10 Time-Saving food tips for parents (and just about everybody else)

May 12, 2010


Ever feel like your whole life was ruled by one of these? Photo by wwarby.

This week’s parenting topic is actually not a parenting topic. OK, some of it is, but if you don’t have kids, be sure to skim this article before you decide to ignore it, because five minutes right now could save you days over the course of the year!

As many of you know, we don’t have any children at StayingVegan HQ (we rely on the advice from the Council of Vegan Parents, who are amazing,) but we’ve got one on the way really really soon. As part of our preparations, we attended some classes, and at the last one they went over how much time we’d likely be spending each day on baby care between feedings, diaper changes, etc. The number of hours per day was… well, the room had a certain stunned silence to it at the end. 🙂

With that in mind (firmly in mind!), I thought it’d be a good topic to ask the Council for their number one time saving tactic, but to tie it back to veganism, I wanted tricks to save time cooking for the family. Even if you’re breastfeeding, how can you and/or your partner make time to make meals that keep you going, and if you’ve got older kids, how are you keeping everyone fed and still sleeping those essential two point six hours per night?

The range of responses we received was astounding, and once again, most of these things are things you can do right now, even if you don’t have kids, so check it out!

1) Freezer 101

This was the one that I specifically said not to submit, not because it was a bad idea, but because it was too obvious and I wanted deeper answers. Plus I wanted to claim that one 🙂

Even so, many parents wrote in with variations on the theme that are worth noting, both here and as part of the other tips below. At the simplest, when you make any meal, make it really big, and freeze the rest. I like this better than having leftovers for two or three days, because it staves off boredom, and also because it’ll “bank” meals for the times when you’re really too tired to make anything.

Lisa pointed out that you can take this beyond leftovers and easily freeze anything that’s about to go bad in your fridge, including ends of tofu and herbs, both of which can later be thrown into stews.

Kim also bakes tons of muffins in advance and freezes what she can’t use right away – you can check out one of her recipes here.

2) Plan out your meals

Kimberly and Amy are both big fans of meal planning. You don’t need to write down every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the month, but just picking out the dinners for the week can make for one less thing to have to worry about each day, and it will save time both in the kitchen (wondering what to do) and in the grocery store, where you’ll know what you need ahead of time.

Sure, planning takes the spontaneity out of things, but think of it this way: it’ll make time for the other spontaneous stuff that pops up through the week!

3) Wear the baby

OK, fair enough, this one’s for parents only, but Julie found baby carriers, wraps, slings, and what have you a lifesaver for food preparation, keeping the baby close by (and thus calm and happy) while leaving you the use of both hands.

Of course, this only works for most, but not all kitchen activities – if you’re frying with hot oil, for instance, it might not be the best time to innovate with efficiency.

4) Make breakfast smooth

Kimberly has no troubles getting breakfast out of the way for her family – they all drink nutrient-rich smoothies! This is a great time saver, and I’ve used it a lot in the past where I had to go to work and would have skipped breakfast otherwise.

5) Co-sleeping

Kristie and Julie both advocate co-sleeping, which is the fancy word for bringing the baby to bed with you. It’s a great way to reconnect after a hectic day and many parents find it makes nursing easier, which means more sleep for you, and spending time on sleep can often save way more time in the long run!

This is something Angela and I are looking forward to trying. Among the many yet-to-be-assembled items here is an Arm’s Reach Clearvue Co-Sleeper, which will (we hope) act as an extension to the bed to give that extra room and reduce anxiety about any issues with tossing and turning.

6) Make meals in steps

Sarah, Amy, and Kristie all follow a variety of staged meal preparation plans, where the final dish won’t be ready for a few days. Those recipes in Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s cookbooks that have sub-recipes for various parts? Make those a day or two before. Amy makes sauces and spice packets on the weekend when there’s a little more time, so everything can be quickly added to the dishes during the week.

This can extend to pre-washing vegetables when you get home from the store, which we talked about in our How To Eat More Raw Fruits and Vegetables tip.

7) Make food a family event

More people on a task means more overall hours spent, but somehow this seems to work: include your family in the food process, from shopping to cooking. Julie says this turns the trips to the farmer’s market into more of a field trip than a chore, and as a bonus, kids tend to be more interested in eating things that they helped make, which can save time during the “eating” part that most time saving guides overlook.

8 ) Embrace one-pot meals

Sure, it’s fewer dishes to wash, but it’s also fewer precisely-timed steps that various interruptions can, well, interrupt. Not that distractions ever take place in a young family’s household, or so I am assured by my friends with kids who never quite forgave me for buying them that drum set… But I digress. To get you started, Meredith sent a link to a pineapple black bean rice dish that has fruit, vegetable, bean and grain in it and only takes 30 minutes to put together.

9) Redefine “meal”

There’s settling for substandard food, and then there’s recognizing that there’s a fair bit of wiggle room in what constitutes a meal. As Julie’s doula instructor said, “if it covers two food groups, it’s a meal.” That would include cereal and soy milk, even if it’s for dinner, and you can always make a “real” dinner for yourselves once the kids are in bed.

10) Get the Gear

You don’t have to invest in any tools to make your life easier, but be aware that there are gadgets out there that really make a difference – we were talking about this just this weekend when Angela’s mom made coleslaw with the food processor’s shredding disc, for example. Here’s what some Council members recommend:

Amy says that the Magic Bullet is a “lifesaver. Easy to use, easy to clean and purées food well.” We have one up at the cottage where facilities are more limited, and I’d totally agree – it’s one of those infomercial things that actually come close to the promise, from what I’ve seen.

