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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Tips for Getting Dinner Ready in a Flash

As part of a blogging contest sponsored by Samsung, TwitterMoms poses the question: "What are your three tips for getting dinner ready in a flash?"

I'm happy to share my solutions for getting dinner on the table fast -- and not only because I'd love to win a new Samsung French Door Refrigerator. I firmly believe that sharing meals together helps strengthen families. I know sitting down to dinner with my parents and my brothers was an important part of my childhood, and I want the same for my son. But I also know how difficult that dinner hour can be -- whether you're a working parent or a stay-at-home one.

Depending on the day, I'm both. And whether I've been home all day or whether I've spent the day at the office, there's always a rush to get dinner on the table quickly so we can move on to the next thing in our busy schedules.

I'm convinced that the hour from 5 o'clock to 6 o'clock is shorter than the rest of the hours in the day. After three years juggling my roles of mommy/wife/busy business woman/family CEO, I've developed a few tricks that help me get dinner on the table. And not all of them involve takeout menus and drive-through windows!

Oops -- this blog post is being interrupted for dinner preparation. Be back in a bit after I throw the pork tenderloin and veggies into the oven to roast...

OK, dinner is in the oven, and I'm back at the keyboard to share my tips for getting food on the table fast almost every weeknight.

Plan your meals in advance

I'm relatively new to menu planning, but it has made all the difference for our family. Planning ahead takes much of the stress out of cooking. Panic no longer sets it around 5 o'clock as I wonder, "What's for dinner?" Because I already know.

I usually plan a week's worth of meals every Sunday, then write my grocery list accordingly. This also simplifies and streamlines grocery shopping because I no longer find myself wandering the aisles trying to figure out what we need.

Start with a clean workspace
For sanitation purposes and food safety, it's obviously important to have a clean kitchen. But I've found that when my sink and dishwasher are empty, it's much easier to get to the business of cooking.

When my sink is empty, I don't have to shuffle dirty dishes to wash vegetables or drain pasta. When all the dishes are clean and put away, instead of waiting to be washed in the sink or the dishwasher, I know that all my tools are handy. I don't have stop the meal preparation to wash my saute pan or dig in the dishwasher to find my favorite rubber scraper. (Although I have had to rescue said scraper from the sandbox!)

Prep ahead of time
We try to make it a habit to prep for tomorrow's meals the night before. That means taking meats out of the freezer to thaw, chopping vegetables when possible and preparing marinades in advance.

There are several advantages to this. The obvious is that you have less to do at dinnertime the next night, which increases the likelihood that you'll cook even if you're really frazzled. Secondly, when you prep for tomorrow's supper while cleaning up after tonight's, you're saving yourself cleanup.

Keep your kitchen, refrigerator and your pantry organized
As with other areas in life, organization equals efficiency. If you have to waste precious time searching for ingredients in your pantry and moving stuff around in the fridge, it will take you longer to get dinner on the table. You'll be frazzled and your family will be hungry, and that's a recipe for a tense mealtime.

Bone up on your cooking skills
I do most of the cooking in our house, and my husband handles the cleanup. I'm a more experienced cook and a more skillful one, and that makes me a quicker cook, too. (I'm not disparaging him, just stating a fact.)

My skill and efficiency in the kitchen came through practice and instruction. I've taken a few cooking classes, and I also have asked chefs and cooks I admire for tips on everything from knife skills to deep frying. I read cookbooks and recipes and watch cooking shows on television, in hopes of taking away new tricks and lessons. As a result, I've become much quicker and more skillful in the kitchen, and I'm familiar with most basic cooking techniques. I've also learned how to multi-task and to time meal preparation so that our entree and side dishes are ready at the same time.

Set a regular dinner time
At our house, I usually try to serve dinner by 6:30 p.m.

Having a regular dinner time really does aid in my ability to get dinner to the table in a flash. I know every night what time I need to get started to make that deadline. If I know in advance that my prep time will be squeezed by other work or family obligations, I choose our menu accordingly.

Because we eat at roughly the same time every night, 6:30 has become sacred. Out of habit, we arrange our schedules around dinnertime and obligations that will interrupt it. We refrain from distractions like the Internet and the phone in the lead-up to dinnertime. My husband and son usually don't have to be reminded that it's time to wash up for dinner. In fact, it's quite interesting that my 3-year-old automatically toddles to the table around the same time every night.

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