Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Feeding a Family: Part 1

This post has been brewing my mind for quite awhile, but I'm finally putting pen to paper cursor to screen to share my thoughts on what I've done to try to make getting (healthy) dinners on the table as efficiently as possible. I've tried a couple of different packaged "solutions" but have landed on a system that I came up with on my own.

I have a lot to say about this topic so I'm breaking it up into 2 posts. The first will focus on the challenges I'm facing and the solutions I've tried. The 2nd post will focus on our solution.


Meal planning/getting dinner on the table is one of those things that shouldn't seem all that hard but it is - especially when you want to eat healthy meals. Here are some of the challenges I face when it comes to meal planning.

1. Time. There's never enough of it, and this has become especially true since having a baby. We get home at 5pm and Paul goes to bed at 6pm and I do not want to spend any of that precious hour in the kitchen. This will change as he gets older and can stay awake longer but I think this is likely our reality for the first year of his life, unless he starts to magically nap better at daycare. But even pre-baby, I had limited time in the evenings to spend making meals as I would go for a run or workout after work. Also, I sit down to pump at 7:30 so that gives me 1.5 hours to make, eat dinner, and do the dishes.

2. I'm the only cook/meal planner in the house. The kitchen is my domain. Phil can take direction and help with things but he's never going to handle meal prep from start to finish. I'm also more particular about what we eat and I have a gluten intolerance which makes me more high maintenance. Phil is also not great about coming up with meal suggestions, even when I explicitly ask for meal ideas. Occasionally he will suggest something but that's the exception, not the norm.

3. We don't like to get take-out/eat out often. Eating out was a treat when I was young and that remains the case for me as an adult. I do let myself eat out one lunch a week but we rarely go out for dinner or order take-out - especially now that we have a baby that goes to bed at 6pm. I find eating out/take-out to be expensive, often unhealthy, and finding GF options that are appealing to me is challenging so it's not something that we do on a regular basis. This is totally a "you do you" type of thing, though, as some people really, really enjoy eating out or get take-out once a week to ease the burden of meal planning. But that's just not a good solution for us.

What I've tried:

1. PrepDish - I was really excited to try PrepDish after hearing countless ads for this service on various podcasts!

How it works: They send you a grocery list and a task list. The idea is that you will spend several hours at some point during the week doing lots of prep work so that meals come together quickly the nights that you make them. The weekly plan gives you 4 dinners, a salad, a breakfast, a snack and a dessert.

Pros: Takes away the mental load of mealing planning, makes grocery shopping easier since the list is already made, and it's gluten free so I didn't have to make any modifications to make the meals safe for me to eat.

Cons:  The recipes were a bit too "fancy" for our style of eating. For example, some of the recipes were for things like scallops or lamb chops. We are just a bit more basic in the Segner household.

Verdict:  Not a good fit for us. I tend to make 4 recipes/week - 3 dinners and 1 thing to pack for lunches - so I would never make all of the recipes which meant I had to go through the shopping list and figure out what to cross out. It's fairly easy to do that as there is a number behind each item on the shopping list to indicate what recipe it's for. But the main reason this wasn't a fit is that it just didn't mesh with our style of eating. We prefer simple dishes that reheat well. However, I really liked the approach of doing prep work ahead of time so week night meals come together super quickly so this is a technique I now try to employ.

2. Plated

How it works:  Plated is one of many meal kit companies. The number of companies has grown since I tried Plated 2 summers ago but at the time, Plated was the only company that I knew of that had gluten free options which is why I chose it. Meal kit services give you several meal options to try from, you select which meals you'd like, and a box shows up with the ingredients and recipes.

Pros:  No grocery shopping (aside from what you'll need outside of the 2-4 meals you receive from the service), no need to search for recipes.

Cons: If you have a dietary restriction like being gluten free, your meal options are limited and I usually found myself picking what was safe for me to eat versus what I really wanted to try/what sounded good. I also found it to be kind of pricey compared to what we would spend on groceries. For example, a box of 3 meals that serve 2 people is $71.70/week. I know I can't compare the cost of the meal service to the cost of making 3 dinners on my own because the meal service takes care of grocery shopping and the mental load of meal planning/searching for recipes but it still felt too pricey for what we were getting. Lastly, Phil thought these meals were not very filling. This is probably due to the fact that we selected GF meals that tended to be light on carbs and were less filling as a result.

Verdict: Obviously given the long list of cons, this wasn't the right fit for us either. It was fun to try this out for a couple of months but it wasn't the right solution for us. I also didn't care for how much waste it generated. All the ingredients were individually packaged and there was so much waste between that and the ice packs and insulation that kept the ingredients cold. Much of it was recyclable but it took some effort to recycle as, for example, you had to remove the gel from the ice packs before you could recycle them.

Next week I'll talk about the solution that's working for us - at least for the time being!

What short cuts or solutions have you tried to make it easier to get meals on the table for yourself/your family?


Allison said...

