Welcome back to Mealtime Bootcamp! This week I’m tackling Caroline’s struggles with timing:

“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 (for example, washing the salad greens and keeping them wrapped in a paper towel in the fridge). 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.

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.

fried chicken salad

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.

Go Caroline!

New to this series? No problem; you can catch up here!

Mealtime Bootcamp
Meal Planning
Caroline Wins Meal Planning!


  1. Susan H on January 25, 2013 at 11:07 am

    I think part of my favorite part of cooking is the prep. I get lost in all if the chopping & dicing. It’s somehow soothing at the end of the day. (When I have the time) I love all of your ideas! I used to never freeze anything. But lately I have been taking the extra chopped onions or peppers and freezing them. The next time I am in a pinch its great to be able to grab them. But I don’t depend on them…because my husband now knows they are there and thinks they are for him. 🙂
    I am a huge fan of having everything ready to go before I start cooking. Something about having all of those bowls in front of me makes me feel like I know what I am doing. Haha
    I also like to write on favorite recipes times to start things. Like 20 mins after this step start the rice. Because at some point in the past the rice was not ready when it was supposed to be.
    Thanks again for the great tips!

    • sherisilver on January 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm

      Wow – thanks so much for writing – I’m so glad that this has been helpful and it’s been so fun to read about all of your tips! 🙂

  2. Angela on January 25, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Such simple, practical ideas that make all the difference in the world! I believe that by being organized ahead of time, the stress level drops a few notches, so you can relax & actually enjoy the supper hour a little bit more.

    • sherisilver on January 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      Thank you SO much! That is precisely the goal! 🙂

  3. Caroline on January 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Susan, I loved Sheri’s tips too! My husband is REALLY good about having all the chopping when he cooks. Me? notsomuch. And now especially after reading this I am convinced it is the best way to manage time–to prep ahead when you can. I’ve noticed my husband (who is a MUCH better cook than me) enjoys this part of cooking too AND his meals always taste better! I know that’s because he’s more prepared.

    I’m taking notes, Sheri! You are brilliant!

    • sherisilver on January 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm

      How much fun is this!! xo

      • Jennifer Cullen on January 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm

        So much fun! And really helpful. Thanks ladies!

        • sherisilver on January 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm

          So glad you’re enjoying this Jen! xo