Food is important to our physical and mental well-being, and therefore to our productivity. But getting tasty and nutritious meals on the table as part of a busy schedule can be a challenge. When listeners asked for help with this task, I reached out to our Productive Woman community for ideas on how to streamline the process. And the community came through with some great tips and suggestions!
Helpful tips for getting food on the table–from the awesome The Productive Woman community
Depending on your stage in life, meal planning, grocery shopping, and preparing meals can be difficult and time-consuming, a challenge when your schedule's already full with work, family, and personal commitments and interests. In response to a listener request for this topic, I’ve compiled suggestions and tips from listeners via email, voice message, and the Facebook page to help find different ways to tackle different aspects of preparing meals for you and your family. My sincere thanks to all the listeners who contributed to this episode!
- Assemble a list of meals you know you and your family like and that you can prepare easily.
- “We use a 10-15 meal rotation, and takeout when things get too hectic.” ~ Rochelle Bishop (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- “Make a go-to list of recipes your family will eat — I do this for seasons and rotate menus. Base grocery lists off of what is in season or on sale at your local stores. We eat better and save money this way.” ~ Sara (via email)
- I used to have a list of 30 meals that I knew we like—entree, side dish, etc.–and would make sure I had the ingredients for them, and each evening I’d look at the list and decide what sounded good for the next day ~ Laura (host)
- Use your task manager to create a rotating list of menus. Cassandra Scott uses ToDoist: “I just put down different recurring dates depending on how well its liked. On Tuesdays I just write down what's up next then write what ingredients need. (When I typed them in I made abbreviations for each cookbook and I added the page number so everything is easy to find.)” ~ Cassandra Scott (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- Try a menu-planning service. Leann Guzman and Christina Hodge Kenkel recommend eMeals, and Sara likes Once a Month Meals.
- “I use eMeals some weeks, when I'll actually have time to cook. I also will often make each person in the family plan one meal, complete with writing out the stuff that needs to be bought for that meal. (Only problem when I do that is we eat a lot of macaroni!)” Choose the plan you want—lots of options: clean eating; paleo; various weight management plans; family inspired plans (slow cooker, budget friendly, kid friendly, 30-minute meals); specialty plans (gluten free, diabetic, Mediterranean, vegetarian, simple gourmet); and they email weekly meal plan with recipes, etc, and a detailed grocery shopping list. ~ Leann Guzman from 1BusyLady and episode 58 of The Productive Woman (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- “We think eMeals is awesome. We used the Aldi plan when the budget was our biggest concern. We've been using the paleo plan for the last 3 years and love it! Now that they have an app (which wasn't available when we first started) it is even easier. We pick the meals we want for the week, which automatically populates the grocery list, add our other needed items, and click them off the sorted list at the grocery store. Well worth it, especially for those who don't mind cooking, but don't have time (or desire) to do menu-planning.” ~ Christina Hoge Kenkel (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- “When I'm really busy or will be out of town, I subscribe to Once a Month Meals and batch cook and freeze for later. I find I can recoup the $16 dollar per month subscription fee if I skip eating out just once a month!!” ~ Sara (via email)
- Avoid waste by stocking and using your pantry wisely.
- Take an inventory of what you have on hand — make a menu from that and fill in what you need on your grocery list. Use up those things that are in the pantry taking up space — this will save you money and time if you don't have to make a trip to the store. ~ Sara (via email)
- Stock up. Buy when things are on sale — nonperishables can be kept for months. Keep a stash of the things you use most often and things that are easy to prepare. Keep overflow items that won't fit in your usual place all in one place (garage shelves, basement shelves, laundry room shelves, etc.) and rotate them! (use the oldest first!) ~ Kerith Stull (via email)
- Think about what you're buying. Patis Enriquez shared some really helpful tips via email: “For a long time we had been throwing a lot of leftovers or expired foods in the trash, and it’s really a waste of food and money, so I researched and tried couple of techniques, but there is one that kinda give me ‘lightbulb': I came across Zero Waste Home blog, and their ideas on how to make your life simple, especially with organizing and stocking food pantry and making meals. The main things I learned are:
- Stick to your palate. I gave up experimenting different cuisines or recipes; it makes my pantry chaotic and results in lots of wasted food, goods, and money. Then I made a list of our favorite and preferred meals, (me, son, and hubby) in categories: chicken, fish, beef, pork, veggies, snacks, etc. (It lessened our wasted food 90%.) The main ingredients for the meals on this list became our “staples” in the pantry. I organize our pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, as well as the kitchen, which makes it easier for me to cook.