Kristie recommends both a slow cooker and a pressure cooker, which can really help out, but in different ways. The slow cooker can be loaded up the night before or in the morning for a super-easy stew, and the pressure cooker can turn dried beans into meals in no time flat – you can see our video of how to do that here.

Rebecca says that the Oxo Good Grips Apple Corer and Divider is “a surprising time saver when we’ve got to be in the car and driving to preschool five minutes ago and we have to take a snack and are out of bananas.”

Lastly, we’ve used a Vita-Mix for around 12 years now, and it’s a little pricier than the other suggestions, but it’s hands down the best time saver we’ve got in our kitchen, from operation (dump stuff in and turn it on) to cleanup (usually we just rinse it out.) You can use this link to learn more, and it’ll also get you free shipping if you buy through it.

[we believe in everything we just said, but FYI links to the products above may be affiliate links, for which we’ll earn commissions to help pay our bills if you purchase through them.]

11) You tell us!

What have you done in your kitchen, whether you have kids or not, that’s shaved off precious minutes? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to Kimberly, Julie, Lisa, Amy, Kristie, Sarah, Kim, and Rebecca for their help with this one!

(Photo by wwarby)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin May 12, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Darn it! I wrote an email with many of these tips and then saved it as a draft and never sent it. That’s the life of a mom.
My biggest tips were mentioned here: making food in little stages and one pot wonders. The stages thing was essential when my daughter was younger (says the mom of a very grown up nine month old). She didn’t nap for more than 15 minutes and nursed every 20 minutes or so when she was awake. One day my husband asked me how I ate, and I explained that every meal was just made in 5 minute incriments. I still made great things, just in easy steps. One a baby is older, you can wear her on your back for that pesky hot pan situation.
My one pot wonder meal is just to take whatever bits of veggies I have left over from other meal (broccoli stems, half a zucchini from tofu scramble, two mushrooms, etc- literally scraps) and sautte them with a bit of oil and garic and ideally a Field Roast Sausage because I love it, then mix it brown rice and let it coat with oil before covering with water (I don’t even measure, just make sure the rice is covered with some extra to spare) and cover the pot and set it to medium low for about 40 minutes. When it’s done, I stir in some nutritional yeast and a fresh tomato if I have it. Yummy and easy. It also works with veggies I have frozen.
Freezing is so great, I just have to agree with that.

Co-sleeping is the only way I got any sleep, and honestly I slept very well for the first few months. At 6 months, my daughter let me know she was ready to sleep on her own, and now I can’t get her to take a nap with me. Those were the good old days.

Jason May 12, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Thanks Erin, it’s never too late! 🙂 It’s actually even more helpful to have this stuff validated after it’s posted with real-world feedback!

Lisa May 13, 2010 at 3:25 am

I completely agree with Erin! I was a single parent with my baby, and that was definitely the only way of doing things!
On the freezer front, I think the idea of making vats of versatile, nutrient dense meal components during the week for use in several entirely different meals, and then stocking the freezer with 1/2 of it is very useful.
I’ve always got hidden vegetable tomato sauce (some of it in tiny pots for instant toddler meals), nut roast made with seeds and veg (great for burgers, sandwiches, trad english meals or just to munch:), chickpeas for hummous and cooking, beans, savoury and sweet scones (great toddler snacks) and pesto blobs with nutritional yeast, miso, sunflower seeds and herbs.
They’re time saving because you can use them in so many different ways to create almost instant dinners, or just to perk up boring knocked together meals and add valuable nutrients (a dollop of pesto will perk most things up!)

Sling wise, front carriers are great until they start getting a little more active with their hands! Mine was making biscuits with me when she was a few months old. They’re absolutely wonderful.

And co-sleeping doesn’t work for everyone, my daughter doesn’t like the stimulation of having someone next to her, it actually keeps her awake (this took me months and months to understand, and our sleep problems were resolved overnight!) They’re all different! :0)

Tikka Smiley May 15, 2010 at 9:24 am

The greatest meal-prep saver for me is undoubtably my slow-cooker. With a 2 1/2 year old running around and a 7 month old baby playing in her excersaucer, I need only 5 minutes to open up a can of coconut milk, a box of veggie stock, 1 cup of uncooked rice brown and a heaping spoonful of thai curry powder and turn my slow cooker on low for 8 hours. When I have a minute or 2 a few hours later, I’ll stir in some chopped veggies (usually defrosted frozen ones – I rarely have time to chop veg with a big knife…) and either a can of chickpeas or sliced tofu. And the slow cooker keeps my scrumptious curry hot and ready for my whole family and our staggered eating schedules.
I’m also a huge fan of baby wearing and co-sleeping. In fact, I slept in an upright position with my daughters in my Cuddly Wrap for the first 4 months of each of their lives. My older duaghter was born 7 weeks premature, so I did everything I could to simulate being in my womb by wearing her almost 24 hours a day – I could even tap dance with her on! The intimacy of baby-wearing is incomparable and I loved the security of knowing exactly how my babies were doing at any time.
I wish you many joyous times with your little-one-to-be!

treaclemine June 2, 2010 at 11:01 am

Sprouts! Always have some mung beans sprouting in the sprouter … use the rinsing water to water your house/tub plants 🙂

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