Thursday, May 1, 2014

Meal planning when you just don't have time

I'm all about doing things the easy way these days. At least, I still want to do so much stuff, but I just don't have time. For some crazy reason, my baby actually wants me to pay attention to her and play with her. I love that ...most of the time. When we have 2 weeks of laundry piled up, crazy amounts of dishes we haven't gotten around to cleaning, a cat box that needs cleaning, a dog who's pawing at my leg to get my attention, a husband I feel like I haven't had any truly good time with lately, and a need once in a while for a little "me time" (it's important), I kinda wish I had a baby who would play by herself once in a while. It's a joke that's not really a joke in our house that Miss B won't let Mom get anything done. We've tested this. When I'm home, she has tolerance for about one chore each night. Some days, only half a chore. Ask me how many times I've finished making dinner while juggling her. Go on, ask. The answer is, pretty much any time I've made dinner since the day she was born.
The other night I made dinner and, later, committed the cardinal sin of cleaning the cat box after she'd gone to bed. She woke up and immediately began screaming because, as Shane put it, "Mom wasn't within arm's reach." She's getting a little better now because she actually likes tummy time--she's somewhat mobile (enough to grab a toy that's over there but not yet to actually crawl or move more than a foot or two) so that's helping. God help us when she does start crawling because she's never going to be still and I know already she's going to want me to watch her wherever she goes.
You're wondering why I don't do all of this when she naps. Ha! Hahahahaha!!! At the Easter potluck we went to there was another family with an 11 week old. The mom complained that their little girl had "only" taken a 2 hour nap that afternoon. I told her, if my child sleeps for more than 45 minutes I end up checking every 10 to make sure she's still breathing. It happens so rarely that she sleeps longer than half an hour. Last night, ten minutes. She took a freaking ten minute nap. >( So when I'm home and she does nap, believe me I am running around like a madwoman trying to get everything accomplished. Somehow, it's never done. I've started calling my family when I'm walking Dog and Baby (still in the carrier on my chest) because that's the only time I tend to have peace and quiet. I tried talking to one of my brothers when she was awake and about 5 minutes into the conversation he told me, "You have a very loud daughter." Yes, yes I do.
I don't feel that all of this is an excuse to fall behind in certain areas of life, however. Like meal planning and cooking. Not even Baby + finals week (next week) is an excuse to fall behind on that. We're relying slightly more on convenience items (as in, I bought rather than making the graham crackers for Shane's birthday pie crust) but for the most part we're keeping on keeping on in terms of cooking whatever we can. So how do I streamline the process? That part, it turns out, is easy.