- PLAN! I plan out meals according to the list we made. Everybody will be happy to eat it because they were involved in making the lists. I plan for our meals to stay good for at least two weeks. We do grocery shopping at least two times per month for small things, especially veggies. I only buy what we need for two weeks so it won’t rot or wilt.”
- Keep your recipes organized. “I have them printed off (or stapled to a sheet of paper) and in a notebook with dividers like a cookbook would be. I also make a note of the date when I last cooked each meal. No more ‘You just cooked this!' or ‘You've never cooked this!' I write comments about whether we liked it, any modifications I made (like grilled it instead of baking it in the oven), and if anyone outside the family shared a meal (avoids cooking the same thing for relatives or friends that I've cooked before).” ~ Kerith Stull (via email)
- Collect recipes that look interesting. “Whenever I run across a recipe I want to try, I save it in a Dropbox folder. I'm certainly not a gourmet cook, so I only like recipes that are VERY basic — not a lot of ingredients or time — and I try to keep it fairly healthy. Once I've tried a recipe, if we didn't like it or it was too much trouble to prepare, I delete it from the Dropbox folder.” ~ Lori Donley of Sorted by Lori (via email)
- Assemble your grocery list using the app for your favorite grocery stores to make your list. “They often let you select your store and then when you add items, it knows where they are and will put them in order of each aisle (and tell you if they are on sale!). The one for my store lets me scan the barcode of whatever is running out to add the exact item I want on the list.” ~ Kerith Stull (via email)
- After shopping, schedule meals for the week based on what's the freshest vegetable you brought home (what's most likely to go bad first). So I use string beans and asparagus before I use cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussel's sprouts. ~ Kerith Stull (via email)
- Be sure you know your family's schedule for the week so you know who will be home and plan meals based on that. For example, if one person is gone and doesn't like something the rest of you do, that's a good night to make it! Also think about which days you will be busy or late so you can plan for something in the crock pot, pull something from the freezer, or do something easy. ~ Kerith Stull (via email)
- “On Saturday mornings, I spend 15 minutes updating my meal planning spreadsheet. I coordinate with my calendar to see when we'll need meals and when we won't (because we're eating out or whatever). As I'm planning, I simply look at a recipes folder I keep in Dropbox and add the ingredients I'll need to my shopping list.” Find more information about My Shopping List app on Lori’s list of recommended apps. ~ Lori Donley of Sorted by Lori (via email)
- Rebecca Cordova says she plans her menus one a week at a time. She sits down Saturday or Sunday and looks at the week to see what might affect meal planning. She makes her menu based on the situations and goes shopping. Breakfasts that can roll over into lunch, including muffins, oatmeal, and bacon. She tries to have meals that can feed into the next to be efficient. She also uses leftovers for meals the next day.
- “I use the Shopping List app. It allows me to set up categories and groups my list into sections of the supermarket. It has all the items I've added previously so I can quickly go through and build my list and then I can go section by section through the supermarket without having to double back (mostly!).” ~ Sarah Ivarsson (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- My personal system for creating grocery lists is using the native Reminder app on my iPhone, which syncs with my iPad and Mac. Whenever I notice we’re running low on something or think of something we need, I either type it into a list I have called “Walmart,” since that’s our closest grocery story, or ask Siri to add to the list.
- “A grocery chain here in the midwest offers online grocery shopping and delivery — I've never tried it but others are raving about the savings of time and money!” ~ Sara (via email)
- “I buy all of our meat, coconut milk and oils online, my husband goes shopping for us to buy the rest after work on Tuesdays when I finish teaching late.” ~ Milena (via email)
- Load digital coupons to either your rewards/loyalty card or to the app for the store AND USE THEM!
