“I also have trouble with timing. I mean, I tend to always start dinner too late. Are there any tricks that will help me not feel like I am rushing? I know in chatting with you before I’ve heard you reference how you prepare things a little here and there. I’d love to know some of your tips for getting it all pulled together!”
I get it – timing is one of the trickiest aspects of meal planning, for sure. And Caroline has four young children (the oldest is seven!), so planning ahead for meals is not just a nice idea – it’s essential.
One of the biggest adjustments I had to make when Noah was born was getting used to performing tasks in little parcels of time again. I no longer had those long stretches while the kids were at school. Nor was I able to leave a toddler unattended while I started chopping, mixing and frying.
Fortunately, I never stopped using the skills I learned when Chelsea and Conor were little, as they made cooking much less stressful. And Caroline has already conquered the first step toward hassle-free dinnertimes – meal planning. By a) knowing what she’s making each night, and b) having all of her ingredients on-hand, she’s ready to go.
Here’s what she needs to do to take it to the next level:
Become a “master of efficiency” – since I know what I’m making for dinner every night, prep can start as early as I like – often first thing in the morning. Even if I only have five free minutes I’ll take on at least one task that will get me closer to the finish line. You won’t believe how a few minutes here and there really add up. On days when I’m flying into the house to get dinner underway (sometimes with my coat still on!), I am so grateful to the “early-in-the-day” me that gave the “oh-my-god-it’s 5 o’clock!” me a running start.
Here are some examples of tasks that take ten minutes (or less):
* Fill the pot of water for pasta; put it on the stove.
* Chop the veggies/crack the eggs/grate the cheese.
* Bread the chicken cutlets and stack them on a plate, separating the layers with wax paper.
* Marinate the chicken/steak (bonus points for having a stash already marinated in the freezer – now you just have to place in the fridge to defrost).
* Drain and rinse canned beans.
* If you’re baking, combine the dry ingredients (leavening agents – like baking powder – are not activated till they hit the wet ingredients, so you can mix them in advance).
* Wash and dry the salad greens; wrap in a paper towel and keep in the fridge.
* Make the vinaigrette; keep in a jar for a quick shake prior to using.
Double up – I will often plan two meals during the week that have similar ingredients, so that I can take care of prep for both. For example, I may dice a couple of carrots for a soup on Monday and grate what I need for a slaw a few days later.
Employ your “helpers” – Chelsea and Conor had no interest in helping me cook when they were little (and, truthfully, I was happy to have the kitchen to myself). Noah is another story. While I wouldn’t say he loves assisting me, there are times when he’s at loose ends and I must get some prep underway. I can almost always find a task for him to do. Does it take a little longer? Yes. Is it exactly how I would do it? Of course not. But during those times, it is far preferable to trying to distract him with something else.
Trim. Clean. Repeat. – Items like carrots, celery and peppers never go into the fridge before being washed, peeled and trimmed first. I detest this task and have found, that by getting it out of the way in one marathon session, I’m rewarded all week long. The veggies are not only ready to go for all of my recipes, doling out a healthy snack is that much easier.
Time’s up – Knowing how long a meal takes – from start to finish – is essential in figuring out what time you need to begin. Think about things like pre-heating the oven, or bringing an ingredient to room temperature. You get it. I’m forever working backward from six o’clock to figure out what time I have to start a particular meal. This doesn’t happen overnight – or even every time. But making notes can be helpful in terms of staging multiple components to a meal and figuring out a timeline so that everything is finished pretty much at the same time.
It also helps to set realistic goals for each meal. If I’m frying up chicken cutlets, I probably won’t make side dishes that need a lot of attention. A salad that can be assembled ahead of time, rice that cooks itself in the microwave, that sort of thing. On the other hand, if Mike is grilling or if I’m baking a chicken I might tackle a side or two that is more time-consuming. A perfect example is one of my personal favorites – this fried chicken salad, composed of chicken strips served with greens and topped with toasted pecans, red onion slices and grated cheddar cheese. It’s served with the most heavenly pecan-honey vinaigrette. The chicken is fairly time consuming, what with the slicing, breading and frying. But the greens, dressing and pecans can all be prepped earlier in the day (or even the day before). You can even bread the chicken early on so that all you need to do come 5 o’clock is fry it up.
Mise en place – I am such a fan of this technique that I wrote a whole post about it! Time spent chopping and assembling ingredients prior to cooking will save so much time on the back end, and you’ll find that the whole process goes much more smoothly. Try it and see how it works for you!
Whew! I feel like I’ve thrown a lot out there. But look – we all lead hectic stressful lives. No two days are the same, and if you have kids, you’re often running in a million directions all afternoon. These tips are super easy to master and will make a world of difference. And after a while it will become second nature to start prepping for dinner while sipping your morning coffee.
Okay, maybe after you’ve finished your coffee.
New to this series? No problem; you can catch up here!