This Family Has a Brilliant Hack for Coping With Dinnertime Craziness

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© Rachael. Rachael

It involves a curious inversion of the usual order of things.

Welcome to the latest update in TreeHugger's series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly.

Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules. It's a feat worthy of more praise than it commonly gets, which is why we want to highlight it – and hopefully learn from it in the process. This week you will meet Rachael, a busy working mom of two who's expecting a third shortly. Her interview reveals a prepping hack we've never heard of before, but love for its brilliance – cooking each meal the night before so you don't have hungry kids waiting for the food to be served.

Names: Rachael (34), husband Jonathan (34), daughters E. (6) and H. (2)

Location: Calgary, Alberta

Employment status: Rachael is a full-time accountant. Jonathan is a full-time engineer.

Weekly food budget: CAD$260+ (US$195)

Rachael's family

© Rachael & family

1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

Some form of Asian (Buddha) bowl, curry, and salad

2. How would you describe your diet?

We are strictly vegetarian with most meals being vegan. We still eat eggs and dairy in our diet, but not as part of our main dinners.

3. How often do you shop for groceries and what do you always buy?

We do one big weekly shop with a smaller secondary shop later in the week if fresh items are needed, like bread. Once a month, Jonathan or I will do a large bulk grocery run to stock up on the non-perishable staples that we are running low on. We also stock up on perishable items such as bagels and breads that we freeze. We eat a lot of beans, lentils, and fresh produce. Every week we stock up on fruit and salad basics. We always keep a fully stocked cellar with dry pastas and grains, nearly every form of dal, seaweeds, dried mushrooms, nuts, canned beans, and stewed tomatoes.

4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

After completing the weekly meal plan on Saturday night or Sunday morning, usually I head to the store to get the entire grocery list. I try to keep it to one store but if necessary I will go to multiple stores to complete the list.

Rachael's pantry

© Rachael – A view of the pantry

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

We create a weekly meal plan every weekend. We generally only plan out 6 of 7 days so that we have a catch up day if there are extra leftovers. We do stick quite closely to the plan, as each day's meals are chosen specifically for that day.

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

We spend 10 to 15 minutes warming or finishing the current day's meal and then 30-45 minute prepping the next day's meal.

7. How do you handle leftovers?

Leftovers are used as lunch for the next day. If there is further surplus beyond lunch, they may be eaten on a catch up day that week or frozen for another week.

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

Most weeks we eat 100% of dinners at home. On weekends we may go out for the occasional lunch and maybe once every two months we’ll order pizza.

vegetarian cookbooks

© Rachael – Cookbooks and meal planning in action

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and family?

I hate waste! I try to eliminate or reduce wasted food by planning our meals and buying perishable groceries according to the plan. If there is excess, I will put off making new meals until the old food is used. I will also sometimes add a meal to the weekly plan that is a “pantry meal”, meaning it’s made almost entirely out of pantry items, so that if we have to skip a meal there won’t be any produce going to waste. Chili is a good example: canned beans, stewed tomatoes, onions and carrots. Nothing that can be saved for another week. I like to stick to a plan but have to be able to react to changes as they happen.

The biggest challenge we face, though, is cost. We spend what seems like an astronomical amount of money on food every month. I love to cook and want to try new foods which, for us, generally involves a LOT of fresh produce, a big spice cupboard, and a fully stocked cold cellar.

10. Any final thoughts?

We started meal planning when Jonathan and I first moved in together, so that the first person home from work could get started making dinner. It served the purpose of saving us time each day and cutting down the number of times per week we went to the store. Over the last 11 years the meal plan has become a survival tool.

Each week I try to get the girls involved in planning the meals. This way they have a say in what we eat each week and become more interested in cooking. We like to try new foods, so weekends are usually for trying out new recipes that may be more time-consuming, as well as getting the kids involved in making weekly staples like a big batch of hummus or homemade perogies for the freezer.

Meals are chosen for each day based on how fast dinner needs to be ready. Tuesdays require a quick turnaround from getting home to dropping E. off at Sparks, so we need a soup or curry that’s already made and just needs to be warmed. I am not a big fan of making mass meals in bulk because I like a lot to use as much fresh produce as possible, and making things too far in advance can make things a bit drab. I have adopted a pattern of making the next day's dinner the night before. This can either be making a curry, soup, or sauce fully and reheating it the next day; for fresh meals like stir-fry or salad, it means chopping the vegetables and making a dressing. This means we eat shortly after getting home and do not need to give the kids a snack to get them through until dinner.

I like to believe that keeping food fresh and flavourful, and including the kids in the whole process, has made them the amazing adventurous eaters that they are. Planning and prepping our meals this way has also allowed me to still enjoy the process when working full-time. Food is not just a means of taking in energy and nutrients. It is an art form to be appreciated and a doorway to adventure.

To read more stories in this series, see How to feed a family