Monday, January 19, 2009

What's for dinner?

I get asked constantly: how do you find time to cook so much? The reality is, my husband and I have really busy and sometimes unpredictable schedules. I truly don’t have the time to put together complicated meals on weeknights. I usually save my more ambitious cooking plans for weekends. That being said, I do have a few strategies for successful weeknight cooking. None of this is groundbreaking material, but I figured I’d share what works for me.

Make a meal plan for the week – I usually start with the weekly grocery ad to see what’s on sale and in season. I also try to choose weeknight recipes that won’t take more than 30 minutes. I only grocery shop once a week, so I plan my use of produce for the week based on shelf life. A bag of carrots will last much longer in the fridge than a bag of spinach, so the spinach gets used up first and the carrots get saved for later in the week. I write my menu plan and grocery list on the same paper – that way, if I’m in the store and they don’t have exactly what I need, I can refer back to my original menu and adjust accordingly.

Prepare in advance – On Sundays, I take about an hour to get my ingredients ready for the week. I wash and cut up as much produce as is feasible, grate cheese, make sauces, etc. I don’t cut up anything that will discolor or degrade too quickly, so sometimes I only get two or three day’s worth of produce processed. But you know what? It still saves me a lot of time during the week.

before and after
Keep a well stocked freezer and pantry – I tend to be pretty organized and I’m always thinking ahead. Whenever feasible, I make extra of sauces and soups for the freezer. Bear in mind that not all soups and sauces can be successfully frozen, so use your judgment. When meat goes on sale, I buy extra and freeze it. I almost always have a bag of frozen peas or corn in the house. If you were to open my freezer right now, you’d find everything from kaffir lime leaves to buddha’s hand zest to bread and chicken stock. If your freezer is well stocked, it’s not difficult to put together a quick meal.

Along the same lines, make sure you have all the basics in your pantry. I always have an assortment of grains and beans, a few different types of oils, olives, a variety of nuts, canned tomatoes and salt packed capers. I also try to keep bittersweet chocolate in the house for baking emergencies.

Once I’ve taken the time to prepare in advance for the upcoming week, I find that it’s quite feasible to have a healthy and delicious meal on the table without too much hassle. I’d love to hear from all of you – what are your tips for making quick meals? What are the pantry and freezer staples that you can’t live without?


46 comments:

Rosie Hawthorne said...

Lovely veggies in your picture.

Let's see, what's always in my pantry: every type of tomato - sauces, pastes, diced, whole etc., canned corn, numerous pastas and rices, various oils - several olive oils, walnut, sesame, grapeseed, macadamia, truffle, to name a few,
rice flour, cornmeal, bread flour, cake flour, AP flour, wheat flour, semolina flour, stone ground grits, every spice known to man, my homemade canned salsas and jalapenos, tapioca, rice, or soy sheets and Nori for sushi roll ups.

In my freezer: homemade chicken stock, turkey stock, veal stock, beef stock, pesto frozen in ice cube trays, bacon, deer, chicken, beef cuts, pork, and at any time, about 25-50 pounds of shrimp.

In fridge: I MUST have my lemons.
Then cheeses of every sort, tortillas always, my seasoned infused oils I made, soy sauces, Tamari, chili/garlic sauce, Texas Pete, Wasabi, capers, horseradishes.

I always buy meat in bulk on sale.
At any time, I could whup up a meal for 10 or more and would just need to get additional fresh veggies.

And that's not counting my year-round garden.
In spring, I have spinach, lettuces, radishes, and snow peas.
In summer I have all sorts of peppers, tomatoes, squash and zucchini. In fall and winter,
more spinach, lettuce, radishes, snow peas, and greens - collards, kale, turnip, and chard.

Oh the herb garden. I have parsley year-round, even in snow. And oregano, rosemary, sage, thymes, and fennel year-round. Cilantro and tarragon in spring-fall.

Did I miss anything?

Probably.

Selba said...

Here in Jakarta, we don't need to go for grocery shopping or going to the market oftenly because it's really easy to buy fresh vegetables and fruits. There are always men with their carts walking around selling vegetables and fruits, even fresh fish.

My basic ingredients in the kichen which are always available are: salt, pepper, sugar, vinegar, garlic, shallot, chilies, ginger, soya sauces (sweet and salty), nutmeg, coriander seeds, tomato sauce, cooking oils (olive oil, sesame, oil, corn oil, vegie oil), flour (wheat flour, corn starch, tapioca flour).

Marissa said...

Planning ahead is key! On Sunday I write out possible weekly meal ideas and put the list on the fridge. Then when I get off work I call my husband and he starts prepping stuff. I can't follow a strict day to day meal plan so coming up with a weekly one works for us.

Balance, Joy and Delicias! said...

great idea to wash and cut all produce in advance. I found lazy sometimes during the week night to cook because I have to wash everything.
:D

Elra said...

