From planning and preparation to cooking and execution to serving and enjoying, food is a focus point for any family. It’s no wonder food takes up so much of our time and effort.
While variety is (of course) the spice of life, there’s something to be said for the amount of time we waste agonizing over what to wear and what to eat.
Have you ever noticed just how many successful people out there wear the same thing every day? They’re avoiding decision fatigue caused by an abundance of choices. When we focus too much on all the tiny details, we can become too distracted to make big decisions when it really matters.
It might just be time to simplify & to make time for more important things.
The reality is I love food. My family loves food. I love leafing through cookbooks and thinking up new recipes. I love going out to eat, and I enjoy experimenting with new flavors.
I don’t, however, enjoy spending hours upon hours at the stove. I get frustrated when I spend a bunch of time on a meal, only to find out my kids or husband aren’t thrilled with it, and I could have just made some grilled cheese sandwiches instead. My love of freezer meals grew from this idea: life is too short to spend all of it in the kitchen!
So, how can we simplify our food routines? How can we make meal planning an exercise of joy and relaxation? How can we bring happiness into our cooking and unstuff our meal plans? Here are a few ideas that might just help!
1. Simplify Your Ingredient List
The easiest way to simplify your meals? Cook simple meals. Really! Simple meals are composed of a starch, a vegetable and a protein, like grilled chicken on a bed of greens, with a baked potato side. Soups with hearty bread or simple sandwiches can be comforting and delicious. Try rice, grain, or noodle bowls with a variety of sauces and add-ins.
Try to aim for only 5 or 6 ingredients for each meal. For example: protein, salt, pepper, tomatoes, rice, and cheese. Look for whole ingredients (fruits, vegetables, grains) that are unprocessed, simple and delicious. Sometimes lovely fresh produce can be enough to make a meal feel elevated and special.
2. Take Help Where You Can Get It
When it comes to your grocery bill, preparing your own produce can save you quite a bit of money. However, chopping, grating and preparing can also take quite a bit of time. While there is something to be said for making your own bread, almond milk, or tomato sauce, sometimes the convenience of jarred or canned foods trumps the cost savings.
Frozen vegetables often contain higher nutrient levels because they’re flash frozen at the time of harvest, unlike many “fresh” vegetables that deteriorate while in transport for weeks. If you opt for additive-free and organic items, you might find yourself very pleased with the flavor and nutritional values. Many well-known stores (including Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Costco ) offer quite the cost savings on organics, and you can even find pre-chopped, prepped items to simplify your meal planning routine.
3. Enjoy “Taco Tuesdays” and More
Come up with a few family favorites, like Meatless Monday or Fish Sticks Friday, and make them a regular thing. (Don’t worry about the cute alliteration in the name. If your family likes Spaghetti Thursdays, go for it.) This solves the “what to eat tonight” conundrum each week—and believe me, your family won’t mind a bit!
Regular meals in your repertoire also means you can easily shop for ingredients and keep them on hand. You’ll save time at the store searching for new ingredients for new recipes. Plus, keeping it consistent means you can reuse spices or ingredients each week. For example, making a stir-fry once a week means you can plan on always keeping the basics in stock (rice, soy sauce, spices and brown sugar), but you can change up the veggies or meat you incorporate each week. If there’s a deal on chicken one week, enjoy a chicken teriyaki dish; if tofu is on sale the next week, give it a shot.
4. Learn to Love Leftovers
Not everyone is a big fan of leftovers. I get it. If your family is resistant, it might be time to encourage them to get over it. Cooking once and eating for several meals is a huge time saver. A lunch of last night’s leftovers tastes significantly better than a frozen “boxed meal” anyway, plus, you’ll save all that money you would have spent in the office cafeteria or at a lunch spot.
Family still resistant? Find ways to cook once and use ingredients twice. For example, last night’s roasted chicken with baked potatoes becomes filling for tonight’s chicken fajitas with spicy Mexican hash browns. If your family balks at a second spaghetti night in a row, try a baked spaghetti pie for the second round. It’s fairly easy to make the second meal different enough so it’s doesn’t seem like yesterday’s microwaved meal.
5. Try Sunday Meal Prep
I’m a big fan of Sunday meal prep. It sets up my week for success, and there’s something very comforting about looking into a freezer or fridge full of ready-to-go meals. I’ve really streamlined the process, so I can prep a whole week (or two) in just an hour. It’s a wonderful time saver and Big time stress-saver. If you want to give Sunday prep a try, you can easily go beyond dinner and plan out your family’s breakfasts and lunches as well. Once you try it, you’ll be hooked.
