Cooking ahead to optimize your time.

Our schedules are so full these days. In addition to the typical work, school and family responsibilities, we are all working so hard to stretch every dollar. You know what they say, “Time is money!” That seems to be a resounding truth these days, everyone is working hard to make ends meet.

Our time is important to us. Balancing all of the responsibilities that fall on our shoulders can often leave us feel like there is not enough of us to go around. Feeling stretched both in our bank account and in our time can result in frustration and making choices we might not otherwise make. Being able to find a balance in our lives is key to managing the most important things, our family and our budget.

Having the “Leave it to Beaver” kind of routine would be wonderful, in a perfect world. Let’s face it, even the stay at home mom has busy days. There are times when the “stay at home” part of that title is almost comical, with so many outside activities on every side we rarely are just “at home” anymore. Not to mention, most of us “stay at home” moms also work from home, this adds to our busyness and juggling routine.

So, how do you combat all that is vying for your time and attention? How do you manage the huge balancing act that this life seems to demand of us? A big tool in this on going battle is to figure out what is most important to you, prioritize the things that you need and want to do. There may be some things that you have on your list that really don’t need to be there.

Having a menu plan for the week can not only save you time in your busy week but also be a huge budget saver. Sure, it takes a bit of time to plan ahead, but given a few weeks of adjustment I think you’ll find that it’s well worth that bit of time. The money you save will also be a huge bonus. Avoiding that last minute trip to the grocery store when you realized you didn’t plan dinner or eating out because time is short and no dinner is ready is a huge budget saver.

There are many ways to go about menu planning from a simple list of options on the fridge to a detailed outline on a menu calendar. I’ve tried them all and even the most basic of methods is a huge help in our busy lives. Just having a list to go off of will help you out when time is short.

I’ve already written an article or two for Gling about this amazing time saver, so I won’t go into all of the steps of making a menu plan. What I really want to do is go a step further in this and give you some practical meal options.

For me, it’s always been easier if I was able to plan ahead on giving my main protein double duty. I love it when I can make a roast or a whole fryer stretch for two or even three meals. How does that sound in today’s economy? I know, you have your doubts, but I can assure you that it can be done! I am feeding a family of six, my four kids are all teenagers, or close to it, with healthy appetites. I have been known to stretch a pound of ground beef for three dinners. If I’m careful and plan ahead a fryer can last two meals, possibly three if I decide to do soup.

So, how do I do it? Well, here is where planning ahead is key. Making sure that I put the portion of meat that I want for a future meal away before my family starts eating is crucial. While I can make a roast last for several nights, if it is out and accessible my family will eat it all. It’s funny how that works, everyone will be completely satisfied with what there is if they don’t see the other half of the roast sitting there.

Using inexpensive protein stretchers is important when I’m trying to make ground beef stretch. Beans are a great way to stretch a pound of ground beef or any ground meat. Having cans of beans, or better yet cooking a pot of dry beans once a week or so will really help in meal planning and stretching your dollar. Cooking with dry beans does take some planning ahead, if that is too much when you are just starting out then stock up on canned beans when they go on sale.

The idea here is to make a menu plan that will be used, so start out with a plan that is not a complete change from how you normally would cook. Work in more frugal and time saving ideas as you master just keeping a menu plan. Let’s face it, none of us deals well with big changes in life when life is already full and stressful. This is a tool to use to eliminate some of the stresses you are feeling, not add to them.

Now, my family is a meat loving group so we do have meals where we have a bigger focus on the protein, but it is not possible to do this every evening. Making our meat stretch is one way that we make our limited grocery budget stretch far enough to allow for those protein rich meals that my family loves.

One of the best tools for making a piece of meat stretch is your trusty crock pot. I can start a beef roast in the morning, cut off the piece I need for one night’s shredded beef enchiladas and depending on the size of the roast I can make that roast stretch for beef sandwiches or even a BBQ beef sandwich later in the week. If you planned even more carefully when you purchased the roast and chose one with a bone in it, you could have the beginnings of an amazing pot of vegetable beef soup that can also be made in your crock pot.

Stretching your meat using protein rich beans and whole grains is a great way to make your dollar stretch for dinner time! I love adding cooked brown rice to my ground beef for enchiladas or tacos. Adding corn to your pot of chili also is an easy addition. Looking at what side dishes you are serving also helps to stretch the main part of the meal. My grandmother would serve a huge basket of bread or rolls with a meal, just about any meal now that I think about it. Having to focus on gluten-free alternatives to that basket of rolls may not always be economical, but once a week or so it sure is nice!

Use the tools you have to simplify your meal preparations, utilize the sales at the grocer for inexpensive cuts of meat in large packages. Often, the per pound price is better on them and making that big roast or whatever it is stretch for several meals brings down your total meal dollar amount. Even if you are not wanting to cook ahead and utilize the leftover half of that beef or pork roast, buying a larger roast and cutting it down to more manageable portions is still a money saver. I just like using the cook ahead part of it to save myself some time later in the week.

Start with what you already know your family will eat and build on it from there. Any amount of planning ahead will save your family money and you time. Just eliminating that last minute trip to the grocery store will save you money. Working with what you already have in your freezer and pantry is a great budget and time saver!

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