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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!

                  3. Lots of great suggestions here. For me to really make this work, not only did need to prep stuff ahead but also plan what I would eat from day to day. This help save a lot of time and allowed me to prep better. There are a few sites that focus on meal planning a month in advance. I don't have the space to really make that work. (I really yearn for a full size, dual-door refrigerator/freezer.)

                    Also consider you can make and freeze certain foods that will have a decent freezer life: pizza and pizza dough, pot pies, rice, soups, broths, waffles, crab cakes, shredded turkey, chicken & pork, spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni, quinoa, and ground patties.

                    Plus you have simple choices like cold sandwiches and salads.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: cityhopper

                      I agree that strategic use of the freezer can be key. We, too, have limited space, but I make large pots of homemade black beans, frozen in can-equivalent bags, and then all bagged together, every few weeks. We also keep a few staples such as chicken breasts and shrimp in the freezer. I find that poaching a generous batch of chicken breasts early in the week provides (lean) meat to go in everything from salads to soup to burritos as the week goes on w/ no additional cooking. Roasting an extra whole bird over the weekend has the same effect.

                    2. I always keep salad in the fridge....it really rounds out a meal or is a quick dinner.
                      I love to do stuffed potatoes ...easy and so good.

                      1. I got home around 6 for years, making dinner and collapsing afterwards. If I didn't sit down when I got home I was OK. If I sat down it was awfully hard to get up and make dinner. I second fish. Baking it is fast and easy and you can make a quick sauce to go with it. I also made sandwiches from time to time. We grew to like a tuna melts. I also relied on leftovers from the weekend, even as ingredients for the weeknights. I liked the pressure cooker for certain things as well.

                        I think it is helpful to have a set sort of meal at least one night a week. We had fish on Monday nights for a long time. If you have a sort or routine, you don't have to think as hard about what you are going to make.

                        Have a good fallback meal you can make in a pinch. At our house is is pancakes.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: sueatmo

                          I think taking your own energy level into consideration is important. I don't have any trouble getting up very early to do prep or start the slow cooker but I do have trouble staying up at night. I want to be able to relax after dinner. So, cooking a casserole or hearty soup whenever it's convenient for you is a great idea and you should have enough for 2 meals. I would start a file folder of old reliables or index cards organized by main ingredient so you can locate recipes in books and magazines.
                          Fish is a terrific suggestion. A couscous plus a vegetable on the side. I like a little prep time just to unwind and focus on the meal and family. If you plan your menus for the week before you grocery shop will help a lot. I waste time just wondering about what I should make. Last night we had a lot of leftover rice (Mark Bitman's Pad Thai Rice Salad) so I made some Thai zucchini curried fritters. If I had done some prep work in the morning like shredding the zuke, cooking would have been very quick since the fritters are pan fried, 4 minutes to each side. The rice salad contained shrimp and chicken plus a few vegetables. Meatloaf could be made ahead and put in the oven as soon as you get home with real baked potatoes.
                          I like the suggestion of dicing onions ahead of time. I have frozen sliced peppers from the garden that are ready to use.
                          We like brown rice that takes 45 minutes to cook so pre-cooking that is a good idea.

                          1. re: dfrostnh

                            I use the par-cooked brown rice - comes in a box - and it's ready in the same amount of time as white. I expected it to have a lot of unknowns on the ingredient list bit it's really just par-boiled rice.

                            1. re: dfrostnh

                              A rice cooker with a timer is a great investment. Most make other grains too, and you can set it to be ready when you come home.

                          2. For those of you who advocate fish (which I agree with as a quick and healthy weeknight meal), what do you suggest is the fastest, most acceptable way to defrost fish? I always plan to eat more fish on weeknights, but the defrosting thing slows me down a little if I don't remember to do take it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge the night before... Or, I have to make a last-minute stop at the fishmonger on my way home from work, which kills about a half hour between the time in line, etc. and going a little out of my way...

                            ~TDQ

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              My mom used to fry 'nuggets' of flounder or tilapia in breadcrumbs. It froze really well, and she would heat it up in the toaster oven.

