Getting Dinner on the Table
the Same Day You Homeschool
By Vicki Bentley
HSLDA Early Years Coordinator
A recent survey of National Merit scholars of the past 20 years revealed that one common denominator, without exception, was that they came from households who made family dinnertime (as in, all at the table at the same time!) a priority, even if just a three nights a week. “But,” you think, “our family is pulled in so many directions—how can we all eat together?” Or, as a busy homeschool mom, you wonder how you can clear the books off the dining table and get something more substantial than ramen noodles or Cheerios on the table in a timely manner and still have the energy to eat it!
If you can get supper on the table in 20–30 minutes, you are more likely to eat together and chat a bit before you divide and conquer for the evening! Here are some ideas for do-ahead meal preparation that can greatly reduce your time in the kitchen—and even the food prep can be family time, if you work together.
Earlier in the week, when you can carve out an hour or two:
- Cook a huge pot of rice and put the leftovers in zipper-seal bags in the freezer. Gently flatten the sealed bags of rice when you put them in the freezer and they will thaw faster. This is a great way to have brown rice on hand quickly in spite of a longer cooking time. Rice freezes and thaws fine; it can be thawed and warmed in the microwave, or just add it frozen to soups. By the way, brown rice has a much higher nutritional value, but if your family insists on white rice, then parboiled or converted rice is the next healthiest choice. Brown rice cooks in just 20 minutes in a pressure cooker, while parboiled takes only seven.
- Put a large pot on the stove full of water, onions, carrots, vegetable trimmings, etc. and several cut-up chickens or parts. Simmer covered for an hour (while you cook rice and chop veggies), then debone chicken, tear or chop into bite-sized pieces, and pop into zipper-seal freezer bags for future meals. Strain broth and refrigerate in jars overnight to harden any fat (remove fat before moving jars to freezer; leave headspace for expansion). You can also use a few jars’ worth of broth that same evening to make chicken soup after that tough grocery trip.
- Speaking of chicken: When I use boneless skinless breasts, I slice each horizontally into two thinner slices (be careful of the palm of your hand). Because I keep the width, they still look like full-sized portions, but I can feed eight people from one four-pack of breast halves, and they cook much faster because they’re thinner. It really is plenty of meat.
- The smaller you chop your meat, the farther you can stretch it. Instead of chopping chicken for enchiladas, I mince the same amount of chicken and can get at least five more enchiladas out of it.
- While you’ve got the chopper or food processor out, chop several onions or bell peppers and freeze, or a whole bag of nuts or shred several pounds of cheese or whatever. Next time, the chopping will already be done. If you plan to use them within the week, shred carrots now, too, and store in the fridge for salads and casseroles.
- Chop hard-cooked eggs, shred cheese and carrots, etc. to have on hand for salad toppings for the week.
- If you make doubles (casseroles or entrees) every day for a week, you’ll have seven extra meals in the freezer at the end of the week. Or freeze casserole leftovers in meal-sized portions and Dad can grab lunch out of the freezer on his way out in the morning, to thaw in time for lunch.
- Freeze spaghetti sauce in zipper seal bags and lay them out on cookie sheets to freeze (even leftover “jar” sauce can be frozen like this). Because they are frozen “thin,” they freeze and thaw more quickly. Same principle applies to anything I freeze—thin equals quick-thaw!
- We are also big fans of “make a mix” cooking to make soup mixes, brownie mixes, pie crust mixes, dressing mixes, etc. so we’ll have our own homemade “convenience” foods.
- Homemade breads can be made and frozen. I try to make time once a week to bake six loaves of bread (that’s all that fit in my oven) and put them in the freezer in heavy plastic bags. When we want a loaf of bread (or some rolls), I take the bread out of the plastic, wrap the frozen bread in a lightweight tea towel, and microwave on high for 2–3 minutes, until warm and soft throughout. Almost as good as freshly baked!
For more ideas, see Everyday Cooking by Vicki Bentley or Family Favorites from the Homeschool Kitchen, edited by the Home School Foundation.
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