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10 things you need to know about being a working parent and meal planning

You are a working parent, every morning you go off to work and spend the time worrying about what to make for dinner. Should you stop and get something readymade or get take out?

How late do you have to work, are there extra murals, do you have time to make a full meal?

Let me start by saying that as a working mom, without meal planning my family lived on pasta.

Sometimes the pasta had cheese on, sometimes tomato sauce, sometimes pasta sauce, add some mince, tuna or chicken and you had your meal.

Not only is this diet a little unhealthy, it is also kind of boring!

Then I started meal planning and life changed. My husband and I lost weight. The children weren’t sick as often as previously, they had more energy. The amount of food that went off in the fridge dropped dramatically and so did the food bill.

Here are 10 things you need to know to make your life easier.

Invest in a pressure cooker or hold out until the Instant Pot arrives in South Africa.

A pressure cooker or instant pot can cut hours off your cooking time. The longest it has ever taken me to make a meal in my pressure cooker is an hour and that’s only because I am cooking for 8.

Slow cooker
Start your meal before you leave for work and come home to a cooked meal

You don’t have to worry about food burning. The only warning I have is to be careful of which pressure cooker you buy. I have a Kambrook (South African, not Australian) and I hate it. The instruction manual does not match the pressure cooker and I can only do a few things in it so far.

My old-fashioned stovetop pressure cooker is the one I use more often. I am looking into getting an Instant pot when they arrive in the country, I may have to save up but it will be worth it.


Use your slow cooker, if the cable is intact it is safe to leave on while you are at work.

Slow cookers are excellent for cooking entire meals all at once. They are perfect when using tougher cuts of meat.

One of my favourite meals to cook is chicken and rice. The whole meal cooks on slow over 6-8 hours.

Just put everything in the pot, either the night before or just before you leave for the day. Turn it to low as you walk out the door, and walk back into a fully cooked meal.

Repurpose your leftovers

I don’t mean just reheating them to eat the next day, although you could do this. Repurposing is taking that food and turning it into something different.

Leftover mince can be turned into a mince pie or a cottage pie or sloppy joes, if there is enough why not freeze and use for another night.

Vegetables left over can be turned into a delicious vegetable soup, or roasted.

If you have ever watched the TV series ‘Chopped’ the contestants are often given ready-made food that they have to turn into a restaurant worthy dish.

We just need to make it edible. Go online and search for recipes, there are so many out there. Throwing away leftovers just cost you money.

Meal plan for the month, not just the week

Everybody tells me, they don’t know if they can do a whole month in advance, that I must be so amazingly organised. This is so not true.

I hate shopping. Planning for a month means I can buy all my non-perishables and freezer goods in one shopping trip and only need to rush in and out for the rest on a weekly basis.

I’ve tried weekly planning and what happened is I would get to the next week and have forgotten to draw up a plan.

By planning for the month I can plan around payday, extra murals, times when we have functions to attend or just want to go for date night.

It’s a lot easier to get into the habit of meal planning when you do a month at a time rather than a week at a time. Meal plans are not written in stone, so you can change them to accommodate in-store specials.

Shop during those extra murals

When dropping your children off at ballet class, karate, cricket, netball, soccer or rugby, you have an hour or so to kill. Using this time to get your shopping done is practical and time-saving.

With the price of petrol constantly going up, it is better to try to get as much done as you can, rather than driving up and down.

Shopping within a time limit, when you have a meal planned, can save you a lot of money, as you will have to stick to your list and not have time to buy unnecessary items.

Shopping with a time constraint without meal planning and therefore no shopping list will cost you between 2-5% more, each visit.

This is because when we have no list, we impulse buy, you are hungry, tired and in a hurry, you let your emotions shop for you and then you get home, look at what you  bought and either don’t feel like cooking it, it will take too long to cook or nothing you bought is actually suitable for a meal.

Let the children learn to cook

Letting your children help with the food prep is not only a good way to get help in the kitchen, it also tends to get them interested in new flavours.

Mine started with learning how to make scrambled eggs, my 22-year-old son makes the most incredible omelets, he is also good with steaks and roast chicken, he is learning new flavour combinations.

My 0ldest daughter will cook an entire meal really well if you force her to, it is sometimes a surprise what comes to the table on these rare occasions as she prefers to use recipes as a suggestion rather than instructions and may alter quantities and ingredient as the mood strikes.

Then comes my 16-year-old daughter can when threatened with hunger use the snackwich maker (jaffle maker) to make toasted tuna mayo or toasted cheese.

The baby is 14 now and she is our resident cupcake and muffin maker, she is also a vegetarian and lactose intolerant. She makes amazing gluten-free banana pancakes.

You have to taste!

One thing my children all have in common is that they are prepared to taste new foods before making up their minds about whether they like it or not. (My oldest daughter says ‘we are forced to taste the food. We are not allowed to turn down food unless we have at least tasted it!)

Children can begin cooking under supervision from around the age of 9, there are plenty of blogs and YouTube videos available to teach them to cook.

I now have a Thermomix, which has changed my life. It is simple to use with touchscreen technology and recipes on a chip. Just about anyone can use it to dice, mix, saute, steam and whip amongst other things. No worries about burnt food when the person cooking gets distracted as the temperature and cooking time are set.


Cook in bulk and freeze

The important thing to remember with this is that you must separate what you want to freeze before you serve supper.

If like me you have a few big eaters, leaving even a little in a pot means there will be no leftovers.

I also have grazers, which means that they will keep going back until there is nothing left.

Cook once, eat twice. This is what bulk cooking is all about, cook double today and freeze one portion for later in the month.

Remember that if you can buy it frozen in the store, you can freeze it at home. This can make food prep easier too. Just Google ‘how to blanche ……’, you can do any vegetable if you know how.

Keep a pantry stocked with staples

A few standard supplies in your pantry cupboard can translate into an emergency meal or salad. Pasta, stock powder, bottled sauce, tuna are ingredients that can be turned into a meal.

Canned vegetables also come in handy, one of our favourite salads is a can of garden peas and a can of corn kernels drained and mixed with a little mayonnaise.

Frozen vegetables are also an absolute necessity, quick cooking, they can be eaten as a side dish or hidden in a pie or even turned into soup.

Buy pre-cut vegetables

While pre-cut vegetables may not be great for your budget, they are amazing time savers when you need them. They can be roasted, boiled, steamed or mashed. The problem with these is they often don’t last very long in the fridge.

precut veg
Using pre-cut vegetables saves you time

Cook according to a theme

I have a meal plan template. Each night of the week we have a different theme. At the moment I am using Mon-Meat free/vegan; Tuesday- Vegetarian (Fish); Wednesday – Mincemeat; Thursday- Chicken or red meat and Friday- red meat or chicken.

I used to also add a country to each week. One week we would take a country and I would make food according to my template based on the cuisine of that country.

This didn’t always work out, sometimes the meals were terrible and sometimes they just took to long to cook. What I did learn from this is that my family are fairly adventurous eaters.

Meal Plan Template
A blank template that I use for ideas for themes

They enjoyed the Indian, Chinese, Mexican and South African foods the most but gamely tried the Russian disaster (we ended up eating cereal that night).

These 10 simple tips will help you less stressed about getting food on the table each night at a reasonable time.

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