Thursday, February 25, 2016

10 Hacks to Get Dinner on the Table More Often

Did you know that before they were called "life hacks" they were called "tips and hints" as in "Hints from Heloise" who had all kinds of solutions to a housekeeper's problems. So while they aren't new, and many are simply common sense, they can be life-changing and obvious at the same time!

When people feel like they can't get a meal on at home and have to eat out, take out, or order in, I think they don't realize how simple a meal can be from coming up with an idea to getting it on the table. So here are some of the Cooking Hacks I've used over the years to get meals cranked out for my family of six plus many others who have joined us around the table.

  • Come up with twelve go-to meals that everyone, including the cook, likes. Even if this were all you ate, this would probably be two weeks of meals after you include one meal out or off the list per week. These should be meals that you usually have the ingredients on hand for or can get at your regular grocery store, meals that don't take too much work or time to get together, and that the family enjoys eating.
  • Three to five of these meals should have 10 ingredients or less making them even quicker and easier to put together. If they are one dish (stove top, oven, or slow-cooker) there's the added bonus of a quick clean up! If you know you can get dinner on the table without too much work, you are more likely to make it.
  • Two or three of your go-to meals should take approximately 30 minutes or less. Pancakes or eggs easily fall into that category. Cookbooks and magazines are full of recipes that have this claim. Most of them mean 30 minutes from the time you have all the ingredients chopped, diced, and measured, but there are some that are truly quick.
  • Make planned leftovers. Cook more than your family will need to eat with the idea that the extra meat, pasta, or sauce can be turned into something different in a night or two. Then you have a meal almost ready to go!
  • Pace your learning. Don't plan a new recipe every night for a week. There's bound to be ingredients you don't know what to do with and have to research, time adjustments, unforeseen or frustrating directions. Try only one new recipe per week, maybe every other week, and keep a list of meals you like--even more than the basic twelve to make.
  • Batch roast vegetables. I love oven roasted vegetables. And I found out you can roast root vegetables (as well as others) in large batches ahead of time and refrigerate them. Once they are cooled, they keep for about a week in the fridge and can easily be reheated in the oven or microwave as a side dish. They can be added to soups, grains, salads, or mashed into spreads. And they are good for you! 
  • And speaking of roasting, use parchment, cooking bags, or foil inside pans. This saves on clean-up so much, it is worth the few extra cents it costs! (Wish I'd known this trick, excuse me, hack sooner!)
  • Keep your pantry stocked. If you have all the non-perishables on hand that you need for at least your go-to meals, you are more likely to make them. More than one family meal has been lost for want of some ginger.
  • Freezer food counts. Whether it is a frozen pizza, ravioli, or a stir-fry, just because you pulled it out of the freezer and basically only reheated it doesn't mean you didn't cook. If everyone is sitting at the table together and you are all eating, call it dinner!
  • Use Pinterest. Most of the recipes I use now are pinned to one of my Pinterest boards. Even when I have a recipe from some other source, I've searched for it online and pinned it. That way I have my recipes available anywhere I'm online and can organize them for the way I cook. I still love cookbooks, but I have books that have hundreds of recipes from which I use exactly one.
  • Make a menu. This way you know what you need to buy, what you need to thaw, and what you are going to make tomorrow so you don't have to rack your brain. Remember though, it's not an iron-clad contract. You can change and rearrange it as is best for you (or you get a craving for something else!)
  • Make a master shopping list. I set mine up in the order I go through the store so I'm less likely to forget things. (Notice I didn't say, "So I won't...") It takes a while to get it right when the store reorganizes, but my master list helps me remember the things I usually want but weren't on a recipe ingredient list or I forgot to add them to my "I ran out of" list.
  • Get everyone to help with the planning, preparing, chopping, measuring, frying, setting, and clean-up. It's not only a great way to spend time together, but it makes it more fun and less work.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Dollar Store -- A Grandma's Friend!

I got to see my three out-of-town grandkids twice recently and both times I had time to prepare with a browsing trip to the dollar store! What a lot of fun to wander those aisles and come up with things to do with my grandchildren, especially the three and four year olds!

Here are a few of the items I've found that we've had a great time with:

  1. Glow stick bracelets--When they visit me, they usually sleep in our room, one on an air mattress at the foot of our bed and the other on an air mattress in the walk in closet. It's dark and it's a different place, so this time when they came I had glow stick bracelets for them to hold and play with at night as they went to sleep. They were with us three nights and by the third night they asked for their glow sticks. Since a pack of eight is only a dollar, that's a fun night light.
  2.  Doggy toys--Their aunt and uncle who live in our town have a dog they bring over to visit. I was surprised by the nice dog toys I found for just a dollar. That gave them something to do besides chasing the dog inside my house!
  3.  Chalkboards and Whiteboards--I found sticker chalkboards that I stuck onto pieces of sturdy cardboard for them to write on. A little damp rag served to erase so they could write and draw again!
  4.  Dishes--There are all kinds of dishes at the dollar store and they fun to use for different events. Plus, if something did happen to one of them, there's no worry, it's not an expensive heirloom.
  5.  Cooking Utensils--From measuring cups to pastry brushes to spatulas there are all kinds of fun brightly colored cooking utensils for real or pretend cooking at Grandma's house!
  6.  Aprons--When my grandkids help me in the kitchen they know where their apron is on the hook. One for him and one for her, they like to put them on and pour, measure, and stir.
  7.  Baking Mixes--I found baking mixes for muffins and other goodies that still required some measuring of water and oil and breaking of eggs as well as spooning into muffin tins. It made baking with Grandma easy and fun for all of us.
  8.  "Magic" Rags--When it came time to clean up, we put our mystifying cubes in water and watched them grow and turn into full size wash cloths! That made clean up fun too.
  9.  Simple Crafts--There are often seasonal crafts available that even very young children can do as well as beads and slightly more complicated ones that we'll try in the future.
  10.  Stickers--There are stickers for teachers and seasonal stickers as well. They are always fun to peel off and put on paper to make a picture. Older children can be challenged to create a scene and color in a background.
  11.  Seasonal Decorations--Last fall I found some scarecrows on sticks to put in potted plants, two for a dollar. We had a great time playing "Hide and Seek Scarecrows." First they counted while I hid the scarecrows in the ground more or less in plain sight. Then they ran and found them. Then they took turns hiding them. We progressed to places that required more searching and more running (sneaking in some exercise there!) When we came in, they continued the game. After they left, the dog came for a visit and "found" them hiding under the couch.
  12.  Dress up--I found all kinds of items for dress up: sunglasses, hair pieces, beads, aprons, and--if you are brave--make up! 
  13.  Balls--I found a soft, small ball that was a globe for the almost-one-year-old. He surprised me by being able to throw it and "catch" it when he sat with his legs wide open. I also pointed out to the bigger kids where we live and where Grandpa was (on the other side of the world!)
  14. Streamers--We taped the streamers to long Tinker Toys and waved them around and around while walking in place. Grandma got some steps in and the kids did too along with following directions and having fun!
  15. Balloons--everyone knows balloons are great for all kinds of activities. We taped paper plates to paint stirrers and then batted balloons back and forth inside the house.
Can't wait for our next visit to see what else I can come up with!

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