My Top Tip to Simplify Meal Time

posted by Andrea | 06/29/2016
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simplify meal time

During the summer months, when Dave is home and we eat 3 meals a day as a family, I’m reminded more than ever how crazy and chaotic meal times can be with 3 young children.

Someone needs more of this, someone doesn’t like that, someone needs their food cut up or their drink refilled, someone spills something, someone is crying, etc. etc.

And that’s just when we’re eating the meals — I still need to find the time and energy to prepare the meals as well!

We definitley do plan “easy meals” (leftovers, fast food, frozen pizza) into our weekly meal plans, but in general, most of our meals require at least some preparation.

So in an effort to simplify our meals times…

I almost always choose foods I can make ahead.

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Everything from mixing up pancake or waffle batter before we go to bed, preparing lunch while the kids finish breakfast, and assembling dinner while the boys are napping — I literally try to plan and prepare ALL the food we eat well in advance of when we will be eating it. 

This holds true for simple meals at home with our family, for the times we have a few dinner guests, for kids’ birthday parties or playdates, and especially for larger entertaining opportunities like holiday parties or backyard BBQ’s.

By specifically planning main courses, side dishes, and desserts that can be made ahead, I am able to drastically simplify all of our meal times, enjoy entertaining so much more, save boatloads of time and energy in the kitchen, and even reduce the clean-up! 

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Yes, I realize this isn’t a new concept, and it might not be the fabulous tip you were hoping for — but it works wonderfully for me; I can almost guarantee it will work for you too!

Although constantly planning ahead for every meal of every day might sound exhausting and overwhelming, I have found that it is much LESS exhausting and overwhelming than trying to make last-minute meals with 3 small (hungry) children whining and crying, or with a house full of guests waiting to eat.

So instead of hustling around the kitchen trying to make a bunch of last-minute foods, I almost always choose foods that can easily be made (or at least assembled) ahead of time

 

My Favorite Make-Ahead Foods

Literally, almost every single thing I make when entertaining is something that can be made a full day in advance and just pulled from the fridge, pulled from the pantry, pulled from the oven, or sit out in a slow cooker on the day of the party.

At this point in my life, I have enough make-ahead recipes that it’s pretty easy to mix and match until I come up with a winning combo for our meals. However, there are plenty of times when I alter a recipe slightly so it can be made in a slowcooker or made ahead of time and refrigerated until I’m ready to put it in the oven.

I also don’t do a ton of stove-top cooking, as that is usually more last-minute types of foods. I try to make all hot foods in the oven or in a slow cooker.

We do use the grill quite a bit in the summer, but Dave does the grilling and I try to plan side dishes that I can make ahead (baked beans in a slow cooker, lettuce salad already made ahead in the fridge, grilled corn on the cob that he can grill with the meat, etc.)

For example:

Baked goods and desserts:

I make almost 100% of all my baked goods and desserts several days (or even weeks in advance). Cookies and brownies last for weeks and months in the freezer, and most cakes can easily sit for a day or two as well.

If ice cream is on the menu, I just keep it in the freezer until it’s time to eat — and if I’m serving pie, I’ll still make it either the night before or in the morning.

Here’s the link to ALL my dessert recipes.

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Breads and muffins:

I almost always keep a small supply of quick breads and muffins in the freezer to pull out and defrost for snacks or to go with breakfast. However, sometimes I just want the taste of fresh-from-the-oven breads and muffins so I mix up the batter the night before and then bake them fresh right when I wake up.

Here’s the link to ALL my bread and muffin recipes

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Breakfast:

I’ve already shared our basic morning routine — and how we eat 2 breakfasts everyday — however, since the mornings often seem rushed and chaotic for me, I try to plan and prepare as much food ahead of time as I can.

I have water and juice cups in the fridge ready for when the kids wake up. I have pancake batter or an egg casserole all mixed up, muffins or bread either made in advance or defrosting overnight, and fruit already washed, cut up, and ready to eat.

Then in the morning, I can just put the egg casserole in the oven, or pull the griddle out and start flipping pancakes.

