Evening on the porch

As the crisp, fall air brushes my cheek, it marks that time of year when the hustle and bustle of my hurried schedule wreaks havoc on our family dinner time.

Making meals. Gathering for meals.

I desire to fight for that time together, yet when the 5 o’clock hour whips around that “What’s for Dinner?” question often echoes through the halls, unanswered.

My internal dialogue screams, “It feels like I just made dinner. How can they be ‘starving’ already? Our schedules are too crazy. I can’t keep up.”

My mantra for meal planning convicts, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and yet too often, I talk it, and I outline it on my Printable Weekly Menu Planner, but fail to execute.

Yes, breathe that sigh of relief. You’re not the only one. We are on this journey together and quite frankly, dinners are always better looking on Pinterest.

For years, I taught meal planning workshops entitled, 4 Meals in 4 Minutes. I demonstrated my Power Cooking techniques and encouraged women to bring their family back around the dinner table. I’d arrive home after class exhausted and see remnants of frozen pizza wrappers. The irony was not lost on me, and I determined things had to change.

Food is a means to satisfy hunger, but mealtime holds the power to revolutionize the way families and friends connect.

Stories are sprinkled throughout scripture that center around the breaking of bread. Sharing food in a meaningful way breaks down barriers, encourages us to engage more fully with each other, and allows life-giving conversation to occur. Jesus knew this truth, and He modeled it consistently with his disciples. Meals wove throughout His ministry.

When we’re committed to their importance and realize it’s not about an intricate recipe created, but about the gathering, it changes how we think about food.

Dinner Time candlelight

With five children, four of them teenagers, frozen pizzas are still a staple in our home. Unfortunately, evening dinners don’t occur daily, but I prioritize the moments we do have.

When food is served, ambiance is set. We always eat by candle light, even if it’s just mac and cheese, because that ambiance soothes the soul. We disengage from the outside world and share the “highs and lows” of our day, discuss something the Lord is teaching us or pull a question from our conversation starters jar.

As I attempt to steward our resources well, especially this month since I am doing a NO Spend Freezer and Pantry Challenge, eating out is the exception to our meal plans. By implementing a Power Cooking hour, I spend less time in the kitchen, and more time gathering. Creating an action plan of my quick kitchen tips, allows for many easy dinners and frees me up to enjoy meal time, rather than dread it.

1. Identity the obstacles that keep you from getting dinner on the table.

Do you love to pin recipes and mark them in magazine, but then can’t find them when you need them? Create a simple Meal Solutions Notebook so that all ingredients and directions are at your fingertips.

Is this the fussy time for your children? Keep a special box of toys just for dinner time and make sure to serve them some fun “hors d’oeuvers” to tie them over until the main dish.

There is a solution for every obstacle. Identity the problem and maybe we can help in the comments.

2. Create a 10 Minute Dinners recipe list.

Poll your family and find out their favorite fast meals. Know those meals by heart and always keep those pantry staples stocked. When your day hasn’t gone as planned, you have these meals ready in your repertoire. A few of our fast family favorites are Cheesy Cheddar Ranch Chicken, One Dish Baked Ziti, Asian Pork Tenderloin, Easy BBQ Crockpot Chicken, and Taco Casserole. For variety, I make sure there’s a mixture of crock pot, grill, stove and oven baked recipes.

Crock Pot Taco Meat

3. Spend one hour of concentrated time focused on prepping as many food items as possible.

When I first did my one-hour kitchen experiment, I attacked that hour like I would any high level executive job. I used the rice cooker, crock pot, grill, oven and even my food processor. It was multitasking mayhem as I raced to see how much I could accomplish in one hour, but realized this needed to be a weekly priority. It revolutionized my meal time.

If you only have a few minutes, begin by prepping your proteins. There’s such frustration in realizing the ground beef for tonight’s chili is still frozen solid. By already having the ground beef pre-cooked and divided into freezer bags, it can easily be thawed in the microwave or right in the Dump and Run Taco Soup. Chili, spaghetti, or lasagna pulls together in minutes when the meat is ready. Weekly, I cook five pounds of ground beef in the crock pot (yes, crock pot), separate them into one or two pound servings and season them accordingly for upcoming meals. I believe in working smarter, not harder.

The same principal holds true for chicken. Grill chicken in bulk or cook up ten pounds of chicken breast at once (I’ve even prepped 30 pounds in an hour.) Then dice, slice and/or shred the cooked chicken in seconds, and bag it up. Again, weeks of chicken meals such as  Simple Sesame Chicken, chicken salads, wraps, enchiladas, pot pies and casseroles can be ready quickly by just being intentional with that one hour of kitchen prep.

When proteins are completed, move onto veggies and carbs. By dicing onions , celery, carrots and peppers for the week, I save a lot of money and time. Salad gets washed, cut and divided. I cook, but not overcook, beans, lentils, macaroni, rice or potatoes for the fridge and freezer. Depending on my priorities for the week, I may make up Muffins, Waffles, Egg McMuffins or Egg and Cheese Puffs in bulk. Again, identify your needs and the time allotted for your Power Cooking session. It’s so worth the effort.

