Nourishing a family is a job that seems endless. It takes a permanent amount of love, concern, effort, shopping and cleaning to keep everyone well fed. There’s perhaps no better investment though in terms of the outputs that come from quality home-cooked meals: strong, healthy, alert, energized people functioning well in society! And, kids who grow up knowing what it takes to keep a kitchen stocked to whip up nourishing meals build a bank of ideas they’ll carry into the future. Research backs the notion that gathering around the table to share a meal, even if it only works to do so a few nights a week, is so worthwhile – an important self-esteem enhancer for kids.
Do you have special memories of being in the kitchen with your Mom, Dad or Grandma? Are you creating an environment in which your own kids can have today’s version of those memories – and a high I.K?(Intelligence in the Kitchen – my official new term for practical daily meal making skills, coined today!) As a kid and with my own family the unspoken rule has always been that if you live here, you help. You’re not paid to shop, help cook, set the table or clean up afterwards. It’s a requirement – a vital life skill and a privilege to live in a home that allows these opportunities. (Although, when you’re 10, there’s not yet much appreciation for the food skills being built. Money would be a far bigger motivator in the moment.) Still, I encourage families to hold firm knowing you’re doing the right thing “forcing” your kids to help and building their IK. Fifty-six percent of millennials wish they had more kitchen skills given that they value quality food and increasingly want to understand where their food comes from. Interestingly, they don’t necessarily even want recipes or cookbooks. They want an inspirational photo from which they can then make their own creation. For them, kitchen intelligence (IK) will go far.
Here are a few ways that we make meal management easier in our home and boost our I.K. These aren’t difficult and I suspect many of you keeners are already doing similar.
- Everyone’s always allowed to bake or cook when they get the urge. They’re in charge of the cleanup.
- We don’t use any formal meal planning tool but do keep a grocery list on the go at all times. When someone uses the last of any ingredient (and remembers), it gets added to the list. I have zero ability to recall everything we need once I’m at the store. Years ago, before there were even Apps, I met a dietitian who made and used a monthly meal plan that was posted in her kitchen. I was impressed! Other than her, I haven’t come across many people who consistently make this happen, App or not. We go more on what we feel like eating on any given evening. To keep it homemade, that’s only possible for having a reasonable food supply on hand. (When I travel for work, I grab those ‘souvenir’ little note pads from the hotel room for grocery lists!)
- Generally, if I make dinner my husband and son clean up and vice-versa.
- We rely a lot on plan-overs. When preparing meals from scratch we purposely make extras to serve as lunch or dinner the next day or to freeze for a meal when we don’t feel like cooking.
- We also rely a lot on our freezer and microwave. If we don’t think we’ll get to it in time, we freeze leftover food. I can’t bear the pain of throwing away a meal that took a good chunk of time to make then was forgotten in the back of the fridge. When too tired to cook, finding a homemade frozen meal, quickly thawing and accompanying with a fresh salad is a gift. (Right or wrong, I choose not to fear microwaves. Thus far the time-saving benefits outweigh any risk. We don’t stand right in front of it while it’s on.)
- Everyone makes their own lunch (with help when under age 8). School lunches are ALWAYS made the night before either while dinner is being prepped or while cleanup is underway. Doing this in the morning would be tough to me.
- Dad looks after breakfast pretty much every day. It’s almost always a hot meal like an egg-vegetable-potato scramble of sorts, oatmeal or French toast. I often cut up fruit or make a fruit salad the night before so it’s cold and ready in the fridge. On hockey practice mornings (up at 4:40 am, gulp), something like a scrambled egg-veggie wrap-to-go is prepped before bed. The coffee maker is pre-programed too!
- We don’t love leftovers, but we almost always use them up. The best leftover ingredient in the world is rice. I swear they should sell leftover rice! It’s an ideal quick base for chicken fried rice, a Greek-style salad with lentils, or rice pudding for dessert.
- Every Tuesday is pasta night due to sports practice. It’s the only night that has any kind of advanced plan. I make a tomato-based sauce that includes lentils and meat. It takes on a new form each week depending on the chopped fresh vegetables added to the sauce like peppers, broccoli and mushrooms or pureed leftover cooked veggies like green beans, carrots or zucchini. The next day’s school lunch is a thermos of…leftover pasta! I try to make a HUGE batch of sauce and freeze to spare making a brand new batch every week. We also grab these to go when heading to sports tournaments if the hotel room will have a fridge and microwave.
- If the kitchen sink is available, making a vegetable-based dinner is a whole different, easier, enjoyable experience than if it’s cluttered. It seriously makes the difference between listening to great music, sipping a nice glass of wine and calmly cooking versus complete and utter chaos. ?
- We have a great blender (VitaMix). Smoothies are a staple after-school snack. Various combinations of frozen fruit with yogurt, tofu, nut butter, milk or juice. We also have a single serving small blender that our 10 yr old and his pals use to make their own smoothies. The mini blender comes on the road to tournaments too.
- Friday night is often a ‘casual’ meal. Something like homemade pizzas or tacos…and in a large enough amount to spare cooking a whole new lunch on Saturday. Although no exact plan, on Sunday’s we have our ‘fanciest’ family meal and I fight so hard against sports and kids activities that keep trying to hijack this precious time slot.
- We freeze leftover cooked veggies from meals and small bits of meat or fish. When the assortment of small bags is cluttering up the freezer, we make a hearty meal soup. (About once a month – especially so in winter.)
- When I bake muffins or cookies and all of that ‘stuff’ is out on the counter, I double the recipe to have extra to individually wrap and freeze for quick adding to school lunches.
- I’m part of that small minority who loves grocery shopping and am fortunate to be able to get to the store mainly in less busy times. I’m in a grocery store at least 3 times/week for fresh produce. I shop at many stores but do have a few favourite places where I know the store layout well. If you hate shopping, having a list is a key to help get everything you need in 1 trip and spare return visits until next week. Everyone helps carry groceries into the house from the car. Remember, it’s a privilege to unpack all of this great food! My husband also shops. Our son is enlisted regularly so he knows how to check best before dates, choose a juicy lemon and be able to spot a true deal.
- Most neurotic of all (perhaps extra high I.K.?) ever since I’ve lived on my own, when putting the groceries away, I take time to wash, peel and cut up at least one container full of vegetables to have in the fridge for quick snacking, adding to packed lunches or salads. “Don’t you lose nutrients by doing this ahead of time?” You lose more if you throw the limp veggies out at the end of the week still in the plastic bag you brought them home in!
I share a few more IK-boosting ideas in first 40 pages of the Dietitians of Canada cookbook Simply Great Food. You can often find a great deal on a ‘gently used’ copy. (Because once you boost your IK, you can give the book to a friend who’s working on boosting theirs!)