                              Not sure if it would work for you... but lots of people in my office buy their fish for dinner during lunchtime and store it in the office fridge.

                              1. re: cheesecake17

                                I do that, too, actually, though I don't usually have time to shop over lunch. Usually I swing by wherever on the way to or from work. Still, I find it adds about a half hour to a "quick" dinner, which means I am inclined not to do it if I'm super busy (which I am right now...)

                                ~TDQ

                                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                  Both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods (my two main shopping venues) have great assortments of flash-frozen fish. I imagine most other supermarkets will as well. I simply fill the sink with warm water and submerge the fish in its plastic wrap. By the time I'm through prepping whatever aromatics, sauce, sides, etc, the fish is defrosted. If it's not, unwrap the fish and run it under cool water until it is. Pat dry and cook however you like.

                                  1. re: herring

                                    Poaching fish and serving cold the next day (or taking for lunch) is also a convenient option. Just enjoyed some poached TJ's salmon over salad for lunch--yum!

                              2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                For most fish I honestly don't bother defrosting completely. I do put the fish in a bowl with cold water running over it, but once I'm done with my other prep I just go ahead and pat it dry and cook it, even if the center is still a tad frozen.

                                There are exceptions -- if I buy, y'know, $20/pound copper river salmon or swordfish or tuna or something, you better believe I'm not going to risk overcooking it. But for weeknight meals it's usually IQF wild salmon or tilapia or something, so I don't get too stressed about the outside 1/4 inch being slightly overdone.

                                1. re: LauraGrace

                                  Thanks for this tip! I'm really going to try to eat more fish in 2010, so this is very helpful to know.

                                  ~TDQ

                              3. I know it sounds counter intuitive but I'm often half-making the next day's dinner while I'm doing the current day's dinner. For example, I might have something roasting in the oven while we eat; it gets pulled out and put in the fridge for the next day. So you can do (easy) things that take more than the hour or so you've got available. My husband often says "did you forget to serve that roasted eggplant?" and I'm saying, no, that's tomorrow's baba ganoush.... I always know what we're having for the next three nights or so and shop accordingly.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: DGresh

                                  I do this, too, DGresh. When I'm boiling the water for pasta, etc. and I have some down town, I'm prepping for tomorrow's dinner.

                                  ~TDQ

                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    I do this too- especially when it gives me the chance to prep something that otherwise wouldn't be on the table until 8:30- anything roasted, or braised, etc- these can all pop in the oven as soon as I get home, then I make and eat the 'real' dinner for the night, and remove the slower item when it's ready (before bed) and put it in the fridge until the next night. Then it's just about reheating.

                                    Also, we only have the freezer that comes with the fridge- nothing large- so I never use it to keep whole meals, but there's plenty of room to keep small bits that come in handy later. Portioned beans, etc as mentioned above, but some of my other faves are: portioned flat-frozen baggies of enchilada sauce; homemade rolls, frozen after the first rise (just pull out the frozen ball in the am and let defrost/rise on your counter- it's ready for the oven when you come home); baggies of all-=purpose white sauce that can be the base for pesto cream for pasta, or tuna casserole, or mac and cheese, etc.

                                    Anytime I make a sauce that is more labor intensive, I try to double the recipe then freeze portioned baggies. Then I put all the frozen baggies in one gallon-ziplock, date and label that, and have several dinner "starters" on hand.

                                    I also will often have a "theme" going for the week, where I, say, make a big batch of meatballs, and have spag and mb on night one. Then, rather than just having spag and mb again, I will have meatball subs, or meatball pizza, or crumbled mb's as the base for shepherd's pie (or all of the above...) later in the week.

                                    1. re: happybellynh

                                      You know, one word in your post above really caught my attention, and that is portioned FLAT frozen baggies.

                                      Whenever I portion stuff and freeze it, I just slop the stuff in there and freeze it without regard to "shape". I really need to do a better job of flattening the baggies once the stuff is in there for more orderly storage, but also for faster defrosting. So obvious, yet, so easy to forget.

