Meal Timelines

Do you ever get to the end of the afternoon and realize with a shock that dinner will be expected shortly and you have no idea what it will be? Well, it happens to all of us, but if it happens regularly, I’d recommend reading two previous blog posts, Planning Your Day and Meal Planning. This post will build on what we have already started discussing.

Planning ahead involves knowing how your day will go (roughly) and knowing what you plan to make for a meal, but you also need to know how the various steps for your chosen menu will fit into your schedule. When do you need to start preparing? Do you need to figure on 2 hours in the kitchen or 20 minutes?

Many recipes now include prep time and cook time, which is very helpful. But you still need to know what you’ll be doing when.


Note: if you use frozen meat for your meals, remember to add defrosting the meat to your steps or your schedule the day before or early the day of.


As you look at your menu, map out the different steps and when you’ll need to do each of them (i.e., 2 hours ahead, 45 minutes ahead, right before serving, etc.). Some recipes or dishes are simple enough that you only need 5 minutes of prep time 2 hours before dinner. Some have a few more steps. Others are all last minute, just before you eat. Write it down in a timeline, counting backwards from your target mealtime.


Note: if you collect tried-and-true recipes or standard menus for a monthly meal plan, this will be helpful to keep with the recipe. That way you don’t have to think it through each time.


For an example, using the menu outlined in A Simple Meal, you would sketch out a timeline like this:

  • 2 hours prior — prepare meat and put in oven
  • 45 minutes prior — prepare sweet potatoes and put in oven
  • 15 minutes prior — set table and steam vegetables

Now you know that you have less than 30 minutes needed for the meal, but also you don’t need to do anything between the 2 hour mark and the 45 minute mark. You can plan on 75 minutes to devote to other tasks.

Now you also know what you are doing and that your bases are covered. Way to plan!

Budget Meals

How can you feed your family well for less? There are a number of things you can do to stretch your grocery dollars. Try them out and incorporate the ones that work best for you and your family.

Use cheap but nutritious ingredients

Eggs and beans provide protein without costing a lot. Rice also provides nutrition cheaply. Cooking a large chicken on sale and using it for multiple meals will save your dollars. Bananas and baby carrots are not expensive fresh fruit and vegetables.

Shop at the cheapest grocery store

I am a huge ALDI fan, but there are other options available. If your staples are consistently affordable, you are a long way toward meeting your budget. Also, be careful that store-hopping for deals does not cost you more in time and gas money than you are saving on the groceries.

Stay flexible to take advantage of sales or windfalls

You never know when the manager’s special will be a jackpot or day-old bagels will be available for use. Remember your meal plan can be tweaked, so take advantage of the bagels or whole chicken and work that into the next meal or two while it’s fresh.

Use storage mindfully

If you have a freezer or large pantry, make the most of it. But do so mindfully. If you don’t rotate stock or forget to use items until they are out of date, you are throwing away food (and thus money) and wasting space.

Use meal plans

When you plan out your meal menu, you will provide boundaries for yourself. This makes it easier to buy only what you plan to use. You can stay flexible, as noted above, to use bargains, but your list will be complete without room for impulse purchases that are unnecessary and potentially unused.

Eat at home when you can

It is so tempting to just pick something up on busy day after busy day, but remember that groceries go farther. You also have the added benefit of family time, good conversation, and healthier menus.

Junk food costs money

Similarly, snack foods are generally pricy carbs. If you can cut out sugary drinks and pre-packaged snack packs, you will be healthier for drinking water and have more money for good, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Note: Many thanks to multiple family members, far better at this than I am, who contributed ideas to this post!

Eating Vegetables

So, entrees aren’t everything. Most of us want to keep up or increase the level of fresh vegetables in our diet, but they can get old without variety. And it can be hard to convince some family members to enjoy them!

Steamed

You can use the same principle as the pre-packaged frozen steamer packs of veggies with fresh vegetables from the store or farmers market. Green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, medleys with peppers and carrots all work well with this. Use a saucepan with an inch of water and a tool like this or a metal colander, to keep the vegetables all out of the water and only in the steam as the water boils. Boil just until vegetables are done. Serve with a little butter or olive oil and seasoning.

Roasted

We have already mentioned this, but I’d like to bring it up again as a reminder.

Line a cookie sheet with foil, coat chopped (or smaller, like broccoli florets or Brussel sprouts) vegetables with olive oil, spread out on cookie sheet, sprinkle with seasoning, and place in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees. Timing depends on your oven and the thickness of the vegetables, but it is generally around 15-20 minutes, so experiment until you are comfortable.

Play around with combinations and seasoning blends, or find one or two that work for you and use them regularly. A balsamic vinaigrette can also jazz up the taste. Either way, make the option work for you.

