Some of these ideas might work for you, and some might be so far out in left field that it’s not even worth a try. You might not have freezer space. Your budget might be too tight to stock up on twenty pounds of hamburger on sale. That’s okay. These are suggestions that can be used if they work for you. Use these ideas to jump start your own, and you’ll be on your way to better kitchen days.
1. Double For Your Trouble.
When you’re working on a casserole, dessert, or a main dish, double the recipe and stick one in the freezer. I always double things like chili soup, meatloaf, and baked lasagna (if I plan ahead and have double the ingredients on hand). You can double your cookies, bread, or other desserts and stick some in the freezer. Now you’re ready for the time you don’t know what to serve or have unexpected guests.
2. Fry, Fix, and Freeze.
I always (well, more often than not) buy a large amount of hamburger on sale and fry half of it for later use. I fry, drain, and cool; then freeze. You can put it into pint or quart containers or freeze it on a tray and then put it into a larger freezer bag. Now you have a ready source of hamburger for your favorite recipe. You can just dump out the amount you need. When you need a quick meal, you can use that ready-to-go hamburger for spaghetti, pizza, taco salad, or Sloppy Joes. It doesn’t take much more time to fry up ten pounds of hamburger than two. You only wash the skillet once and you’ve saved preparation time later. Seriously, you can fry the hamburger while you’re putting groceries away since you’ll be in the kitchen anyway; stir it as you empty those grocery bags. You can season your hamburger with onions and/or peppers or just fix it plain and add your seasonings later.
I often make two meatloaves when I come home from the grocery store; I put one in the freezer and serve one that evening or the next day. If you’re planning a dish that includes cooked sausage or bacon, go ahead and fry it when you bring it home; then drain and put it in the freezer. Bacon is great for salads, potato bar toppings, or my favorite broccoli salad recipe. When I purchase bacon for this recipe, I fry and freeze it so it’s ready to go when it’s time to put the salad together. If you’re enjoy making homemade pizza, the prep is much easier if you have some sausage already prepared. I’ll be sharing a homemade baked bean recipe in the future; for that, I always have my bacon ready to go ahead of time.
I have a friend who buys chicken on sale, cooks it down, de-bones it, and saves the broth for homemade chicken noodle soup casseroles. I can my own chicken, so I use the canned more than cooked and de-boned chicken. I confess that her chicken broth is good enough to “make your tongue slap your brains out”, as my husband likes to say.
3. Try Backward Planning.
When I know it’s going to be a busy week, I look ahead to Sunday- since we don’t eat out on that day and have dinner guests more often than not.
Especially if I know I’ll be exhausted come Saturday evening, I plan ahead so I can pull a fettuccine, lasagna, or meatloaf out of the freezer. It’s one less thing to do on an already-busy Saturday. Sometimes I make the filling for a pot pie a day or two ahead; it’s one less thing to do when it’s time to assemble the crust.
You can cook a roast until it’s just tender enough to cut; slice it, make your gravy; and put it into the casserole dish you’ll be fixing it in on Sunday. Come Sunday morning, all you need to do is pop it into the oven and set your oven to the temperature you want.
(Well, to be honest, I have weeks that I tell myself Sunday is too far away; I can’t even think that far ahead. And to be even more honest, come Saturday, often I wish I had taken the time earlier in the week to backwards plan.)
If you have any big event coming up during the week or the month, begin backward planning so that you won’t get to that event exhausted and unprepared.
My mother used to say, “Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.”
She was the measure of organization, and she was rarely caught off-guard. It really does make a difference.
4. Only One Time Around.
Make your time worthwhile. If you’re planning on having home fries one night later in the week, twice-baked potatoes or seasoned potatoes, you can prepare baked potatoes one evening. Since you’re heating up the oven, double the number of potatoes you’re baking. Same oven, same time, and different meals = common sense. I’ve done this and used the extra potatoes for potato soup, home fries, or garlic-sliced potatoes. Likewise, Sloppy Joes or the hamburger mixture from Taco Salad can be served on a baked potato bar later in the week (or put in the freezer for a meal in a week or two). Since you’ll be standing at the stove anyhow, stirring and seasoning, why not make that time worthwhile and do it all at once instead of twice?
5. Pssst! Dinner Guests Will Never Know.
So you’re having guests (again) and you just can’t think what to fix? Repeat your favorite menu or tweak it a little. Your company doesn’t need to know you served chili soup or grilled chicken and asparagus to folks last week and the week before. If you find that grilling chicken is an easy meal, does it matter that you serve it three weeks in a row to different folks? The only folks who will know are your family, and they can be sworn to secrecy.
6. Plan Ahead.
When I’m getting a house full of guests for a weekend (or my kids are all coming home for Christmas), I do plan a menu and make sure I have all the ingredients I will need for the duration of their stay.
