Buttoned Up: Mealtime 101: Timing — Part 2 of 3

Welcome to “part two” of my Mealtime “101” series! I hope by now you’re doing a little more meal planning than you used to – Is it helping? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This month we’re going to tackle one of the trickier tasks in the kitchen – timing. Specifically, how do you plan meal prep to make sure that dinner gets to the table (relatively) on time, and with the cook in (relatively) one piece?

When my third child (now 5) was born, my older two were 12 and 17 – and one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was getting used to performing tasks in little parcels of time again. No more long stretches while the kids were at school. Nor was I able to leave a toddler unattended while I started chopping, mixing and frying.

Fortunately, I never stopped using the skills I learned when my big kids were little, as they made cooking much more enjoyable:

Become a “master of efficiency” – thanks to my meal planning strategies, I already know what I’m making for dinner every night – and have most of my ingredients on-hand, So meal prep can start as early as I like – often first thing in the morning. Even if I only have five free minutes I’ll take on at least one task that will get me closer to the finish line, for example, washing the salad greens and keeping them wrapped in a paper towel in the fridge. You won’t believe how a few minutes here and there really add up. On days when I’m flying into the house to get dinner underway (sometimes with my coat still on!), I am so grateful to the “early-in-the-day” me that gave the “oh-my-god-it’s 5 o’clock!” me a running start.

Double up – I will often plan two meals during the week that have similar ingredients, so that I can take care of prep for both. For example, I may dice a couple of carrots for a soup on Monday and grate what I need for a slaw a few days later.

Employ your “helpers” – My older kids had no interest in helping me cook when they were little (and, truthfully, I was happy to have the kitchen to myself). Noah is another story. While I wouldn’t say he loves assisting me, there are times when he’s at loose ends and I need to get some prep underway. Does it take a little longer for me to get those greens washed? Yes. But during those times, it is far preferable to trying to distract him with something else.

Trim. Clean. Repeat – Items like carrots, celery and peppers never go into the fridge before being washed, peeled and trimmed first. I detest this task and have found, that by getting it out of the way in one marathon session, I’m rewarded all week long. The veggies are not only ready to go for all of my recipes, doling out a healthy snack is that much easier.

Time’s up – Knowing how long a meal takes – from start to finish – is essential in figuring out what time you need to begin. Think about things like pre-heating the oven, or bringing an ingredient to room temperature. You get it. I’m forever working backward from 6 p.m. to figure out what time I have to start a particular meal. This doesn’t happen overnight – or even every time. But making notes can be helpful in terms of staging multiple components to a meal and figuring out a timeline so that everything is finished pretty much at the same time.

It also helps to set realistic goals for each meal. If I’m frying up chicken cutlets, I probably won’t make side dishes that need a lot of attention. A salad that can be assembled ahead of time, rice that cooks itself in the microwave, that sort of thing. On the other hand, if Mike is grilling or if I’m baking a chicken I might tackle a side or two that is more time-consuming. A perfect example of this tip is one of my favorite meals – fried chicken salad, composed of chicken strips served with greens and topped with toasted pecans, red onion slices and grated cheddar cheese.

It’s served with the most heavenly pecan-honey vinaigrette. The chicken is fairly time consuming, what with the slicing, breading and frying. But the greens, dressing and pecans all can be prepped earlier in the day (or even the day before). You can even bread the chicken early so that all you need to do at 5 p.m. is fry it up.

We all lead hectic stressful lives. No two days are the same, and if you have kids, you’re often running in a million directions all day long. These tips are super easy to master and will make a world of difference. And after a while it will become second nature to start prepping for dinner while sipping your morning coffee.

OK – you can finish your coffee first …

Fried chicken salad with pecan honey vinaigrette

(adapted from Bon Appetit)

1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

6 tablesppons honey

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon salt

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breasts, cut into strips or “fingers”

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups (or more) panko, seasoned with salt and pepper

3 tablespoons vegetable oil for frying

Red leaf lettuce

2 cups sliced red onions (or to taste)

1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1/4 cup toasted whole pecans

Make the vinaigrette: Combine chopped pecans, both oils, vinegar, honey, parsley and salt in food processor and puree till smooth (can be made a day ahead. Cover and chill; re-whisk before using).

Make the salad: Dredge chicken pieces in egg and then in panko. Fry in 3 tablespoons. oil until cooked through and brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain.

Toss greens in a large bowl with enough vinaigrette to coat. Transfer to plates and top with chicken pieces, onions, cheese and whole pecans. Serve, passing remaining vinaigrette separately.

Taken from Buttoned Up,, a company dedicated to helping stressed women get organized.

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