6 Time-Saving Strategies for Healthy Family Meals


It’s time to cook dinner, but your six-year-old and your eight-year-old are begging you to play with them. “We’re bored, Mummy,” they wail as you cut open the packet of spaghetti. They block your path to the stove and say, “Play with us now!

Kids just don’t understand the concept of cooking or why you need to be in the kitchen for an hour every evening. They think “fun” is on the menu and now is the time to have it. But neither you nor they can live on fun alone. We all need to eat at least twice a day.

What if you arrived home after work and half of tonight’s dinner was already prepared? Or the shopping was done and you knew you could whip up a meal before your child began begging to play? Well, you can.

Here are six tips that will help you to prepare healthy meals and keep your kids happy too.

1. Be shopping-savvy

If you stand in front of the fridge for just two minutes, three times a day, figuring out what to cook, you’re wasting more than 36 hours every year! And if you make two trips to the supermarket each week instead of one, you squander a whole working week of time.

Now think of this: If you live to age 65, that’s more than five months of your adult life wasted on unorganised food preparation! And it could be costing you a bundle at the check-out as well.

Have you noticed how often you throw out wasted food? The packets of out-of-date flour in the back of your pantry and the rotting veggies in the bottom of your fridge? And did you lose the inspiration to use the last three-quarters of that bunch of spinach in the drawer of your refrigerator, or did you plan to leave it to rot?

The solution? Be shopping-savvy. Have a weekly meal plan and stick to it. You’ll save cash and time. Take just a few minutes to plan and make one trip to the grocery store each week, and you’ll be on the way to restoring balance to your life.

2. Become a p.m. planner

For a smooth and struggle-free morning, prepare some lunch box items for the kids the night before:

  • Pop non-perishable food items straight into the lunch box. Anything that will not get soggy or spoil can actually be placed in your child’s lunch box the night before. These include homemade muffins, washed and uncut fruit such as grapes, orange segments, a whole apple or a banana.
  • You can also prepare the perishable lunch box items the night before. Place child-sized portions into containers—yoghurt, baked beans, leftover dinner items such as pasta—and keep them fresh in the refrigerator till morning.
  • Be sure to include suitable utensils such as a spoon or fork for the more perishable items you’ll put in their lunch boxes the next morning.

Another time-saver is to cook larger batches when you prepare dinner, so the next meal is quicker to make. Cook a larger batch of rice than you’ll need that evening, and freeze the extra in meal-sized portions in plastic zip-lock bags. These won’t take up much room in your freezer and they’ll reheat in minutes.

3. Do some morning preparation for the evening

By planning ahead for the evening meal, you can do some of the preparation in the morning. Wake up 15 minutes earlier and look at the menu you’re planning to prepare that evening, and see how much you can prepare while the porridge is cooking. Suggestions include:

  • Wash leafy greens and make part of a salad.
  • Mix up a salad dressing and store it in a jar.
  • Wash and chop up veggies ready for a stir-fry.
  • Make some mashed sweet potato.

These can all be stored in the fridge for later use. Morning preparation (or even early afternoon preparation) is a wonderful way to ensure that you have a more relaxed evening meal. Do this at least once a week. This can save you a bundle of time and take away the temptation to order that greasy pizza.

4. Hide the leftovers

Now that you’ve prepared food ahead of time, it may be necessary to hide the leftovers from your family or limit them to one helping.

Leftovers are fantastic for next-day lunches and snacks. You can also freeze them in small containers, ready for a night when you’re too tired to cook. Meals that can be refrigerated for two days and used for lunches or dinners include most pasta and rice dishes, roast vegetables, certain salads and desserts.

5. Delegate, delegate, delegate

If you are the care provider in your family, you are probably a very busy person. You might make the beds and prepare breakfast, clean up the mealtime mess, drop the kids off at school, race home (or to work) to do your daily activities, and then pick up the kids, go home and serve dinner, clean up, and collapse after everyone is in bed. This sounds a bit like modern-day slavery, albeit voluntary.

While this may not be the exact scenario at your home, it does represent what many primary care providers do daily. However, you are not part of a family simply to take care of everyone else. You do not have to clean up their mess, take out their garbage, make their beds, organise their lunches and sort their washing once they have passed the age of four.

Being the primary care provider means you are actually the family’s team leader. It’s your job to organise, delegate and motivate your family to work together. This is what it means to be a family. Working together teaches a child how to be a positive contributor to society. This is essential for their future happiness and mental wellbeing.

So when your child or spouse makes a mess, be patient but let them know it’s their job to clean up. Don’t give up after 10 minutes and do it yourself, since this will only teach them to wait 15 minutes to avoid having to do it. Wait, and wait some more if you have to and encourage the other family members to be contributors to the success of your family unit.

Being the team leader instead of chief slave will keep you from feeling so busy and stressed. You may also feel more appreciated and loved, and that’s great for your health too.

6. Let them help

What do you do when your children want your attention at the same time you need to prepare the evening meal? You can scream for hubby to intervene, but it’s more productive to get them involved in the meal preparation. Children as young as three or four can do simple things in the kitchen. It will probably take them longer and you may have to help them do some things, but you’re teaching them how to help and enjoy it.

You can also teach your children the strategies you use for saving time in the kitchen. You’ll be teaching them—both boys and girls—to be time savers when they grow up and have kitchens of their own.

As your children learn to help in the kitchen, they will save you more and more time as the years go by.

Adapted, with permission, from Healthy Family, Happy Family, written by Karen Fischer, Exisle Publishing, 2010.
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