I asked one of my empty nester friends if life ever slows down.

She laughed and explained that I have officially entered what she calls the “crescendo years” where the intensity gradually increases until the last child graduates and the chaos comes to an abrupt end. With my oldest child approaching high school graduation and my youngest approaching preschool, I have several crescendo years to come.

In all the chaos of raising our five kids, I have been drastically searching for and finding ways to save time and my sanity. I noticed that my lack of planning was forcing me to make multiple trips to the grocery store per week. My goal now is to do my shopping errands only one day each week. Advance meal planning and an electronic shopping list to which I immediately add items as I see that we need them have helped me not only save time but money as well. Pinterest has several free printable menu planners that I love to use.

I have implemented other tricks in an effort to save time in the kitchen. Those who have been following my column know that I am participating in an eight-week health challenge. To facilitate my new dietary guidelines, I precut many of my veggies, storing them in airtight containers easily accessible in the refrigerator. This cuts my meal prep time down considerably. It also makes it easier for me to stay on track with my goals. I just finished the fourth week and have lost 17 pounds thus far.

My other trick has been to cook food items that can be eaten now and later. I will make a batch of healthy muffins and will eat one and freeze the rest. Then I can pull one out of the freezer, microwave it for 60 seconds, and enjoy it later. I also will chop up onion, asparagus and bell pepper to freeze in individual freezer bags. I will sauté small amounts of a mixture of frozen veggies in a small amount of olive oil before scrambling an egg or two into the veggies for a healthy breakfast.

I also slow cook meat in larger batches that can be divided and used in multiple meals. Depending on whether or not I am craving beef or chicken, I will make either a batch of Italian shredded beef or a crockpot of salsa chicken. I can eat the Italian beef in a sandwich, in a tortilla with salsa or as part of a salad. The salsa chicken can be served over quinoa and brown rice, in a tortilla, or in a salad as well. Both recipes are simple and easy to make. Enjoy!

Italian Shredded Beef Sandwiches (

from “200 Slow Cooker Creations

”)

2-pound frozen chuck roast

1 envelope dry Italian salad dressing mix

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Hamburger buns

Place roast in a greased 3 ½- to 4 ½-quart slow cooker. Sprinkle the dry dressing mix and minced garlic over top. Cover and cook on low heat for 14-18 hours or on high heat for 6-8 hours. Before serving, remove fat and shred meat with two forks. Serve warm on hamburger buns (or in ways mentioned in article above).

If chuck roast is thawed, cook on low for eight hours before removing fat and shredding meat.

Salsa Chicken

2 ½- 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 cups salsa, any variety

Place chicken in a greased 3 ½- to 4 ½-quart slow cooker. Pour salsa evenly over chicken. Cover and cook on low heat for six to eight hours. Before serving, remove any fat and shred meat with two forks. If there is excess liquid after meat is shredded, cook meat for an additional 30-60 minutes uncovered. Serve over rice with a little bit of cheddar cheese sprinkled on top, in a tortilla garnished with salsa, or in a salad with black beans, lettuce, chopped tomatoes and Bolthouse Farms Cilantro Avocado Yogurt Dressing.

Stephanie Ashcraft, author of 23 cookbooks including her newest

101 Things to Do With Rice

and best selling

101 Things to Do with a Cake Mix

, lives in Salem, Utah, with her husband and 5 children. Cooking is her hobby gone out of control. She and her books have appeared in numerous television programs, radio shows, newspapers, and magazines nationwide.

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