Our lives could be considered the antithesis of simplicity. Both my husband and I work at least 40 hours a week. I commute an hour each way. Our kids spend more time in school or daycare or church during the week than they do at home. During the school year, we eat dinner three nights a week at the church before Rangers, Missionettes, and Bible study. This will be Connor's first year playing a sport, so we will be juggling football practices and games with the rest of the madness. My husband also teaches a self-defense class at our local fitness center. Oh, and did I mention that we are both runners? Not crazy professional marathoners, but we like to get long runs in on the weekends, and we sometimes have to split evening/bedtime routines so that we can both hop on the treadmill or jog off into the sunset. (I'm truly a better mom and person because of the endorphin rush I get from my run... so I make the time. It's bad when your 7 year old says, 'Mom, I think you need to go on a run.')
Anyway, I'm not complaining, but I really need it to be understood that our lives are not simple when it comes to activities and running around. But, hey, we signed up for it. So how do we manage it? Not as gracefully as we could, but I do have a few tips. With football ready to start up, doctor's appointments looming on the horizon, swimming lessons in full swing, and some half marathon training in progress, we are already getting a taste of what the school year will be like. So, I have the calendar out, cute picture stickers stuck, and I am meal planning. (**Side note: I buy whatever mom's planning calendar I can find in January - one with five lines for each day and lots of cute stickers for different activities and events. I hunker down on a weekend night and I plan out the next week or two. What are we doing and, most importantly, what and where are we eating?)
Here's how I maintain some semblance of productivity, keep mealtimes simple, and make sure my kids (and husband) are fed semi-decent, mostly healthy meals each night... no matter what we have going on that evening. And feeding your kids means you are a good parent, right? Right! Especially if there are veggies involved.
Not only do I meal plan, I also freeze meals ahead of time. I think freezer meals are all the rage on Pinterest right now. But they don't know I've been doing it forever. We got a HUGE chest freezer at a garage sale last year for $5.00. Not kidding. We've always had at least one extra freezer, but this thing has made freezing ahead even easier. I love it so much, I am including a picture.
Anyway, on weekends that I don't have a lot going on, I make up casseroles. We'll have one for dinner, but I'll also make a triple or quadruple batch. Then I spoon it out into freezer-safe casserole dishes (I have plenty from garage sales, but I also buy the disposable aluminum ones. The cool thing about having the casseroles frozen in the the aluminum pans, is that they make a great impromptu dinner to drop off if there is a family in need. I especially love dropping off meals for new moms! Since the meals are still frozen, they have the option of saving it for later.).
I cover the whole thing with tin foil and tuck in a recipe card to label what it is. (I also write fool-proof cooking instructions just in case my husband is home alone and has to start dinner.) Then I wrap the thing in four or five layers of saran wrap to delay freezer burn. I (try to) keep a list of what I have still in the freezer so that I remember when I meal plan. I make sure I use the oldest ones first, so they don't get freezer burnt.
There are tons of freeze ahead recipes out there. My sister has some really good ideas too. I am linking to her blog, and I am going to make her write about what she does. They spent a huge amount of time with just the freezer/fridge combo - so she had very little space and still had lots of dinners frozen ahead.
When I first started this, I stuck closely to the recipes. Lasagna, tamale pie, tuna noodle, stroganoff.... then I got crazy and started experimenting. If you have a meat (not totally necessary.... but for my carnivore husband, yes), some veggies, noodles or rice, maybe cheese, and a sauce, then in my mind, you have a casserole. I have a chicken garden vegetable recipe that I experiment with a lot. I cook the noodles or rice for less time so that they aren't overcooked when I heat everything up. I also sneak in extra vegetables, like spinach, broccoli and carrots. Grate carrots or chop broccoli or spinach up really small, and they stay good and hidden! Even my picky eater doesn't notice.
I don't just freeze ahead casseroles. I also make up patties.
Salmon patties, quinoa cakes, black bean burgers, bacon burgers.... those are the most popular at our house. I do the same thing. I cook up a huge batch of quinoa or beans and spend part of the afternoon making 30 or 40 patties. I throw everything but the kitchen sink in my patties.
If you have a good food processor (another $5 garage sale find for me), you can chop anything up into small enough bits to hide in a patty. I add sun-dried tomato, peppers, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, onion, garlic, spinach, and sometimes even sweet potato. Eggs and bread crumbs or oatmeal help hold it all together. Again, I used to follow a recipe but now I just improvise. A standard saying that I hear from my husband when dinner is especially good is, 'So, do you think you can make this same thing again?' He already knows the answer!
Once I've made the patties, I set them out on cookie sheets on wax paper or saran wrap and freeze them individually. After they are frozen, I divvy them up into dinner-sized portions into freezer bags. If I have extra time, I will food saver them. These are a great option for the nights when I forget to take something out or plans change. They cook up pretty fast, even from frozen. Just add buns and a side salad, and dinner is served.
The last thing I make big batches of and freeze ahead are pizza crusts and sauces, especially pesto. I always thought that they would be too hard to make... but not really. Pesto, especially with my awesome Sunbeam, is a snap.
We have a ton of spinach in our garden right now, so I have been making batches of spinach pesto when I can. I freeze in one-ish cup portions in my extra rubbermaid containers. Perfect for wraps, pizza, or sandwiches. Even if you forget to take it out in the morning, it thaws pretty nicely in the microwave or hot water.
So, that's some of how I go about simplifying dinner for our family. We eat on time (most nights) this way, and I remove the stress of not knowing what to make and/or the waste of eating out again when we are stuck in town and starving. It takes a good bit of work on the day I decide to make a bunch of dinners, but it saves time and energy in the end. It also gives me more time in the evenings with my kids and my husband. We don't always see each other as often as we would like. And we soak up the times that we are all together, at our own dinner table, in the evenings.
My other love is my crockpot. But that's for another time.
**Another side note: I have an awesome, flexible job where I can cook my casserole in the oven at work towards the end of the day if I have too. We also have a great church where we are welcome to cook in the convection oven (ahhhhhhhh) and eat in the kitchen before our classes.**