To win over busy weeks and busy toddlers, try a hand at our 5 last minute meal prep strategies for your kitchen.
With all the planning and effort and best wishes, one cannot help but have meal crises at some point. You know the feeling – 5:00 pm has rolled around and there isn’t any meat thawed or a fresh veggie to be found. Or, it’s Monday morning after a weekend away and your husband humbly takes his black coffee on the road empty handed. It happens. While fast food is always a hail mary, here are five strategies that we utilize to keep our whole food rhythm going week to week:
1) Spaghetti Sunday
Whether we are coming back in at the end of the weekend from out of town, or just long amounts outside, Sunday supper is tough. I don’t know about you, but grocery runs typically don’t happen until Monday. The ideas for the week should have happened toward the end of the week, but meal prep didn’t happen.
I’ve found that a pound of ground beef, a jar of sauce and a packet of spaghetti is easy to have on hand. Spaghetti has always been a favorite for all, and comforting and filling at the same time. When I do have extra time or motive, I’ll spice it up! I can throw together meatballs, just add some cream and parmesan to the sauce, or load it with extra chopped veggies. On a rainy day, Wade will join in by making rolls, baguettes or a salad as a mid afternoon activity that adds to dinner.
I’ve needed this weekend hack, not to just break the cycle of fast food, but to give myself extra family time on these special end cap days. Time with all three is far and few between and I kick myself when it isn’t savored. And maybe, Sunday spaghetti will become something our kids connect with long weekends and extra family time? That’s a win!
For homemade sauce made with fresh grown tomatoes or just canned, check out our post: “Simple Garden Fresh Spaghetti Sauce”
2) Beginning of the Week Bread Loaves
I will admit, this has been my newest meal prep strategy, and it has easily won me over. It happened quite by accident – flipping through Jill Winger’s Cookbook (see more HERE), trying out the Maple Oat loaves, throwing the second loaf in the freezer. It wasn’t about preparedness, and it wasn’t about meal prep. Then it happened. Saturday lunch came and there was nothing to be found. No leftovers, no deli meat, no tortillas. Nothing.
But there was a loaf of bread in the freezer, and peanut butter & jelly in the fridge. Suddenly, there were toasted sammies for all! The following week, I made Monday “mop & bread day”… Sure enough, lunch post library and park outing had us ravenous. Was there cheese in the fridge and bread on the counter? Yes! Grilled cheese was a hit, even if Wade ate his with slice pepperoni which is a little odd.
I also count on my maple oat loaves for hosting family and friends. I use Farmhouse on Boone’s recipe for french toast casserole with cranberries to make ahead for breakfast whether the bread is fresh, frozen or stale. It is delicious and requires so little time in the kitchen. I’ve bookmarked this in my mind as an easy way to bail out others. Then these scenarios happen: a girlfriend sends that text asking for prayer, I can drop by our extra loaf with a jar of soup. Someone has a new baby and I want to send something extra with a meal, there’s bread and a dozen eggs. A mommy friend has everyone under the weather, there’s a loaf of bread and jar of jam. I can be ready for them, and it makes ministry to those around me tangible. God bless bread.
3) Frozen Leftovers
Your mindset definitely shifts in the second to third trimester of pregnancy. They call it nesting, I call it, “but who will make dinner when she comes?” In pregnant times or not, our family of 2 and a half can rarely clean house at a meal (and I have yet to learn how to cook appropriate amounts of food). Instead of eating the same meal repetitively, or *gasp*, throwing it away, I have a new method. If there is a decent amount of leftovers, I have started to just freeze it away. Four extra enchiladas? That’s lunch for Wade and I. A half pound of ground meat with diced onion and spices? That can be soup, or spaghetti, or some winter squash hash. On the reverse side, it has been one of the things that has most stimulated my cooking creativity. Going into the freezer and finding already cooked elements means that dinner time is cut significantly, and I only have to find pairings with what we currently have fresh. I’m grateful for a method that saves me time, and appetite, and waste. No meal prep required.
4) Breakfast Bread for Snacks
Call me old fashioned, but it means a lot for me to have at least breakfast for my 9-5 husband before he leaves the house. There is sacrifice in being the one home with the domestic duties, and there is sacrifice to be the one riding out traffic and due dates and coworkers. Caring for how his system starts the day is my way of saying thank you. While he would be quite content with a Yeti of black coffee, I am more content knowing he has something that will sit in his stomach a bit longer. So, on Monday’s or Tuesday’s, Wade and I make it our afternoon activity to make breakfast bread. Muffins are easy recipes full of spice shaking, fruit mashing and dumping. This means, Wade can easily be a large “help”. It also means the afternoon has an activity with minimal mess, and a resulting afternoon snack. Win win. Whether pumpkin chocolate chip, or pecan banana bread, husband is sent to work with fruit and a hearty carb. On the way to the park, two muffins hit the backpack for Wade and I.
Pro-tip: In case you thought frozen leftovers only applied to dinner meals, think again! Two and a half of us have yet to finish two dozen muffins in a week. A week is about when they soften and shine and invite mold. That second dozen, we freeze! They defrost wonderfully and make an easy gift for a friend in a pinch.
Our 5 favorite breakfast breads:
- Banana bread with pecans and chocolate chips
- Blueberry lemon
- Pumpkin bread
- Apple cranberry bread
- Chocolate zucchini bread
5) The Instapot Chicken “Three Meal Hack”
My golden ticket for a happy cooking mama is a whole chicken and an Instapot. Let’s begin. I love good quality meat, but I don’t love spending a lot. I feel like I can get my best bang for my buck with whole chickens. Plus, a whole chicken lasts me a lot longer than chicken breasts or thighs. On the first day, I whip out my Instapot knowing I can cook that bad boy defrosted or frozen. You read that right: defrosted OR frozen.
Day one, I use the chicken breast for a meal that is slightly more meat heavy (chicken and veggies etc.). Then, I take the carcass and remove the rest of the meat and shred it for a “meat-light” meal (enchiladas, fettuccine, etc.). Day three, I bring out the Instapot for a grand finale and add the bones, the skin, chopped veggies, herbs, and some salt. After two soup cycles, I have enough broth for half of gallon of chicken broth for soup and a half gallon for the freezer.
Did I not tell you this hack was wonderful?! Suddenly, spending a little more to get a chicken from your local farmer has carried you through three whole meals.
Save Time with Meal Prep Strategies
The truth is, I just really enjoy low pressure and high creativity around meal times. And to be honest, it is becoming more and more doable as we grow and cook. I haven’t taken on the brunt of meal planning week to week, but our lifestyle has leaned more toward flexibility and options.
My ultimate goal is to remain unfrazzled at dinnertime, and make room for surprises. Implementing these ideas “during the calm” will hopefully carry me into this next chapter of two under two! If you think of me, wish my garage freezer extra luck this summer. She’s stuffed.