                                      ~TDQ

                                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                        I freeze things in baggies flat all the time- pizza dough especially. Roasted eggplant for babaganoush freezes well in a ziplock too

                                        1. re: cheesecake17

                                          I agree that either flat or square makes a huge difference when freezing in bags and contributes to sanity in limited freezer space. I'll either put many single serving bags in one big one or freeze in a bag in tupperware to set the shape, and then pull the tupperware out.

                                        2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          Yup, I am pretty religious about flattening baggies too, TDQ! I always keep brown rice in the freezer in flattened baggies which makes weeknight meals pretty easy. It's a legit tip too, straight from Morimoto! ;)

                                  2. I will second the recommendation for a crock pot. Lots of people on this board seem to make fun of crock pot cooking, but great things can come from a crock pot. When I am preparing my weekly meals, I take into account what is on sale and what I have in my cabinets. I always keep staples stocked like canned beans, frozen veggies, dried pastas, rice, spices, etc. Also I like to cook once and eat two or three times. Like today I am making white chicken chili so I am browning extra chicken breasts for me to take for lunch next week. I like to cook two entrees on Sunday and we eat that through the week. When I make mashed potatoes for Sunday, I make enough to reheat for one meal on the weeknight. I also repurpose meats. If I do pork tenderloin, we have the leftovers in tacos. If I do beef roast, I use the leftovers in soup/stew. When I roast veggies and have leftovers, I use them in soup/stew. Gives the soup/stew and really hearty taste. I used to go the grocery store every night after work. In addition to it taking valuable time, it was also expensive. Now I go once a week and usually only buy fresh meat/veggies. Once a month I restock my staples. I have also found that keeping my pantry and cabinets neat aids me in knowing what I have and what I need. I don't overbuy or underbuy that way. Plus if I need something for a quick supper, I know instantly what i can come up with. We haven't eat out since September and then that was a special occasion with out-of-town family.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: vafarmwife

                                      besides the crockpot, might i suggest investing in a pressure cooker? i just got mine and the time it saves is unbelievable. risotto (delicious risotto) from start to finish in under 15 minutes (with almost no stirring, so you can do other prep), beans cooked quickly etc etc.

                                      also, the idea of prepping ahead is a good one, esp for salads and veggies. I have always found that it's the salads and veggies that take the most prep work and so are the most likely things to be jettisoned if you're tired or short on time. But if you prep them on the weekends and then leave them bagged in your fridge, it will make everything easy.

                                      Another option is to use frozen veggies. I know most people don't believe this, but unless you're buying local produce, most frozen veggies have more nutrients than "fresh" ones which may be over a week old. Also, frozen veggies are already prepped and therefore require less time to make. So don't feel bad if you opt for frozen veggies some of the time.

                                      1. re: missmasala

                                        I'm a big fan of frozen veggies (certain veggies anyway), especially in winter. It's already prepped and easy to "portion" and you can often get it on sale if you're on the look-out for it.

                                        ~TDQ

                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          I keep frozen vegetables on hand too. Broccoli, crinkle cut carrots, peas, corn and spinach. While I would never serve them to company, and they don't stand too well on their own (well, the corn and peas are ok), I find that they are easy to throw in with a pasta based dish or a stir fry.

                                          My husband barely eats any vegetables, so sometimes I just like to steam up some of the frozen ones to throw in with my dinner. Not gourmet, but efficient.

                                          Also regarding vegetables, at the beginning of the week or on Sunday, I often will roast up a batch of vegetables to eat during the week. Brussels sprouts, carrots, onions, and cauliflower is my favorite combination. I make a tray full and they barely last more than 2 days since they are so good.

                                        2. re: missmasala

                                          Yeah, frozen veggies are SUCH a good choice. I never like to be without peas, green beans, frozen spinach, limas, and cauliflower.

                                          A lot of places are selling frozen mirepois and the like now, which is a huge timesaver for soups and things. I find that they're only a good deal if they're on sale, but they're great to have on hand for "emergencies."

