Tip Tuesday — Making Dinners Easier

A few years ago, I started having a weekly tip smackdown on Tuesdays and after a while I got sick of it and petered out. But I’ve been missing it for quite some time (Oh how I love harvesting your minds for ideas!) and so I’m starting it up again. Today we’re talking about one of the never ending chores of family life, feeding the people so that the people can live.

I get sick of making dinners but unlike Tip Tuesdays, I can’t just discontinue dinner. Someone might notice. Someone might complain. Someone might call the authorities.

So I try to make it as easy as possible. Here are a few of my tips.

1. Make a plan. If I wait until dinner time rolls around, things will get grim. Boxes and cans that should really be saved for the apocalypse due to their shelf-life, lack of nutritional value, and imperviousness to nuclear radiation are often brought out and combined in unappealing ways. These meals can involve canned meat. They never involve happiness and satisfaction.

First I have a list of emergency meals I can make in a pinch. These include scrambled eggs, quesadillas, sandwiches, spaghetti that I boil and then pour the bottled sauce on top and let the noodles warm it, pancakes, etc.

Then I plan a week’s worth of “real” meals and shop for them. So, I’m never left wondering “What’s for dinner?” and even though I may decide not to really cook one day, I can use one of my fall-back meals.

2. Form a Dinner Co-op. I’ve talked about dinner co-ops and super swapping before on this blog. I’ve done this off and on for years and I love it. It’s really saved me during this pukey part of the pregnancy. Once a week I’m forced to cook a really nice main dish for a few other families and deliver it to their homes. Then the rest of the week warm delicious meals magically arrive at my door and all I have to provide are the veggies to go with them.

We all buy matching pyrex and tupperwares and pass them around as we cook so we never worry about getting our dishes back. We have a scheduled drop-off time so we know when we can expect to be fed. Once a month we send a list of the meals we’re planning on making to the scheduler, who makes a calendar for the month, spreading out the foods so that we get a good variety each week. When you’re only cooking once a week, you bring you’re A-game so we get some really delicious food. We save money buying in bulk. I don’t have to worry about dinner most of the week. It helps the kids feel a sense of community as we deliver and receive meals from various families. Each night they ask who the dinner came from. It’s like a commune but with more frequent deodorant usage.

3. Have an emergency back-up plan for crazy times in your lives. I found this in the form of a book by Mary Jo Rulnick. The book is called The Frantic Woman’s Guide to Feeding Family and Friends. It does all the planning for you, complete with shopping lists, recipes, meal plans and preparation tips for every season of the year. It’s really a great resource even if you don’t follow all of her recipe plans but if you do, it’s like a brain vacation for dinner preparation. She does all the planning and all you have to do is follow her daily instructions for shopping, prep and cooking. The recipes are simple and it’s the perfect answer for those times in your life when you just don’t have the energy left to plan one more thing.

She also has great general tips on saving time and effort in the kitchen and sections on what to do with holiday leftovers, an entire week of ham recipes and an entire week of leftover turkey ideas.

So here’s the part I like best about Tip Tuesday, the part where you leave your tips in the comment section. What do you do to make dinner time easier or more enjoyable? Do you have any simple meal ideas you can share with us?

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16 Responses to Tip Tuesday — Making Dinners Easier

  1. Heffalump says:

    I like to make double and freeze the extra meal. I do this with lasagne, canneloni, homemade mac and cheese, enchiladas and various other things that can be frozen in a foil casserole dish. Then if there is a day I don’t feel like cooking, or I will be busy, I can take one out for dinner.
    I also plan my menu out and make sure that I have quick meals planned for busy evenings when we have scouts and youth activities. Sometimes I will swap meals around in my menu plan, but generally I stick with it.
    Also…the crock pot is my friend. I am more inclined to feel like cooking in the morning, so I can throw a meal in the crock pot and not worry about it. My rice cooker also has a timer on it so I can set it for how many hours later I want the rice to be ready, and then leave it.

  2. Melinda says:

    I do not mind the cooking as much as the list-making. Making a grocery list is right up there with toilet-scrubbing on my list of homemaking not-to-dos. So, I made a master shopping list organized by category of about 120 items I regularly buy and laminated it. I even color-coded it by store! (Green for Costco, blue for the grocery store, red for the drug-store, etc) It hangs on my fridge and all I have to do is check off what I need to buy that week.

