Please welcome Millie from Real Food for Less Money. Millie went back to work recently. She learned a ton from juggling her usual commitment to serving real food on a budget and the added load of being away from home 50 hours a week. In this guest post, she shares all her tips and ideas to make Real Food, Fast a reality for other working moms (or dads). She’s convinced me! This post is full of such wisdom, you’ve got to read every word. Thanks, Millie! –Wardee
Recently my husband and I decided that I would sign up with a couple of temporary agencies. I used to work full time outside the home but it had been two years since that time. When I worked before, we did not eat a real/traditional/whole foods diet. One thing that Joe and I knew was that even if I was going to work, we did not want our nutrition to suffer.
Would it be possible for me to work at the occasional ‘job’ and still eat well? We were not too concerned about the short-term, part-time assignments, but what if I was working a full time assignment that lasted for a week or longer? At this point in our food journey, I am making pretty much everything from scratch and some days I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen. Honestly, I love my time in the kitchen and it doesn’t seem like I am in there that much. But even so, there is no way that I can continue that and work full time (plus do all the other things that needed doing around here). In addition, just because I was going to be working on occasion, our grocery budget needed to stay the same. We didn’t want to fritter away any money I made on ‘convenience’ foods.
Before I signed up with the temp agencies, I did an experiment to see just how little time I spend in the kitchen, yet still prepare high-quality, nutrient dense meals. I also did a bit of research. Cara @ Health, Home and Happiness did a week long experiment, Traditional Food in Real Lives, and I scoured that series for ideas. I also looked for slow-cooker ideas and found many recipes at A Year of Slow Cooking that would work with a little modifying. (The author of that blog cooks gluten free. While this is not something we need at our house, I know many do).
My experiment in limited cooking was encouraging so I went ahead and signed up for work, telling both agencies that I only wanted temporary work. A week or two at the most would be ideal for me. Even better would be a very short term assignment of only one or two days at a time. My second assignment was not quite what I had requested. It was to be two or three weeks while someone was out on medical leave. That two or three weeks actually ended up being seven weeks. Seven weeks of full time work!
40 hours to a work week doesn’t sound bad. But I was really ‘at work’ for 50 hours per week, if I counted the one hour lunch and the hour daily drive, too. And that was if I didn’t have any stops to make on the way home! I discovered a few things during my working experience that I know will benefit me for my next temporary job — and I hope will help others to put real food on the table, real fast.
You see, I believe it is possible to work full time and still provide my family with traditional, healthy foods. Here are the simple lessons I learned, tips that help me when I am working outside the home.
Have a Plan
Making a weekly (or monthly) menu plan is something that I have done most weeks for a few years now. While working, I especially found that I needed to have a plan in place. Many of the meals need to be started in the morning either by soaking or putting in the crock pot. I make sure to add a ‘to-do’ section to my menu plan so I know what I need to do each day to make meals happen. Plus, by having a plan in place I can do a bit of prep on Sunday afternoons when I have a few spare minutes to ‘play’ in the kitchen. I aim to lay out my plan for the week by Saturday evening, which helps with my Sunday projects.
My motto for my weekly meal plan is Real Food, Fast. The meals do not have to be fancy, but they do need to be healthy and real. I do not want to plan something that is time consuming or would have me standing at the stove forever. Having my plan ready also allowed me to pick up any needed groceries during my lunch on Monday. If you are new to meal planning, you may benefit from having someone else do the planning. GNOWFGLINS now offers menu planning (free sample)!
Once my plan is in place, my week starts on Sunday. I usually make 4 loaves of bread, a double batch of sourdough or soaked muffins, tortillas (if on the menu for the week), and a fresh batch of No-Knead Sourdough Bread (Bucket Bread). Plus, start a batch of stock and put the first part of the week’s meat in the fridge to thaw. I know that sounds like a lot of cooking, but it really isn’t a ton of hands of time. I start the things to soak in the mornings. Bread just needs baking after that, and the muffins only take a few minutes to finish mixing up (to save time on clean up I bake the ‘muffins’ in a cake pan and tell my family it is breakfast cake instead of muffins). The only thing that takes a bit of time is the tortillas and if I get two cast iron skillets going, that helps. A teenage daughter rolling out the tortillas is a great bonus!
Keeping a batch of Bucket Bread on hand is wonderful. I learned to make it the Sourdough eCourse. Regular sourdough loaf bread is perfect for sandwiches, while the bucket bread makes beautiful artisan loaves that are perfect alongside soup or some kind of saucy meal. Plus, the bucket bread can also become rustic english muffins, flat bread (perfect as a base for Gyros) or even cinnamon rolls. The cinnamon rolls are so easy to make after work to bake for the next morning’s breakfast. I highly recommend the no-knead sourdough bread for any busy kitchen.