                                      2. Just thinking and planning to be organized is an excellent first step. My kids are 18 & 22 (in college) and I kind of miss not having to cook for 4 people every night. I worked full time (still do) their entire lives and we always ate well, having dinner between 6:30 - 7:00 even thought I didn't make it home till 5:30 p.m.

                                        We like a lot of variety, not set rotation of meals. I grew up with meatloaf on Tues, liver on Thurs (we ate at other kids' houses on this night - LOL!), chicken on Friday, etc. SO, I tried to maximize the grocery shopping experience by planning 2 week's worth of meal options, making an extensive list and shopping twice a month. We took breakfast and lunches to school/work as well. Feel badly that you don't have a freezer, that would help BUT do invest in a Food Saver vacuum sealing device, it will extend shelf life of many things and help with making FLAT freezer bags, etc.

                                        Tips -
                                        Make some kind of roast over the weekend (chicken, beef, fish) and plan for leftovers Even if you can't freeze, you should have room for 9X13 pan in your fridge for tetrazzini, crepe casserole, BBQ beef, whatever you are making with leftovers.

                                        Getting a jump on the next night's meal is essential. We ate a LOT of flank steak, teriyaki chicken breast, fajitas (beef or chicken) which I would prepare to marinate the night before. Make sure you have accompaniments like tortialls, sala, sour cream, olives, etc. They cook up fast and kids love anything they can eat with their fingers.

                                        We ate a LOT of pasta or rice based dishes. A pot of sloppy joes will last a week in your fridge, you can serve those over buns. OR, make risotto with diced chicken & mushrooms.

                                        Good idea to chop onions, green or red peppers, celery and store in re-usable plastic containers in small enough quantities you will use every week, based on your menu planning.

                                        The biggest tip to ensure homemade meals after work is to do advance prep and planning, sounds like you are there. GOOD LUCK!

                                        1. Lots of good suggestions here. I agree w/ the crock pot, however, I use it sparingly as eventually I got tired of the 'stew' consistency. This is what worked (works) for me.

                                          Get food ads sometime Wednesday or Thursday. Peruse what's on sale that I might want. Make a list of 3 - 4 meals from the ads. Check pantry for what I have and frig for what I need to use up. Peruse through the freezer (small that it is) for other items.

                                          Sat am - Store time. Go home and prep all veggies and fruits. Marinate meats if needed.

                                          Sun - Day in kitchen. Prep, cook big meals, etc. Portion out for lunches or just set up prep for other meals, for the week.

                                          Rotate meals throughout the week that are on the list that I've decided on.

                                          Thursday nite - Don't get home until 7pm, after a 14 hour day and debate whether to call for delivery. Grab beer, take shower and decide that 1) PB&J or scrambled eggs w/ toast or steamed tamales constitute a perfectly healthy and filling meal and beat myself up for not being better prepared.

                                          I always try to give myself an "out" - too easy not to prepare meal, once a week.

                                          I try and stay out of the stores after work. It's too busy, I'm too tired and distracted to make a proper choice. Looking at a line of people, when I'm tired, sweaty and my feet hurt will make me put my stuff back and head for the door.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: JerryMe

                                            All the suggestions are great - I'll agree that planning is great

                                            JerryMe, I follow a similar method. I spend Sat morning picking out my 3-4 dinners (lunch is usually leftovers or I'll stock some sandwich things) and then go grocery shopping and do prep over the weekend.

                                            And for me, a key is to have one (or two) nights that let you off the hook. A night where takeout is ok or we pull out the boxes of Annies mac & cheese.

                                            1. re: mickeygee

                                              We do the same thing - sometimes I get a little burnt out on making all the weekly meal decisions so I'll hand hubby a cookbook and say choose a soup or a pasta or whatever. That usually gives me inspiration to plan the rest of the week to use leftover ingredients from what he chose or to find other things that are at the opposite end of the spectrum so as to not be too repetitive.

                                              Annie's mac & cheese is a lifesaver sometimes. We like it and the 4-year-old would eat it 3 times a day if allowed. Especially the bunny-shaped one :)

                                            2. re: JerryMe

                                              Crockpots are good for other things besides, stew type things. Look around for a good crockpot cookbook. I've done, tamale pie, roasted chicken etc. Roasted chicken and roast turkey breast are easy, take out of package, rub with whatever seasoning you like, put in crockpot, cover, leave on low.

