To keep in line with Real Simple’s Take Back Dinnertime Challenge (Week 2 — Get Organized), I wanted to dig deeper into the organization-side of meals. Why?
Because it haunts me. Every. Single. Day.
While I always plan weekly dinners for my family, I’m often plagued by a crowded kitchen, stressful preparation and many calls to my husband to pick up a missing ingredient on his way home from work.
I also believe what’s really behind the no-time-to-cook complaint is a lack of organization. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Everyone needs to find a system that works for them.
So I reached out to the universe and got some inspiring ideas for stress-free dinners and an organized kitchen (hint: these two things go together). If you get through all 8 tips, you get the chance to win an incredibly helpful book.
1. Commit Yourself
“Without a commitment to regular family dinners nothing is going to work,” says Susan Nicholson, RD, and author of the 7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies. “It’s the most important first step for taking control of dinnertime.”
Nicholson, a veteran meal-planner herself, explains that like anything new or challenging there will be times you want to quit. But with a strong commitment, you will get through it and slowly build the foundation needed. She assures me that meal planning and preparation gets much easier with time.
2. Clear the Decks
“Eliminating visual clutter can help tremendously,” says Dawn Perry, food editor at Real Simple. “It helps make the kitchen a place you want to be.”
She advises people to remove unnecessary items off their counter-tops. For example, if you only use your blender once a week it might be better stored in a cabinet.
Trust me, once you clear the counter space, you’ll instantly feel better.
3. When in doubt, throw it out
While you’re organizing the kitchen, you might as well tackle the cabinets and refrigerator.
“If you haven’t used it in 6 months, throw it out,” says Perry. “Make sure to keep the items you use most often close at hand.”
I went through my cabinets last weekend and it has been much easier finding things for meal preparation. If you can, spend one day a week re-organizing your cabinets and refrigerator.
4. Make a weekly meal plan
Both Perry and Nicholson recommend planning meals one week in advance (if meal planning is not for you, see number 5). Nicholson says to pull out the calendar so you can choose meals with your family’s activities in mind.
In the 7 Day Menu Planner for Dummies. Nicholson shows you how to strategically pick the right meals. Making a roast chicken on Sunday, for example, and using the leftover chicken for some of the week’s simple meals can be a lifesaver. And a slow cooker meal is a perfect solution to complement weeknight activities like sport practices.
She also advises the head meal planner (usually mom) to include everyone in the meal planning. This makes kids feel more excited for– and involved in– this important ritual.
5. Think outside the meal planning box
When one mom left a comment saying she knew the meal planning advice by heart but still didn’t do it, I knew it wasn’t for her. The truth? Some people don’t do well with weekly meal planning.
To give you some ideas, one reader wrote in saying she has a list of 16 meals on her fridge of which she always has the ingredients. She goes through this list when it’s done she starts over. She likes it because if they have to miss dinner one day it doesn’t throw the whole week off.
Every 2-3 weeks, Michelle Segar at Smart Women Don’t Diet, slow cooks 10 garlic cloves cut up for 30-40 minutes in about ½ bottle of virgin olive oil, about 15-20 ounces, on very low heat. Then she pours it into a small glass pitcher with a “pour” feature.
She uses this garlic-infused oil for most of her cooking. She buys the veggies and adds other items depending on what she’s got. She cooks all of the ingredients in the oil, adding garbanzo beans, cooked rice and chicken…whatever inspires her that day.
Bottom line: if traditional meal planning isn’t working for you, try something that more closely matches your cooking personality.
6. Do the work ahead of time
I get many comments from working moms struggling to get dinner on the table. Doing the preparation on the weekend, or when you have more time, is a good solution.
For example, one of my coworkers takes a few hours every Sunday to make the week’s meals and then freezes them. All she has to do during the week is reheat, make a salad or cut up fruit. Others like to do their cooking once a month (check out Once a Month Mom for meal plans).
Jodi, a busy mom, likes to double the recipe on items like lasagna, casseroles, and meat (with the marinade) and freezes the other half.
“It’s great to have homemade freezer meals prepared for those nights with sports practice, school meetings, scouts, church studies, etc,” she says. ” Just defrost and pop in the oven, there’s hardly any extra dishes!”
7. Cut your veggies ASAP
My friend Beth Hirsch, also known as The Cooking Coach, advises her clients to do the chopping right when they get home from their shopping trip. She also suggests placing the chopped veggies in baggies or small containers and putting them in a basket or open container on a shelf in the fridge so they are easier to find.
I did this last Sunday — cut up some raw veggies for the week and onions/celery for salads. I even made the tuna salad!
8. Have back up meals
In her book, Nicholson includes 10 meals to make when you have “one of those days.” You know what I’m talking about. Those ultra-stressful days you don’t want to set foot in a kitchen, much less make dinner.
Having the makings for super quick meals is key whether the meal is spaghetti with meatballs or easy Mexican like quesadillas. It can also be a freezer meal you made ahead of time (see number 6). Nicholson recommends making a generic pasta sauce and having it on hand to use on top of ravioli/pasta or for a quick pizza.
Organization can make or break your meal-planning efforts
We live in a different time than our parents and grandparents did. If we want our kids to get all the benefits of family dinners, we need to be creative. And organizing and planning — in a way that works for individual lifestyles — makes this important ritual happen.
What do you do to get dinner on the table (most) nights?
Ready to find your own solution to family dinner? Checkout Maryann’s workbook The Famly Dinner Solution: How to Create a Rotation of Dinner Meals Your Family Will Love