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 ZitiAsian Pork TenderloinEasy 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 MuffinsWafflesEgg 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?

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

 I originally shared this at incourage.