1. I was once told that to be a home cook you should either have a lot of recipes in your repertoire or just a few. Why? Because that makes it so much easier to meal plan without having much food waste. If you have only a few meals, you'll use the same ingredients over and over again so that they don't go bad. If you have lots of meals, you'll have plenty of recipes with which to use up the foods you buy. I am a "lots of meals" kind of person. The meals we love and make "often" don't usually get made more than once in a month. In fact, if we do plan for a meal to be repeated in less than four weeks it feels like we're having it a lot.
This system gives me lots and lots of meals to choose from, and lots of ingredients to play with. So I know if I want to make one of these three dishes, I should choose one of the others as well so that I can use up the monterey jack cheese. (Usually the sausage & pasta meal with one of the soups so that we don't have too much soup in one week.) If I have leftover ham, as we recently did, oh look! Super easy to make this ham and white bean soup. And, easy enough that the baby let me do everything but cut up the ham before I had to recruit Shane's help. (Rare. Very rare.)
The other night we had no time to go to the store, but not much food that seemed to go together. Chicken? Grapes? Mayonaise? Almond slices? However, because I had so many recipes in my head it was easy to pull one out and make a delicious dinner that didn't feel hurried or scraped together. (It was curried chicken salad--I added some dried cranberries too, to good effect.) And because I utilized things that were about to go bad (chicken we'd thawed for another meal the night before, grapes that would have been thrown out otherwise) we both reduced our food waste and helped keep our food budget in line.
2. Use that freezer! Shane and I are really, really bad about freezer cooking. Some people are awesome at it, but we aren't. However, while we don't necessarily freeze extra meals all the time, we do freeze parts of meals. For instance, tonight we'll be pulling out some homemade freezer biscuits. When we want some and I have time, I make a fresh batch and just rotate those into the bottom of my big bag of biscuits in the freezer. That way when I don't have time to make more (like tonight) we always have them on hand. They're super easy to pull out of the freezer to bulk up a meal. Tonight we're having bratwursts (in the freezer since our big Costco trip last summer), sweet potatoes, green beans, and biscuits. It'll be a ridiculously simple meal to throw together, but hearty, filling, and yummy.
We did manage to put one lifesaver into the freezer. I accidentally made way, way more filling for burritos than I intended to (mostly, it was the beans and rice I made too much of) so Shane and I spent a hurried half hour assembly lining them, wrapping them in foil, and tossing them into a bag in the freezer. This has been super helpful a few times when the question came up, "What are we going to do for lunch then?" Grab a burrito, as it turns out.
3. Crockpot. I can't say enough good things about our Crockpot. We use it so often, and it always comes in handy. When I know we're going to have a big, crazy week I plan meals that can go into the Crockpot really fast. Not ones that are fussy (they're out there) and require putting in different ingredients at different times. No, I love the ones where you dump everything in and turn it on. I usually do all the prep the night before so that in the morning I can just pull the crock out of the fridge, put it in the heater, and turn it on. So simple.
This is also how we utilize dried beans so much. I soak them overnight in the crock of the crockpot (in the fridge) and in the morning I refresh the water, put the crock in the pot and set it to low. By the time I come home in the evening the beans are soft and ready to go into whatever dish I've planned. I've never had luck just letting a soup with beans in it simmer for hours on end. They always end up somewhat crunchy and unsatisfying.
4. Have the ingredients for a few quick meals on hand at all times. These are mine: chili, pasta primavera, chicken soup, lo mein, chicken fried rice. If it turns out that we didn't plan enough meals and leftovers for a particular week, or if we don't have time or even inclination to go to the store, I can pull out a meal that's easy to make. When we all came down with some awful cold earlier in the year, it was so nice to have the ingredients for chicken soup on hand. I use my mother's recipe, which I could make blindfolded in an unfamiliar kitchen, so it was a cinch to make it even when I didn't feel well. And it really does make you feel better.
5. Plan the easy meals. Seriously. Shane is swamped this week getting ready for finals next week, Miss B has been needier than usual (perhaps another growth spurt? a tooth getting ready to pop out?) and I've been a little anemic yet again (grr!) so I've been drained and tired. Neither of us really wants to cook. So our meal plan has been: salmon (from the freezer) and veggies (also from the freezer) one night; brats, veggies, and biscuits as stated above; BLTs; fajitas; pasta primavera. Super easy and quick meals so that we can feel slightly less overwhelmed. :)
6. Make extra. Sometimes, lots of extra. For lunches, routinely, we do leftovers. It's not really much extra work (maybe a bit of extra vegetable cutting?) to make enough to have leftovers the next day, and when we're putting the meal away we just pack lunch portions for ourselves.
If we know we'll have one or two nights that are super busy, we'll cook one giant meal (red beans and rice, a big soup + bread, or two-three main dishes such as chicken fried rice, egg drop soup, and stir fry) and coast on the leftovers for several days. This has seen us through finals weeks, through Hell Week when I'm doing a FLOT musical, and through the first few weeks after our parents went home after we had Miss B.

By the way, all of this works just as well for breakfasts. Between biking to work and breastfeeding, I need a filling breakfast every morning. But, it also has to be fast. I already put up my blueberry oatmeal banana bread recipe, but I mix it in with other things. When I lack time, oatmeal is always a good choice. But I measure it out and get my toppings ready the night before so that in the morning I can just add water and pop it in the microwave to cook while I feed the pets and change a diaper. When it's not my night to cook dinner and we're out of breakfast food, I'll run around making something easy and quick, like the banana bread. If I have a little more time (like, say, weekends) I'll make something more involved, such as pancakes (which can be refrigerated or frozen for quick weekday breakfasts) or muffins (can also be frozen). This has removed most of the stress from weekday mornings, and I always know that I've got a healthy breakfast waiting for me, a lunch packed up and ready in the fridge.
You'd think that planning this would take time, but it doesn't. In my spare moments--walking to the bathroom at work, during my bike ride home--I'll figure out what I want to and what we should eat in the coming week. Later, I'll ask Shane's input. (It usually goes, "What do you want to cook and eat this week?" "I dunno, you pick.") What do we still have in the fridge that needs to get used and eaten? What do we have in the freezer that we should eat? Ideally, the meals I come up with utilize at least one of those components. When I actually sit down to write out the grocery list, it takes less than 10 minutes. All of this has helped to keep our grocery budget in line and to keep our sanity, even though we've added a tiny human to our household. It means we don't waste time every night trying to figure out what to eat, or getting takeout because "there's no food in the house".