Wow, you are very organize girl. Hmmm, I go to my grocery every other day, and cook what ever I find that day. My freezer will be full of frozen berries and tropical fruit. Ice cream ( is a must), and hard to find Asian herbs. Interesting post dear!
Cheers,
Elra

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

I always make a batch of bread to freeze, I keep a few tins in my cupboards (corn, tomato, tuna) and buy lots of fresh vegetables that are easy to use (fennel, carrots, cooked beetroot, cabbage, sauerkraut, etc...).

Cheers,

Rosa

Lorraine @NotQuiteNigella said...

Stir fries and noodles are quick and fresh and we tend to do a lot of rice paper rolls when we're in a hurry :) That organic purple cabbage looks picture perfect!

Pearl said...

wow! you are SO organized :)

Cakelaw said...

Weirdly, I can't live without baked beans, because it is the perfect emergency dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner - if you have a can of beans, you won't go hungry.

Culinarywannabe said...

Great tips. Especially about prepping veggies as much as possible the weekend before. I find this helps so much in a time crunch. Personally I'm a big fan of the slow cooker for helping save time. If I know I won't be home till late, I'll throw some stuff in it in the morning and be thrilled with the dinner we have when we get home.

Jamie said...

Wow Sara! I am so impressed, you are so organized. I can just never do that. My pantry staples are flour, sugar, chocolate chips, vanilla, then milk, eggs and butter. See the way things work chez moi? Let them eat cake!!!

But there is always pasta, salad, tomatoes, cheeses, fruit, hummous. But once we move farther away from the grocery store I will have to do more of what you do.

Happy cook said...

I allways have loads in my pantry.
Especially tinned tomatoes,tineed beans, etc...........
Flour,rcie, pasta all the normal things which i buy and keep for a whole month. Not to mention the spices and herbs.
Including chocolate , nuts butter etc for my baking.
Veggies i buy once a week.
I also prepare things in double and freeze them, so i always have something in my freezer which is homemade, just have to take and reheat them in MW or in a pan.
My list would go on and on withiout a end :-)

Katherine Aucoin said...

You have the key. I try to plan my meals ahead and grocery shop accordingly. Usually everything gets washed when I get home fromthe store, but not chopped.

5 Star Foodie said...

I usually have tortellini in my freezer that I can just boil and serve with some kind of sauce if I don't have time or don't feel like cooking that night. Otherwise, I usually don't spend more than 30 minutes on weeknight meals - searing meat/fish in a skillet is pretty quick. I wish I was more organized but I usually don't know what I am making until half way through the cooking process. I do always have a full pantry so that helps :)

eatme_delicious said...

Excellent planning. I had planned to cook more on Sunday so I don't have to do as much on weeknights but that hasn't seemed to happen. I like your idea of preparing the vegetables though. The kinds of things I keep on hand for easy weeknight meals are frozen vegetables, jars of red sauce, dry pasta and beans. Nothing too exciting there!

Peggy said...

these are great tips! I work so it is good to do some preparation on the weekend. Thanks for some good ideas!

Pam said...

Excellent post. I too prep my veggies in advance - it saves so much time.

Grace said...

well i declare--those are some amazing and useful tips! i like the way you work, as it's efficient yet still results in complete satisfaction. :)

Natashya said...

I do keep a well stocked pantry, and have been trying to plan the night before what I will be making for dinner.. in case I have to soak beans, etc.
I am finding that this artisan bread in 5 minutes a day is very handy for a quick homemade loaf for dinner. I love that I always have a bucket of dough in the bar fridge at the ready - of course, when I have time, I still love to bake other kinds of bread..

I think all of your ideas are excellent ones, very helpful!

Robin Sue said...

Hi Sara- Great tips you have here, I should obey the one about cutting up veggies so that I can have salads ready to go for us. Some things I keep on hand is a can of white beans for a great dip. Cream Cheese for anything and everything, great for a last nimute dip. I do make a lot of my own mixes to have on hand for baking such as cake mixes, brownie, and pudding mixes all done from scratch so that I can control the sugar levels. I love to keep browned ground beef in the freezer for soups, chili, or a quick bolognaise sauce. Then I ussually have a case of Pastene Kitchen Ready on hand too. Great Post!!

Usha said...

Hey Sara you really are very organized and well prepared for the week.Normally I plan roughly the items I will make during the week. My pantry is always stocked with a lot of spices and lots of regular stuff like grains, lentils, brown rice etc :-)

Barbara said...

Sara, you are so organized and I appreciate your great ideas. Since it is only my husband and I now, I don't seem to follow up on my home cooked dinner plans. I usually am cooking for a contest, so have tons of things in my pantry and freezer.

Sara said...

Rosie - I have tons of spices too, that's definitely a separate post!

Cakelaw - You can't go wrong with canned beans!

Culinarywannabe - I love my slow cooker too, but I don't use it nearly often enough.

Natashya - I've heard so many good things about Artisan Bread in Five. I make no-knead bread all the time, but I think I need to switch over to the new technique.

Robin Sue - Love the idea of homemade cake and brownie mixes.

Lisa said...

Great tips! I always have a lot of staples in my pantry and we own a big deep freezer so we always have something on hand that can be made quick.

The Blonde Duck said...