                                            3. My husband and I have a different approach, and we've been cooking at home most weeknights, while working full time, for over 30 years. Think of the Food Network Show "Chopped," without the weird ingredients and no need to impress the judges with creativity.

                                              Over the weekend, I do a thorough grocery shopping, stocking up especially on items that are on sale so that we start the week with a fully-stocked pantry, fridge & freezer. I don't read the food circulars in advance, although I do clip coupons on Sunday from the paper. When I go to the store, I know that I am going to buy some kind of green vegetable, but I rarely know what, until I see what looks fresh and reasonably priced. Same with meats, canned goods, etc. There is always a variety of dried pasta in the house, canned chicken & beef broth, canned chopped chilis (I buy fresh jalapenos too, but the canned are handy in a pinch), tomato paste, etc. I stock up on protein products -- meat, poultry, fish -- when they are on sale and freeze them. I don't have a deep freezer. You can store a lot in a regular freezer compartment of a refrigerator if you don't have a lot of so-called "convenience" foods (pizzas, french fries, frozen dinners) in your freezer. When we started this system 30+ years ago, we lived in student housing with a very small fridge.

                                              Each morning my husband & I take something out of the freezer, rotating for variety, so that it will be defrosted when we get home. We might at that time discuss how it will be prepared but more often that not, we don't. We happen to commute together so on the ride home we discuss what we will do for dinner (and which one of us will cook it) -- e.g., if we'd taken out frozen chicken breasts, we might make chicken curry, francese, tortilla soup, grilled in marinade, etc depending on our mood, what vegetables are on hand and the weather (in terms of whether grilling is an option).

                                              Some of the dishes that we make take a full hour and a fair amount of work; others can be made in under 1/2 hour with minimal effort. Depending on what time we get home and how exhausted we are, we select accordingly. I keep my eye out -- in the newspapers, magazines, on this Board -- for interesting recipes that look like they could be made in under one hour and don't involve "unusual" ingredients.

                                              We do makes some dishes with the idea that there will be leftovers -- e.g., a double batch of red sauce, which can be used later in the week for chicken parmigiana -- but we very rarely cook & freeze for later.

                                              1. you've gotten good advice already. i'd add that with an elementary school aged child, one thing they love is a reliable routine. it's a good time to rely on routine for weeknights and save the more creative endeavors for weekends and breaks.

                                                one night baked chicken, one night fish, one night soup and grilled cheese, one night pasta, one night breakfast. sounds kind of 50's but it makes shopping easy, and you'll have your prep time whittled down. and kids love to know what's for dinner.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: appycamper

                                                  Great post.
                                                  I agree completely. I always think my kids are going to get tired of the stand by's but they never do. "Spaghetti ?????? YAY !"
                                                  I find that I cook a lot like my mother except with much better ingredients. Every week we have three tried and true's, Spaghetti with meat sauce, roast chicken and either mac and cheese or meat loaf. How 50's can you get? But they love it.
                                                  And the freezer is your friend. I make a double batch of almost everything. There is always frozen meat sauce in the freezer, always. No matter what I can give my family a good nutritious meal. It is kept company by chicken stock that I can always throw noodles and veggie's into at the last minute for a good soup, frozen pancakes and french toast (again, I always make double and freeze them for a quick reheated breakfast). There is usually a lasagna, a mac and cheese or a tuna casserole in there.
                                                  That way three weeknights a week are covered. A roast chicken with rice and broccoli is a no brainer that everyone loves no matter how often I make it. Then I can do stir fry's or a quick fresh pasta the other two nights. On the weekends I can get creative.
                                                  My kids get leftovers from dinner the night before, for their lunch, with fresh vegetables and fruit. Get the new kid's bento boxes they make, 4 separate containers in one larger lidded container. You can put anything in there, they are awesome.
                                                  I make sure that I cook with the best ingredients I can get my hands on. And I make a couple of loaves a bread a week from Artisan Bread in 5 minutes A Day.
                                                  That way I can be sure that my family is eating, delicious, nutritious, organic food every day, and I can also have a life!!!!!!!!!!
                                                  Last week my ten year old son chose trout salad and sweetbreads for dinner at a restaurant. I am convinced that the kind of good basic cooking I do at home has created a palate that appreciates excellent flavors, and so he can be adventurous when given the opportunity, because he has learned to love GOOD food.
                                                  No Kids meals, no frozen foods.
                                                  Hats off to you for not succumbing to the easy way out. It can be a challenge. But it will br incredibly rewarding to stay on the path you seem to have chosen!

