September 7, 2013 at 7:30 am

Let's Talk Food (& maybe win a cookbook): Squeezing cooking into busy lives

By the time I wrapped up one recent Saturday, my make-ahead meals included (clockwise from top) three dinners for me to bring to work, a couple lunch wraps for my husband, a meatloaf for his dinners, three ready-to-go lunches for the baby and a pile of cooked chicken ready to freeze individually for the baby's upcoming dinners. (Maureen Tisdale / The Detroit News)

There’s no one right way to get dinner done, in my opinion; everyone figures out what works best for them. But it can be fun to get ideas from what others are doing.

I squeeze making home-cooked meals into this working mom’s life by batch cooking, usually only twice a week. My friend Dana, a stay-at-home mom with five young children whose frozen yogurt bowl I wrote about recently, manages to make food daily for her household. Another friend Dawn, a fellow foodie whose potato tacos I wrote about recently, works crazy hard here in the newsroom, sometimes for long days. Yet she shops frequently and likes to buy just enough ingredients for a day or two at a time. Her version of batch cooking is to make ingredients — brown rice or other grains, roasted veggies, vinaigrettes — and repurpose them for the next few meals as salads, sandwiches and mixed bowls.

As for me, I batch cook whole meals. My husband and I have offset schedules to keep the baby in daycare as little as possible, so we rarely eat together— though we still make home-cooked meals a priority to save money and eat relatively healthfully. Except for breakfasts for the baby and me, it generally seems to work best to make and clean up from the huge mess of cooking twice a week.

That means Saturday and Wednesday afternoons usually find me making big batches of food and lining up containers to fill with individual grab-and-go servings so we have meals to bring to work or eat between baby-wrangling. Sometimes Saturdays, I measure bagged salads into individual containers to get us through the weekend, then make Monday and Tuesday salads Monday morning; outside of salads, I try to make all the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday food Saturdays.

Wednesdays I cook for that day through at least Friday, ideally Saturday lunch (so we aren’t waiting until I get all the food made, divided and put away before we eat, as happened last weekend; lunch at 4 p.m. makes for some hungry, grouchy people, I found).

Yes, I do this so we have less prep and cleanup on a daily basis for our busy family of three, but it’s also a matter of preference. When I was single, I actually experimented with spacing shopping and cooking out even further (though limp, browning veggies quickly straightened me out). I found I was more likely to eat healthy if I could grab my food and go. And although nutrients, which can decline over the course of a week, matter more now that I have a growing boy to feed, I secretly wonder if the biggest reason I cook twice a week rather than once is I can’t fit a week’s worth of individually packaged meals for three people in the fridge.

It amazes me how often this is a new idea to others, but it also impresses me how they’re getting dinner done. Another good idea we ran a big article on: make-ahead meals you can freeze and reheat, which included freezing guidelines for different types of food as well as recipes from Squash and Spinach Lasagna to Southwestern Chili Pasta.

So what works for you? I’d love to hear how you squeeze cooking into your busy life, and offer you a shot at a free cookbook, “The Dinnertime Survival Cookbook: Delicious, Inspiring Meals for Busy Families” by Debra Ponzek and Mary Goodbody. Share how you’re making meals happen in the comments below, then send an email to Eats& with “Dinnertime” in the subject line and your name and mailing address in the body. Enter only once by midnight Sept. 12. A winner will be chosen from among entries, with preference given to those who comment below. (If it’s Sept. 13, 2013 or after when you read this, the book will have been given away — but feel free to add your comments.)

You need a Facebook account to add comments below, but they’re free and easy to sign up for, which is how I managed to have one for years and ignore it except for this sort of thing. I’ll be keeping an eye out the next few days for your comments. You also can follow me on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!