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Staying Home Instead

Cooking Up Healthy Meal Plans

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 1, January-February 2003, p. 18

"Staying Home Instead" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents who choose to stay at home with their children. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Situation

The hardest part for me about being home with my son is the fact that I'm responsible for three meals a day. I want to cook healthy food for him and his father, but I don't want to be in the kitchen all day. How do other mothers keep fresh, home-cooked meals on the table?

Response

Your situation is very similar to my own and I felt compelled to write. My husband works odd hours and is not home at "dinner time." He has his big hot meal in the afternoons before leaving for work. For a while, I was waking up and going about my morning routine. I got the children fed and ready to tackle another day, only to immediately begin preparing a hot nutritious meal. Not only that, I needed to have enough so that my husband could pack a meal to take to work.

For my family, I find it works best if I double or triple the amount we will need for the day. I then package the leftovers in sensible portions so that my husband has enough food before and after work-and I don't have to cook every single day. It gives me more time to better tend to the needs of my children (ages four and two) and time to put my feet up as I grow baby number three! I also prepare easy things to snack on throughout the days for myself and my children such as slices of hard cheeses, vegetable snacks cut up and put into plastic baggies, and fresh fruits such, as apples and bananas, available most of the time.

Making big batches of whole-wheat pastas and separating them into meal-sized portions can save some time, too. We also buy big amounts of ground turkey at once and divide it up into one pound portion sizes. I find I can make endless different recipes with it. We do the same with fresh vegetables. It is much easier to buy a large portion and divide it at home and it saves lots of trips to the store!

Janet Henke Dandrow
Murrieta CA USA

Response

I have found that using my freezer enables me to spend significantly less time in the kitchen and still provide healthy meals for my husband and my six-month-old daughter (via breast milk!).

How do I do it? I have found it is easy to just double, triple, or quadruple my normal recipes and add them to the freezer through the normal course of cooking. I usually cook one or two things (three to six meals) for the freezer each week. These are cooking days. The rest of the days we eat out of our stash in the freezer (usually a quick heat or some simple preparation is all that is needed) or I cook something simple. On cooking days, it doesn't take long to double the casserole recipe rather than making a single batch. I am grateful for this frozen meal on the night when all I have to do is heat something and prepare a vegetable.

Careful use of the freezer space is essential. I use two- and four-cup clear, plastic freezer containers. I used to reuse yogurt containers to save money, but decided buying freezer containers was worth it since they stack well and save space. I freeze casseroles in pie pans because this is the right serving size for two to three people, and they take up much less space than casserole pans. (If a recipe says to make it in a 9" x 13" pan, you can use two 8" x 8" or three pie pans.) I use plastic freezer bags for precooked meats (taco meat already seasoned, fajita meat, and chopped chicken for salads or casseroles).

I keep a "Freezer Inventory" list posted on the side of my refrigerator and list all meals, starts of meals (such as taco meat), and other things in my freezer. I then try to remember to cross things off the list as I use them. I refer to this list when menu planning or when I am in a four o'clock panic looking for a quick and easy meal!

For example, I cook a double recipe of chili, serve some that night and then freeze three four-cup containers. Each container is a meal for my husband and me. For casseroles, such as spaghetti pie, I cook a double recipe in three pie pans. I serve one that night and then cut the remaining pies in half and wrap in aluminum foil. Each half is a meal and takes up less space than freezing the pie pans. I also freeze taco meat in meal sized baggies, seasoned black beans to serve over rice, and stuffed peppers. I make my own refried beans and freeze some in two-cup containers and some in muffin pans. Once the bean muffins are frozen, I remove them from the pan and place them in a plastic bag. My husband can take out two to make a burrito for lunch. I cook chicken with seasoning and vegetables and freeze the mixture. To serve, I defrost the mixture and place it on tortillas and cook to make quesadillas. I am sure if you looked at the meals you cook now you will find several that can be doubled and frozen. Most meals I cook before freezing, but I have found some things (by trial and error) that taste better if cooked right before serving.

Hillary Crandall
Denver CO USA

Response

I was also worried about being responsible for all of my child's meals once he started solid food. Before having children, when I was employed full-time, I seldom cooked. Sometimes I would actually forget to eat anything at all until late at night. One night, while I was pregnant, I actually confessed to my husband that I was scared I would just get busy and forget to feed our child. He just laughed!