                                                2. In addition to all the fantastic ideas here, you could mix up a batch of five minute, no knead bread. See their website at http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com

                                                  I was doing something similar before I discovered their site (going to get their book asap) - only, I didn't realize I could leave it in the fridge for up to two weeks!! (gets tastier as it ages) and with pre-prepped veggies, chopped whole tomatoes (or even jarred tomato sauce) and shredded cheese - you'll have a better pizza than any delivery (and much cheaper). Or make a crusty loaf to go with soup, etc.

                                                  I've been making pizza for many years, and I think this makes the best pizza dough. I recently started using my older recipe (which calls for kneading) and I finally realized this is why my pizza's haven't been coming out as good as usual (also, be sure to use a good, unbleached flour for bread/pizza).

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: threedogs

                                                    I use this method too. It's easy to start the oven, pull the dough out of the fridge, finish up after-work routine stuff, and then get to making pizza or other bread products.

                                                    1. re: threedogs

                                                      One of my new year's resolutions is to get going on the 5 minute bread again. Especially good in winter I think.

                                                      The dough will not rise as much during the second week. Is that your experience? Makes great flatbreads then though. One of the authors mentioned at a class that she freezes dough after a week if she doesn't want it to get to that flatter stage, and then just defrosts when she's ready for it. (I just make half batches so we don't have any leftover by the end of the first week.)

                                                      1. re: karykat

                                                        Yes, that's my experience with the rising/texture. I usually mix it up, make a loaf or two over the first two or three days, and then the rest ends up as pizza or gets thrown into the next batch. I've never really had to freeze any of the doughs, other than challah and brioche. No complaints here, the method and time frame work really well for me.

                                                    2. I second the frozen veggies idea. I buy frozen, chopped onions and green peppers to cook with and it saves a ton of time and clean-up. They're usually as economical as the fresh ones, unless you find them on sale.

                                                      I also make spaghetti in large batches on the weekend so we can have some during the week. That way, some of the time I would normally spend cooking can go toward cleaning.

                                                      Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches are a favorite here, and I try to have those or grilled PBJ's or egg sandwiches once a week for time and $ savings. Another regular is Zatarain's rice dishes and sausage. Prep and clean-up time is quick. We also like to make microwave bean and cheese burritos. None of this is exactly gourmet. My husband calls it 'maintenance food' but it's just a necessity when life hands you a tight schedule. We cook the good stuff on the weekends and freeze as much as we can, but we know it's not practical to try to freeze enough weekend food for everyday. I used to try to pull that off, but it's too hard on the weekends.

                                                      1. One thing I always forget is that my family would happily live on fried egg sandwiches if given the choice - we do a couple of slices of decent deli ham -sometimes warmed/browned sometimes not - a slice of some or other cheese, and an over-medium egg on a good hearty wheat bread, with a pile of fresh spinach calling itself "salad" on the plate. I'm cooking for five, so cooking all of those eggs irritates me sometimes (whereas the same time spent chopping wouldn't bother me at all) but from start to finish it takes about 25 minutes.

                                                        That's also why my cajun hash is huge in our family - and I do use one convenience product here from time to time - "Southern Style" frozen hash brown potatoes - it's just frozen chopped potatoes, and cuts my cooking time WAY down. I brown cubed cheap andouille-like-product (it's Cajun Holler - if you've had it you understand the disclaimer!) in my electric skillet, and chopped onions in a bit of olive oil, add either diced potatoes or the hash browns, and cook to preferred crispness. This is also really great with a splash of white wine a the potatoes just start to cook, it gets them started better, and of course imparts an awesome flavor. Then, serve with fried eggs.