4. Find a Friend to Journey with You

“Many hands make light work,” as my father always reminded me. When a group of friends gather in community, even by holding each other accountable and working together on meal making, it turns the mundane into something magical. Some of my most enjoyable evenings have been when my friends gathered for a meal swapping time. We laughed, shared life, and went home with new meals for our families to enjoy. I knew tummies would be fed, just like my soul had been reached that evening.

Oh friends, these are just a few of the many tips I’ve learned to implement over the years and hopefully, this spurred on your culinary creativity. When I get organized in the kitchen, it’s amazing how many other things fall into place.

Let’s encourage each other in these small ways. Everyone has to eat, so let’s take back that chaotic dinner hour and enjoy our time together.

I’d love to learn with you.  Might you join me in the comments?

QWhat obstacles stand in the way of your meal time? Do you have a time-saving tip that helps you in the kitchen?


by: Jen Schmidt of Balancing Beauty and Bedlam and 10 Minute Dinners

  • http://faithspillingover.com betsydecruz

    I love your one power hour for meal prep. I’ve been prepping meat and chicken on Sundays, but never thought of seeing how much I can do to get ready for the week in an hour.

    After lunch I like to take 5 or 10 minutes to cut up vegetables, or do something to prep for dinner. Cooking seems easier when I do it in increments.

    I also make simple tomato, olive oil and garlic sauce with no other seasoning. I freeze or can it to have on hand.

    • http://www.beautyandbedlam.com Jen (Balancing Beauty and Bedlam)

      Oh, your simple tomato sauce sounds delicious!! Canning is on my list of that one thing I really want to learn. :)

  • http://walkingwellwithgod.blogspot.com Bev Duncan @ Walking Well With God

    Let me first emphasize the point you made…FIGHT FOR DINNERS TOGETHER! My children are grown and I literally had to fight to keep dinner time a family time, but it is well worth the fight. Don’t give in to what the rest of the world does.

    Thank you so much for all the meal planning ideas that you offer…I admit that I need to get better at this. My only tip is that I buy in bigger quantities and then I separate into the portions I need and make marinades. Then I freeze the meat already marinated so when it thaws it is saturated with flavor.

    I will be sure to try out your tips and recipes…we all need a break in the often boring rotation of meals.

    • http://www.beautyandbedlam.com Jen (Balancing Beauty and Bedlam)

      Buying in quantities and separating them into marinades is SUCH a life saver, isn’t it? Those are meal that are perfect to throw right on the grill or in the crock pot.

  • http://www.shellilittleton.blogspot.com Shelli Littleton

    My obstacle is that I’m usually tired by 4:30/5 and honestly, it is just so hard to enjoy cooking. But I usually try to have those easy meal ingredients on hand and have it all ready when my husband gets home. I try to clean as I go … so that when hubby gets home, we can sit down and eat, and then it won’t take me so long to clean up afterwards. For some reason, cooking seems a chore; yet, baking is fun.

    • http://www.beautyandbedlam.com Jen (Balancing Beauty and Bedlam)

      Cleaning as I go is something I do NOT do well. I definitely need to work on that. With meals feeling like a chore, have you thought of doing a cooking night with friends? It’s so fun to do that and then you have meals for weeks or even a month. :)

      • http://www.shellilittleton.blogspot.com Shelli Littleton

        Cooking with friends does seem fun … but we have recently moved. I don’t have that close group of friends to get together with right now. But, I know it is coming. I have never tried a cooking group …

  • http://www.embracinggrace.org Amanda

    Agreed- I’m a quote junkie… and two of the quotes you said I have pinned up : “Work Smarter Not Harder” and “If you fail to plan you plan to fail”. I try to do as much cooking ahead as possible- simple meals and LEFTOVERS!!! Use them don’t let them waste! :)

  • http://joaniebruce.com Joanie

    What GREAT suggestions! Thank you for the cooking tips. I will enjoy the one hour of preparation … knowing it will help me all week.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write your post. I LOVE it!! :-)

    • http://www.beautyandbedlam.com Jen (Balancing Beauty and Bedlam)

      You are SO welcome. :)

  • http://www.joyinthewilderness.com Stephanie

    I make dinner easier by cooking chicken ahead of time. I buy in bulk when it’s on sale, cook and cut it all up and freeze it in 2 cup portions in Ziploc vacuum bags. I can just grab a bag of chicken, ready to go for a casserole or quesadillas (a quick and healthy staple in our home!)

  • http://Theothersideofafter.com Bonnie

    Great ideas, love the pic of your family sitting around the glowing candles. In the fall and winter I like to make big pots of soup and freeze them in smaller portion sizes and even some in individual sizes too. Bonnie

  • Suzanne

    Oh, wow this is amazing!

