How to Feed The Kids (and Still Have A Life)

Contributor Amida writes for Journey Into Unschooling.

One of my biggest challenges when it comes to homeschooling is not the schooling itself but the fact that we are always home — and hungry.  Because we are home the majority of the day, mealtime — and hence meal prep — takes up a huge amount of time for me.

Being the sole cook in the house, some days it feels as if I am a permanent fixture in the kitchen, making breakfast, cleaning up, prepping for lunch, and brainstorming for dinner. By the middle  of the week, I am usually clear out of ideas or tired of cooking. On the days the children have multiple classes outside the house, it becomes even more challenging as I figure out how to feed them quickly and healthily.

It would be awesome if the children could cook for themselves, but that is just not always practical, especially for the younger crowd who still require supervision and a parent helper. To help move things along, there are a few short cuts and techniques that I’ve found helpful in the daily struggle to feed everyone (and still have time left over for life outside the kitchen!).

In the same boat and need ideas to get you started? Read on!

Rethinking Snack Foods

Who says meatballs have to be served with spaghetti? They make excellent snack foods, especially when served up in toothpicks and a bowl of sauce on the side for dip. Conversely, snack foods also make the best meals.

The kids love when I serve hors d’oeuvres for lunch. I try to keep a stock of fun finger foods that can be easily whipped together for a quick bite:

  • fruit (frozen or fresh, washed and ready to go)
  • carrot sticks
  • crackers (with hummus, nut spread, cream cheese, smoked salmon, salami, olives)
  • cheese sticks
  • bread (with avocado and hummus)
  • yogurt (with granola, jam, and honey)
  • tortilla (with cheese and beans for quick burritos)
  • pretzel rods
  • tofu cubes
  • boiled eggs
  • nut mixes

Bring on the Frozen Vegetables

I love frozen vegetables. They are so convenient and an excellent way to boost the nutritional content of any meal — frozen peas to mac and cheese, frozen spinach to polenta, frozen mixed vegetables to fried rice.
One of my favorites is the Normandy Vegetable blend I find at the local warehouse store. It has cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots  and works great in soups, stir fries, and casseroles. It’s even great straight up and I often serve a huge heaping of it right in the pan.

Make More

I actually learned this one from a friend of mine who never seems to have a shortage of awesome meals. Her secret? Whenever she pops something in the oven, she makes double the amount she needs — one for now and one to freeze, ready for another meal. So the next time  you set out to make a pan of enchilada or lasagna or roast a chicken, make an extra serving and pop it in the freezer.

These don’t always have to be complete meals. If you have extra meat, slice it up and store it. Eat polenta mush right after cooking and pour the rest into a pan for later use (great baked with marinara sauce and spinach!). Cook more rice than you need and store the rest in single serving bags and freeze them. It doesn’t take all that much more time and you’ll have the means to make a quick meal the next time you’re running late. As for general left-overs, they are lifesavers, as my kids eat them up for breakfast or lunch.

Pantry Goods

Keeping your pantry well stocked is half the battle when it comes to home cooking. Even a novice should have little trouble whipping up a meal of pasta and sauce from a jar. Add in some frozen meatballs and extra veggies and you’ve got yourself a hearty dish in less than 20 minutes.

Blend up some black beans with salsa and Greek yogurt for a yummy soup. Boil buckwheat noodles, drain, and top with dried seaweed for awesome soba. Other good choices include:

  • Tuna (sandwiches)
  • Broth (add frozen veggies and rice for a hot meal)
  • Canned beans
  • Salsa
  • Tortilla chips (for chili, nachoes, soup)
  • Enchilada Sauce
  • Pasta Sauce
  • Curry Sauce
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Olives
  • Noodles and Pasta
  • Seaweed
  • Grains (rice, couscous, quinoa)

Package Plus

“Package Plus” is what my son calls my method of extending a packaged meal by adding more of the ingredients on its label.

It is a simple way of increasing the portion size of single serving, pre-made meals. You can read more about my Package Plus Punjab Choley here.

Soups and Sandwiches

A kid favorite in my house is miso soup with rice, seaweed, and tofu. I always try to have the ingredients necessary to make this on the spot — for breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. When I’m making soup, I store the leftovers in jars for serve-yourself-portions later.

Every once in a while, I turn an entire loaf of bread into individually wrapped sandwiches and leave them in the refrigerator. They never last long enough  to go bad.

