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Cooking strategies for working parents of young children

I know this has been covered a hundred different times, so sorry in advance about that.

Nevertheless, I'm looking for some concrete strategies for how to find the time to do more scratch cooking. I've started to fall back on making some compromises --buying precut or frozen vegetables, for instance. I'm also relying on my crockpot more. Still, all I seem to be able to pull off more than once a week or so are very simple meals. Usually a broiled or grilled piece of chicken, meat or poultry with steamed or grilled veggies. And a side of a steamed grain of some sort or a piece of toast or a tortilla.

I'd really like to kick it up a notch and be able to produce some more ambitious, globally-inspired and healthful food, but I just can't seem to figure out how to squeeze it all in. I used to be a regular participant in the Cookbook of the Month threads and am almost never able to pull that off anymore. I don't want to become a meat and potatoes and mac and cheese family because I think I'd die of boredom.

Any suggestions for me? Resources or recipes or cookbooks that you recommend? Thank you.

I was thinking I might pick up a copy of Bayless Mexican Everyday. Maybe Bittman's Best Recipes in the World for easy inspiration?

~TDQ

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  1. Slow cookers!
    Also, using frozen vegetables is not a "compromise." Many frozen vegetables are are "fresher" than the stuff that sits on the truck, being shipped for several days. So, stock up on frozen vegetables!
    Make brown rice in a big rice cooker on the weekends, then portion it out into containers for individual meals throughout the week, put them in the freezer. if in bags, they are very easy to thaw quickly.
    Cook proteins, like chicken breasts on the weekends as well, then put in the fridge for use during the week.
    For breakfasts, we precook sausage, crumbled one week, with the stuff for burritos handy, preshredded cheese (you can do that yourself), and tortillas. Then just portion out your sausage, toss in an egg, wrap and go! Some weeks, we precook the sausage into patties (or have canadian bacon), and tender layer flaky biscuits. Then in the mornings, just grab a biscuit, zap your sausage, put on a slice of cheese, put into biscuit. My husband wraps these (tortillas and sandwiches, in foil and takes them to work.
    Prep on the weekends, plan your week. Portion out cereal, precut veggies, have containers ready.

    4 Replies
    1. re: wyogal

      All good tips, thank you. I admit, though, that I feel guilty about my frozen veg when it was only a year-ago that I was all about my CSA and farmers markets...

      ~TDQ

      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        I think this statement really depends on where you live. We have fresh veg all year round and frozen veg tastes nothing, nothing like fresh veg.

        Meal planning + prepping veg and fruit to the extent possible are really healthful. Batch cooking + extra freezer is a life-saver. Complicated and shopping dependent meals take place on the weekend (fresh fish etc).

        1. re: JudiAU

          Yes, I suppose. We live in the middle of nowhere, and have little in the way of local, fresh fruit or vegetables.
          Still, a busy family can thrive using frozen vegetables.

        2. re: The Dairy Queen

          Some frozen or pre-prepped veggies are better than what you can get fresh. Costco fresh haricot vert, pre cut broccoli, frozen string beans are all regulars in my kitchen.

          Wegmans has good stir fry blends, roasted red peppers, roasted poblanos.

          It's about allocating time. Sometimes I would rather throw in half a bag of frozen chopped onions and spend a few min on something else.

      2. Have you looked at The Indian Slowcooker? I found that book, as well as her website, to be a good source of easy indian dishes you can do in advance. First I had to do a major shop to get all of the spices she uses but after that, dishes were really easy and tasty. I try to do some of the prep the night before or very early, while coffee water boils.

        I know what you mean, though. It is too easy to fall back on fairly bland flavors and known family favorites.

        2 Replies
        1. re: tcamp

          I have to admit, my husband isn't a huge fan of Indian food, so I avoid cooking it. Still, we don't have to cook Indian every night, right? Maybe trying her website would be an easy, noncommittal way to see if some of her recipes work for my family.

          ~TDQ

          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            Dairy Queen, I had success with this recipe of hers (Dad's Rajmah, above) and would recommend it: http://books.google.com/books?id=7OJP...