  • Kim

    I am fairly new to the blog world, and brand new to your site. I love your time saving tips. I can not wait to try the Simple Sesame and Orange Chicken recipes! Yum. Also, the Asian Pork Tenderloin. I love cooking and often create without measuring. Certain recipes are never the same twice! We eat as a family at least 5 times a week. Some nights that means eating at 8pm, but we make it happen.
    You have inspired me to make plans to break bread with friends as a way to connect in our busy lives. We all have to take time to eat, so why not together
    Thank you!

  • Alissa

    I love the idea of power cooking hour. I find that my dinner prep time is actually a somewhat meditative task for me – I like that sense of accomplishment of what I can do with my hands. For me, the key is building time into the schedule for the cooking AND making sure I’m not trying to corral the kids at the same time. So, we allot 30 minutes of precious “screen time” to the 5:30 hour. My kids love their screen time and I get 30 minutes of quiet to cook.

    (But with that, I’m learning that I need to identify ahead of time which days are going to be “quick cook” dinners – use your tips and ideas, and not get frustrated that I can’t cook soup from scratch after we get home from soccer at 6:00!)

    • Helen

      Screen time…what a good idea.

  • Izuba

    OH MY WORD! You must have been running around in my brain! This is an answer-to-prayer post! Will print to read at leisure!! Thank you, and Thank God!

  • amy

    Thank you!! i am cooking for one, and it is hard to find the motivation at the end of a busy day to cook healthy balanced meals. These tips will really help! Thanks

  • http://lifegiving1.wordpress.com/ Evianne

    I recently got married and find it especially hard to cook good healthy meals. I am a good cook and know how to cook healthy, the problem is, my husband likes meat and hates vegetables. Whether they are warm or cold, other than cucumber or corn, I can’t get him to eat anything. He is very (VERY!) specific in what he likes and simply doesn’t like that much. How do I get us to a place where we eat varied, healthy, good meals… anyone?

    • Helen

      My comment was intended as a reply to you. I put it in the wrong place.

  • Helen

    A friend of mine used to have a neighbor child who was a very picky eater. If he popped in while she was cooking, she would have him take one bite right over the garbage. If he didn’t like it, he could just spit it right out. He came back years later and credited her with being able to try anything, anywhere he traveled. Maybe if you made something that your husband likes and just a little of something else that he hasn’t had before and make it clear that he’s free to “spit it out.”

  • Beth Williams

    Love your ideas. Even though I don’t have children, that dinner time without distraction is worth fighting for. I have a pastor’s wife friend who cooks 30 meals in one day and freezes them. That way when the schedule is busy she can take something out and just warm it up.

    Secondly, I flipped over to your 10 minute meals and could not find the recipes for your dishes. They all sound delish–especially Mexican pot roast. Please tell me how I can find the recipes.

    Thanks and God bless!

  • karyn

    O dear me. I’m a person who takes time at the supermarket and look at the chilled meat and fresh vegetable daily. Pick up what looks good that day, then plan the sauces depending on availability. So things change when I actually see the meat and vegetables.

    Pick up the sauces and garlic, onions. Maybe limes. Tomatoes. I love to add fresh vegetables to the sauces.

    This would be about lunch time when we would catch a sausage roll and a diet soda, mostly iron bru. Then I would shop and look round shops as well.

    I would make sure I’d be home at five to start removing the fat out of the meat. Chop up the garlic and onions. Start the fire going and fry up the garlic to a crisp. The onions to a soft and melted state. Love tasty onions.

    Depending on the menu I’d fry the meat first and brown it on all sides, depending what it is. Then slow cook it for two hours.

    I do not like using a lot of salt nor sugar. I love the taste of the original meat. Not that I eat a lot of meat. Curries are best cos they go on slow cook for hours and hours. After an hour I love to just put it in the oven.

    O I love parsnips. So delicious. And nothing like Yorkshire puddings on the side. Crisp. Garlic bread. Exceptional. I love to cook but I love to take hours and hours and hours and then look at the people who eat them. Usually, their first taste. They put the food in their mouth and then, look at me. Then, say, this is delicious. So, I smile back and the food gets demolished completely and totally though I’ve made extras.

    I love cooking. I love looking for the good meat for the day and fresh looking vegetables.

    O I must be boring. :) Compared to you.

  • michele

    Dinner time for me is dreaded when I have to cook and rush. Having precooked meats in the freezer makes perfect sense and would definitely help. I don’t enjoy cooking usually, and would rather do clean up afterward. I also clean up as I go usually, and that is nice, but family dinner together is often not an option with our teens schedules. I keep trying but it doesn’t happen very often.

  • http://www.jannawilson.com Janna

    Your post was a wonderful reminder for me. We are in the throws of a frenzy of the kids’ activities this fall and having dinner has seemed like an impossibility. I know it isn’t. Just going to take some planning. Have a blessed week!