We are definitely in a similar situation. We get home around 6-6:30, and Henrik goes to bed between 7-7:30. Honestly when he was younger we just focused on feeding him and getting him to bed, and then we would do dinner, so we often ate pretty late. Nowadays, we cook and eat while he is still awake since he eats a bit more of the food that we eat (not entirely because not all of it works for a baby, but he still eats with us). We have used things like Instant Pot, crock pots, and also just pre-made things like marinated meats that cut down on prep time so we can just stick something in the oven, and take care of baby at the same time. Erik is also more of the cook, and I spend time getting Henrik fed and playing with him, so we are able to divide and conquer.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

We tried Hello Fresh and found it a bit fancy for us. Though I do like that you can use their website to get ideas and then go from there on your own! Back when I went back to work and Isla was young I meal planned by the week and banked on leftovers at least once a week. Right now I'm kind of on a week to week plan. I buy meat when it is on sale and then on Friday's I open the freezer, look around and plan the next week based off of that. We also freeze extras occasionally so that's nice to have in the freezer. After I plan on Friday I will grocery shop on Monday for anything we need. I ask my family for suggestions and the husband never really answers and the 7 year old always suggests spaghetti and mac and cheese! :)

Jeanie said...

That is a dilemma. The GF and such doesn't make it easier, does it? I don't know that this will help but...
1) Tis the season to freeze. If you don't have enough produce of your own, buy a bushel of tomatoes and spend a few hours making sauce with just tomatoes, onion, garlic and seasonings and freeze in ziplocks of various sizes. Defrost in the morning. At night add meat (if you choose) or other bits (olives, capers, artichokes, mushrooms) and cook it up till warm. Leftover pasta is good. (You can also use an immersion blender to make a good tomato soup out of the original mixture.) Ditto for pesto if you have a good basil crop.
2) If you are cutting veggies, cut a lot and put in water in the fridge (Carrots, celery, radishes) or baggie (onion). Dice up some so you can just add to your salads or sauces.
3) Make friends again with your slo-cooker.
4) When making something like chicken thighs or other meat, make more pieces than you need. Shred the leftovers for chicken salad, soups, casseroles.
5) Weekends, prep multiple things at once. If you are making a casserole, make two and freeze or fridge one. Do prep chopping and baking off.
6) If you can eat eggs, they're a good protein, good dinner! And fast.
7) Remember the microwave for things like bacon or quick heat of fridged food. It should go without saying but I often forget. Also, for corn on the cob, any frozen veggie, soups, etc.
Not much, but hopefully it will help!

Kristen said...

I'll be curious to see what works for you all! We're just a 2 person household but Q and I have such different food preferences and diets that it's a struggle some times to find a meal that fits both of us during the week. I don't mind making us different meals on the weekend, but during the week after work, it's sometimes a chore just to boil water, let alone plan something to eat! We tried Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, and I agree that the meals were too fancy or fussy, especially for weeknights. We had some gift certificates for them from family and ended up using them more for the fresh food delivery and ignoring the recipes to make something much more in line with our unfancy palates :)

Stephany said...

I am no help to you at all (but I really liked Jeanie's advice!) because I looooove eating out and getting takeout. It's the bane of my budget, haha, but it's just not fun to cook for one person and I'm not a huge fan of leftovers (I'll have them for one or two nights; it's when I'm on day four of the same meal that I hate it). I do a lot of frozen meals and chicken recipes (since I can easily just defrost one chicken breast and make something quick with that). I really need to be better about eating at home, but ugh, the convenience of eating out gets me every time!

katielookingforward said...

I am with you on the not loving take out. I never ordered pizza delivery in the three years I had my apartment (and I never had a microwave). Since I'm not gluten free I have less specific tips...but for me I love the sheet pan dinners. The longest part is usually the chopping/baking, so if you could chop extra on Saturday or Sunday that could save you do during the week. I also like to cook twice the amount of chicken I need for a given recipe...and then freeze the leftovers already cubed. then that goes into a soup as an easy addition while saving a step.

Gracie said...

Even without a kid, this is an issue for us, as well. I work long days, so we often don't eat until 8 pm, mostly because I'm not willing to take any shortcuts. I want everything from scratch, but our lifestyle makes that difficult (case in point: we are having people for brunch this weekend, and today I pickled green beans for Bloody Mary garnishes .... I could have just bought some!) I try to at least make my prep work apply to two meals - like today, I boiled potatoes and mashed half for dinner; the rest I am keeping for a breakfast casserole. I'm sure adding a baby to the mix makes it all the harder!

Amber said...

Do you listen to the Lazy Genius podcast?? She did a really good episode about meal planning and I think it's some stuff you do already like have regular recipes in rotation (pretty sure you do this) she calls these "brainless crowd pleasers". I have not been very structured about meal prep or planning while on maternity leave but I really want to get better about it when I go back to work. It honestly helps me eat SO MUCH HEALTHIER! That is the biggest reason for doing it for me. I have not tried prep dish but have been very intrigued, but after you reviewed it I am not sure I want to anymore as those meals do sound way too fancy for my liking too. I can't even remember the last time I bought scallops (if ever!) ha.

Jolene - EverydayFoodie said...

When we need quick meals we stick to what we grew up with: a meat, a starch, a vegetable or two.

Typical meals growing up would be things like:

- steak, baked potato, steamed broccoli
- fish, rice, peas
- pork chops, mashed potatoes, corn
- spaghetti and meat sauce
- chicken casserole

They weren't fancy meals, but they did the trick, didn't take long to make, and were really easy to grocery shop/ plan for. The hardest part was remembering to take the meat out of the freezer the night before or in the morning. So, when we're feeling unsure of what to eat, we revert back to our childhood and go this route.