Home economist Emily Richards offers advice on tackling a week's worth of menus

TORONTO - With after-school activities kicking into high gear, time at the end of the day can be at a premium in many households. But by planning well, shopping once a week and doing some preparation on the weekends, it's possible to get evening meals with maximum taste on the table with a minimum of stress.

Emily Richards, a busy mother of three, says the trick to serving your family a different tasty dinner each weeknight is to incorporate similar ingredients and cooking techniques throughout the week but put a different spin on them each day.

"So the idea of planning that menu for the week, whether it's batch cooking or that whole cook once, eat twice idea, where you're cooking extra one night so that you have something for the next night or lunches, I think it appeals to a lot of people. I think what really is difficult is the planning part."

Pull out the grocery store flyers and choose items on sale, taking into consideration freezer-friendly ingredients. "That really is the start of your menu planning. Say, 'Monday I'm doing this and Tuesday I'm doing that,'" says the Guelph, Ont.-based professional home economist and recipe developer for Longo's.

Once you've made your choices, list ingredients needed and a step-by-step plan.

"For a lot of people sitting down and writing out a grocery list, that alone is a stress reliever because they know what they're getting, they know what they're going to do and then they're going to the store and getting what they need," she says.

Schedule a time to shop such as Sunday morning. Then spend a couple of hours making a few recipes that can be put in the freezer for later in the week and get ingredients ready that can be refrigerated to ease prep time for other dishes.

For example, make a large batch of meat loaf mixture. Use a portion for patties and freeze the remainder to serve as the base of meat loaf later in the week. Roast a cauliflower and reheat part of it for a side dish on Monday night and save the rest to add to a frittata on Wednesday night. Bake some potatoes, let them cool, then chop some for the frittata and reserve the rest to mash and top a shepherd's pie on Thursday.

"Your oven is going to be on. You just keep adding to it," explains Richards. "So you're going to bake off your meat loaf and then put your potatoes and cauliflower in and they're roasting, so you're getting all that out of the way while you're still chopping and doing other things and making efficient use of your time so that within a couple of hours all that stuff is done. While one is cooling and getting ready for the freezer you can be packing other things up."

Chop enough mushrooms and tomatoes to top tilapia on Tuesday evening and also go into chicken chili that can be prepped and frozen for Friday night. "Even though they're the same ingredients they taste different because you use different spices" and the side dishes will vary, she points out.

Other weekend tasks can include grating lemon zest and cooking rice.

Making big batches of lasagna, soup or chili — planned leftovers — is a great way to elevate lunches to tasty from ho-hum.

"I have one child that won't eat sandwiches, one that wants only one kind of sandwich and then one that you can give him anything and he's happy. His preference is always in a Thermos, so I'm always making extra for dinner so I can pack it for him," says Richards.

For her youngest, who just turned seven, Richards makes savoury muffins incorporating grated zucchini and carrots which provide a little sweetness, nutrients and fibre along with cheese and Greek yogurt for added protein. The youngster also likes "pancake tacos," plain pancakes which she doctors up herself with such ingredients as savoury ham or strawberries for a sweeter twist, then folds them like a taco.

Richards incorporates vegetables into their favourite food whenever possible. "I don't know too many kids who don't like pizza. I've grated carrots and zucchini or diced mushrooms and stirred it into the sauce and spread that on the base or changed it up a bit and mashed meatballs in it so it's more like a meat sauce so it's heartier. And then you can still put pepperoni or chicken or ham, whatever they like, on it."

Richards stocks a kitchen drawer with goldfish crackers, different cereals, dried fruit and pretzels so her children can create their own mixture. "They make it so they put what they like in it and then they'll eat it."

Get everyone in the household involved in food preparation, whether it's an hour on the weekend or to help get dinner on the table during the week. Older children can get dinner started, such as making a salad, prepping vegetables or putting a meat loaf in the oven and younger tykes can set the table.

"I'm so happy to say that I see that so much more often now where parents are getting their kids to do more and I think that's fabulous because it really does make the kitchen more efficient," Richards says.

"Someone's washing dishes or pots or that type of thing while someone is wiping something down or chopping something. It's just that teamwork that you see in professional kitchens. So to take it in smaller kitchens and work within smaller units I think is fabulous."

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