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Need advice: How to be better organized for weeknight meals?

My son is starting school in September, a bit further away from our home than our current caregiver. And I will continue to work full-time. Because of the change in location and schedule, I will have less time in the evening for dinner. I believe we would probably get home around 6 pm. And bedtime routine starts at 8 pm.

I need to get into the habit of more planning and being more efficient. Do you have any tips? I am thinking of the following:
- meal plan for the week
- wash and ziplock veggies weekly
- panini / sandwich nights
- slow cooker

I don't have a deep freeze and don't have room for one. So cook-and-freeze is a limited option for us. I also thought about cooking everyday after my son goes to bed so we would simply reheat yesterday's cooking everyday.

Any advice would be appreciated.

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  1. It's great that you're putting effort into this, and not just saying you'll resort to junk for dinner.

    I get home around 6 and have dinner on the table by 7-7:15. Your ideas are great. Here's some of my tips.

    - an onion tupperware. Sundays I chop a whole bunch of onions and store them in a tupperware. My onions are already chopped and waiting when I get home from work. If you make a lot of soup or tuna salad, you can have tupperwares with celery and carrots too.
    - entree salads. Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers already washed in the fridge. All you would have to do is grill the protein (steak, chicken, fish, tofu) and put it on top of the salad. Very quick meal. If your son doesn't like salads, make him a sandwich and put the veggies on the side.
    - fine bulgur and couscous- both super simple to prepare. Much quicker than rice or pasta and you don't need to clean a pot after cooking.
    - sandwich night- great idea. Even better if you use planned leftovers. Monday night- pasta with grilled veggie tomato sauce. Thursday- paninis with brie and grilled veggies.
    - slow cooker-- would you consider it? Put the stuff in it before you go to work, hot meal right when you get home.
    - soup- can be pretty much a meal in a bowl- and kids love soup. Veggie with mini meatballs, minestrone, split pea, mushroom barley, butternut squash... all are simple to make. Soups typically freeze well and don't take up a lot of space either.

    Hope this helps!

    4 Replies
    1. re: cheesecake17

      Ditto on all of the ideas mentioned above (and also admiration that you aren't just resorting to fast food).
      I would also recommend:
      breakfast for dinner (eggs are quick and easy)
      Eating fish...cooks so fast
      Making enough that you have left overs. Many things taste better the next day and it's so nice not to have to come home cook every night.
      Even if you don't have a deep freeze, if you can double anything and keep just an extra few meals in the freezer it will help out.
      Good luck to you.

      1. re: cheesecake17

        Although I am only cooking for one, before I retired I also tended to cook later at night, for the next day. I never used a crockpot because I am not a morning person and would never have followed through on getting up even 10 minutes early so as to assemble crockpot ingredients.

        I took the onion tupperware concept a step farther - cooking onions can't be rushed without burning them, and is often the most time-consuming part of the meal. So when onions were on sale, I'd buy extra and spend a few weekend hours prepping them. Mild ones got sliced/chopped and refrigerated for raw use. The rest went into a big pan to be sauteed. I'd remove a third of them when they were just getting translucent, another third when they were golden brown, then continue the remainder until caramelized. When cooled, they went into different bags/containers, for either the fridge or freezer. Because of the oil, it is easy to pry off as much frozen cooked onion if you don't need the entire frozen amount. If I have the freezer space, I also freeze chopped raw onion. It cooks faster from frozen than does freshly-cut, because freezing ruptures cell walls so the water releases and cooks away quicker.

        For sandwich dinners, grilled/toasted ones like Croque Monsieur or Monte , along with a bowl of soup, make a sandwich seem more like a "proper" dinner

        1. re: greygarious

          That's a good idea with the onions, but to me the smell of onions means dinner is almost ready! I do brown tons of onions until almost burnt and freeze those to top rice and lentils. They microwave really well.

          1. re: greygarious

            You can actually carmelize onions in a slow cooker with some butter. I've done it before and it turned out quite nicely. I turned on the sc around dinner time and before I went to bed, it was ready in about 4-5 hours. Although I've heard that some slow cookers can be finicky and burn if there's not enough liquid.

        2. Everyone already gave most of my suggestions. Another kudos to you for putting forth the effort. We're in the same situation, although we are home earlier we have a much earlier bedtime too to compensate for the early hour we have to leave the house in the morning. I find doing a big pot of soup or stew --on Saturday or Sunday night if it's too time consuming during the week--is a big help; find recipes that yield a lot that you can eat it fresh and also have 2 nights of leftovers. Hold off on using the leftovers for two or three weeks, and then you'll have enough so that you can rotate them and not feel like you are eating the same thing three times in one week.
          I find the only way to stay on track is to have a set rotation - not the same things weekly but Monday's salad night, Tuesday is sandwiches, Wednesday is soup from freezer, and so on... Breakfast for dinner, easy pastas, simple grilled meat with some kind of starch and steamed veggies are all life savers. I will say, we turn to some of the healthier frozen pizzas from time to time, and we do tend to order in or go out once on the weekends...weekends are tiring enough as it is, much more tiring that going to work in our case ;) And when we are really wiped out, there ain't nothing wrong with peanut butter sandwiches for dinner!
          Best of luck to you!

          1. A little planning -- just something like cheesecake's grilled veggie/veggie sandwich idea -- makes a big difference for me. Plus it really streamlines a trip to the grocery store. Also, I swear by slow cooker meals in the winter and main-dish salads in the summer.