I love the produce chopping tips. That would save a lot of time.

I cook meat for casseroles/ soups/ pasta dishes in advance and freeze it or put it in the fridge. I also cook larger dishes on the weekends that can be frozen and eaten during the week for one or two days, leaving simple meals like quesdillas or fried chicken during the week.

Maria said...

I am a huge believer in planning ahead! I always plan our meals before we go shopping! I shop the sales too! I like to make extra to freeze! We have two freezers!!

noble pig said...

All great ideas...I need to get organized!

Anonymous said...

What a helpful post! Thanks.

Helene said...

I stay at home so I have time to shop and cook everyday. I like to make all my meals fresh and we don't eat the same thing twice during the week. If I was working it would be a different story. You always make great meals.

Dragon said...

A well stocked pantry is my trick for quick meals. Preparing the veggies ahead of time is a great idea!

Maris said...

I get asked the same question: "How do you have time to cook so much?" And I'm so confused by that question. For some people, cooking is a chore but since I enjoy it, I look forward to cooking when I get home from work. Just like some people play soccer or knit or go to concerts, some of us like to putter around in the kitchen :)

anudivya said...

You are very organized Sara. I could learn a thing or two from you... nice pics and nice ideas.

Karin said...

I hate to waste food and try to shop only once in the week. The freezer is always full of moose meat, fish, stews, berries and leftovers. In the cold Sweden we are used to keeping food "fresh" by freezing it.

What's always in my fridge? Potatoes, carrots, onions, juice, cheese, butter, oil, vinegar, eggs, ketchup, mustard, teriyaki sauce, sambal oelek, Chinese and Japanese Soy, Thai Sweet Chili Sauce ...

Lo said...

Great tips! We find that a well-stocked freezer is key. We stock up when prices are low, so we always have plenty on hand.

We've also got plenty in the pantry. Canned tomatoes are a staple, as is chicken stock and all sorts of beans.

Holler said...

I cannot believe how organised you are. I am put to shame! I have little or no plan, but I am always stocked up on veg, tins of tomatoes and pulses. Maybe that is why I eat so much soup :

Tammy said...

What great advice for keeping your kitchen ready for a delicious meal! Having all that beautiful, colorful food chopped and ready go makes healthy eating so much easier. Thanks for the tips!

Jessica@Foodmayhem said...

Your post is exactly what I tell my busy friends to do!

Here's a little on my pantry, click here.

Erica said...

Hey girl! Great post, couldn't agree more! I like cooking chicken breasts ahead of time (so they're ready to be thrown into meals like pastas, salads, stirfrys, etc). Staples: Beans, fast cooking rice, tons of fresh veggies, nuts, fruit!

Donna-FFW said...

Great question. In my pantry I always have tomato paste, stewed, crushed, diced tomatoes. Chicken and beef broths, peanut butter, all different jams, flour, sugars, vanilla, choc chips, cocoa, all types beans(black, cannelini..),sun dried tomatoes, all types spices, honey, soy sauce, teriyaki, tamari, all types vinegars, salsas, powdered dressings, OMG.. the list never ends. In my fridge, I always like to have buttermilk, sour cream, mayo, horseradish, all types mustard, lemons, oranges, usually jarred cherry peppers, all types, so much. I could go on, but I'll get carried away. I could drag my laptop over there and go to town:)Great question. Interesting comments!

Brownies for Dinner said...

I'm not worthy... you are so super organized. I am organized in spurts, but have been buckling down lately to plan out some meals (not quite all). And have started to do some prep for my lunches so I can easily pack a healthy lunch and snacks for work (otherwise who knows what I'll eat... or if I'll eat which is worse).
I don't really plan exact menus for a week's worth of dinners, I do stock things that give me options within a certain range: tomato sauce and cheese could be used for pasta or pizza or a calzone... Vegetables that could go in a stir fry or salad, etc. And then I go with the mood of the day.
At some point I hope to be more organized :)

Apples and Butter said...

I am very, very impressed. I aspire to plan and prep that way, but it just never happens! I usually resort to grocery shopping on my lunch break, throwing the food in the office fridge and then carting it home to make the evening meal. Maybe one day I'll change!

Olga said...

Those are some mad organization skills! Very impressive.

The Food Hunter said...

I always try and plan my meals in advance and do as much prep work on Sunday. It just makes weeknight dinners that much easier. Thanks for sharing your tips.

Yasmeen said...

Thanks!I'll save this for when I start working:)

ChefBliss.com said...

I admire you so much! My dream is to prep all my produce once a week. But I just never do!! I tell myself it's because I don't know how I will want to use it when the time comes. :) My go to items are garlic, anything chipotle, chicken broth, lime, and a few others. We always have lentils in the cupboard and chicken in the freezer. Thanks for a great article!

Barbara Bakes said...

That's very impressive! I don't think to prepare my produce ahead of time, but it's a great idea. I often end up wasting produce.

One thing I do like to do is cook once, eat twice. So I'll have steak one night and cook an extra and then another day I'll use the extra steak for beef and broccoli.