Mealtime cheats, shortcuts for crazy-busy parents

With two of my four kids out of the house, life has slowed down a little. But when everyone was home and I was homeschooling, our lives were crazy-busy, 24-7. To stay (relatively) sane, I rely on several corner-cutting tricks. One the biggest drains on time is meal preparation. Here are my best mealtime cheats and food preparation shortcuts.

* Use disposable dishes and paper products. I didn't use paper products daily, only when it was crazy-busy (like during dance recital season). At holidays, I used disposable pans. I know, environmentalists and penny-pinchers are aghast. Paper products are expensive and wasteful. Cloth napkins are more eco-friendly. We've never had a dishwasher, however. Even if we had, dishwashers don't save much time. They must be loaded and unloaded. Dishes have to be scraped and rinsed. And die-hard environmentalists, remember, washing machines and dishwashers drain natural resources, too. Penny-pinchers, don't forget to weigh water, energy and soap costs against paper products costs. Buying generic on sale as I do, it's an even draw, cost-wise (probably environmentally, too).

* Serve healthy packaged foods. It's more important to me that we enjoy tasty, nutritious meals together, than that meals are scrupulously organic or strictly homemade. I need meals that can be ready in 20-30 minutes. I'll trade quick and mostly-healthy foods for time with my family. I make most of the meal "from scratch" using some prepared ingredients. I use pre-cut, frozen and occasionally canned fruits and vegetables. I buy premade pizza crusts and added my own toppings. I keep frozen meals on-hand for emergencies (like when sons forget to mention that they volunteered you to bring four dozen cupcakes to the scout meeting!)

* Freeze vs. can. Whenever I hear of moms canning their own food, I feel a little guilty. I tried canning and found it took an inordinate amount of time and resources. We have a tiny kitchen and no room for a garden. I opted to invest in a second-hand freezer instead. I stock it with sale foods. I buy bulk produce on sale, prep it and freeze for quick meals. I make double meals: one to serve immediately and one for later. I bake dozens of cookies and freeze for school snacks.

* Prioritize. I can rarely save money, time and labor simultaneously. So I go for whatever I need most at the time. Managing the diverse demands of family life requires a lot of trade-offs. Sometimes I have to compromise some ideals.