            I cut way back on the amount of hot peppers--and we LIKE spicy food! Garnish with plain yogurt or raita if you're feeling fancy. It's been a while since I've made the recipe, but I seem to recall it being a tad watery---you might want to cut back a bit on the water.

        2. Dairy Queen, you've probably seen this post from poster "mamachef" already:

          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8343...

          If a person could do this for each cuisine they enjoy, it would be a giant step toward what you want to do?

          But I don't think it takes cookbooks or appliances, I think it takes *organization*.

          15 Replies
          1. re: blue room

            Agree, organization is the key. I think about the week's meals ahead of time, shop Saturday, and generally don't plan anything that isn't a completely done meal in less than an hour, which is about my window after work/school/afterschool activities. If I'm really ambitious I might make beans or grains or slow roast some veg or something on Sunday, for the coming week. We have fish at least once a week, which is quick, probably a pasta another night, chicken or other meat saute something, and maybe a grain- or egg-based dish.

            But one piece of equipment that is a huge boost to those without lots of time is the pressure cooker! And there are good pressure cooker cookbooks out there, with lots of great recipes. I started using mine more regularly this past year, and it has really opened up a whole new area of dinner!

            1. re: Splendid Spatula

              I bought a presto pressure cooker about 4-5 years ago and I have to admit: I'm completely intimidated by it. I wonder if I need a higher-end, more user-friendly pressure cooker?

              Also, if you wouldn't mind and it's not too much trouble, I'd love it if you would share your menu plan for this week (or any other week)! Even your shopping list if you wouldn't mind. I'm not too proud to cheat off of someone else's plan if it will jump-start me.

              ~TDQ

              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                DQ, go here: http://missvickie.com/

                I have an entry-level pressure cooker, too -- and I use it all the time in the winter -- it allows you to get a "slow-cooked" dinner on the table in an hour or less. I do all kinds of casseroles and soups in mine.

                Find an easy recipe -- something like pot roast -- and try it...you'll be off to the races.

                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  I never replied to this - want to know what's on for this week? I hope that late is better than never.

                  Sunday was a somewhat complicated roast chicken from Simca Cooks, salad, boiled potatoes. And a totally awesome pudding from food52.com, Kick Butt-erschotch pudding.
                  Monday was cooked down savoy cabbage (evoo, garlic, S&P), tossed with cavatappi, and lots of parm cheese.
                  Tonight the plan is for miso salmon (marinating since Sunday), broccoli, rice in the rice cooker. Tonight is the shortest night, since we don't get home until 6:30.
                  Wednesday I'm thinking about shakshuka, eggs poached in tomato-pepper sauce-ish stuff (from Ottolenghi Plenty), with some bread. I have more time to cook on Wednesdays, so something that needs some simmer time works here.
                  Thursday is lamb patties (just ground lamb seasoned somehow), and I think there are some green beans in the fridge. The goal with the lamb patties is to use some of the mint jelly I made this summer which is really nice but which we NEVER USE.
                  Friday, again, a little more time to cook, I thought I'd try two-potato vindaloo from Plenty again, with some rice or bread, and probably a salad if I'm feeling a lack of greens.

                  I hope this is helpful!

                    1. re: Splendid Spatula

                      Just discovered this thread - we time challenged should share our meal plans. I've been trying to cook more on the weekends in preparation for the week. It does make things easier!
                      My week begins on Fridays since I don't work Fridays, so I try to get my shopping in while Thing 1 is at school. This week is as follows:

                      Friday: Chicken in basil red pepper cream sauce and cold roasted Brussels sprouts. (this was a pinterest recipe, not my favorite)
                      Saturday: a sweet potato dish I made in the afternoon for my blog, pork chops with apple cider sauce ( a pan sauce is the quick cooker's best friend), salad with some doctored bottled dressing (added buttermilk and fresh dill to ranch)
                      Sunday: roast chicken, roast parsnips, salad again, pie (again, for the blog)
                      Monday: meatloaf (going to make this afternoon and reheat, roasted broccoli (roasted yesterday)
                      Tuesday: middle eastern garlic chicken (I'm going to pressure cook today and with pita, lettuce, tomatoes
                      Wednesday: chicken thighs with artichokes and mustard cream sauce (this is a new recipe - I'm getting home early Wed for Halloween. It's promised as a quickie, but this gives wiggle room)
                      Thursday: Cauliflower soup with cheddar (using cauliflower I roasted this weekend. ) probably a salad (I bought a few heads of romaine).

