It hasn’t been easy changing from my former, single-person to early married life style of cooking — going to the store almost daily to pick great ingredients to cook a tasty meal — to my current style of cooking — get something edible on the table by 5:30 (after picking kids up at daycare at 5:00) or else suffer toddler breakdown and radically alter bedtime routine. I’ve been
obsessing focusing on it, to various degrees, for maybe a little more than a year now, and I am proud to say that we’ve transitioned from boxed mac and cheese with peas at least once a week to no boxed meals. I’ve found a few strategies really helpful.
1. Keep a pot and skillet on your stove at all times. A while back, I read an article with this piece of advice: always keep a pot of water on your stove, and turn it on as soon as you get home. If you decide to make pasta or use it in some other way, you’ve already got a head start on dinner. If not, no big deal. I don’t quite go that far, but I do keep a medium-sized pot (the one I find myself using most often) and our cast-iron skillet on the stove. Most of my fast meals use one or both of these, and although it doesn’t save much time having them out, it’s nice to have one thing done already.
Similarly, we keep olive oil, garlic, onions, salt, pepper, our knives, the spice cabinet, and a cutting board right next to the stove. It makes it so easy to just toss those ingredients in.
2. Make two, freeze one. This is obvious, but worth mentioning. I do this with any slow-cooker meals, meats and Mexican rice for our taco nights, and pizza dough. We do Mexican food and pizza pretty much every week, and my freezer is usually stocked with at least part of each meal.
3. Keep the entire meal in one bag. Again, kind of obvious, especially if you read food blogs or Pinterest, but by putting the individual freezer bags of, say, the Mexican rice, chile verde, and tortillas in one giant bag, you just pull out one bag for the meal. No digging around in the freezer.
4. Clear out your fridge before you go shopping. I stole this idea from Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: The Playbook. Pick one day to be your shopping day every week. Before you go to the grocery store, go through your entire fridge and see what you can save. Have some extra berries? Add them to a freezer bag to toss in smoothies later on. Wondering what to do with the dried-up baby carrots? Put it in a freezer bag of vegetables for stock. (I have one for stock veggies — celery, onion, carrots — and one for chicken. When I have a full bag of the chicken, I add it to a stock pot with half the veggies.) Cut up fruit, veggies, etc. for healthy snacks and put them out or pack them for the next day’s snacks. If you have a baby just starting solids, those leftover-but-still-good veggies can be cooked, pureed, and frozen for them.
5. Prep when you get back from the grocery store. I don’t stick to this exactly, but early in the week, I make pizza dough (if we don’t have any frozen) and chop meat (and freeze it if I fear it will go bad before I can cook it). I have not yet done this, but I want to start packing healthy snacks for my toddler for the days that I have the kiddos and for the car ride home from daycare.
6. Cook the same things over and over. As I mentioned, we do Mexican food and pizza each once a week. Bug loves steak and Dave loves pork chops, so we usually alternate between those. That’s three nights when I generally know what I’m doing, cooking-wise. I’ve toyed with the idea of adding some more categories: slow-cooker, noodles, sandwiches. But I rotate those things in, anyway.
7. Follow your plan, no matter how inappropriate it seems to the weather. We had a heat wave on a pizza night a couple of weeks ago. I still made pizza. In the oven, even. It might not have been the best idea, comfort-wise, but I didn’t have to come up with a new plan for dinner.
The next step for me will be diving into the world of freezer meals (lasagnas, etc.) and slow-cooker recipes. COME ON, FALL! I am looking forward to cold weather.