Because I have this blog and an acknowledged overabundance of cookbooks, it’s probably pretty clear that I like to cook new things. But I also work full time, have a husband in graduate school, and a busy toddler running around, so people frequently ask me how I manage a homecooked meal every night, not to mention coming up with new things to post. The truth is, I often end up with a glass of wine and a toddler sitting on the counter, “helping” (and making things more difficult). Anyway, I’ve put together this blog post with ways to keep dinner on the table while avoiding the fast food drive thru without burning yourself out – tactics I think Jenny Rosenstrach would approve of. Many people have written about this topic (Jenny’s entire blog is devoted to it, and she has great advice), but these are my few cents on the issue of making dinner happen.
Get into a meal planning habit. The first step is meal planning. Those words may be anathema to you, but they are the key to my sanity. I happen to enjoy the process of meal planning, but then, I’m a list maker by nature. However, you don’t have to love meal planning and grocery shopping to benefit from the efficiency of taking a planned approach. Every Saturday, I make a meal plan for the following week (I have this menu pad that I love, but a plain sheet of paper or the notepad on your iPhone will work just as well), then I create a corresponding grocery list and do the shopping sometime between Saturday morning and Sunday night. You can certainly make this more complicated with a meal planning app that has a lot of bells and whistles, will keep you browsing meal options for hours before you pick anything to cook, will compare grocery store prices for you and then send you to four stores to do your shopping in the interest of saving money (but killing your precious free time). This can quickly become burdensome and end up discouraging you. I say keep it simple: one meal plan on paper, one grocery list, one store most of the time.
Stay stocked. Another tactic to help put homecooked meals on your table is to keep a well-stocked pantry, fridge, and freezer, not with pre-cooked items but with staple ingredients in larger quantities, so that you aren’t running out of those items all the time. This minimizes your grocery list (and thus, your time in the store) most weeks and also means you’ll have the means to make a meal on hand for days and weeks when planning gets away from you, like the day you return home from a business trip. Stocking up can be easy and less expensive if you belong to one of the big box stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, where your membership pays for itself in the percentage of returns you earn by shopping there. We paid for our initial Costco membership, and haven’t had to pay since – our returns check every year basically covers our membership renewal. I make a quick trip to Costco every couple of weeks to replenish anything I’ve run out of (I keep a separate running Costco shopping list for this purpose), and it’s virtually painless. I get an iced coffee and get ‘er done (with a quick stop in the book aisle for a little happiness on the side). I also buy some fresh things at Costco, things we consume a lot of like milk, eggs, and produce, but I avoid the pre-packaged meals and freezer items that contain a lot of preservatives and sodium. I can pull off a pot of spaghetti, chicken soup, or this curry pretty much any time. Here are some of the staple items I keep on hand:
- Organic chicken and beef stock
- Dried pasta and rice
- Canned beans
- Canned organic tomatoes
- Organic tomato sauce and tomato paste
- Seasonings, sauces, vinegars, oils, red and white wine
- Frozen corn and peas
- Flour, sugar (evaporated cane juice), and other baking items
- Lean ground beef (divide into 1 lb. freezer bags)
- Organic chicken breasts and thighs (sold in freezer-ready packages)
- Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach (her website is equally good, as are her two other books)
- Nigella Kitchen by Nigella Lawson
- Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes by Jamie Oliver
- The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten (and Barefoot Contessa At Home, as well)
- The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier by Ree Drummond (her first cookbook is great, too, but I find myself going to this one more often.
Make extra and freeze it. If you’re cooking something freezer-friendly, this is a great way to put a dinner away for a night when cooking just isn’t going to happen. It can save you from pizza or a meal in a box on nights when your best-laid plans fall apart. Just seal the extras in plastic zippered freezer bags, label them, and you’re good to go. What’s nice about using freezer bags is that you can stack them in the freezer flat, one on top of another.
Always have a Plan B in your back pocket. You might be thinking, “But I have a picky eater in my gang, and no matter what I cook, I never feel like dinner is a success!” I don’t have a whole lot of experience with picky eaters (yet), but these days, L’s taste is changing from week to week, and we’re having a tough time keeping up. I never know if she’s going to eat what I set in front of her at dinner or reject it. It’s a crapshoot. So I always have a backup of something else she likes – cottage cheese and peaches, a nitrate-free turkey hot dog, pasta with alfredo sauce. Something simple, that doesn’t take a ton of extra effort on my part, so that I don’t feel like a short-order cook. And there is always, always fruit to end with (because she will always eat fruit, and if I give it to her first, she definitely won’t eat anything else). As she gets older and continues to be picky about food, we’ll probably change tactics, but I’m not gearing up for a war. There are some impossible picky eaters out there (my nephew Max is super challenging, and my sister could probably spend hours recounting every tactic she’s tried to get him to try new things to no avail), and sometimes surrender is the better part of valor. Anyway, Jenny would say it’s more important to get everyone at the table together if you can, and not worry about whether they’re all eating the same food.
Join a meal exchange group. This is not something I’m doing currently, but I think it’s worth mentioning anyway, because it’s a fantastic idea. Some of my friends who are young moms belong to monthly meal exchange groups. A meal exchange group is basically a pack of women who spend one Saturday a month cooking one thing that freezes well (for example, chicken tettrazini) in mass quantity, multiplying the recipe by however many women are in the group. They package it into disposable freezer containers and meet up to exchange meals. Granted, this will not get you a month’s worth of meals – it will only get you the same number of meals as there are members of the group – but it’s nice to have options in the freezer for busy nights. If you know enough interested women, and you can manage one Saturday a month devoted to making your contribution, it can be well worth it to form a meal exchange group.
Give yourself a night off. We do takeout on Friday nights, which is an idea I stole from my sister-in-law Jen. At the end of a busy week, I need a night off from the kitchen. This rejuvenates me, giving me a respite from the work of preparing meals and allowing me to approach meal planning and shopping with a good attitude the next day. It doesn’t have to be fancy – we often pick up Chipotle (thank God for online ordering), grab burgers at Five Guys or chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A, or call in for Chinese. If you’re more a sit-down restaurant person, then by all means, you deserve a table and waitstaff for a night. This does not replace the all-important date night, by the way.
There are some great mom blogs out there that provide weekly meal plans, including a grocery list, but I never seem to want to cook what they’re cooking, and I have too many recipes I already like, as most moms do. I don’t want to throw it all out the window and follow someone else’s menu plan. So I plan my week of dinners based on the season, what sounds good, what we ate last week, what’s already in the pantry and freezer, the next new thing I want to try from my cookbook library, and our schedule (read: easy things on school nights). This is the system that works for me. I encourage you to find one that works for you.
Good luck, and happy cooking!