'd love to see pressure canning tips and recipes!! :)


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