Use Your Small Appliances

Everyone knows the Crock Pot is a life saver when it comes to fix it and leave it meals. But are your other small appliances earning their keep?  If you invest in a good rice cooker, it will come in handy for quick one pot meals (lentil and rice pilaf), porridge, soups, and yes, even cakes. The food processor is great for prep work — but only if you actually use it! Take it out of the cabinet when you have a moment, cut up your carrots and onions, and store them for easy additions to your dishes throughout the week.

Forgo the Jamba Juice and make your own smoothies at home. It is a delicious way to get in some extra fruit or vegetable servings. We make ours in the blender with only soy milk and frozen fruit, with an occasional splash of orange juice for a “Sunrise” version.

Your own food arsenal will look different from ours, depending on your family’s eating preferences. Do you freezer cook? Buy your veggies in prepared packages? Serve pizza every Wednesday? I’d love to hear how you keep your family fed — and still have a life!

What are your strategies for feeding the family throughout the day?

About Amida

Amida is the mom to three darn kids. She used to stress about state standards and test scores but has since come to her senses and enjoys blogging about her family's journey into unschooling.

Comments

  1. Heidi says:

    Thanks for the great ideas! Even when your kids do enjoy cooking, like mine, there is still a lot to clean up. I like the idea of hors d’oeuvres for lunch. I think my children will enjoy that for sure.
    Heidi’s latest post: Free Homeschool Printables

  2. Renee says:

    This is a great post Amida. My children are a bit older (9, 10 & 12) and can fend for themselves a bit more. I stock the cupboards with lots of nuts and dried fruit. There is fresh & frozen fruit. Nut butters, Rice cakes and ryvita type crackers. For snack I tell them – help yourself to what’s in the cupboards.

    Mid morning I cut up a bunch of fruit to help us get through the morning.
    In the afternoon I try to make a smoothie.

    Lunches are a big salad that they help me prepare.

    And I second the frozen veggies. They have really reduced some of the time I spend in the kitchen and you don’t sacrifice on nutrition (and in my case they are even from local-ish growers – which I really like).
    Renee’s latest post: My Five Favorite Time Management Strategies

  3. One thing I like to do so that I don’t have to spend so much time during the week on lunches is make a huge pot of soup (or two) on Sunday afternoon. I often make a bean soup and a vegetable soup, and have a kid help me for some extra together time. Then, we eat them with whatever bread and fresh vegetables we have on hand through the week.
    I have also got over my aversion to having different people eat different leftovers at the same meal (I prefer that we all match :-)) and we eat up all our family’s leftovers at lunch. It makes for some interesting meals, but no food waste.
    Jen @ anothergranolamom’s latest post: Kids in the Kitchen: Gravy (and Biscuits)

  4. Glory says:

    Amida, this is a lovely post. Thanks for all the delicious pictures (they have made me hungry) and the simple ideas.
    Glory’s latest post: A Day in our Home Education Life

  5. Rana says:

    Great post! I have been looking for more healthy snack ideas for my family.

    I use my slow cooker at least 3 times a week. It is a life saver on grocery shop days when the last thing I want to do is cook, and days when kids have lessons out of the house. I love coming home at the end of the day to a house filled with wonderful smells.

    I have been interested in buying a good rice cooker can you recommend one? Thanks!

    • Amida says:

      Hi Rana,
      I think the type of rice cooker you buy depends on what you want out of it. If you just want rice, then the straight up $20 electric rice pot variety (with the spring on the bottom) would be fine. I like to use mine for porridge so I have a “fuzzy logic” type with a special setting. Check out “fizzy logic rice cooker” on amazon for some ideas.
      Amida’s latest post: February 2012 Art Gallery :: Many Lisas

      • Becky S says:

        I have a rice cooker and it is a huge messmaker. When the rice cooks, it spits water all over the counter as if it were cooking too hot. What am I doing wrong? I only like brown rice…are they not intended to cook brown rice?

  6. Becca says:

    I’ve been teaching my kids since they were 3 or 4 about carbos, protein and produce. They make proposals about what they would like to each for breakfast, lunch and snacks. I try to keep their overall daily food intake in mind as I ok proposals. Lunch they make sure they have something from each category. Snacks depend on what they had last; often I will say something like”Yes the roll is ok and your next food needs to be a protein.” I think starting talking about this stuff early made it easier to steer their food choices as they have gotten older [15, 10, and 7].
    Becca’s latest post: Thankful Thursday – February 9

  7. Amy says:

    I know what you mean – I really love to cook, actually, and have to remind myself that there are other things I should be doing. It can quickly take up your whole day! Lunches are often very simple, hors d’ourves-type plates as well, and our dinner meals follow a schedule – Monday, grilled sandwiches; Tuesday, soup; Wednesday, rice and veggies…

    Thanks for more good ideas!