Now, feeding my two children under three is one of the easier things I do. The strategy that works for me is to offer each child one small protein serving, one small whole grain serving, and one small fruit or vegetable serving at every meal. I just keep my refrigerator stocked with things that are easy to grab for this purpose such as hard boiled eggs, turkey, lean beef, cheese, whole grain bagels, noodles, and assorted cut up produce for fruits and vegetables. It sometimes means that my toddler eats odd combinations (a hard boiled egg, kiwi, and whole-wheat noodles for supper), but he doesn't mind and I always feel confident that he is getting a wide variety of good things.

One other thing that has really worked for me is not giving my children any sugar at all, if possible. This way, I never have screaming arguments about my menu choices. My children are happy as clams with lean protein, grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables because that's all they have ever eaten.

With this plan, all the children's meals are easy to prepare. I can then cook easy but nice "adult" meals for my husband and me about three times a week. We eat every meal I cook twice, and then we go out to dinner or scavenge for leftovers one night a week.

Jeannie Burlowski
Lino Lakes MN USA

Response

I shop weekly and make a weekly menu plan (primarily for dinners) as the basis for my list to be sure I have all necessary ingredients on hand. I also use the calendar to be sure I know to plan around special days such as birthdays, or nights when we have an LLL meeting or other event.

The next thing I do is try to plan meals that need minimal attention as I cook. Great meals for my family that meet this criteria include baked chicken, meatloaf, casseroles, and baked potatoes or yams. I am even lucky enough to have an oven with a timer that will turn the oven on and off at the proper times, but this is far from necessary. It is also helpful to plan for leftovers to be used either for lunch or another dinner. For example, a spiral ham is easy to prepare and we get at least two more dinners from it plus sandwiches, soup, or a casserole.

Another wonderful gadget is the slow cooker/crock pot! Load it up at breakfast or lunchtime and dinner will be ready when you are. There are great, easy recipes out there and many child-friendly ones, too.

A helpful tip is to do as much prep work as you can all at once. For me, the children are most cooperative around lunchtime so after I feed them, I can take a few minutes to do any chopping or other food preparation for dinner, which saves a lot of time at the end of the day when I am exhausted and tempted to order a pizza! Breads can be prepared early and then reheated if necessary. This tip also applies when you are cooking beans or grains. Try to do enough for multiple meals that week so you just need to reheat some each day.

I hope this helps you meet your goals for healthy eating while keeping food preparation as simple as possible for you.

Lani Siciliano
Stamford CT USA

Response

As is the case with many household responsibilities, cooking can seem like a never-ending chore. It can feel as though you're always in the kitchen cooking. What I have found helpful is cooking in bulk so I have "planned leftovers." The prep work and clean up are the most time consuming aspects of cooking, but it doesn't take three times longer to prepare three pans of lasagna versus one. Several times a week, I make double or triple batches of soups, stews, casseroles, and even pancakes. We eat one portion that day, a second for lunch the following day, and freeze the third portion for a quick dinner later in the month. An added benefit of this scheme is that on the nights you serve a meal from your freezer stash, you have fewer dishes to clean than if you'd cooked a meal from scratch.

You didn't say how old your son is. If he is a toddler, I encourage you to get him involved in meal preparation. Pull up a stool or high chair so that he can see what you are doing. Toddlers love to knead, stir, sprinkle, pour, and nibble at your elbow while you cook. At first, it may seem intimidating to work with a toddler at your side, but I have found it much easier than cooking with one under foot! Preparing meals becomes much easier and more fun when you work together.

Mary Jane Shroyer
Decatur GA USA

Response

I can relate to your dilemma. I am a big believer in LLL's philosophy of "good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible." But, in my attempt to fix and serve healthy food for my family, it is very easy to find myself in the kitchen all day long fixing food and cleaning up only to find that it is time to fix food again! I have a few things that I have found save me time in the kitchen while still allowing me to serve healthy foods to my family.

I save a lot of time when I write up a menu for the whole week. I write down what we will have for every meal and three snacks each day. This way, I don't waste time staring in the cupboards trying to figure out what I can fix and I don't waste time trying to figure out if we are getting enough vegetables. I just look at my menu and prepare what is listed. When I prepare a menu we tend to eat more nutritious meals and I spend less time grocery shopping because I'm more focused.

Something else that saves me time is cooking ahead. For example, we eat a lot of brown rice. When I am preparing rice, I put a large quantity into my crock pot and set it on low. At dinner I scoop out what we need, dividing the rest into meal-sized portions and storing them in baggies or plastic containers. I put those in the freezer and then use them as needed. To thaw I just dump the frozen rice into a colander and run hot water over it. Voila, hot, moist, "fresh" rice!