                      1. re: Savour

                        Sounds delicious! Thanks for sharing.

                        ~TDQ

                        1. re: Savour

                          OK, here's what we've got going this week. I'm a little off my game because we have company with some special dietary needs, but nevertheless, here we go:

                          Monday: Catfish sloppy Joe (From Fish Without a Doubt) http://www.esquire.com/features/guy-f...

                          Tuesday: Slow Cooker Chicken Paprikash http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                          Weds: Slow Cooker Char Siu Roast Pork: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/slow-...

                          Thurs: pizza night

                          Fri: Roasted Broccoli with Shrimp (from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/din...

                          ~TDQ

                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                            I love that Roasted Broccoli and Shrimp recipe. It takes NO prep time and is so healthy.

                            1. re: Savour

                              bingo on the shrimp with broccoli. I love that one too, and it is on my list of "oh my goodness, only 15 minutes to make dinner" meals. Good luck!

                          2. re: Savour

                            I've started a new thread "Harried 'hounds: what's your get-dinner-on-the-table-FAST meal plan for this week?" where we can post our weekly menus so we don't bog this thread down. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8755...

                            Please join me over there all of you meal planner types!

                            ~TDQ

                    2. re: blue room

                      I saw that post of MamaChefs and LOVE it. And, yes, you're right, I think it's the planning and organization that I'm not able to get my arms around...

                      ~TDQ

                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                        For me, organization is a huge help. I have a bunch of recipes that I know are fairly quick and easy to put together, and still have lots of flavor and healthfulness. I make up a dinner plan for the week a week ahead of time, and then make my shopping list (and I'm so OCD that I put notations about which aisle each item is in ... I'd really be embarrassed if most people saw my lists!). Each morning after breakfast I do whatever chopping/prep work I can and put it in the fridge. This helps a lot, but I understand that you don't really have that much time for this kind of thing. But overall I think the key is being organized, and having a plan. Good luck!

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          I was better organized when I didn't have the CSA I usually scratch cook M-TH but CDA comes on Tuesday and throws off my schedule.

                          I used to shop the circular and look at what I wanted to use up at home and them plan my meals around that. I would shop once a week. I actually was making something new every night for a while.

                        2. re: blue room

                          Such a great post by MamaChef. I wonder if she has a "formula" for other cuisines?

                          ~TDQ

                        3. For me, it's all about freezer management and lowered expectations! I don't have enough freezer space for lots of whole meals, so I freeze things like cubes of concentrated homemade broth, small tubs of "curry starter" (which is caramelized onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, curry powder), really good frozen food (I've found great quality haricots verts, broccoli, shrimp, peas, and corn). On weekends, I try to make a big vat of something that will freeze well (braised short ribs or pork shoulder, chili, hearty soup, chicken broth, etc) then I divide, label, and freeze-- usually three or four dinners worth, plus a meal to eat right away.

                          In the summer, I try to prep all my vegetables on the weekend, grilling a bunch of veg, washing all my salad greens, blanching and chopping. If I'm good, I'll also make a pot of french lentils and or quinoa or barley for salads and sides during the week.

                          I also get groceries that will keep well-- grape tomatoes, vacuum sealed ham steaks, giant bags of carrots, red peppers, heads of cabbage, fresh marinated anchovies in oil (vacuum sealed, they keep well in the fridge). I rationalize expensive pantry items (Rao's sauce, fancy tuna, great oil and vinegar) by comparing the cost of a crappy take-out meal.

                          As far as simple recipes, I've stripped down some old favorites by eliminating steps and ingredients that seem unnecessary, which sometimes work great, sometimes not. But I think I'm a better cook now, and I spend less time cooking!