    But, the real genius of my plan is my dinner recipe list. I spent a good chunk of time typing up a list of all the recipes I like to rotate through for dinner, and then noting under each one what groceries must be purchased for that meal. I call it my Dinner Index and I refer to it every Monday morning before I head to the store. There’s plenty of room for adding new recipes and once a year or so I weed out the ones I no longer use and add the “keepers” from my experiments. It was time-consuming up front, but it has made the weekly scramble to buy groceries so much smoother. And the bagger always admires my laminated and color-coded list.

  3. Hooray!!! For the return of Tip Tuesdays! I’ve been missing them for quite some time too 🙂

    I wish I had something brilliant to share this week, but I’m convinced that “meal-planning/prep” is the bane of many a mom’s existence. So I look forward to reading the tips of others.

  4. Kim says:

    Um, I hard boil eggs adn keep em in the fridge. They make a great instant, snack or addition to salads, sandwiches, etc. And when I realize the kids have eaten nothing but cereal all day…. ta da! Here’s your protein.

  5. Stacy says:

    I wasn’t a follower back-in-the-days of Tip Tuesdays, but I think I’m gonna like ’em!

    Here’s my tip:
    I buy my ground hamburger in bulk (10 plus lbs at a time) and brown all of it the same day – sometimes the next day 🙂 I season it up with Johnny’s and dried onion. Then I put 3 cups (about 1 1/3 lbs cooked) of the stuff in a quart freezer bag and ummm . . . well freeze it! Then it’s super quick to pull one out, throw in the micro for a few minutes and it’s ready to add taco seasoning, brown gravy, spaghetti sauce, or whatever. Cuts soo much time out of thawing raw frozen hamburger. The only things you can’t make with it already cooked is meatloaf, meatballs or hamburgers.

  6. pokeyann says:

    The part I struggle with and frankly hate is the “what”…what to make, what to have. I’ve been coming up with dinner ideas for 12 years now, I’m out. But whenever I would ask my hubs..his answer was always, whatever. Whatever is going to be air. So I made a list of all the meals I’ve made or thought of making, etc. Printed it out and now I just tell him to pick 5-10 and ta-da…the what is now taken care of for a week or more. And a bonus is that he will pick things that don’t necessarily “go” together so we are getting more variety…instead of chicken week, beef week, chinese week, etc.

  7. I buy meat in bulk and then freeze it in dinner size groups (usually 1-2 pound portions). It’s super easy to just grab the meat I need for each meal.

    But my best quick-tip has to be my George Foreman Grill! You can even put frozen meat on it, and it’s tastily grilled everytime.

  8. Emily says:

    I got this idea from my sister in law. I plan out my meals a month at a time (so I only have to do it once a month.) After a month or two I look at the previous month to get ideas on what to fix. I’ve been doing it so long that I have a summer rotation and a winter rotation of meals. I make sure to plan one or two fast meals a week so I can move them to the days that get crazy. My fast meals include quesodillas, paninis using the George Forman Grill (it is nicer than calling them grilled cheese), crock pot, pizza, waffles.

  9. Yuka says:

    my tip is not so much for meal planning/shopping as it is a plug for a recipe book I love. Skinny B**** in the Kitchen’s recipes are all delicious- you would never think they would be by the cover of the book and because it’s vegan. Since I’m not vegan I use real meat and cheese and the meals taste great (although when I have used all the vegan ingredients it was tasty too).

  10. Kork says:

    Wow! I had never thought of a co-op…

    Most of my tips are already listed, such buying in bulk, and breaking out into meal-sized packages.

    A couple extras that I do? I make extra casseroles, and line my pans with enough foil to wrap the whole she-bang, write the name and cooking instructions, and freeze 3 or 4 at one time. Once frozen, I slip them out of the pan, and can do a different recipe the same way!

    I also am a HUGE believer in meal-planning, and LOVE the “Once a Month Cook-book”…it takes you through the planning, shopping lists, and provides recipes and freezing tips.

    I also adore the Homemade Gourmet products…it’s a direct sales company that is focused on “bringing families together again”, and they offer the seasonings and mixes, so all you do is add your fresh and/or canned ingredients…best thing is you can make it low-sodium, low-fat, somewhat vegetarian, and it’s cheap, you can buy it as you need it, and they have a TON of recipes that use real food that I keep on hand!

    Otherwise, I fall back onto my good friends that I call “recipes I grew up on”.

    Thanks again for sharing, and please, please keep up with Tip Tuesday again this time around!!!