- Get in the habit of asking family members the night before you're going to shop what they want in the next week (personally and for meals) so you can plan ahead. Kerith Stull says, “I go on a set day of the week, so my family knows if they don't tell me the night before, they are out of luck until the next week. I only make special trips to the stores in emergencies and they know it.”
- Take the family shopping with you. “I take Jim shopping with me. He meanders through the store picking up whatever looks good to him in that moment, Then we get it all home and he forages through all of the “goodies” he bought for several days. Oh, I have already planned meals and purchased ingredients. But I don't have to stress over fixing anything when he raids the fridge on his own, So we have planned meals maybe 1/3 of the time.” ~ Janet Brown Aist (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- Limit the number of shopping trips. “We do grocery shopping once a month at SAM’S club or wholesale stores for big items and our staple items.” ~ Patis Enriquez (via email)
- “I cut coupons to only to the stuff we prefer to use and eat. I'm not a fan of buying stuff we don’t need just because we save money through couponing.” ~ Patis Enriquez (via email)
- Batch it. “When I was cooking for a house full of family, it helped me if I took one day a month to shop and another day to slice, dice, chop, and cook. This method required a large kitchen workspace and freezer space for a month's worth of pre-assembled dinners.” ~ Tanya D. Oldenburg (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- Shop when the store's lines are shorter. “I like to go early on Saturday mornings when it's virtually empty!) It takes me about 45 minutes to shop + 15 minutes of travel time, so I allot an hour all in.” ~ Lori Donley of Sorted by Lori (via email)
- Chef Allison Schaaf was a guest on episode 73 of The Productive Woman, and offers a service that includes access to gluten free and paleo meal plans for that month plus a bonus super fast plan, a weekly newsletter with bonus recipes & tips, log-in access on PrepDish.com, links to a pre-filled Instacart shopping cart, and access to an online Facebook group for support.
- $14/ month or $99 for a year subscription
- To try a month of PrepDish for $4, visit PrepDish.com/productivewoman.
- 3 options: vegetarian, “classic,” and Family Box with child-friendly menu options
- Hello Fresh chefs, including Jamie Oliver, create recipes, which include vegetarian, classic and child-friendly options.
- Pre-measured ingredients are assembled and sent to you. Delivery is free.
- Chef-created recipes, farm-fresh ingredients from family-run farms, and delivered in refrigerated boxes.
- Available nationwide.
- Two free meals with first order.
- “It is nice because with hubby gone a lot, I don't keep the pantry full. At least three meals a week, done!! The food is good, we do the 2-person meals; it’s always fun to prepare together. … We do it to learn new and better ways of cooking, but most importantly, it's just nice to spend time together making the meals.” ~ Diane Thomas (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- “Great food and two days a week I don't have to even think about what to make!” ~ Coryne Forest (via The Productive Woman Facebook page). Coryne also suggested Home Chef as another meal prep delivery service.
- Meal plans and cooking instructions are provided, including how to use extra ingredients for leftovers or additional meals.
- Downloadable cooking guides; videos, infographics, and cooking lessons.
- Gluten-free, paleo and vegetarian options available.
- The free trial offers three free meal plans.
- “Every Thursday, they send us recipes for the week. You can pick recipes you like, remove recipes you don’t like, and add favorites. They send you a grocery list and a prep-ahead list. It’s only $25 per quarter.” ~ Rochelle Bishop
Prepping and Cooking
- Batch the prep work.