LLL's Whole Foods for the Whole Family is a good resource for quick, healthy meals. I hope these ideas help you. It's so important to feed our families well and teach our children about good nutrition.

Aimee Bucher
Goshen IN USA

Response

My husband and I greatly value fresh, home cooked food, especially for our children, five, three, and 16 months. Because of this, I cook two to three meals a day almost every day of the year. We believe that it is one reason for the good health we all enjoy, as well as the reason that our grocery bill is somewhat lower than other families we know. Books offer insight into how to cook cheaply, quickly, and with healthy food, but here are a few of the things that have made it possible for us.

First, keep your son with you as you cook. I have often put small babies in a backpack or bouncy chair in the kitchen (where I won't trip!). Older babies love to sit on the floor, watch you, play with the spoons, pots, and pans, and eat a snack. Toddlers really enjoy sitting in a high chair where they can see you. I have my toddler play with a variety of cups and bowls filled with warm water. I just spread a towel on the floor underneath and let her get wet while I cook. In all cases, the mother and child can be together. I can help and direct without losing my place, and they can watch me do interesting things from a safe place. These strategies help so that I can spend the time I need to prepare good food.

Learn to cook a few basic recipes by heart. The most basic recipes are ones that you can improvise upon, making countless variations to liven things up. I have memorized the recipe for our basic bread, muffins, biscuits, and brownies. I can also make a basic cream sauce (so important for many dishes), spaghetti/pizza sauce, soup stock, salad vinaigrette, and more-all without using a cookbook. This took me time, but I can now quickly make homemade biscuits in about five minutes, using half whole wheat flour or more, and for a fraction of the cost that a mix would offer. For foods that I prepare often, I write the recipe on one side of an index card and paste it up on the inside of my cupboard. It's right there before my eyes and helps me memorize. This cuts down on time.

Plan your meals so that you can cook from scratch. For example, in our household, I plan about six or seven dinners to last us about 10 days, since there will be leftovers and occasionally we will go out to eat. I plan an entree, a vegetable, and a starch, plus any interesting desserts that might require ingredients I don't have. As I plan, I note the cookbook, page number, and recipe right on my meal plan list. And with every recipe I write, I make a separate list of any ingredients I don't already have. I do this about every 10 to 14 days, and it takes me about an hour. However, it saves me a huge amount of time during that busy 4:30 pm hour when the baby is fussing and needs to nurse. I know what I will make, I know which page the recipe is on in which book, and that I have all the ingredients. For breakfast and lunch I usually make eggs, cereal, sandwiches, leftovers, or tortillas. I get three different kinds of fresh fruit to fill out those meals.

Get a crock pot and learn how to use it. For days when you know you will be really busy, you can get up half an hour earlier, get it going, and don't worry about it for the rest of the day. There are dozens of crock pot cooking Web sites and books you could use.

Cook in stages. If you are making a stew, you can chop all the vegetables and herbs right after lunch while baby is happy or asleep. If you're making macaroni and cheese (another recipe that is excellent to memorize and much healthier in its homemade version), grate the cheese and measure the milk earlier in the day so that everything is ready to assemble.

Finally, remember that although you may spend more time in the kitchen than you would like initially, you are learning a priceless skill. Gaining the skills of cooking well will serve you and your family your whole lives and improve them greatly. Your children will learn about good food and how to prepare it by being with you while you are cooking, and the time you spend together doing it is the stuff of beautiful memories.

Sibyl Niemann
St. Paul MN USA

Response

Try and find the time once a week to sit down and write a menu for the coming week, I find this takes off a lot of the pressure because I'm not constantly thinking about what I'm going to cook for the next meal. Don't feel you have to make a detailed plan, but rather a rough idea of what you are going to eat during the week. I often plan in relation to our activities. Tuesdays are very busy so we often have omelets, which are quick to prepare and eat. Serve them with a salad and you have a balanced meal in under 15 minutes.

Don't lose perspective. You are at home to love and care for your children. Giving them healthy, home cooked food is a part of that, but it's not the end of the world if you prepare ready-made food or go out to eat once in a while. If this means the difference between a relaxed and happy mother and one who is climbing the wall because baby had to nurse and supper got burnt in the oven, I know which one my family prefers!

Eli Brosse
Lantran France

Last updated Thursday, October 19, 2006 by njb.
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