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Dinnertime

Of all the meals in the day, dinnertime is my favorite. The savory foods, the whole day is past and we have lots to talk about sitting around the table, the end of the day is near and a warm bed in sight... but why, dinnertime, must you fall at the hardest time of day? Screaming babies, a wild pupzilla, and a three-year old who thinks couches are Buzz Lightyear Space Portals, not to mention a husband who is rarely home to help hold down the fort so I could--possibly-- cook a wholesome meal.

Not for nothing, we fell back on the easy choice: frozen pre-made dinners (poke a hole in the plastic wrap and bake) or take-out (served on our "nice" plates). I recently wrote a blog about going through our freezer and starting to actually cook. I am happy to say that we have stuck to the plan and here we are 21 days later (see "The First Step" posted on October 1st) and I am still cooking! No fast food, no take out, no frozen dinners, and over 2 pounds lighter! However, I don't know if I lost the 2 pounds from home cooked meals or from all the running around preparing those meals...

If you read my blog "The First Step," you know we have a tiny freezer and extremely limited storage space, which means no buying things in bulk, no making 9x13 casseroles or pot pies (a pie pan does not fit in my freezer) and freezing them. With these limitations, I go on a week by week basis, otherwise I would run out of room. At Target, I found this weekly dry erase calendar by The Board Dudes; it was on clearance for $1.25. At the top it says "Week of:" and then lists each day of the week with a line next to it. Somewhere near the end of each week, I plot the next week's meals and do my grocery shopping. Before I write the meal schedule and list, I inventory my fridge and freezer. Can I repurpose any leftovers? Do I have a surplus of frozen chicken breasts or a veggie? Is anything about to go bad? I then plot meals around those items. I am a huge online grocery shopping advocate. Not only does it save time, but it has saved us so much money. Even without coupons, I save money by sticking to my list and not making the impulse buys that are so easy to do in a grocery store. I do occasional couponing. My biggest focus is searching the ad--posted online-- or simply sticking to the list.

Once I have plotted the week's meals, I then stick to the plan. It seems easy, but when the babies are screaming and D is having "a day," it is hard. I want to throw in the towel and drive to those enticing golden arches. Knowing what I am cooking that evening makes it easier to plan when I need to cook. If possible, I like to do the prep work when it is a good time for the kids (i.e. naptime). Then I am essentially only mixing the items together when it comes to the actual cooking and my measuring devices and knives are already cleaned and put back away.

At this point in time, my family is not very good at eating leftovers. Most of the time, I cook a large dish and immediately freeze half (casseroles are great for this). Other things, like chicken dishes, I really try to repurpose the leftovers. This recipe  (http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/king-ranch-chicken-casserole-10000000257982/) is delicious the first night as is. The second night I like to make it in to almost a taco salad, served over greens with crunched tortilla chips, ranch dressing, and black olives. One of the easiest ways to repurpose leftover meat is turning it in to a salad; cutting in to strips, adding complimentary condiments, and dressing all make it feel like a completely different meal. Making enchiladas or pizza is another great way to use leftover meat entrees. (For inspiration on pizza, I often look at California Pizza Kitchens menu: http://www.cpk.com/menu/#Pizzas. Don't limit yourself to classic Italian pizzas.) Other things, like stew or chicken pot pie, are going to be nummy defrosted and warmed the second time; those dishes are always frozen and saved for a different week.

If you are like me, you need a recipe. I stick to cookbooks that are straight-forward with simple ingredients. My go-to cookbook is most definitely The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond (http://www.amazon.com/Pioneer-Woman-Cooks-Recipes-Accidental/dp/0061658197); her recipes are delicious and easy (see: pot roast). I also love the Southern Living cookbook (http://www.amazon.com/Southern-Living-001-Ways-Cook/dp/0848733118/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319249398&sr=1-1), where I got the King Ranch Chicken Casserole recipe from. Their recipes are great and they offer different cooking methods (see: deep-friend catfish). Searching online for recipes can be tedious. I do enjoy the Food Network site, searching with ingredients I have and finding if there is something new out there. When I am in a complete culinary rut, I talk to my friends and ask if they have made anything easy and delicious lately. My five-star stay-at-home-chef friend in NY (who makes filet mignon on a weeknight with 4-month old twins) is my "phone a friend" when mealtime gets especially sketchy. She emailed me several recipes, one of them being a pork recipe that my family, my parents, and my local friends love: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/slow-cooker-cranberry-pork/detail.aspx. It is the easiest thing to make, freezes well, and tastes delicious. Thank you, L!

Even with the best intentions, things come up. A baby gets sick, an ingredient is overlooked and never bought, or life just prevents you from tying on the apron strings. In that case, I first open my freezer. Soups or stews are ideal in those situations; they will defrost in a pot and heat with the least amount of effort. If that fails, I next check what could possibly heat within an hour. Most of the time, I divvy my leftovers into Rubbermaid containers, which means a thick casserole will not defrost in time to be baked within the hour. If there is nothing to just throw in the oven, I like to have quick meal ideas on hand. I always keep a packaged pizza crust, just in case. There is always a meat option in my fridge or freezer: turkey pepperoni, ham, Perdue chicken short cuts. I can throw something together and have a hot dinner within half an hour, from start to finish. (Easy pizza: whole wheat pizza crust, organic tomato and basil pizza sauce, freshly grated mozzarella cheese, turkey pepperoni, and dried basil.) I try not to let this happen more than once a week, but I do not feel bad about throwing something together on the fly when life actually got in the way and I wasn't just procrastinating.

After I have made the effort to cook dinner, I find that I rarely have the time to eat it. With my husband's study schedule, I often find myself alone with the three boys all evening. When the twins are extremely fussy, my three-year old and I "picnic" on the floor of the family room. That way he doesn't have to eat alone and I can hold both the babies and attempt to keep them happy for forty more minutes before their next feeding... I'm keeping my fingers crossed that one day dinnertime will be easier. For now, it is a huge challenge.

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