This is a great way to try vegetables that are new to you or you may have tried other ways before and didn’t like. (For example, I hear radishes are good this way.) I can’t stand Brussel sprouts usually, but a friend roasted some to share one evening. Ever since, I could devour the whole pan myself. They are so good!

Slow Cooker

It is also an option to cook root vegetables in your slow cooker. You can mix them with meat (like a roast) or just cook them with seasoning for a side dish. Put some liquid in with them, to prevent drying out, but you do not need to cover them with water or broth.

Sauté

A little butter or olive oil, a nonstick sauté or frying pan, and you are good to go. You can throw in a little minced garlic or chopped onion as you warm up the butter or oil. When the butter is melted or the oil is warm, add your clean and chopped veggies. This is good for fresh green beans, sugar snap peas, and asparagus.

Salad

The combinations are almost endless when it comes to salads. Chop up what you have, whatever is in season, and enjoy! With fresh vegetables, you don’t even need lettuce to have a great mix. You can even branch out into fruits (dried or fresh) and nuts.

Cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and balsamic vinegar or Italian dressing are delicious. Basil or dill can be fresh herbal seasoning for that mix also.

Kids often love dipping, so pile up the fresh vegetables, set out a good dressing and let them go to town.

Simple Solutions for Meals

Knowledge is power. Knowing a few basic methods of cooking will empower you to compose a simple, delicious meal for your family quickly and easily with what you have on hand. Today we will discuss a couple of these methods.

Slow Cooker

Every mother’s favorite, right? So many wonderful recipes available, but you can also use it simply, without having to look up a recipe.

Most pieces of chicken, pork or beef can be cooked easily with water or broth and some seasoning. If you keep seasoned salt on hand, you will always have that to use. There are also many seasoning mixes available or you can experiment with your own tastes. Adding fresh root vegetables (onions, carrots, potatoes) adds flavor, but remember that they will absorb the seasoning and meat flavor. Also be careful to include enough liquid to keep the meat moist.

Note: A whole chicken can give you cooked chicken in the freezer for future meals, like chicken divan or poppyseed chicken. A pork roast today can yield pulled pork sandwiches another day.  It will also help your budget if you stretch the meat by portioning it out before it is on the table.

There are also plenty of marinades available off the shelf, so you can throw chicken breasts in the cooker with a bottle of Hawaiian teriyaki to enjoy later with rice. A bottle of Italian dressing, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or even barbecue sauce does the same thing. Cream soups and some water will also provide a simple sauce.

Finally, if you simply want cooked chicken or pork for other recipes later, you can just put in plenty of water with the meat and cook all day. Seasoning will happen with the recipes when you assemble them.

Oven Roasting

High heat, butter or olive oil, and a little spice or garlic — voila! You have your entree.

Line a cookie sheet with foil, place the meat on it, drizzle the oil or dab the butter, sprinkle with seasoning, and place in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees. Fish usually takes 15-20 minutes. Chicken is more like 25-30 minutes. Timing depends a great deal on your oven and the thickness of the meat, so experiment until you are comfortable.

Vegetables work the same way, usually around 15-20 minutes, so you can expand your menu to roasted vegetables as well. I personally recommend Brussel sprouts and sliced sweet potatoes this way. Yum!

Or you can cut up chicken or smoked sausage with vegetable chunks and have a complete, delicious meal in one pan and fairly quickly. Play around with combinations and seasoning blends, or find one or two that work for you and use them regularly. Either way, make the option work for you.

Bon appetit!

 

Bonus

One recipe I’ve found useful is slightly more involved than simply roasting — but not much! It is easy and delicious; let me know if you agree. Click here for the recipe.

Composing a Meal

You don’t have to be an artist or gourmet chef to plate an attractive and nutritious meal for your family.

I’ll say it again: You don’t have to be artistically gifted or professionally trained to put together a beautiful, balanced meal.

You just need to consider some basic principles.

Food Groups

When you are meal planning, take a minute to be sure you are covering the major food groups: protein, carbs, fruits/vegetables. A meal that is carb heavy is missing some nutrients. A meal that is entirely produce will not last very long, since our bodies metabolize that quickly. Your menu needs all three to be a balanced meal.

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God created us to enjoy beauty. When you include beautiful colors on the plate, your eye is attracted to the arrangement, and then you are naturally drawn to the nutritional benefit scattered throughout the colors. For a breakdown of the benefits associated with each color group, see this article.

Texture

It is good to mix up textures on a plate. You don’t want a meal that is entirely mushy or a plate full of dry foods. Keep in mind the consistency of your menu items as you put them together in your meal plan.

If you can run quickly through these three things as you choose your meals, you will be able to serve an appealing plate that also includes a variety of the nutritional needs for the day. Remember, as my mother always said, variety is the spice of life!