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This week I received a question from Amanda. She writes:
I just finished reading Nourishing Traditions and feel pretty swayed by the evidence for the benefit of this type of diet. I am just left thinking that this type of cooking is only feasible for families with a stay at home parent, so I am hesitant to even try. Even with your menu planner, it seems completely unachievable. Is this community entirely populated by families with a stay at home parent, or do people have success even with two working parents?
Amanda, I think I can speak to that. I believe that there are many people interested in real foods but they’re in a time crunch due to work, illness in the family, an elderly parent, a special needs child or something else that consumes large amounts of their time. No matter the reason for the time crunch, there are things you can do to help.
Let me give you a better idea about my schedule. My husband works full-time plus a considerable commute each day, leaving him little time to help in the kitchen except on weekends. I am a work-at-home mom (WAHM). My job is normally 35-40 hours a week or more in front of the computer or doing other administrative tasks such as paperwork and filing, in addition to the time spent in the kitchen developing and testing recipes, filming and the like for the Menu Mailer and the Real Food Cooking School. That can take 20 hours a week. Therefore, I routinely work 60 hours a week or more, six days a week. So while I am at home to do my job, that doesn’t mean I’m available to hop into the kitchen all the time. And sometimes when I’m filming, I’m not turning out finished dishes, instead I’m turning out ingredients or parts and pieces, so when filming is done, I still have to cook dinner! I definitely have a time crunch going on.
The biggest thing that has kept me on track is to keep myself from having to think. Instead, I plan, organize and write it all down. I keep lists so I don’t forget anything and nothing falls through the cracks. I don’t have to think, I just have to follow the list when the time comes. That also clears up mental space so I’m not constantly feeling like I need to remember everything. I can just concentrate on the task at hand.
The only way I’m able to do the job that I do and feed real food to my family is due to organization and planning. I plan all meals at least 48 hours in advance to ensure I have enough time to soak, thaw or do whatever else I need to do. I prefer to plan a week at a time. Once the meals are planned, I write out what I need to do and when, so I don’t forget anything. Yes, things like the Menu Mailer will definitely help to keep you from having to spend a few hours each week planning, giving you more time in the kitchen.
I also do preparation after grocery shopping. I cut up any needed veggies, make sauces, soak and cook grains, whatever I can do ahead that saves time during the week. Package everything up and stash it in the fridge or freezer so you have it at the ready when you need it. The Menu Mailer has a section of post-shopping planning to tell you what you can do head, on a weekend, to cut down on kitchen time during the week.
I do very simple breakfasts and lunches, and they’re on a set rotation. I don’t have to plan those. Half of the time, lunch is leftovers from dinner the night before so I don’t have to worry about it. I leave one morning open each week, usually Saturday, to try a new dish if I want to. I do have a couple of very simple meal plans that only require thawing that I keep on reserve for times when things go nuts and I have little time to get meals on the table. I recommend you make up a meal plan or two that are meals that require 20 minutes or less of hands-on time with no other advance prep other than thawing meat to have for those crazy weeks.
I also believe it’s important to simplify as much as possible. Keep meals to 30 minutes or less of hands-on time on the days that you work and leave the fancy stuff to the days you’re off and feel like getting in the kitchen. Cooking ahead was also a major time-saver for me. Batch cooking side dishes, main dishes, whatever you need and freeze them so you have extra meals on hand that are heat and eat. I normally batch cook on my day off. When I batch cook for a busy period, I will rotate through two or three meals for dinner each night so the kids don’t complain after having the same meal multiple nights in a row.
I learned to clean as I go. I start cooking with an unloaded dishwasher and load as I use things, so I don’t have a dirty kitchen facing me when we’re done eating and I’d like to relax. I try to touch things only once. Handling them to put them into the sink then having to handle them again to load the dishwasher meant I was wasting time with dirty dishes, and they also contributed to the visual clutter, which really bothers me. I trained my kids to scrape their plates and put their own dishes into the dishwasher after a meal or directly into the dishwasher if they’re helping prepare the meal. My daughter and I alternate after-meal put-away and clean-up, and soon my son will be old enough to help out, too.
I also learned to make wise purchases. Instead of making some things from scratch, I sometimes purchase them instead. For example, I sometimes purchase coconut milk instead of making it from scratch. Tomato paste, too. And now that I’ve said that, I’m hearing gasps of horror from some readers. Why do I do it? It’s less expensive for me to purchase these items rather than make them, so I go ahead when the time is more important that the money. I purchase BPA-free cans of coconut milk and the tomato paste comes in glass jars. I’m fine with these choices, even though some people would be shocked to hear that are real food blogger doesn’t make her own everything from scratch 100% of the time. I just don’t have the time all of the time, and when I do have time I consider things like making stock and preparing liver to go into our ground meat dishes more important than the occasional can of coconut milk. When I do have time, I make it from scratch.
I’ve also gotten my kids involved. If they’re old enough, having them help in the kitchen can be some quality family time while they learn necessary life skills. If nothing else, they do schoolwork at the bar while I cook.
Finally, I learned to do what I can with what I have, where I am. I learned to not beat myself up over less-than-perfect meals, because the stress was likely more detrimental than the non-organic veggies were!
My good friend, Millie Cooper from Real Food for Less Money, was also a work outside of the home mom (WOHM) and is currently a WAHM. I asked Millie if she had any advice for you. Here’s what she said:
Over the weekend I plan the menu for the following week and do any needed shopping. During the work week I keep our meals extremely simple. If we are going to have something fancy it is saved for the weekend when I have more time. During the work week my goal is to have supper on the table no more than 30 minutes after arriving home.
After the menu plan and shopping are completed I then take an hour or two to do any prep needed for the week. This could include making bread, making items for breakfast that only need a quick reheat (or can be served cold), cooking vegetables (for reheating with healthy fat later), and any other things that can help with the supper time crunch. I rely heavily on a crock pot. If I’m going to do a stew in the crock pot I’ll cut and prep as many of the ingredients as possible in the evening and then put it all in the crock pot in the morning, turn it on and have dinner ready when the day is done.
I keep ingredients on hand for quick meals for when my plans fall apart. Already cooked beans, meat and tortillas are kept in the freezer. I also keep ingredients to make a quick dishes like a homemade Pad Thai style dish (rice noodles, Pad Thai sauce that have ingredients we’re okay with, scrambled eggs, cabbage, carrots). Eggs in Marinara and Emergency Goulash are two more favorite quick dishes.
Millie blogged a series about WOHMing. Click here to read it.
Amanda, I hope this is a help to you. I believe real food does take more fore-thought for women who work outside of the home, but it is quite doable.
Readers, It’s Your Turn
If you live in a situation that causes a time crunch, how do you make real food doable for your family? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or you can submit a guest post for publication.