Before pregnancy deep-tiredness hit, and before I had a second walking daughter, I was sorta-kinda starting to get a handle on balancing cooking with the other parts of my daily routine. I’m convinced that this is one of the many areas of organizational skills in which different things work for different people, with no One True Solution, but here are some of the things that worked well in our busy little house:
Once a Month Cooking… just not once a month.
I love the idea of once-a-month-cooking (if you haven’t heard of it, Google knows all :-)), but it doesn’t really work with a newborn or young, mom-clingy baby. An all-day cooking session, in our house, with our kids running around wreaking their usual havoc? Not going to happen, even if I could convince S to devote a whole weekend of every month to mommy-free childcare.
What does work, however, is to take the concept and instead cook one recipe at a time, in lieu of a normal dinner. I found that it worked really well to start the cooking early in the day, so I didn’t have to worry about how long the prep would take or what interruptions might ensue. The recipes might make three or four meals, and I’d usually pop one in the fridge to eat later that night for dinner, and put the rest in the freezer for another day. Cooking larger quantities of a single recipe doesn’t take too much longer than cooking a regular dinner, but once the routine gets going, I only had to cook twice a week to have a consistent stock of freezer meals for the other nights of the week, with plenty to spare for sharing or busier weeks.
The major downside is that you end up with massive amounts of a recipe before you actually know how it tastes, and that was actually quite a problem for us. It’s not as easy as it might seem to convert regular recipes to freezer-ready meals–the math is easy enough, but knowing how the food is going to react to being frozen takes more experience than I have, and it was also surprising how many recipes, when trebled, ended up needing prep bowls far larger than any my kitchen possesses. Put these factors together, and using regular recipes ended up as a disaster a little too often. Recipes that are actually designed for once-a-month cooking, on the other hand, are somewhat hard to come by outside of books (which cost money!) and aren’t quite as polished or reviewed, in general, as regular recipes.
I am very much out of this rotation, presently, but I think it’s the best long-term solution for my brain and cooking. But I definitely need to spend some serious effort and time into finding recipes that are freezer-tested… and our-family-approved. 🙂
Computers do all the work.
So, if I’m not doing once-a-month recipes right now, what am I doing? I’m relying heavily on various websites that let me put together a collection of recipes and assemble a grocery list for me. I’m a big fan of kraftfoods.com, which–for free–allows me to pick from their very large database of easy, reviewed, acceptably-tasty recipes, add them to a list, and print them all out with a grocery list. The recipes aren’t as “healthy” or as economical as I might get from one of my cookbooks, since they rely heavily on Kraft foods (salad dressings, mac n cheese, Velveeta, and so on), but they reliably make everyone in my family happy when they’re on the dinner table, and are usually pretty easy and quick to throw together. And I love how much time I save not writing out my own grocery list.
Another site I’ve been trying out is Food on the Table. It is not free, except for a very basic version that limits you to three meals at a time, and in fact is a bit pricey at about $6-$10 per month. But the awesome thing about it (besides not relying on Kraft’s desire to sell their own products!) is that it reads the store circular and guides you to recipes that try to maximize use of items that are on sale. This probably is of limited use to someone who’s a massive coupon-clipper and price-matcher, but to a mom like me, who is struggling just to find time to plan dinner, much less a shopping expedition, it can actually save a lot of money. If I use the Kraft recipes, I can try to pick ones that match ingredients I have on hand, but I’m probably still going to have to buy three or so packages of meat per week, and with Food on the Table, I can make those packages ones that are on sale. It saves a lot of time, and does have a less… biased… collection of recipes that seem to rely on fresher, more natural food. The big caveat here is that I haven’t actually cooked any of said recipes yet, and if they turn out to be less than tasty, the site really won’t be of much use to me. (On a sidenote, another cool feature of the site is that it asks what is more important to you for the week–ease, taste, cost–and helps build your recipe selections based on that criterion.)
Lastly… I try to have at least one meal in the freezer that’s easy. Whether it’s frozen pizza or a bag of Bertolli’s pasta, it’s good to have something to fall back on during those crazy-tired pregnancy days, days when I’m unexpectedly away from home up until dinnertime, or days when one of the kids goes haywire or gets sick. It’s a major stress relief just to know that it’s there–that dinner can magically appear in twenty minutes or less without any prepwork.