Home cooked meals are generally healthier and cheaper for your family than eating out or making convenience foods. But they take time, and all too often parents struggle with finding the time to prepare a home cooked meal. It doesn’t have to be all that hard, however. Take a little extra time when it’s convenient for you, and you can cut down on the time it takes to make healthier meals for your family.
Planning ahead is one of the most important tools you have in cooking at home more often in less time. Planning ahead allows you to know what you’re cooking for each meal, what ingredients you need, how much time you need to make it, and so forth. It saves you from debating each day what to make, or wondering what to buy at the store. You’ll know what you need.
Planning is best done with current grocery store specials and seasonal produce in mind, especially if you get produce from a CSA or other arrangement where you have little control over what veggies you’ll have. Don’t plan on having something you aren’t sure you will have the ingredients for – that’s an easy way to get desperate enough to resort to convenience foods or a meal out.
Many ingredients can be chopped days before you need them. If you’re as lucky as I am and have kids who love to snack on vegetables, having chopped vegetables also means you have healthy snacks ready for them. If you’re planning a stir fry or other meal with chopped meat, that’s another easy item to cut up in advance.
You can even cook some things early, so long as they reheat well. I don’t like to precook vegetables; it’s too easy to turn them into mush with repeated heating. When you precook vegetables, make sure they taste good to you after being reheated. Fortunately, many taste good raw or can easily be prepared along with your main dish. Lots of vegetables are wonderful roasted, for example, and may do well in the oven at the same time as the main dish.
Beans, on the other hand, are easy to prepare in advance. I like black beans, and usually have a bag of cooked ones in the freezer. I make a large batch, then freeze them in ice cube trays, moving them into a bag after they’re frozen. The cubes make it easy to get just the right amount of beans into my recipe.
You can also cook meats early. Once again, be careful about reheating, as meats are easy to dry out.
Use Your Crockpot
When days are rushed, I love my crockpot. It’s pretty good other times too, but it’s an absolute delight on those days when I otherwise wouldn’t have time available to make a home cooked meal.
It takes time to find really good crockpot recipes. Bad crockpot recipes take away all the flavor of otherwise good ingredients. I don’t recommend cooking vegetables in the crockpot all day – they’ll be soggy and flavorless. Add veggies later in the day if you can.
Not all foods have to be cooked just because they’re a part of a meal. I often let my kids pick which raw vegetables they want with their dinners. It ensures their enthusiasm, as they all love a variety of raw veggies. My youngest, for example, is utterly obsessed with bell peppers, no matter the color. But sometimes she’d rather just eat a carrot or some snap peas.
There are plenty of books out there to help you make quick homemade meals. Having good recipes is a big part of making homemade meals quickly. Here are some that look promising:
The Elliott Homestead: From Scratch: Traditional, whole-foods dishes for easy, everyday meals
Operation Dinner: How to Plan, Shop & Prep for Easy Family Meals
Michael Symon’s 5 in 5: 5 Fresh Ingredients + 5 Minutes = 120 Fantastic Dinners
The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner: Easy Family Meals for Every Day of the Week