Can a mother of four cook from scratch every night? I'm here to tell you it can be done. Okay, maybe not every night. My kids would run away to the neighbors' house if they weren't allowed the occasional hot dog, pizza, or bowl of Captain Crunch . . . so weekends are for leftovers, junk food, and dinners out with friends. But I do cook most every week night, and here's how I do it.
I plan ahead. Once a week, I sit down for about an hour with my cookbooks, a pad of paper, and the family calendar on which I keep track of everyone's schedule. I guesstimate which days are going to be crazy and which days I will have more time to cook. I make out my menu for the week and a shopping list at the same time.
I only go to the store once a week. Of course, the success of this shopping trip hinges on a thorough shopping list. In addition to the menu ingredients, I keep a second list on the kitchen counter where the entire family can jot down food items they want or need, like the DORITOES!!!! that my eldest daughter insists on scrawling at the top every single week.
Armed with my two lists, I head out early in the morning so I don't have to battle the crowds. Before returning home, I gas up the minivan for the week. If I get home only to realize I forgot to write something down or I overlooked an item while at the store, I do not go back. If it's a key ingredient, I make a substitution or cook something else.
I adopted this once-a-week-only policy out of necessity when my twins were about 6 months old; I was too sleep-deprived to get them or myself ready and out the door every day or every other day or even every third day to make a grocery run. With the rising cost of food and fuel, these weekly excursions save me time, money, and my sanity.
I buy in bulk and keep the pantry stocked. I don't have a pantry proper, so I've converted a hall closet that's around the corner from my kitchen. Because my twins like to stick their fingers in doors to get pinched, I use curtains that are easily pulled together to hide the mess.
Life is full of unexpected guests, surprise cravings, and pleading children. The beauty of a well-stocked pantry is that it allows for flexibility and last-minute changes in meal preparation. I keep most cooking essentials on hand as well as some—gulp, I admit it—canned and snack foods for the kids and my husband. Why is it that, if I'm gone for any reason, my husband will only feed the kids Chef Boyardee? Seriously, is it that hard to rinse off a piece of fruit?
I freeze. Whenever possible, I double recipes and freeze an extra pan for later. Lasagna, macaroni and cheese, enchiladas, manicotti, tamale pie, shepherd's pie, chicken pot pie . . . okay, enough with the pies, but you get my point, right? On those days when I will be running around like the proverbial headless chicken, I've got a homecooked meal I can pull from the freezer in the morning and pop in the oven that evening.
I also bag up extra spaghetti sauce, soups, and taco meat that I can freeze and add to recipes later if I unexpectedly run out of those items or want to make bigger batches. Because I buy so much in bulk, I freeze a lot of my staples: breads, tortillas, meats, chicken, milk (yes, even fresh milk). I buy huge blocks of cheese, shred them with my Kitchen Aid, then freeze them in storage bags. I chop onions and freeze them in handy-dandy storage bags (yes, onions freeze).
I'm BFF with my crockpot. Soooo many delicious soups, meats, and one-dish meals can be thrown together in the crockpot in the morning. Believe it or not, I still use the crockpot that I received as a wedding gift almost twenty years ago!
I use a bread machine. At the beginning of each week, I make up packets of my own bread mix. Then each evening, all I have to add is the liquid and the yeast to the bread machine. Making bread is super easy, fast, and inexpensive—have you seen the price of store bread lately?—plus the family loves waking up every morning to the aroma of fresh bread. I also use the bread machine for pizza dough, rolls, etc.
I prep and pre-cook when I can. I've got two babies in diapers who expect me to devote all of my time and energy to reading them stories, tickling their toes, and dancing like a robot for their amusement. If I want to get anything else accomplished I have to seize the moment when it presents itself.
I've got three sweet spots in my day. There's about an hour in the early morning that I can make use of when I have a meal to throw together in the crockpot. Then there's a big chunk of change at midday when the twins take their nap. This is the perfect time to chop, pre-cook, and assemble casseroles. My final opportunity is late afternoon/early evening when I assign my older girls 20 minute "shifts" playing with their baby sisters so I can put together dishes that need to be served quickly after preparation and get the meal ready for serving.
I read cookbooks. Some people have a novel sitting on their nightstand; I've got a stack of cooking magazines to look through before I drift off to sleep. I also check out a variety of cookbooks from the library, which is how I discovered American Classics, a cookbook I liked so much I ended up purchasing it for my own collection. Reading cookbooks keeps me inspired in the kitchen, reminds me of the value of presentation, and teaches me useful techniques, tips, and shortcuts.
Everything I've ever read about the importance of sitting down for a family meal is true. We connect. We laugh. We share. We nag our each other to stop burping and get our elbows off the table. When I made the decision to start cooking for my family on a regular basis, I had to change my mindset, adjust my work ethic, and force myself to be more organized. While I definitely have had to develop self-discipline in the kitchen, I've found that there's really not much of a downside to cooking every night:
- We're saving money.
- We're able to discuss the day's events, catch up on each other's lives, and share a laugh along with the meal at the dinner table.
- We're eating healthier.
- We're saving money.
- I've become more comfortable in the kitchen. The more I cook, the better I get. With experience comes expertise, and I'm getting pretty good at whipping up tasty meals (okay, some are less tasty than others) and even creating my own dishes, almost like a real chef!
- I'm setting a good example for my kids. They are developing an appreciation for the responsibility, creativity, and love that goes into feeding one's family. One daughter has shown a real interest in cooking and loves to help me in the kitchen; I like to think that baking cookies with her mom might create some childhood memories upon which she'll look back fondly one day.
- And . . . we're saving money!
Dinner last night: tuna noodle casserole, peas