It is the universal challenge of parenting: how in the friggin’ world to I get myself organised enough to prepare healthy (enough) and cheap (enough) food for myself and my kids? Preparing, eating, and cleaning up food takes up a large portion of parenting time, and it is so difficult to feel like we are successful when it comes to our kids’ diets. We feel guilty for the fast food indulgences and for single-food-group meals. Healthy eating comes with a lot of baggage.
Part of our progress is to challenge our internalised messaging around food. We as a society have some pretty effed-up attitudes about food. It is hard to simultaneously acknowledge our failings as a society in our attitudes about food, and strive to eat (and feed our children) healthfully.
As a working parent, I struggle to stay on top of meals and to balance ethical, local meat and vegetable consumption with our food budget.
Here are my top time- and money-saving food hacks.
1. Don’t Store Leftovers In The Fridge
You know the story: you splodge the leftovers into a giant container in the fridge. Then you may get a serving or two out of it before the whole thing dies a slow death at the back of the fridge. This is not the way to do it!
Try this on for size: scoop it into single-portion containers (500 mL wide mouth jars are the BOMB for this), and freeze them! Then pop one into your lunch kit, or reheat for a dinner-for-one at home. Boom! No wasted leftovers—ever.
2. Pack Your Next-Day’s Lunch Right After Supper
This sort of follows from the first one: portion your leftovers, and pop one into your lunch kit, then throw in your fruits and veg, and other sides. Then you don’t have any, “Shit! I don’t know what to bring for lunch!” angst in the mornings. It works well because you’re already in the kitchen, moving stuff around and cleaning up.
Once it becomes a routine in your mind, you’ll do it automatically, and incrementally it won’t feel like extra work. Plus it’s a bit of a win-win, because it gives you a place to put your leftovers.
3. Sunday Afternoon Cook-A-Thon
I’m a professional, so I work the Monday through Friday grind. For shift workers, I’d suggest you just pick a day of the week (or a day off each week) and turn that into your Sunday.
Sunday afternoon is my “Kitchen Party Time,” as I call it (or KPT, as I just made up). I grab my laptop and start bingeing a fab new show, then the fun starts! I pile all my veggies onto the counter and chop them and throw them into containers in the fridge.
I sometimes make a massive veggie stir-fry with a big pot of rice and quinoa. We eat supper, then I portion out the leftover side dishes for lunches throughout the week. It’s always great to have some rice or quinoa to throw along with some scant leftovers in order to make a full lunch portion.
4. Jars, Jars, Jars!
Parents are always wondering what’s the best, most eco-friendly yet affordable option for their kids’ lunches. We know that plastics are bad, but glass food containers are heavy and expensive.
The solution? Jars. They come in almost every size that you will need for packing a lunch. The 250 mL narrow-mouth jars are great for celery and carrot sticks, and cucumber slices. The 250 mL wide-mouths are great for pretty much everything else. The little teeny 125 mL’s are wonderful for a cracker portion, boiled egg, or the coconut oil fudge (I make it in a bowl, then pour a bit into each jar and toss them in the fridge).
There are a couple of caveats: although I bring the 500 mL ones for my lunch, I would not send them with my kids (too breakable for a kid’s lunch kit). Also, jars don’t work for sammies and pizza slices, so if you pack those often, you’ll need to find another option. Lastly, there will be some attrition—some will break or be lost no matter what you do. I poke around in the jar aisle of the grocery store whenever I think of it, and I pick up a dozen if there are any at a good price. You can usually get them for around a buck each.
But honestly the best thing about jars (despite the minor drawbacks), is how darn CUTE they look all stacked up together in a lunch kit! I can tell you, based on more than a year of packing lunches, that sandwiches and ‘za are the only things that I have been unable to pack in jars.
5. Buy In Bulk… When You Can
So there’s some privilege here in conversations about buying in bulk. It requires some capital to expend on future meals, rather than just focusing on present food needs. That is important to remember.
That said, bulk can be a great way to save money and source your food more ethically. Find a local meat farmer and buy a side of pork or a quarter of beef for your freezer. Buy produce locally and in season, and can or freeze your bounty Then defrost in the fridge for a day or two—good to go!
6. Get Yourself Into A Routine
Everyone says to do meal planning, but that takes hella time and mental energy. Routines are a mental shortcut. Since the new year, my goal has been to have one fish meal per week, one red meat meal, and one ground beef or pork. The others use leftover protein from a previous meal, or plant-based protein. Every weekend, I bring up the meat from the freezer. We were lucky enough to have a fish CSA over the summer, and so now we get to eat fresh local fish. Our beef and pork come from local farms. I pick up our veggie CSA once a week. This way, we are eating up our frozen meat, and supporting local farms all the while.
Start slow, start small. In time, you may find that your plans will become more detailed or further-reaching. But for now, just start with what feels natural.
Also, don’t forget to be kind to yourself—remember that you won’t always follow your plans exactly. Last week, I was PMSing hardcore and fighting a cold, with some seasonal depression thrown in for good measure—we didn’t have our tortilla soup that I had planned. Instead, we definitely went out and bought some fried chicken. Because that’s what I wanted to eat, and I didn’t want to overthink it or worry about it too much.
Feeding a family is hard freaking work, and not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s okay. Do what you can. Think about what you want to change the most, and start with one thing at a time.