Friday, 28 October 2016

Weekly Column: Menu-planning for busy weeknights

Menu-planning for busy weeknights

School’s in. By now parents are adapting to whatever the kids’ new schedules will bring. For many, extra-curricular activities and homework are making weeknight evenings a challenge. Many parents juggle employment with childcare and shuttling kids back and forth to their commitments. It’s no wonder, really, that families don’t have time to eat at home. But who can afford not to, nowadays? Even if you don’t have kids or a hectic schedule, planning your weekly menu can save you time, money and stress while ensuring you eat good healthy meals.

Scheduling ways to eat at home

This might be an opportune time to remind two-parent households that the burden of saving money on food should not fall on one partner alone. One exhausted, overwhelmed, time-challenged adult cannot be expected to turn the kitchen budget around single-handedly. It might work for awhile but, without help from all members of the family, it is sure to slide back into ordering take-out and overspending at the drive thru.

Set yourselves up for success by assigning age-appropriate kitchen chores to every family member. But there’s homework and bedtime, you say? Set a timer and see how many minutes it takes your family to clear the table and do the dishes. Schedule that amount of time into your evening routine every night. Don’t allow anyone TV or screen time until they’ve completed their chores.

Anyone working shifts can tell you how hard it is to maintain consistency. Sit down with your weekly schedule. This schedule should show everyone’s work hours, school and childcare pick-ups and drop offs, sports, activities and other commitments. Let’s hope there is at least one day at home per week for the family. Although you may not want to spend your one quiet day preparing weekly meals, there isn’t a choice if you can’t afford to eat out.

The question is, can you be more organized and cut down on food preparation, spend more time enjoying your family, and save money all at once?

Plan for hell night

Most families have a night (or two) that is busier and more hectic than others. Prepare for this night by cooking double the night before or freezing an entre ahead of time. Breakfast for supper or beans and toast works in a pinch. Cut yourself some slack by keeping a few ready to serve options in the freezer. Although more expensive than cooking from scratch, this is still cheaper than restaurant food.

Batch cook on prep day

Sit down with a grocery store flyer and plan what to buy according to what is on special. Next, consider what meals you can make with that week’s ingredients. Then, do as much to prepare as possible.

Plan around your schedule and use a slow cooker on busy days to arrive home to a prepared meal. Leave yourself a note which day to take out meat to thaw or chop vegetables for the following day. Keep a list and gather frugal recipe ideas. Get creative with tuna. At 88 cents/can on sale, you can save significantly with a casserole and some sandwiches or wraps every week.

Cooking in batches means you might prepare one lasagna and freeze another for later. While you are at it, you could cook extra and freeze some meat sauce to serve on pasta on a busy night. If you are preparing meat for a meal, cook double and have it again tomorrow with different side dishes. A roast might do two meals plus several lunches. Got leftovers? Don’t let them go to waste. Have a weekly fridge clean-out where you make either a casserole or soup with odds and ends that need used up.

Make every move count. If you are chopping vegetables for a salad, rinse and chop double for tomorrow. Do the same for stir fries and steamed veggies. Store chopped vegetables in water to keep them fresh. Don’t add ingredients that will spoil the dish on day two--keep cheese, cucumber, avocado, apple etc separate from your salad so they don’t turn brown or go mushy. Add these when serving so they are fresh and at their best without spoiling the pre-made salad.

Save your sanity

You might think that spending a few hours preparing food on a weekend won’t save you much, but go through last month’s credit card and bank statements. Did you spend much on eating out? Where you eating out because you don’t have time to eat at home? How much money might you have saved by being prepared for the hectic nights you know are coming? Menu-planning allows you to control your budget and hopefully get everyone home eating around the table more often. Give it a try and see how much time and money you can save this winter.


  1. Great column! Parents also need to remember that "hell night" will increase (usually) as the kids hit the teenage years. It is essentially to have certain meal plans nailed down by then so there is no question as to what the family is eating. I remember reading how one family would have a "sandwich night" each week on the one day that everyone was coming and going for activities and didn't sit down together. It consisted of bread/rolls, cold cuts, cheeses, chips and carrots - make it yourself and eat by yourself. Never ideal but definitely reality and not unhealthy.

    Also love what you said about age appropriate kitchen helping. It is one more way of looking ahead and giving your children the gift of being able to take care of themselves and their family.

    ~ Pru

    1. Thanks Pru! I do intend to have my kids help with the cooking and clean up. It helps me and, in the long term, it will help them too!