My weekly plans make good use of my crockpot. Beans, stews, roasts, whole chickens … just about anything can be cooked in the crockpot. If I am using a recipe that calls for sliced vegetables, I cut those up the night before and keep in the fridge. A few minutes of prep work in the evening, dump it all in the crockpot in the morning, put the lid on, plug it in and turn it on. The last two are pretty important! I hate to admit to forgetting one or both of those steps at times!
I also utilize planned-overs. I make a big pot of beans in the crockpot as the basis for two or three meals, and most of the work is done. Cooked beans take only minutes to reheat. Same with precooked chicken or beef roast, or if you live in Wyoming, antelope roast.
I also choose meals that go together quickly. Something like:
- stir fry, using quick cooking thinly sliced meat (like this yummy Curry Lo Mein)
- a soup that uses the nutrient-dense broth that I make for the week (I try to always keep a half gallon of broth in the fridge and at least the same amount in the freezer)
- something that can be pulled out of the freezer, like a delicious ready-in-20-minutes burrito meal: beans and tortillas from the week before along with leftover rice, shredded cheese, green onions, tomatoes, sour cream and salsa (anytime I can put something in the freezer for later, I do)
Breakfasts are very boring here. I used to try to make something different each day, but we seem to eat the same things on a regular basis. During the week we have soaked oatmeal, sourdough toast and eggs, breakfast cake or maybe yogurt with fruit. Weekends I might make pancakes (extras can be frozen for quick breakfasts during the week) or soaked baked oatmeal (can also be cut in squares and frozen).
Having a plan for the week is the best course of action. But sometimes you need…
A Back-Up Plan
Sometimes my great plans fall apart, like the time a helpful someone put the crockpot full of soaking beans on high. It is never good to wake up to the smell of burning beans and seeing those beans stuck to just about every bit of the crockpot. For those times, a back-up plan is necessary. Having a premade (homemade) meal in the freezer would be ideal.
My usual back-up plan meal is breakfast for dinner. Sourdough pancakes are quick and easy to make (just keep sourdough starter on hand) and so tasty topped with a warm fruit compote. Make the compote by heating up frozen fruit right, and sweetening it with a little honey and spiced with a little nutmeg. Serve that along with scrambled eggs and you’ve got a hearty dinner.
Another thing we really like are open-faced salmon melts. Slice bread or use an English muffin half, top with wild salmon salad and shredded cheese, and put under broiler until cheese is melted. Salmon patties are good, too! With broth in the refrigerator, many soups will go together in no time. One of our favorite quick soups is the Chicken Coconut Soup from Nourishing Traditions. It uses few ingredients (broth, coconut milk, fresh ginger, lime juice, salt and chili flakes) and is ready in about 20 minutes. This soup isn’t quite hearty enough for a main entrée for my family but is great with sandwiches.
I’ll admit that my biggest struggle when working away from home is planning and preparing my own lunches and snacks. I learned alot my first week working away from home! I couldn’t seem to get breakfast eaten before I left and forgot my lunch a couple of days. The next week I made sure to take a snack with me, and that helped immensely. The breakfast cake idea (above) works great as a snack, and I buy some of those fruit filled breakfast bar things from Azure Standard that have okay ingredients. I asked my husband to remind me to make my lunch each day — this helped me get into the habit myself.
My lunches are usually leftovers. Michaela left a comment on my blog once stating that when she is making dinner in the evening, she immediately pulls out a lunch size portion for her husband’s future lunch. I do that for myself, or I pack something simple like bread with soft cheese, and fruit and veggie sticks.
It is important to take a few extra minutes in the kitchen as I can. One time, some friends gave me half a dozen or so tomatoes that needed to be used. About 25 or minutes later, I had 2 quarts of lacto-fermented salsa jarred up. Making soft cheese is another thing I do during this working season. Soft cheese takes very little hands on time to do and the results are soooo good.
I am fortunate that I already had a good grasp on cooking real food when I went back to working full time. I was recently asked if I thought that a person new to real food and working full time could do this. My opinion is YES! When I think back to how my family began our real food journey, with baby steps, I believe anyone can make the transition to real foods with the same game plan. It won’t happen overnight, but by making slow deliberate changes, these changes can be lasting and easy to maintain.
Do you work full time and still manage to prepare nourishing meals? What are your favorite tips for Real Food, Fast?