  11. Allison says:

    The co-op idea is awesome! How on earth did you find enough people to participate to make it worthwhile? I would love to be a part of something like that!

    I plan my meals all a month in advance and then shop a week at a time. I do one big Costco run at the beginning of each month, but the rest is just weekly grocery trips, and I try not to do any mid-week trips (I spend way too much that way.)

    I try to always have the stuff on hand for a few of our favorite quick-n-easy meals in case the day doesn’t go like I planned or I realize I forgot to buy a key ingredient. The simpler ones are grilled cheese and tomato soup (if you use homemade bread this one can taste good enough to be considered a “real meal” and not just a cop-out), chicken nuggets and tater tots/french fries, quesadillas, and tuna noodle casserole (which my hubby just loves – I try to save this one for nights when he’s out of town.) Then there’s the ones that I’ve sort of invented along the way, like rice and chili – I serve the chili over rice to make two cans feed five people, and we usually sprinkle cheese on top and have cornbread to go with it. It makes a fairly decent meal out of stuff that I pretty much always have on hand. Or spaghetti with my “special sauce”, which is a can of diced tomatoes warmed up with a little garlic and green peppers if I have them on hand, and then with a little heavy cream stirred in. Or I’ll oven bake nachos (4 minutes at 400 degrees) and mix a can of chili with a block of cream cheese for a yummy chili-cheese dip.

    In the summer we eat a lot of salad with stuff from our garden. It’s easy, fresh, and tasty.

    I like this Tip Tuesday idea!

  12. Erin Marie says:

    I think I’ll have to steal the store list idea, and probably the monthly menu idea, because it takes me forever to get around to making a menu and shopping list. We use our “emergency meals” to tide us over.

    What I do is make list of 7-9 meals and get whatever they call for. Then, as the day goes on and I can see how I feel and how much my daughter and dog have been driving me crazy, or simply what sounds good to me, I’ll pick one of the meals. Or, if I don’t feel like cooking, we’ll have leftovers. Or one of our quick meals. So the 7-8 meals I listed int he beginning lasts two weeks. And then it takes me a week to actually start the process all over again. *sigh*

  13. Katie says:

    my sis-in-law sent this to me today http://littlenannygoat.blogspot.com/2009/04/30-meals-step1.html it’s a great idea – but i love the co-op best! it’s the best hing i’ve EVER done!

  14. Nancy says:

    I haven’t done a co-op like yours where meals are delivered weekly, but did something similar.

    We would make freezer meals for each other. There were eight of us with similarly sized families, and we would meet once a month to exchange meals.

    The ‘meal’ was the main dish, usually a meat, that came in either a tinfoil casserole dish or a gallon sized ziploc bag. The supervisor of the group would print off the recipes and cooking instructions for everyone.

    For example, I would make 8 8×8 lasagnas, freeze them, and take them to exchange. I would come home with tater-tot casserole, pork roast with tortillas (for pork tortillas), chicken with rice, etc. etc.

    I would throw it in the freezer and use it either as a ‘cop-out’ meal or plan around it in my weekly menus.

    I really miss it, actually. I wish I could get something going like that, as well. We based our idea off of a chain of stores called ‘Let’s Dish’ where you make 8 or 12 meals for freezing.

    I also make double of things and freeze them–lasagna, enchiladas, etc. Yesterday it was pea soup. I figure a little bit of extra effort when I’m all ready doing it is going to make a day in the future much nicer. It is really nice to have things that just have to be heated up.

    I also love my crockpot. It is one of my favorite kitchen appliances because it allows me to think about dinner during another meal (breakfast or lunch) and take care of it then.

    Hooray for the return of Tip Tuesdays!

  15. I just feed them lettuce three meals a day. It really makes meal time fast and easy. I’m kind of joking but not really.

  16. I’ve tried Tip Tuesday, but I’m not as popular as you so it’s not quite as helpful. ;o) As for making it easier….when I’m working my A game, I go through the ad to see what’s on sale, make a list of meals that go along with sale items along with my needed groceries and buy at least double. That way I have my list of meals while I’m at the store and keep it on the fridge afterwards and cross off each meal as we use it up. This way, I have extra if it takes me a while to get back to the store OR I’ve increased our food storage. Either way, it works. Lately, I make a large meal at the beginning of the week and we eat it for 4 straight nights in a row without anyone even noticing. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one giving tips…..

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