  8. Our go to lunches are pb&j or cheese and crackers. Usually with a fruit – apples, clementines, banana, grapes. I love oatmeal for breakfast, it is quick, cheap, and filling. My kids would prefer cold cereal but after a recent price comparison I will be much less likely to buy the stuff of the two breakfasts, Iwill be unlikely to buy the stuff. Our favorite snack this week is whole wheat bagels cut into chunks with a bit of honey for dipping. Kids love dipping!
    Becky @ Sowing’s latest post: The Science of Home Management or In Which I Reveal My Geekiness

  9. I guess I was lucky that we started homeschooling when my kids were older elem and middle so they fended for themselves quite a bit. I did keep a lot of the same things handy, for them to fix on their own. I have to admit that fro pizzas and canned spaghettio’s were quite popular!

    Bernice @ The Stressed Mom’s last post: The dreaded question, “Mom, what’s for dinner?”

  10. Crafty Mama says:

    Great tips! :D

  11. Thanks for the great tips, Amida! I love the individually wrapped loaf of sandwiches especially. My three girls are 11, 9 and 4, and my eldest likes to cook, so she often offers to cook most or all of the lunch for the rest of us. But then there’s the mess she leaves behind… this way, I could still have her help me prepare food in advance of our week and not have to deal with the mess everyday.

    I currently use left-overs as my main strategy for quick and delicious lunches. Whenever possible, we make double batches of dinner to eat later in the week at lunchtime. I also try to make at least two “favorites” each week, that way the girls are excited to eat the same meal twice. I never thought of just making extra rice or pasta and storing just that for later use as you suggested, but why not? I think it’s a brilliant idea, and since we use a lot of whole grain rice & pasta for dinner meals, I can see that saving us a lot of time with this tip. Thanks!
    Renee Gotcher’s latest post: Ask a NextGen Homeschooler: How do you schedule your day?

  12. Ashlee says:

    Great posts. We have a 2.5 year old and a 2 month old, so it’s just feeding myself and the 2.5 year old throughout the day.

    We typically do breakfast of either oatmeal, cereal and vanilla almond milk, or plain yogurt with either preserves or honey.

    We then do an AM snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner.

    Snacks very. The most popular right now are: Celery w/ PB or cream cheese, yogurt, string cheese or pieces of mozz or colby jack cheese, frozen veggies (peas and corn are a hit around here), frozen fruit (banana’s and strawberries most often), crackers with PB or cream cheese, homemade energy balls or trail mix, applesauce, graham crackers. I keep all the fridge items on the middle shelf on the door, all pre-measured to toddler sizes and stored in mason jars. This way she can choose her snacks. All the snack items are on the same shelf and she can see them, and I will portion those out for her if she chooses those items.

    Lunch: we do leftovers most of the time, but if no leftovers are available, then mini pizzas, bagel sandwiches, and soup are the most common lunch foods.
    Ashlee’s latest post: Upcycled Tote Bag

  13. Hannah says:

    Amida, I’m glad you tackled this issue because it’s not something that’s discussed a whole lot in homeschooling circles and I start to wonder if I’m the only one who finds the near-constant feeding process exhausting (especially with two picky eaters and, now, two on special diets). I know I need to help them become more self-sufficient, too, especially between the major meals.

    I also dither about whether to regulate snack times or just let them graze. It seems like one more issue over which to struggle for control, and I’d rather have fewer of those. :-)
    Hannah’s latest post: How to Truly Enjoy a Family Cruise

  14. Kimberly says:

    I LOVE my rice cooker, but so far I just cook rice in it. Well, I have branched out and done quinoa twice. I need to look up how to do more with it I guess!
    Kimberly’s latest post: Easy Fingerless Gloves

  15. brooke says:

    I love this post! Feeding the masses is on my mind constantly during the day. I like the idea of doubling recipes and I always throw something else in the oven when it is on. Doubling grains when cooking is so handy and I have two crockpots. I also use them for reheating meals with a bit of stock thrown in.
    My eldest (now 8) also cooks quite a bit including roast chicken. I find cook books for baby and toddler food very good for his skill level.

  16. Eren Mckay says:

    These are all great tips. On the days when I’m really tired and need a quick lunch, I simply put ready made pizza or lasagna in the oven. Planning ahead truly helps relieve stress.
    All the best,
    Eren
    Eren Mckay’s latest post: Cupcake Baby Shower Theme

  17. Kelly says:

    Great list! Yes- I have these same dilemmas. I seem to be either cooking or doing the endless pile of dishes… They are always eating!! Thank goodness for hummus, yogurt, and frozen fruit smoothies.

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