Preparing oatmeal ahead of time, individually bagging lunch components (like chips and carrot sticks), or making bread on a Sunday afternoon makes for a fun and relaxing process. I really feel Sunday meal prep helps me enjoy cooking much more in general. I can do it at my own pace and it feels productive and planned, rather than stressful and thrown together. It’s a great way to start Monday off on the right foot.
6. Embrace Make-Ahead & Freezer Meals
Similar to Sunday meal prep, make-ahead meals and freezer meals are an amazing way to streamline your meal-planning process. A freezer full of go-to meals saves so much time. It makes dinner planning simple and easy, and you have plenty of variety available to suit your family. Not only that, but you also save money by shopping once, prepping once, then making the meals right then and there. No more heading to the store on a whim for a last-minute ingredient only to come home with a bag full of items you didn’t plan on purchasing.
When you get home from work or at the end of your busy day, the last thing most of us want to do is haul out pots, pans, and cutting boards. Preparing meals beforehand allows you to simply pop what you need in the oven at the end of the day, or come home to a delicious creation that’s been cooking away in the crockpot all day. With make-ahead meals and freezer meals, I can focus on my family, hear about their day, help with homework, and enjoy our time together, rather than stress out in a hot kitchen with hungry kids underfoot.
To get started, try one of our 10 Meals in an Hour™! Here’s a sampling of my favorites:
- 10 Meals in an Hour: Part One
- 10 Meals in an Hour: Part Three (Comfort Food Edition)
- 10 Meals in an Hour: Part Seven
7. Make What You Know
Occasionally I like to make something more complicated. It can be deeply satisfying to follow a gourmet recipe—making your own ravioli, creating beef Wellington, or cooking up jambalaya. Save these special high-prep recipes for an occasion when you have plenty of time and patience, you haven’t worked all day, and you don’t have guests arriving for dinner.
When you’re under time constraints or pressure, keep it SIMPLE. In a pinch? This is the perfect time to pull out your go-to recipes. It’s fun to experiment in the kitchen, but if you’re looking to reduce stress, don’t try meals requiring extended cooking times, many steps, or new and unfamiliar components. Stick with what you know and it’s sure to turn out wonderful each time (like Grandma’s Sloppy Joe’s).
8. Use Flavorful Ingredients
A secret to simple meals? Use only the best, most flavorful ingredients! Fresh herbs, strong Parmesan cheese, or a squeeze of lime can make basic meals sing and feel so much fancier! Grow herbs in a container or vegetable garden, then use them to add a little polish to your dishes. Plain ol’ pork chops and rice can get really special when you have fresh rosemary or thyme.
If you have delicious food from your garden or if you find some really nice produce on sale, make it the focus of your meal. Fresh ingredients rarely need much preparation—steaming and adding a little salt and butter can generally be enough. Celebrate and highlight the best qualities of your ingredients by allowing them to shine through. Don’t bury them in sauces and heavy (time-consuming) preparations!
9. Make the Most of Pantry Staples
Another secret to simplifying your meal planning is to make the most of what you have in your pantry. If you have rice or pasta, cook a large batch and switch it up as the base for several meals. Quinoa, rice, barley, couscous, noodles or orzo can be the base for a “bowl” along with some sauce and veggies.
Beans, lentils, and other legumes can be a great source of protein, and they’re easy to prepare ahead and incorporate into dishes throughout the week. If you find your food budget is a little tight from week-to-week, these pantry staples don’t cost much, plus, they can stretch your meals and they’re simple to make in advance.
10. Don’t Fear the Microwave
I must confess: I’m NOT a big fan of the microwave. When it comes to meal preparation, microwaving feels too “convenient” and cheep to me. Things never seem to heat evenly and they just don’t cook as nicely in the microwave. However, when it comes to simplifying your meal preparation, the microwave can be a necessary tool.
Steaming vegetables in the microwave (use a glass container) is beneficial and helps them retain their nutrients. You can serve steamed veggies right from the dish, and you don’t have to dirty and wash yet another pot. Reheating soups and make-ahead dishes, as well as leftovers, comes easy in the microwave. If you’re like me and you avoid your microwave, it might be time to give it another chance.
When all else fails, you can always have grilled cheese or cereal for dinner. I’ve found that even though we put pressure on ourselves to cook delicious and healthy meals for our families, our kids often don’t mind the occasional “cheater” convenience meal. Keep things simple and give yourself a break!
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What other tips and tricks to you use to declutter and unstuff your meal prep? Do you have some go-to simple meals you love to cook? I’d love to hear your ideas!