Here’s a link to ALL my breakfast recipes

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Main dishes:

Make-ahead main dishes always seem to be the easiest for me to decide on because I have SOOOOOO many awesome make-ahead recipes. In fact, I feel like the vast majority of all the main dish recipes on my blog work well as make-ahead options.

My favorites are:

  • any type of pasta dish or casserole I can assemble during the day (or pull from the freezer) and pop in the oven
  • any type of meat I can put in the slow cooker
  • any type of soup I can cook during the day and let simmer until dinner
  • our favorite Mexican base mixture that I make ahead and then use for quesadillas, tacos, etc.

Here’s a link to ALL my main dish recipes

Here’s a link to ALL my slow cooker recipes.

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Salads and cold side dishes:

Lettuce salads can be tricky to make ahead because the dressing often causes the lettuce to get soggy — however if you’re looking for a REALLY GOOD make-ahead lettuce salad recipe, you’ve got to try this one. It’s my go-to recipe any time I want to make a salad ahead of time, or whenever I need to bring a salad to some sort of gathering. I rarely take any home with me!

There are also tons of recipes for make-ahead pasta salads, potato salads, Jello salads, and fruit salads — all of which can easily be made the night before. And of course, bread and butter, or some cut-up fresh (or canned) fruit are always winning side dishes for our family!

All of these salad recipes are great make-ahead options! 

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Potatoes:

I have a handful of awesome potato recipes that can all be made ahead and then either put in a slow cooker or baked in the oven depending on what works best for your meal.

And potato salad or potato chips are even easier to have ready at a moment’s notice!

Here are some of my favorite make-ahead potato recipes. 

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Veggies and hot side dishes:

Veggies are another tricky thing to make ahead — at least for me. They are often the only thing I do at the last minute, but I still try to have them all cut up and in the pan earlier in the day.

Here are a few of my favorite make-ahead veggie and hot side dishes

 

As I mentioned above, by planning and preparing our meals well in advance, I’m able to drastically simplify our mealtimes, free up a bunch of time, and alleviate some of the mess in my kitchen. Plus, we are rarely left wondering “What’s for dinner?” at 5:00. 

I’ve been cooking this way for years (even before children) but the benefits of cooking and baking ahead have multiplied over the past few years as we add more mouths to our family!

I realize it’s not always possible to make all your food ahead of time — but you might be surprised how many of your favorite recipes can easily be assembled or at least partially cooked ahead of time (even the night before for those who work during the day).

If you’d like to simplify YOUR meal times, I would highly recommend planning 1 week of simple, make-ahead main dishes, sides, and desserts — start small and just worry about dinner for now.

If you hate it, then quit after a week; but if you feel like it might work for you, try it for another week… then another!

How do YOU simplify meal times?

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13 comments

  1. Bree

    06/29/2016

    We are a family of (very nearly) 6, four kids 6 years and under so dinner time can definitely get hectic. Particularly the hour before dinner when everyone is tired from the day, so main simplifying tips that work for us for meals are: Prepare brekkie evening before ready to go, dinner prep at lunchtime while kids are napping so it’s ready to throw together 10 minutes before dinner, and one key thing is make double quantity dinner and serve up leftover the next day with a salad for a quick hot lunch! Easy peasy!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Yup, that’s basically exactly what I do!
    Also, congrats on the soon-to-be baby #4!

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  2. Brandette W.

    06/29/2016

    I have been doing this for a few years now. I started doing it out of necessity when we put our house up for sale and were having a ton of showings in a very short amount of time. I decided it would be less stress for me to assemble dinner and have it ready in the fridge ahead of time. I often did the week’s worth of meals and stored them in pyrex dishes in the fridge. Then when it was dinner time, I pulled out that night’s dish and popped it in the oven. I have continued doing it since while were busy in the process building the next home and now once we are here and settled in.

    It just makes my day so much easier. I don’t do a week’s worth of meals any longer, I just do that days. But, I get the meal prepared in the morning whether it be put stuff in the crockpot, prepare the meat and store it in a pyrex dish in the fridge, or get out the pasta/sides and having those ready to go.

