Getting Dinner on the Table: Not A Zero-Yum Game

Anyone who is charged with getting family dinner (on a regular basis) on the table can confirm: the whole ritual can be quite draining, particularly when compounded with the everyday duties required of caregivers. There’s good news, though: as with many things in life, a little advance planning can really ease the burden and struggle of dinner preparation. Here are a few tips:

Plan Ahead
Lifestyle gurus of all stripes like to extol the virtues of advance planning and preparation, but this advice bears emphasizing here, because planning ahead really works: it gives you a roadmap to guide your weekly shopping trips and can help you stay within budget, because you’ll be more likely to shop efficiently and with intention, and less apt to buy unnecessary ingredients (that will probably languish in your fridge) and less likely to call the pizza guy. In order to execute your meal plan smoothly, you’ll need to sit down one day each week and write out the next six to seven nights of dinners. Technology can really be a help in your planning and deployment effortsPinterest is a strongly visual app that can give you great dinner ideas, and can also help you easily organize a week’s worth of recipes (or a month’s worth!).

Choose recipes with similar ingredients to minimize waste
You may remember this tip from Home Ec 101, and balk at the memory of your nearly inedible attempts at some variation on ground beef surprise (meatloaf, chili, hamburger casserole…oh my!). Worry not, with the help of the Internet, you can make a week of meals that actually taste great and minimize waste. Start by identifying a list of pantry staples that are long-lasting and will serve as components to many different dishes. Staples include bags of rice, dried pasta, spices, low-sodium bouillon, mayonnaise, frozen mixed vegetables, canned and dried beans, olive oil, vinegar, etc. Once you’ve verified that you’re well-stocked in the essentials, you can choose a lineup of meals that pivot on similar ingredients, like chicken thighs, sweet potatoes, fish, pork chops, broccoli, and other nutritious fresh foods. You’d be amazed by the variety of meals you can create with a basic list of similar ingredients, and you’ll save time and minimize food waste. Budget Bytes is a fantastic resource that can serve as a crash-course in this kind of meal planning, with delicious and economical recipes to help you get started.

Use your crockpot to save time
Here’s the thing about getting dinner on the table every night — you don’t have to actually cook every night. There are crockpot cookbooks out there for almost every conceivable kind of diet, and most can be easily scaled up or down to suit the size of your family. Crockpot leftovers generally freeze very well (make sure you have freezer bags on hand, to cut down on possible freezer burn), and you can repurpose Monday’s crockpot meal later in the week. Here are a few slow-cooker recipes to try out: Chicken and Pasta SoupRoot Beer Pulled Pork, and Split Pea Smoked Turkey Soup, to name just a few of many recipes you can try out.

Note: In theory, frozen leftovers can last several months, but in order to avoid freezer burn and degraded taste and texture of your frozen meals, it’s best to eat freezer leftovers within a few weeks.

Get those groceries to your door
Shopping for ingredients is one of more onerous elements of cooking dinner on a regular basis. Consider all the steps involved: making a list, checking to make sure you have your wallet and reusable shopping bags, fighting traffic to the store, wandering the aisles, queueing up in the sprawling checkout line, schlepping grocery bags to and from your car… and what to do with Mom or Dad while you’re out? Grocery delivery services are abundant, and a boon to the busy caregiver — with proper planning, you’ll only need to use grocery delivery once or twice a week, and despite delivery fees and minimum purchase requirements, delivery can be cost effective when you factor in your time and fuel savings. A few services to look into: Google Shopping Express, InstacartWalmart Grocery, and Amazon Fresh. If none of these services are available in your area, many grocery stores offer delivery and a little research will help you find the best fit for your lifestyle and location.

Cut yourself some slack
Dinner isn’t a zero-sum game, and you’ll minimize your own stress if you can keep this in mind. It’s OK if every meal doesn’t work out as you’d pictured it, so accept this in advance. You can try again tomorrow!

Read More: Organizational Tools for Caregivers

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