                          That said, I do have a file of take out menus, and I'm not afraid to use it. Sometimes, it's the price of sanity.

                          9 Replies
                          1. re: Tartinet

                            Heh, lowered expectations.... How much time would you estimate you spend on weekends doing all your prep?

                            ~TDQ

                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              It really depends on the family schedule-- at least one afternoon, plus cooking time. I usually intersperse it with other activities, so I'm not working flat out in the kitchen. Another tip is to plan your next meal as you put away leftovers, so I often shred chicken or slice meat or dice roasted veg before I put away the night's leftovers, then they're easier to take for lunch the next day, or turn into the next night's dinner.

                              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                Check out the nap time chef. Granted, you're working, but theres lots of great ideas. When my daughter naps, I prepare items that can be frozen. Also, in an hour or two on the weekends, you can have several meals prepared and ready to go.

                                Another thing to consider is where you're short on time. Are you limited on prep time or is your cook time short?

                                1. re: cheesecake17

                                  Good question. My prep time is limited. My cook time is short if the food has to be served immediately. If I could cook the meal, say, the night before, and then re-heat it and serve it the next day, then my cook time does not necessarily need to be short.

                                  I will have to check out nap time chef! Nap times on weekends are my primary cooking time.

                                  ~TDQ

                                  1. re: cheesecake17

                                    That is a GREAT site! Thank you! I struggle to turn out a delicious, healthy meal after brutal, long hours at work and like to plan ahead.

                                2. re: Tartinet

                                  Ha. Seriously. Rao's and fancy tuna are totally worth the money in the quick dinner olympics.

                                  1. re: Tartinet

                                    The San Francisco Chronicle for many years had a feature called "The Weekend Cook" which included a "master recipe" to make on the weekend and then recipes (or sometimes just suggestions) for using the planned-for leftovers. You can search "weekend cook" on their site and come up with dozens of suggestions. One simple one: it doesn't take any more time to roast two chickens than to roast one. Leftover roast chicken can be used as the basis for a quick meal in lots of ways. Chicken tacos, chicken salad, tossed with some sauce and pasta, etc. The same for roasted vegetables.

                                    http://www.sfgate.com/search/?action=...

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      Funny! I have Tara Duggan's "The Working Cook" book (and like it). Also, there's an article of hers I love where she tested a whole bunch of recipes from magazines that claim their meals are "quick" cooking and then rated the publications for whether the recipes were tasty, whether the recipes were logically written, whether the published time estimates were reliable, and whether the recipes were full of unnecessary steps that didn't seem to contribute anything to the meal. I recall she gave thumbs up to Gourmet (RIP), Bon Appetit, and Real Simple. One other, I think, but I can't remember it.

                                      Nevertheless, the book was published in 2006. It appears she didn't add the "Sunday supper" concept until 2009 or so. I should have a peek at some of her more recent columns...

                                      ~TDQ

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        I forgot my own favorite strategy for quick meals: sausages! They're already cooked, so they don't take much time, and they're incredibly versatile. Slice them up and saute them with onions and peppers (Italian); simmer them with sauerkraut (German); dice them, saute with some onions and herbs and top a "baked" (aka nuked) potato (American). Buy some merguez or chorizo for Moroccan or Spanish or Mexican. There are so many interesting sausages available now, they're inexpensive and they freeze beautifully.

                                    2. Agreed. Preplanning, and precut and/or frozen foods are your friends. If you're using fresh ingredients, do all or most of your chopping and pre-measuring the night before.
                                      Roast a chicken or some cornish game hen (I like CGHs; they're quicker and you don't have to deal with giblets), or slowly braise a brisket or pork shoulder in a slow cooker or in the oven for a couple hours. These will give you meat to make soft tacos, bbq sandwiches, throw into broth with spinach and some pasta (tweak the herbs/spices/garlic/onion appropriately), and can work for at least 2-3 meals.

                                      Buy ground meat on sale, make meatballs, and freeze. Broil or fry and add to soup, jarred spaghetti sauce, eggs, pizzas (from refrigerated pizza dough), etc.