                                                        Oh, and my wok is my best friend when I want to cook something 'real' quickly. Frequently I'll marinate serving size pieces of chicken in whatever marinade sounds good (I love a soy, peanut oil, fresh ginger & garlic w/a bit of rice wine vinegar as both a marinade and dressing for Asian chicken salad - just add a bit of hoisin to part of the mixture and toasted sesame seeds, and voila! dressing - the other part, voila! marinade) and as it marinates, prep a quick salad (bagged doesn't bother me), then stir-fry snow peas, julienned carrots (yep, sometimes bagged) and bagged "broccoli slaw" mix (the stem ends of broccoli - I love this stuff for stir-fry in a hurry, and even my broccoli haters eat it happily). Stir-fry the chicken with some slivered almonds or cashews and serve it over the greens with the salad dressing. Love.

                                                        2 Replies
                                                        1. re: shanagain

                                                          Yes, my wok is my friend, too. It's amazing how fast you can whip up a quick meal in one.
                                                          My family will very happily have omelets for dinner. Fast, easy and delicious.

                                                          1. re: mendogurl

                                                            My wok is a lifesaver! A favorite is chicken stir fried with cabbage- so cheap and cabbage stays pretty much forever in the frigde.

                                                            Frittatas are a great option if you don't want to be flipping omlettes for everyone. Leftover veggies or defrosted spinach work great in a frittata. Or consider putting together a strata the night before...

                                                        2. Crockpot meals overnight - that's one of my best time saving tips. Even though I'm a morning person I always I find that things are always a bit too crazy in the AM to think about dinner. Meanwhile, after dinner at nighttime is a great time to put things together in the crockpot. Then I set it on low with a timer and voila "dinner" or lunch is ready when you wake up. I do this alot and bring that food with me for lunch that same day, assuming you don't mind repeating meals in a row :)
                                                          (I don't think this was mentionned yet, but sorry if it was and I missed it.)

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: KaraK

                                                            I sometimes assemble everything in the crockpot the night before, store it in the fridge, then cook during the next day. I add a bit of cooking time to make up for the cold contents, but that's not generally a problem if you're going to be gone from 8 until 5:30 or so.

                                                          2. There are lots of great ideas here. I don't do so much advance prep, but I do plan a week out on the previous weekend. Caveat: week means S-Th, Friday and Saturday are takeout or go out, or maybe cook something but it's on the fly.

                                                            So on Friday and Saturday I think about dinners for the week, spending an enjoyable half hour perusing cookbooks, mags, websites, Chowhound, etc. The plan emerges thusly: something substantial that will make leftovers for lunch on Sunday (roast, stew, big braise), fish usually on Monday, then for the rest of the week, a soup meal, maybe a grain (or veg, just meat-free) meal, and something else - chicken-based or eggs (omelettes, frittata) or breakfast for dinner, or hamburger night - there are lots of ideas here already. If I know we'll be home early enough one day for a more complicated or longer cooking dish, I'll do that and save the quick stuff for the short evenings. Then I shop Saturday or Sunday for as much as possible, and it's all there. The key is to keep the list of meals handy, so I can remember what I said I'd make!

                                                            This week's plan:
                                                            Sunday: lamb stew
                                                            Monday: fish for the littles, bay scallops for the bigs
                                                            Tuesday: chicken marbella (we're home early today)
                                                            Wed: escarole soup (doesn't need to cook for hours, thank goodness for canned beans)
                                                            Thursday: lentils with cashews (from last week's BItten) and roasted cauliflower (home early again on Thursdays)

                                                            It has worked so far. But I completely agree on the point about exhaustion at the end of the day - if you sit down you're done! But everyone figures this out, one way or another, you will too!