- When Lori Donley comes home from her weekly grocery shopping trip, she spends half an hour putting away the groceries and washing fruits and veggies so they're ready to eat or cook with. Then she spends only about 30-minutes (or less) per day preparing the meals. “I can access my Dropbox folder from my phone so I can pull up the recipe whenever I'm ready to start cooking. I cook a lot of crockpot meals, so I either throw everything in in the morning, or I start meal prep at 5:30 p.m. and have dinner on the table by 6.” ~ Lori Donley of Sorted by Lori
- Patis Enriquez agrees. After a big shopping trip at Sam's Club or a discount wholesaler, she'll take some time cut the meats according to the sizes needed for the dishes she intends to make, then package each recipe's meat into Ziploc bags that she labels with the meal name on it or sometimes the size of the meat (chunks, tidbits…etc.). It’s easier this way than freezing it whole, especially if you only need half of the meat to cook, then you have to deal with thawing, cutting, refreezing and cooking it when the time comes that you are in a hurry or you don’t have time. Patis also says, “Every Sunday I dedicate my time to preparing at least four meals that I can freeze and reheat. It will last us 4-5 days.” The exception, she says, is fish, “because my hubby likes freshly cooked fish. Fish is very easy to prep after work. I just remind myself in the morning, using the Wunderlist app to remove fish from freezer to thaw.” ~ Patis Enriquez (via email)
- Double your recipes. Kerith Stull says, “I make more than we can eat sometimes just to be able to put half in the freezer for when I need a quick and easy meal (just thaw and reheat). Also great for when I'll be gone and someone else is preparing a meal.” ~ Kerith Stull (via email)
- Go for simple meals. “If all else fails for dinner, there's always eggs and toast, pancakes, or grilled cheese and soup. It's not the end of the world to have something simple.” ~ Kerith Stull (via email). Another alternative: “Nowadays I'm only cooking for two, and we mostly eat vegetarian. As in the past, I still find it helpful to have plenty of chopped fruits, veggies, and pre-cooked beans and grains ready for simple low effort meal preparation.” ~ Tanya D. Oldenburg (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
- Post the menus. “I have a DIY menu board that’s our refrigerator. It just basically tells us what we’re having for that day, including breakfast, dinner, and our lunches. I refer to it in the morning so I know what to put on our bags. If in the menu says “sandwich ” I’ll make it in the morning, but other than that, it’s done every Sunday or evenings depending how busy I am, it will be stored in a Ziploc bag, but it’s never or seldom done in the morning.” ~ Patis Enriquez (via email)
- Use your slow cooker. Milena says, “Our most substantial meal of the day is dinner which takes about 15 minutes to prep in the morning as everything gets thrown into the slow-cooker.” You can find photos of Milena's easy-to-put-together meals on Instagram here and here.
- Make foods do double duty. “I prepare our lunch for next day straight after dinner while my hubby's washing up. I put all the components into a container with compartments so that he can take it out of the fridge before he goes to the office and I have my lunch ready for me to have in between teaching my Pilates students. (Instagram photo of Milena's tasty lunch) For snacks during the day we have nuts, avocados, or chocolate, which is super-easy to make at the same time as I'm prepping dinner (photos of Milena's favorite snacks here and here). For breakfast we have tinned sardines, eggs, or a chia seed pudding that I make by blending chia seeds with some coconut milk and leaving it in the fridge to gel overnight.” ~ Milena (via email)
- Share the cooking. One of the young associates at my firm says some of her colleagues share a subscription service, divvy up the food and the cooking responsibilities. You could do something similar with families. E.g., plan a month’s worth of menus, divide them up, each cook enough for both/all families, meet to divvy up the prepared meals. “When my children were young I got organized with some other moms. We would each make several of one kind of freezer casserole, meet up in the Walmart parking lot and exchange casseroles. We each went home with several unique pre-assembled freezer dinners.” ~ Tanya D. Oldenburg (via The Productive Woman Facebook page)
What Do You Think?
What was helpful for you? Did we miss any tips for shopping, prepping, and cooking meals? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this episode. Please feel free to ask your questions or share your thoughts with me by emailing me, commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment below.
Reminders and Notices
- I’m so grateful to listeners who nominated The Productive Woman for the 2016 People’s Choice Podcast Awards. Voting can be done daily at PodcastAwards.com and more information and recommendations can be found at noodle.mx/podcastawards.
- I was honored to be featured recently in the Pure Flix Insider Expert Interview Series, talking about why it's important for busy women (and their families) to find time to wind down and relax.
- Special thank you to the sponsor of this episode, FreshBooks. Don’t miss out on the free 30-day unrestricted trial of their awesome service by going to FreshBooks.com/WOMAN, and enter WOMAN in the “How did you hear about us?” section.
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