by Erin MacPherson
Don't you just love making dinner? Tying on that apron, spending hours shopping, prepping and simmering and then serving your masterpiece — a meal that's as nutritious as it is delicious?
Oh wait? You don't? I confess: neither do I.
Really, I'd love to serve from-scratch dinners every night, knowing for a fact that my kid's meals were healthy, tasty and made with a heaping dose of love. But that's just not going to happen. I have three kids. And every evening at 5:12, something happens: they become these hungry, demanding little monsters that are entirely incapable of entertaining themselves for even 30 seconds. And, naturally, 5:12 happens to be the time that I start making dinner. I'm sure you can relate.
So, more often than not, I find myself throwing whatever I can find on a plate and calling it dinner. Mac & cheese from the box again? Why not! We've only had it five nights in a row. Fruit snacks? They totally count as fruit, right? That box of Cocoa Puffs that Daddy bought at the store six months ago when he forgot about our no-sugar-cereal-ever-ever-ever rule? Well, we're going to have to use it up someday.
Anyway, a few months back I decided I needed to be better about cooking healthy meals. So I read some books, talked to some friends and gleaned some tips from my registered-dietitian sister Alisa. And, while I’m definitely not a pot roast diva circa 1953, my family's meals have gotten a lot better. Here are five simple ideas that really helped me:
- Slice, Dice and Chop Ahead. Get a jump-start on adding fruits and veggies to your meals by prepping your produce ahead of time — say, on the weekends when your husband is home to watch the kids. Rinse, deseed and thinly slice bell peppers that you can throw into stir-fry or quesadillas. Slice cucumbers, carrots and celery to throw into lunches or to use as a side dish with ranch dip. Keep chopped cilantro, basil, garlic and onions in Ziplock bags in your fridge for an easy and delicious add-on to pasta sauces.
- Try a Freezer Swap. I can't take credit for this idea — I read about it in Kathi Lipp's book The “What's for Dinner” Solution (which, by the way, is full of more great dinner-making tips). But, the idea is to basically make a double or triple portion of your favorite freezer foods — casseroles, marinated meats, etc. — and then swap them with friends. I tried this with three of the girls at my MOPS table. I swapped extra portions of meals that I made for my family with my friends and ended up with a freezer full of meals that I could grab, defrost and serve for the whole month.
- Get Some Help in the Kitchen. Even young kids can help you make dinner – and the double bonus is that if they're helping you to prep dinner, they're less likely to, say, overflow the bathroom sink while trying to make a swimming pool for their stuffed animals. There are lots of ways your kids can help in the kitchen – doing everything from chopping veggies (using a plastic cake knife) to rinsing dishes.
- Make a DIY Dinner. You don't have to limit DIY dinners to the quintessential make-your-own pizza night or build-your-own-taco bar. Try a stack-your-own-enchilada night. Or what about a fill-your-own omelet night where kids have the choice to add thinly sliced ham, mushrooms, cheese, green onions, tomatoes and bell peppers to their egg creations?
- Creatively Use Your Leftovers. Start thinking about how leftovers can save you time and energy on busy weeknights. For example, when I make grilled chicken, I always throw two or three extra pieces on and then slice those up to use for chicken Caesar salads or quesadillas the next night. Or if I make a roast in the crock-pot, I make a little extra and save a hunk of meat to throw into a pot of soup the next day.
Question for you: What creative solutions do you have for making dinner prep easier?