                                                            1. The Six O Clock Scramble is a great resource. You receive an email once a week and a searchable database of relatively healthy recipes. You can maintain your own recipe box of your favorites. The best part is that you can cusomize the week's recipes and it compiles a grovery list for the whole week's shopping. I have been subscribing for a couple years and it has eliminated weeknight take-out. http://thescramble.com/

                                                              1. I recommend Pam Anderson's book, "How to cook without a book". Yeah i know... it's a book. It has a lot of quick meals and talks about setting up your pantry and learning a few techniques so you can throw something together no matter what.

                                                                I highly recommend pork tenderloin. It's cheap, flavorful and quick. Lots of ways to cook it. I'm from Texas so we bbq them...a lot! Nothing better than bbq pork tenderloin and hot smoked sausage and they only take about 20-25 minutes. Looks around... and despite what you hear, you can bbq in the oven. Just use a little liquid smoke in the sauce. No it isn't as good but it is quick.

                                                                I also stir fry on week nights (also in the book). I started stir frying because I love chinese take out but after I got laid off, I couldn't afford $30-$40 especially when you figure out how cheap the materials are. In fact Pork tenderloins are tapered at one end and they come two in a package which is more than I want in 1 meal. because they are tapered, they do tend to cook uneven unless you fold the tapered end. I buy a pack of two and slice off the tapered end so I have 2 smaller tenderloins that are even in size. I slice the rest in strips for stir fry. A few nights ago, I had pork lo mein and fried rice. It took 20-30 minutes.

                                                                I also buy frozen stir fry veggies in a big bag and keep it in the freezer. I always keep a bag of frozen peas in the freezer because I am always throwing a handful into something.

                                                                Guess where the veggies in the lo mein and the rice came from? Yep, you guessed it and you don't have to stir fry em just because the label says so. I put em in the microwave covered and cook em for 4-5 minutes, they are fine. I might cook em in a nice broth then drain the broth and throw in a tablespoon of butter.

                                                                I suggest a crock pot too. It is just really nice to come home to a almost fully prepared meal. Get one of the modern ones that have a keep warm function once the food is done.

                                                                Eggs for dinner is always wonderful and quick. The book has a chapter of fritattas (an italian omelet).

                                                                One of my families favorites is a bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado and turkey croissant sandwich. The only cooking is the bacon and maybe the food police would allow you to serve potato chips out of the bag with these even though I'm sure some of them will tell you you could make your own chips.....what are the odds?

                                                                2 Replies
                                                                1. re: tonka11_99

                                                                  I have very much appreciated the suggestions!

                                                                  I like to wash AND chop the veggies when I get home from the store. emptying a Ziploc of clean, chopped broccoli into a pot of boiling water is amazingly easy.

                                                                  It's probably ideal to have your protein thawed, but if you're like me and can't decide ahead what you're going to want, it's nice to have stuff individually frozen. You can buy shrimp in a bag individually frozen, and for chicken, etc, you can slice it up, spray a cookie sheet with oil and freeze it on the cookie sheet, then throw the pieces into a ziploc. Individually frozen little peices thaw quickly-- as mentioned, you can throw them in some warm water while you do something else, and if you're cooking them in sauce, they don't need to thaw all the way before you cook them. Freezing stock in ice cube trays or a muffin tin is also helpful, in case you want to throw a few cubes into a saucepan.

                                                                  And if you have leftover protein food, but want something more substantial than salad, fry up some corn tortillas. So much reward for so little effort!

                                                                  1. re: jvanderh

                                                                    The quickest way I know to thaw something is in a sink full of water. Unless it is a roast or a whole turkey, there isn't much a sink full of water won't thaw in 30 minutes. of course that is one of the reasons I use a vacuum sealer. no air pockets to make the package float and no water getting inside the package.

                                                                2. a baked pasta (stuffed shells, baked ziti, lasagne etc) that is made on a sunday that you can just reheat at night is a great thing to have on hand. Soups are also great to have on hand. You can make a big batch of homemade soup on the weekend. I cook a lot of fish. Fish filets cook so fast. I also often make a big batch of homemade cod cakes that I reheat as needed for a quick dinner or lunch. With salad and little homemade tartar sauce it makes a nice easy meal.