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December 15, 2010

Meal Preparedness, a guest post

My friend Carol recently mentioned her "meal boxes" and I was intrigued. I asked her to please write a guest post to share her method with us. Here it is!

Meal Preparedness
(even in changing daily circumstances)

My household is like everyone else’s: we don’t fit into any preconceived mold. Every family’s size and circumstances are different; some are very different. Meal preparedness will look a little different for everyone. I now cook for just 3 people, but since I have a special needs family member - that adds to the planning required. Some days I don’t have time to plan for that evening’s meal, simply due to our circumstances. I decided to come up with something to organize my meals, or prepare. I needed to prepare because things frequently come up to hijack my day. Sometimes, I will have to run out and get something that will cook quickly, or pick up fast food, because of my unpreparedness. But I’m working on that.

I have started using a system to assure that I’ll have something available to cook for dinner - even if the day was chaotic and I have suddenly found myself with little preparation time. What I’ve done is to gather meal items together in containers in my pantry ahead of time. I do this with specific menus in mind. I try to keep 5-7 containers filled with everything needed for a particular meal. I keep a bin in the fridge for other recipe items needing refrigeration. And I often stock a canned alternative to the fresh meat required - just in case I forgot to take the meat out of the freezer that morning. (It happens!) Also, some of my recipes are for the crockpot; some are for the microwave; some require the outdoor grill; and some require the oven or stovetop. I don’t assign a menu to a day until I know what is going on. All of this makes my menu plans even more versatile, for my unpredictable schedule.

My inspiration for planning and collecting ingredients this way for meals served on the spur-of-the-moment comes from two places: my online friend Kathi, and my youngest son. Our 26-year-old son has special needs, including the need for instant access to tasty foods that do not require chewing. For many years, I have had separate bins in the pantry for his foods: his nutritional drinks, his fruits, his veggies, his starchy foods, and his canned ground meats. I also have a shelf in the freezer with things already processed and measured out for him. One day, Kathi helped me realize that I could do something similar with the menu items for the rest of us! Now why didn’t I think of that!

Once a week or so, I gather items for the meals I plan to make in the near future. Over time, I have gone through a series of trial-and-error choices for my containers. I’ve used some of my on-hand containers, shown below… as well as empty boxes of all sorts, plastic bins from the dollar store - whatever works! Even brown paper bags are an option!

The picture above is of a few of the things I’ve tried as containers for my meal items. Currently, I am using a set of “box bottoms” (from previous baby food purchases) as my containers. Eventually, I want to purchase matching plastic or wire mesh bins that will give the pantry a more uniform look. But first things first… and the organization of it all should come before making bin purchases.

The first two photos below are (1) of my pantry and (2) of the specific shelves where my meal options are kept. You can see that the photo of my pantry also shows the system I have set up for my special needs son’s quick meal choices, on the top shelf.

Next, I have added photos of the cardboard trays filled with some of my meal options for the next few days. There is a recipe or note in each container. I like to indicate the additional items I’ll need to gather from the refrigerator bin, or any spices.

This week’s meal menus are listed below:
1) Crockpot White Chili – Requires 3 cans of beans (Great Northern, pinto, or cannelloni), chopped cooked chicken (or used canned), onion, red/green/yellow peppers, jalapeno peppers, garlic, cumin, salt, oregano, chicken broth… then add chips and cheese
2) Chicken spaghetti: Chicken, spaghetti, broth, onion, garlic, cream-of-mushroom soup, tomatoes, butter, margarine, and cheddar cheese
3) Chili: Ground beef, Light Red Pintos, Dark Red Pintos, tomatoes (or Rotel), oil, onion, Kathi’s Chili Seasoning Mix
4) Grilled Hamburgers - I add home-canned green beans, wheat toast, can of sliced peaches
5) Turkey Tacos - Requires shells or soft tortillas, ground turkey (or canned Turkey Chili), Kathi’s Taco Seasoning Mix, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, chips, and salsa
6) Grilled chicken breast - Served with cornbread muffins, home-canned green beans, and my mother-in-law’s sweet corn (cut) from our freezer.
7) Tuna Sandwiches – My hubby’s favorite “fix it yourself” meal.

My husband prefers these simple meals, but this idea would still work well for other cooks who go beyond the basics. Anyone could use this system with their own family favorites, using what they have to store the ingredients for meals their family will eat. This system has really helped me face that 4PM panicky thought, “What’s for dinner?”

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