I recently had to travel for work. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, the reality of the fact that I am in charge of our family’s meals becomes very apparent. Over the years, my husband and I have come to understand that if I am traveling on a weekend, he can take care of things without much help, but if the travel is during the week, then some planning and preparation is necessary.
It isn’t that my husband can’t cook, he actually has a number of meals that he makes very well, but he is not a weekday cook. It takes him a long time to get anything on the table. This can work on weekends, but on school/work days when time is short, things can get stressful fast.
In talking with others I have found that in many partnerships, it is common for one person to be the family cook, while the other person takes on other responsibilities (oftentimes the dishes). Given that this is a common reality, I thought it would be helpful to share some tricks for meal planning for when mom (or dad) is away.
Meal Planning for When Mom (or Dad) is Away
Make Mornings Easy
Getting through the morning routine, including making sure breakfasts are eaten and lunches packed, is hard enough on a regular day, but when you are down one set of helpful hands, then anything to streamline the process is a lifesaver. So when I am going to be away, I try to make sure that there are simple breakfast options ready to go (The Scramble’s make-ahead breakfast options are super helpful here, sign up for a two-week free trial to see how we make both dinner and breakfast planning and prep easier).
Pre-Prep Lunch Items
In our family, both the boys and my husband bring their lunches to school/work everyday. On a normal morning, while my husband is on breakfast duty, I am usually packing up his lunch and making sure the components for the boys’ lunches are ready for them to pack themselves. My husband can’t do both jobs at once, so I try to make sure there are some of the boys’ favorite lunch options ready and waiting in the freezer or fridge for them to grab and go. Some recent favorites have been tomato soup and breadsticks and baked chimichangas.
Bonus tip: if you don’t want to fruits and vegetables to be forgotten, I recommend washing and pre-slicing some regular favorites for grab-n-go lunch packing.
Double Those Dishes
Probably the simplest solution for everyone involved is to double batches of a few favorite meals that you make in the weeks leading up to your trip. You can then freeze the dishes for when your partner needs them while you are away.
This will mean that you don’t have to put in much extra effort and yet the meals are ready to go. Some of our favorite options for this include soups, stews, and casseroles.
Prepare the Components
Many delicious dishes can be pulled together incredibly quickly if the components are prepared ahead of time. Rice or another grain can become a fried rice or pilaf. Roasted vegetables can be reheated for a simple side or can be included in a build-your-own night, like bean and rice bowls. Chopped up raw vegetables are great in a salad, but can also be used in sandwiches, stir fries, and bean and rice bowls. If you prepare a few components ahead of time, then your partner can have some flexibility in what they prepare, while still getting dinner on the table quickly.
If All Else Fails, Pre-Prepared Food
The most important aspect of family dinners is the time together, not the food. So falling back on take out or microwave meals may be the perfect solution. And guess what, everyone will be just fine!
How I Prepared for My Trip
These were the techniques I used to meal plan for when mom was away in our house. Here’s what it actually looked like in practice.
First, a reality check. The weekend before all of this travel was intensely busy. We had a soccer game, rock concert, and sleepover birthday party planned, so my time for cooking was very limited. Therefore, I had to use the time I was already cooking very carefully to maximize what I could offer.
Make-Ahead Breakfasts Made
Luckily I already had a sizeable stockpile of some of our favorite make-ahead breakfast options in the freezer, so all I did was also make sure that there were enough eggs in the house, since my older son is on a major scrambled eggs kick right now.
It was a super wacky school week this week with two school-related overnight trips for the boys while I was away (I know, crazy timing), which meant that lunches needed to be a bit more flexible than usual. So I stocked the freezer with one of their lunchbox favorites, calzones, so that they could just grab one, throw some fruits and vegetables into the lunchbox, and be done. I also got in some favorite options for “bread and cheese platter” lunches including French bread, sliced ham, cheeses, olives, and dip.
A few weeks ago I made a baked macaroni and cheese. At the time, I doubled the recipe and froze a smaller casserole dish of it for the guys to pull out while I was away. The extra bonus: there was enough in the casserole that they could have it for dinner and lunch the next day, so two meals were covered.
I knew that my husband wanted to make his specialty, Brazilian-style fried rice, one night while I was away, so I made sure that all of his favorite components were ready and waiting in the freezer and pantry including rice, eggs, black beans, and frozen spinach.
Once we were all home together I asked everyone how it went and here’s what I learned.
The Freezer Saved the Day
My poor husband had a ton to juggle on his own with band rehearsals, music lessons, a super busy week at work, and having to pack and unpack the boys stuff for two different overnight trips, so having dishes like the calzones and macaroni and cheese that required nothing but reheating was a life savor.
Prepared Meals = Fewer Dishes
The pre-made meals that I had frozen not only were valuable because they required little to no effort to prepare, but also because there was almost no clean up. The fact that he didn’t have a giant pile of dishes to wash saved his sanity.
There Are Other Helping Hands
I was so focused on the fact that I wouldn’t be there to help that I forgot about the other two sets of hands that would be there. My husband reported that both boys stepped in and were helpful in getting dinner on the table and lunches made.
The Hard Part Wasn’t the Food
This may seem obvious, but while the prepared meals were helpful and definitely appreciated, the hardest part of it all for my husband was the having to take care of the logistical stuff like driving kids to activities, overseeing homework, and packing them for their trips, not the food. I’m glad I was able to take the food piece off his plate but, as it would be for anyone, flying solo was the most challenging part and that he just had to figure out on his own.
Do you travel a lot of work? If so, what are your tricks for meal planning when mom (or dad) is away?
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