                                      Whatever you do, don't go too fancy. There were a number of times when I made a fairly complex meal only to have the little one request mac and cheese. Kids like simple stuff, and YOU need simple stuff. And allow yourself at least one night a week when it's something like prefrozen coconut shrimp; mix honey and a little white vinegar for the sauce, and nuke frozen peas or frozen fried rice.
                                      A lot of frozen, canned, and prepackaged stuff can be tweaked with onion, garlic, herbs, spices, nuts, fresh or dried fruit, etc. Trader Joe's has a lot of things like pre-crusted eggplant, potstickers, and cooked meats that you can add your own sauce and fresh veggies to and save yourself some time while feeding the short people well.
                                      Oh, also one-dish meals that provide protein, veggies, and some starch in one bowl...mac and cheese with peas and ground meat or sliced chicken sausage, quesadillas with or without precooked meat (like the pork or chicken you roasted earlier) and spinach or greens from a bag, garbage soup (throw in anything and everything that you have leftover, adjusting broth by adding tomatoes/tomato sauce or paste, or half-and-half ,if desired) served with store-bought rustic bread. Fried rice made from leftovers and tweaked with things like sliced scallions, toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, quickly sauteed bell pepper strips (frozen), pineapple chunks, and/or nuts are great. Stuffed potatoes can also be low-prep.
                                      The only things I tried to keep away from was instant stuff. Mac and cheese can be fairly fast when you use pre-shredded cheese, and now that my kid's 13, she knows the difference between fresh and instant, and prefers the fresh.

                                      Here's one of my One Dishes:

                                      DIRTY RICE:
                                      1 T OIL
                                      1-2 SLICES BACON, CHOPPED
                                      1/2 LB GROUND BEEF OR TURKEY
                                      1/2 GREEN BELL PEPPER. CHOPPED
                                      1/2 ONION, CHOPPED
                                      1 STALK CELERY, CHOPPED
                                      1 C RAW LONG GRAIN WHITE RICE
                                      1 1/2 C STOCK
                                      1/2 t FILE POWDER
                                      2-3 t CAJUN SEASONING
                                      2 GREEN ONIONS, SLICED
                                      1 BUNCH SPINACH, TORN
                                      JUICE OF 1/2- 1 LIME
                                      OPTIONAL ADD-INS: SL. MUSHROOMS, CHOPPED APPLE

                                      Heat oil in medium skillet over med-high heat. Add meats and cook until ground meat browns, 3-5 minutes. Add next 3 ingredients and saute until slightly softened, 2 minutes. Stir in rice, then stock. Bring to simmer, reduce heat, cover, and cook 15 minutes. Add greens and toss until wilted. Add green onion, then lime juice, tabasco, and salt and pepper to taste.

                                      (I know: it's not very low in fat, but it has everything, and you only have one pan. You can precut the onion, bell pepper and celery the night before and store them together in a ziploc bag or tupperware in the fridge.

                                      Substitute the bacon and/or beef for whatever similar meat or tofu product you want, and the spinach can be replaced by any other greens or chopped broccoli.

                                      14 Replies
                                      1. re: Michelly

                                        Lots of great tips in here, thank you. I really need to make better use of "the night before". I'm always so tired then, but we're not really talking about THAT much time and I'll bet I could convince my spouse to help out. Then it can be something we can do together instead of crashing in front of the TV...

                                        Home cooking hounds (everyone in this thread) are full of such great ideas! Thank you!

                                        ~TDQ

                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          Lots can also be done on the weekends. Sunday mornings, husband takes my daughter out for bagels and I have a hour to plan, chop, cook, organize. I was reading somewhere to plan dinners for sun, mon, tues from fresh foods, we'd, thurs, fri from the freezer, and sat give yourself a break.

                                          1. re: cheesecake17

                                            I love this as a model for a schedule...

                                            ~TDQ

                                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                              Ive done it several weeks. It works, but it helps to have pantry staples so you're not running like a loony to the store to pick up a can of whatever,

                                              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                I can't remember where I saw it, but I've seen some meal plans, too, where you cook all day one day a month and freeze it all...then you've got all those meals ready at the drop of a hat.