    This routine really helped me BIG time when our son started school this past year. When I pick him up from school and we get home, it’s homework time. I don’t have time to be in the kitchen because I am sitting with him doing homework. My husband usually gets home from work while we are in midst of homework. I already have dinner going, so we can all eat around the table together while homework is being finished. This “working ahead” enables us to still have a solid couple of hours of relaxing time each night, even though there was hubby’s work and son’s homework to contend with. It works so well for us in the current stage of life. I am sure I will revamp things when son gets into middle & high school because he probably won’t need me to sit with him doing homework like he does now as a K.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Sounds like a good system Brandette! I know SO many people who talk about different routines and habits they developed when trying to sell their home — and how those habits and routines stuck with them even after they moved!

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  3. Abby

    06/29/2016

    The hardest part for me is to decide what are we going to have each night. I work all day and take care of little kids, and making another decision just seems impossible each night. I find a time to make out the meal plan for the week all at once and grocery shop off of that menu. Then when I finally get the kids and I home for the evening, I don’t have to decide what to cook for dinner. I just look at the list and make what’s listed for the day. Decision fatigue is real! And this is the best way I’ve been able to find to make dinner time easier on myself and make sure we are eating as well as we can.

    My next goal is to try more crock pot meals so dinner is ready when we get home. I haven’t tried any yet as my last experience resulted in chicken that I dried out to the point it was almost jerky!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yup, having a meal plan is SO helpful — even Dave likes to know what’s on the menu so he knows how to plan his lunches 🙂

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    Aa. Reply:

    I think that having a meal plan is the best solution, but I am the kind of persons wich have cravings. So I do meal plan (mostly mentally), but I also have a set of 20 fast meals for wich we have items in the pantry/freezer, so if I can’t foolow the meal plan in a day or Idon’t feel like doing it, I have a foolproof backup plan.

    Actually 80% of the meals are planned ahead – we do a lot of freezeing and canning over the summer (peas, roasted peppers – it’s a thing in my country to freeze roasted peppers – , black beans, fruits) and I also freeze boiled white and black beans, mexican mix veggies, chickpea, boiled chicken breast and grilled chicken. So we cand grab any combination of those and make a fast and easy meal – I just have to remember in the mornign to defrost them.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    This is an awesome system! We also have a short list of favorite meals made from pantry staples (pasta, tacos, pancakes, etc) that we can use if our plans change or if we have “cravings”!

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  4. Debbie

    06/29/2016

    My problem at times is not being sure or confident which dish is right for certain get together. For instance, a church picnic at the park where we’re suppose to bring a main dish and a side dish. I’m so lost and a dish that I may want to cook and serve at home just doesn’t feel right to bring to a park. The best I can think of is to just buy fried chicken. It seems like a cop out to me. How do you make your baked beans in a crock pot? I love baked beans with the fried onions on top but haven’t heard of making a similar dish in a crock pot.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Here’s a post I wrote about bringing a dish to pass at a potluck or church picnic. http://andreadekker.com/10-tips-for-bringing-a-dish-to-pass/

    In general, I don’t think it matters what you bring to those type of events because the whole point is to have lots of variety — foods don’t necessarily have to “go” with each other. I try to think of something that’s really easy for people to grab while holding their plate/tray versus something that goes with other dishes.

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  5. Bonnie'sMama

    06/29/2016

    This is a revolutionary way for me to look at meals! I’d much rather spend time freezer cooking than stand at the stove for an hour cooking the next meal. I’m definitely going to try this.

    I want to buy a little crockpot to use just for side dishes, since it is very difficult for me to get uninterrupted time at the stove with our houseful of littles.

    My best tip for prepping food ahead of time is something we’ve done for a year and a half. We keep an old round Tupperware tray with four compartments in the fridge. We always keep it in the fridge loaded with sliced peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli trees, baby carrots, and other vegetables. We can pull this out at any meal, including breakfast, for an instant side dish. The kids love picking out their own vegetables. Because of this, my toddlers eat a lot of vegetables, and my husband and I eat more, too.

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  6. LoriB

    06/29/2016

    Appreciate this good common sense post. We need to be reminded. The salad link didn’t work and I’m was hoping to check it out.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I just fixed the salad link — but here it is again! http://andreadekker.com/make-ahead-lettuce-salad/

    It’s SOOOOOOO good!

    [Reply]