I think anyone that has small children struggles with the weeknight meal rush. It’s tough trying to come home, comfort the crying baby, play with the toddler, catch up with the spouse, wash the bottles, sort the mail, etc. etc. Most nights feel like chaos has descended upon our home.
How in the world are we supposed to manage all of this and make it through for another day? They didn’t teach me this stuff in school.
After juggling working with one child, I found some strategies that seemed to work rather well. With two kids, these tips have become almost requirements just to get through the week. I’d venture to guess that some day, many years from now, I’ll look back on these years with great fondness and miss those moments of cuddling my two little babes. But right now, the baby just spit up, the toddler is wailing because his cheese is broken, the dog doesn’t want to come inside, and I need to get get dinner on the table before bedtime.
Tip #1. Have a plan. I write mine out every week. First, clean out your fridge. Get rid of whatever’s rotting in the back. Check out what needs to be used up right away. Use that information to dictate your plan. If you know that you absolutely have to use up that asparagus ASAP, incorporate that into a stir fry on Monday. Sit down with some cookbooks or family recipes or wherever you get your culinary inspiration and make some decisions. My weeknight cooking is not the same as what I make as when I’m entertaining or on the weekends. Weeknight cooking is all about practicality. It has to be fast. Not too many ingredients or steps. Things that are familiar and can be done with a baby wrapped in the carrier and the toddler wrapped around your leg. Take it easy on yourself. Now is not the time to be fancy. Here’s my menu for this week.
I’ll write down the source of recipes (cookbook, page #) so that I can quickly look it up. While I’m planning our menus, I also like to make my shopping list. If I need to make cookies for Alex’s class at school, I put that on my plan. Or if I’d like to make something special to celebrate that week, it will make the list.
2. Be flexible! By week’s end, I usually have made about 3 of the meals I’ve planned and I probably haven’t made them on the nights that I intended. Life’s just that way. If it’s a crazy day at work and you got stuck in traffic on the way home, make the faster meal that night. If you just aren’t digging the thought of kale, onion, & bacon risotto tonight, save that one for a different night.
3. Prep ahead when you can. Most nights I don’t have the time to roast things for an hour or make fresh pasta. If I’m going to eat something that requires extensive cooking time or fancy techniques, try to prep on the weekends. I like to take most of the meat for my week out of the freezer on Sunday and defrost in the fridge until I’m ready to use it. I might chop up a few of my veggies. This week, I roasted the butternut squash in advance. I’ll use the bacon I make for soup in my son’s lunch the next day.
4. Breakfast for supper night. Breakfast foods tend to be really fast to cook. Egg, bacon & cheese sandwiches. Blueberry pancakes & bacon. Nutella crepes with whipped cream & a side of bacon. Throw in a side of fruit or a smoothie to slightly amp up the nutritional value. Breakfast is such a happy meal, and we don’t get to eat the good stuff often enough. So I made it a weekly dinner ritual. It’s fast & nobody whines about it. In fact, my son requested pancakes for his third birthday dinner this year.
Keep reading for this week’s classic french toast. And in this Ron Swanson-loving household, bacon is mandatory.
5. Freezer meals. I’ve been relying on these wonders once a week lately. There have been amazing advances in the land of the frozen dinner in recent years. PF Chang’s, Newman’s Own, Barefoot Contessa, and Bertolli all have some really decent frozen skillet meals on the market right now. And they all are ready in under 15 minutes. I also like to make my own meals in advance. Prep several meals’ worth, freeze the extra & eat well during the work week.
6. Disaster preparedness. Because there are those nights when real cooking just isn’t going to happen. It’s all about just getting fed. When I was single and I’d work late, I used to eat popcorn for dinner on those sorts of nights. Or Lucky Charms. When I got married, that just didn’t seem to fly with my meat and potatoes-loving hubby. When I had children that required real food to eat at meals, I let go of the idea that popcorn was perfectly sufficient. (Though I will absolutely make it for myself as a dinner when the hubby is out with the guys!) Make a list of super-quick meals that you can throw together in no time flat. These should rely heavily on food you usually have on hand. Here’s mine:
7. Plan a night of take-out. There are just going to be nights when even a grilled cheese is beyond what you really want to make. Go ahead and plan one takeout night. Thank goodness for drive-through Panera. This week we’re picking up pizza for Valentine’s Day. We have our favorite take and bake pizza place, amazing to-go salads, and more time to spend relaxing together after a busy week.
Classic French Toast
adapted from Ina Garten’s Challah French Toast recipe
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
zest of 1 orange (or 2 clementines if you realize you don’t happen to have any oranges…)
hearty bread with a bit of a crust (a nice Tuscan boule is my loaf of choice)
Whisk the eggs and milk. Add the vanilla and orange zest. Soak thick slices of bread in the egg mixture until saturated. Warm a drizzle of tasteless oil over medium heat and add the bread to the skillet. Fry on both sides until golden brown. Serve with butter, maple syrup, a side of fruit and some bacon, of course.