                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                  You know, I checked a Once a Month Cooking book out of the library and was a little overwhelmed by it. I'm not sure I could commit to that.

                                                  Also, there weren't enough whole foods for my tastes.

                                                  Here's an example of how one woman does her "once a month" cooking. Except, she divides it in two and does it twice a month. http://onceamonthmom.com/how-i-once-a... You can see that it takes her a couple of sessions (some quite short) over the course of four days! And that doesn't even include grocery shopping or planning time!

                                                  Here's their basic plan where they say to do an entire month you spend 2-3 hours shopping, time the night before prepping, and then 6-12 hours cooking. http://onceamonthmom.com/get-started-...

                                                  I'm not sure I'm willing to spend that 6-12 hour day away from my child...

                                                  They do have a whole foods plan now, though. http://onceamonthmom.com/oamm_menu_ty...

                                                  I think I need to work on a week at time and see if I can stick with that before trying a whole month. Wouldn't it be great to have a whole month in the bank?

                                                  ~TDQ

                                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                    my sister and I did it once...we just weren't all that sold on the meals themselves, but that is heavily reliant on the recipes.

                                                    Just a suggestion-- I was thinking from the angle of your little one having a special day with Dad or Grandma or other favorite adult.

                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                      You know, month at a time cooking wouldn't be such a bad idea in winter (when I'm going to be cooped up in the house anyway) or in a month that I expect to be especially challenging. For instance, maybe I do it in November over the long Thanksgiving weekend while daddy and toddler watch football in anticipation of December craziness...

                                                      I do think it's worth checking out the "whole food" recipes they've supposedly introduced on that blog I linked to. As you say, it's recipe dependent, so all I have to do is find the right combo of recipes!

                                                      Interesting that you and your sister did it. Did it seem more fun/productive to do it as a team? I wonder if I can coax another mom in my neighborhood to join up with me.

                                                      Oh, and that reminds me, I have a dear friend who does a weekly dinner swap with a neighbor. One night my friend cooks a double meal and takes half to her neighbor and the other night the neighbor cooks a double meal and brings it over. It's hardly any extra effort to double a meal and then you get one night off. Here's a link to Real Simple Magazine's dinner swap (which is a little different. You swap freezer dinners with 3 other people.)

                                                      ~TDQ

                                                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                        It's been a really long time now, but I seem to think it came from a magazine, and it was set up to split between two families, but I can't remember the details.

                                                        You could also do the double meals and just freeze one -- building inventory for the nights you need them!

                                                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                            Speaking of Real Simple, I was leafing through in the checkout line and saw a little piece about cooking something for one night, then using it again, repurposed, the second night. There isn't anything terribly revolutionary about the concept but good to keep in mind when planning. I have two teen boys and we like leftovers for lunch so I'd really have to make alot to get two meals out of a dish, but still, good idea. I'm going to make the black bean zucchini chili this week.

                                                            http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipe...

                                                            1. re: tcamp

                                                              That particular recipes sounds like a great way to use up zucchini this time of year, too!

                                                              I've never been super good about repurposing leftovers, unless they were planned leftovers. We used to do something similar to what you do: use our leftovers for lunches later in the week. Except, lately, I've been making sandwiches for lunch, then freezing them in ziplock baggies. Pull them out of the freezer and toss them in your lunch with a piece of fruit or sliced veggies and by lunch time, the sandwich is thawed. (This only works if you work in a climate-controlled environment. ) So, now those leftovers really are available for dinner.

                                                              ~TDQ

                                                      2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                        I started to read Once a Month Mum and my head is already spinning. I don't think I can do 6-12 hours of cooking in one go either, excluding the chopping and prepping. But I admire anyone who can do this marathon cooking.

                                                        1. re: lilham

                                                          Ditto. I don't think I can do a whole month the way they lay it out, but I think I might be able to use some of their recipes and/or shopping lists if there's a certain thing I want to stockpile.

                                                          ~TDQ