            1. When you make a marinara/ragu, always double the batch. Easy to freeze enough to make up a fresh pasta dish using it later in the week. I will also sometimes use it as a super-soup base, dilute with stock and heat up, add nuked/steamed veggies, sprinkle some parm on top, a crusty loaf on the side.

              Thin is in. Pound meat flat (can be done on the weekend and saved for mid-week) so you can sautee it in a minute, and make a quick pan sauce for it, or throw it in the middle of a sandwich.

              Go meatless. Stir-fried veggies with canned beans over rice is quick & healthy.

              4 Replies
              1. re: weezycom

                I do the same thing with homemade marinara/tomato sauce. If you're going to freeze it in tupperwares or other plastic containers, spray the inside of the container with Pam. The container doesn't get stained red.

                Re pounding meat flat- it might be worth it to you to have your butcher take care of certain things. I know my butcher charges a little more for some extra work, but it's sooo worth it. He cuts chicken cutlets into nugget sizes, pounds them thin, separates family packs into 2 portions per pack, slices steak thin for stir fries...

                1. re: cheesecake17

                  cheesecake, that is a GREAT tip about spraying storage containers w/Pam (tho I use TJ's sprays). Thanks -- I never would have thought of that, as evidenced by my many stained storage containers.

                  1. re: herring

                    I learned that one from my mom! Also, another good tip- my friend keeps what she calls a 'tomato jar' in the fridge. Anytime you have a little bit of tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, whatever left over... toss it in the jar. When you're making spaghetti sauce, just add in the contents of the jar. That way, all the bits of leftover tomato sauce don't get wasted.

                    1. re: cheesecake17

                      LOVE IT! I may implement that one tonight ...

              2. I have a 5 y.o. and 3 y.o. and I work full time too. The key is organization and it sounds like you are organized by just thinking about it. I am constantly planning our next dinners. Even today, Thursday, I am thinking about what I will make for next week.

                Personally, I don't like a set rotation of meals every week, but I do have an ever-growing list of dishes on an Excel spreadsheet that I peruse all the time and it is in a sense a rotation. Some dishes obviously get made more than others, but it always gives me ideas of things I haven't made in a while.

                Depending on what we have going on during a given weekend, I will often cook something (maybe 1 or 2 things) on a Sunday to have for reheating at the beginning of the week. Toward the middle of the week, I do what you said, and I cook after my kids go to sleep. I put out some of my best dishes between 9 and 11 at night!

                Then one night we might just have a quick pasta dish with or without meatballs (from the freezer). And maybe leftovers another night.

                Preparation is the key. As much as I just want to sit down at night sometimes, it's always better when I take the time to get organized. Even if it's just cutting up the vegetables or making a sauce ahead of time, every little bit helps when everyone is hungry.

                8 Replies
                1. re: valerie

                  I have to second this, Valerie... I use my own version of a spreadsheet to jot down ideas, keep track of recipes that worked or that I want to try. I also use it to think of ways to spin leftovers (like flank steak) into other dishes (steak tacos, beef stirfry, etc.). For me, seeing everything on a screen keeps me organized and prevents me from getting into a rut.

                  1. re: suby

                    Yeah, my spreadsheet has taken on a life of its own. I list the dish and also where I found the recipe or I put the link (or at least the name of the blog or website). And then I just put down some random stuff too. We will most likely have a July 4th party at our house and the other day I even saw something that would make a good July 4th dessert. So I already put that down on my list.

                    It also helps me that my laptop is on my desk in the kitchen.

                    1. re: valerie

                      Yay fellow spreadsheeters! I'm kind of ridic about mine, adding things like our schedule for the week and sometimes the weather (I'm all about soup or chili when it's very cold, enchiladas if it's sort of cold, etc).

                      I can't add much to this list, but you might give that Robin Whatshername (is this even the right person?) from FoodNetwork some play - the one that makes the basics of three meals at a time. It's no different than what your grandmother would've done - use leftover chicken from Sunday's dinner for something on Tuesday, like a soup/salad/casserole.

                      1. re: shanagain

                        Oh yeah, "Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller" --(I had to look that up...)
                        http://www.foodnetwork.com/quick-fix-...

                        ~TDQ

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          Yes. I was going to recommend that show as well!

                          Even if you don't use her exact recipes, the techniques and ideas are super-helpful.

                          1. re: LauraGrace

                            I've used some of her techniques and recipes. Healthy and tasty..

                  2. re: valerie

                    I love your excel spreadsheet idea. Can you please post a sample entry and headers? Thanks!

                    1. re: sickpuppygirl

                      I don't really have anything so formal as headers. In the first column, I list the name of the dish. Some of them are tried and true and in my somewhat regular rotation. Others are dishes that I think that my family will like and I want to try out.

                      I list anything from main dishes to side dishes and the list keeps growing. In the next column, I list the website, cookbook or other source of where I got the recipe. Then I peruse the list to figure out a basic plan for the upcoming week, and I highlight the few things that I plan to make. Listing the source makes it easy to go back to the recipes and make a shopping list. Otherwise I forget where I saw the recipe.

                      Sometimes its just a matter of pulling something out of the freezer. Tonight, for example, my kids will eat dinner before I get home, so when reviewing my list on Sunday, I just made a note next to "Turkey Chili" saying "take out of freezer for R&A on Tuesday". Or on a Sunday when I am home, I might make a batch of Bolognese specifically to stick in small portions in the freezer. I put that on my list too..."make on Sunday to freeze".

                      I am quite obsessive about this list, and let me add that my husband thinks I am crazy....but he eats well!