I originally heard of preparing parts of dinner in advance from one of my most beloved cookbook authors, Jenny Rosenstrach. She talks about this quite a bit in her book Dinner, A Love Story. Prepping ahead is the idea that you can take components of a meal that are simple or CAN be made ahead and do what you can earlier in the day, so as to make the dinner time hours more enjoyable and less stressful. If you get a chance, I highly recommend this cookbook. Many parts read like a memoir and it's wonderful.
An example of what you wouldn't want to do with this method would be to cut up white potatoes and let them sit (they will brown), or cook collard greens and let them sit (they will be terribly soggy and wet). What you can do is cook some brown rice ahead of time or chop up most vegetables for a meal so it's done in advance, for example.
I cook this way all the time and it has been such a blessing to our family and to my own sanity! ;)
I realize this is going to look different for everyone depending on what season of life you are in. When I was a single working woman, I often would have my mornings free and would work on campus until just before dinner. I'd have a short window for dinner, then back on campus for more ministry. During this time I very well could have prepped dinner in the morning, but for some of you, doing it the night before would be a better use of your time. As a stay at home mom of two who also runs a business, most of the time I'll get things prepped in small chunks throughout the day versus doing it all at once in the morning. Either way, here are my 4 steps to cooking dinner with less stress.
1. Cook simple
The first thing you need to do is an inventory of the meals your family loves. You've heard me talk about it before, but set yourself up on a seasonal rotation - where you pick 16 dinners per season to rotate through. These should be simple meals your whole family loves, with few ingredients and ingredients you're used to. I'm not saying to never branch out of your comfort zone, but if you're wanting to save on money and stress at dinner-time; cooking simply is the first place to start.
2. Get kids involved
I honestly think dinner prep goes better when I get Reaghan involved. She LOVES to help anyway, and it provides a fun activity for us to do together. It also means that I don't have to take up time while the kids are napping to cook, since that's the time I usually try to work or rest. This may not be possible for everyone, and some of you may not have kids!
3. 10 minute chunks
I mentioned above that preparing dinner ahead usually looks like doing it in smaller chunks throughout the day for me. I've noticed that in this current season, Reaghan is especially needy most mornings. If she's busy playing or eating quietly, I try to get it done, but if she's really needing me, then I may do a bit during breakfast time, a bit mid-morning, and a bit around lunch time. Being a mom at home, I usually only have about 5 minute chunks to do things anyway, so this makes things fairly simple for me. I feel like I can accomplish anything if it's a small task rather than being overwhelmed by the big task, so give this a try too if you can!
4. Do what you can
Instead of prepping day by day, maybe you cook up a whole bunch of meat over the weekend to add to meals throughout the week, or maybe you chop up all the veggies you need in advance. It never needs to be perfect and you don't have to do everything all at once. Just focus on doing what you can and then be grateful that it's done! Some days I don't get anything prepped ahead, and that's okay. Some days I really blow it and unexpected things happen that make me too tired to cook, and we end up eating out. It's all a balance that shifts with every season.
Saves time during the late afternoon
I hate the feeling of needing to leave the park or a friends house early to go home and make dinner. There have been countless days when I have gotten to have that deeper conversation with a friend, or just linger longer outside playing with the kids because I wasn't rushing us home to cook. My kids also need a ton of attention at about 5 o'clock - anyone else? I've learned that this is not the time to tackle a new project or be productive. It's really just a time for me to be still and play with them - whether it's cooking in the play kitchen (HA!), swinging outside, or legos on the floor - they just like to be close to me and I like it too! I hate saying "not right now" or "wait a minute" over and over. I'd rather be free to love on them how they need.
For those working mama's, the LAST thing you want to do is start cooking a full meal when you get home. You want to spend that precious time with your family! I get that, and I think this method is perfect for you too!
We never know what the day will throw at us. We may need to deal with an unforeseen problem at work, an unexpectedly sick kiddo, or may just use that extra time to bless someone else! For me I find that I am able to spend time with friends and linger a bit with the kids - filling up their love tanks during a time of day where they truly need me the most, instead of beating them off me so I can make dinner.
I also notice that when I cook dinner earlier, I enjoy it so much more. Cooking has always been enjoyable for me, but when it's done at 5 o'clock with screaming demanding hungry babies on my feet, I like it a whole lot less :) This enables me to actually like feeding my family, which I know that for a lot of you is a real struggle, and also include my kids (well just Reaghan for now) in on the process!
We are more likely to eat at home if things are already cooked or well on their way to being fully cooked. Often times when we go over our miscellaneous budget, it's because we ate out more than we anticipated. The two main instigators of this is when we don't have a stocked fridge or when life throws us a curve ball and we're just too emotionally spent to do one more task like cook dinner.
How I get it done
I wouldn't be able to cook this way if I didn't already have a plan for our meals previously set up. I use our Seasonal Meal Planner to keep me organized so that we lower the stress in the area of meals for our family.
The SMP allows you to plan your meals for the week in a simple way, while prompting you to use food as a means for building relationships and blessing others. It's also set up seasonally so you can make that seasonal rotation and not keep spinning your wheels each week when you go to make a menu plan!