Now that most of my kids are gone much of the year, I just wing my menus (which is not something I am recommending if you’re a plan-my-menu person).
However, if there’s a recipe you want to make, check and make sure you have the ingredients before you begin mixing, whipping, or whatever it is you’ll be doing. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to use menus if you’re more organized than I am. Just because I don’t use menus regularly doesn’t mean it isn’t right for you.
7. On Stand By and Ready!
Keep supplies in your pantry that are quick fixes for unexpected guests. Sometimes I labeled items like this: DON’T GET INTO THIS!! My kids knew they were better off if they left those labeled items alone. This way, I had a sure-fire guaranteed meal on hand that was ready to fix should the need suddenly arise.
I have a friend who makes sure she has spaghetti noodles, sauce, and hamburger on hand. She also keeps a hidden box of brownie mix in her pantry. If she gets unexpected company, she can whip up the brownies and bake them while she’s serving spaghetti to her guests.
Because we often lost electricity during the winter, I prepared a heavy-duty tub before winter set in. Inside the tub, I stored easy snacks (instant pudding, graham crackers) for those “no electricity” days. I didn’t have to think of what to fix because I already had it on hand. Waterless hand soap, matches, candles, flashlights and paper supplies (cups, plates, plastic spoons) were at the ready in the event that lights went out suddenly. When the lights flickered and dimmed for good, I didn’t panic because I knew I could open the tub and let it be business as usual at our house.
8. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Years ago, there was a disaster in Kentucky. For months, volunteer workers from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) came to a small Mennonite community to help clean up from this catastrophe. In our culture, we often host folks in our homes rather than having them stay in motels. One of the hosts shared that she enjoyed having guests but got tired of trying to figure out what to fix for breakfast meals and evening snacks (other meals were served by MDS staff).
As the story goes, a minister in her home during one of those weeks listened to her frustration of coming up with menus for weeks at a time for these hard-working men.
He told her, “The men who are coming here to work won’t know that other people had the same menu last week and they’ll have some good cooking if you serve your best meals. It will be more fun for you because you’ll be making food you enjoy fixing.”
Coming from a man, I thought that was pretty good. It worked for her. The guests had no idea they were having repeat menus, and she chose her favorite dishes to fix. She was able to make double batches of snacks/desserts and have them ready for guests each week. Everybody was happy and she was less stressed.
You might never have this situation in your home, but you can implement this principle. For children learning to cook, it’s a great way for them to learn by repetition as well.
9. If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Our church serves the same meal to thirty-plus chorus members who come through here every other year. We know they like our Taco Salad (we’ve asked and they said, “If it ain’t broke . . . ”) Every year, we discuss changing the menu, but we never do. There are two reasons: 1. They like the menu 2. We already know how much we’ll need of everything. It’s a no-brainer. We change the dessert depending on the season, but the Taco Salad with beans, rice, tomatoes, cheese, and sour cream or yogurt remains the same. As long as we serve southern Sweet Tea, these northerners are happy with our Taco Salad and Sweet Tea.
So when you think you really should try something new, consider your reasons. Maybe sometimes it’s okay to just leave it like it is.
10. Write it Down.
- Your menus, that is. Yes, I know I said I don’t do menus, but one of the best ways to do menus is to write down what you fix that week as you are preparing your meals. Voila! You’ll have a ready-made menu to use down the road. When you’re expecting guests, this sure helps.
- Do keep a record of items you’ve depleted from your kitchen. This is a lifesaver when it’s time to pick up groceries.
- Ask your kids for menu ideas. They can be a great help!
- If you’re constantly losing your lists, use a spiral notebook. The day I came up with that idea was one of my best days of kitchen life. Keep your menus in this notebook and include the page numbers of recipes in specific cookbooks. If you’re into canning, you won’t lose your record of how much you canned last year and how much was left when you started canning this year. Let your notebook be your brain, and you won’t be losing important information all the time. You can use other forms besides a spiral notebook; the important thing is to have a method that works. I have a friend who writes significant things in her diary. Whenever we need to know how many people we served at a church event, she checks her diary. Other friends use their cell phones. It doesn’t matter so much where you put it, as long as you have a place where it can be easily retrieved.
I know there’s such a thing as not borrowing trouble from tomorrow – but the truth is, sometimes tomorrow’s dilemma can be thwarted by backwards planning today. Tomorrow’s trouble can be decreased by taking extra measures today. Tomorrow’s problems can be lessened by fixing and preparing ahead and by doing double today to save steps later.
Remember, these are merely suggestions of things that have worked for me. Pick and choose what fits your family, your budget, your kitchen space, and your freezer space.You know where you’d rather put your energy, so pick and choose what will help you. You might find that implementing a few of these ideas will save you steps in the kitchen – and find you enjoying meal prep a little more than before.