Some people believe that eating food prepared from scratch and having a full time job are mutually exclusive… or a recipe for exhaustion. It’s not true. I know this, because I’ve had that 9-5 job, a kid who required a lot of scratch food, and a commute. The secret, as anyone who has ever been in the restaurant industry can tell you, is: prep.
Here’s some handy rules to keep your family eating better all week long… even when it comes to packed lunches!
1 – Set aside an hour or two on the weekend to make the whole week E-Z Mode.
I know it kind of sucks to have to dedicate part of your weekend to it, but it’s totally worth it when you’re not running frazzled Monday to Friday. And if you think about it, if you try out my other suggestions, you could be spending less time total in the kitchen than you would be if you cooked more frequently.
2 – Use your stove more efficiently.
If you’ve got a standard stove, then you have at least four burners and an oven that has two racks. Why use just one burner and make a 15 minute one pan meal, when you can have two burners… or the whole thing going at once (I like to call this “expert mode”)? If you’re just starting out at this, pair two dishes together: a simple one that doesn’t require a lot of hands-on attention with one that does.
For example: throw a casserole or two in the oven with Balsamic Chicken with Grains and Greens or start up some one pot meals that are even better the next day, like Creamy Vegan Four Grain Soup or Pork Stew with Cider and Apples at the same time you’re throwing together spaghetti?
3 – Go big or go home.
Whether or not you use your weekend to cook ahead… why cook a single meal for four people when you can double it and have a day of leftovers? Why roast only one chicken when you could roast two? Why make two cups of rice when you can make four? Why chop only one meal’s worth of vegetables when you can julienne three day’s worth in a few more minutes?
4 – Have some reliable, fast, versatile recipes that you can make with a little advanced cooking.
Sometimes families make leftovers a pain. But you can still cook things like hamburger and chicken breasts ahead for quick use in super-fast recipes. Cultivate a list of usual suspects. For me, one of those is spaghetti olio e aglio, a 10 minute pasta dish with garlic and olive oil. Toss in chicken, toss in peppers–just about whatever you might have in the fridge? This recipe will make it work.
5 – Use your freezer properly.
Food that gets left to rot is not only a waste of money, but it’s a waste of your time and energy. Your freezer can freeze more than you might think it can. You don’t have to have complete ready-made meals; try storing parts of meals–things like rice and pasta, sliced peppers and onions, and even cubed chicken–for quick and near-future use. Having items like this stored in the freezer can cut your cooking time in half.
6 – Store your food in a way that you’ll be disciplined about using your leftovers.
I find that keeping food pre-portioned in individual meals is fabulous to grab quickly for lunches. Stews and casseroles get eaten faster when they’re saved in larger, family-sized containers that can be stacked vertically on the top shelf rather than hidden on the skinny shelf at the bottom of the fridge in a casserole dish.
Store meats in a way that’s handy for everyone and not just the cook. Quarter whole roasted chickens, or julienne some or part of leftover chicken breasts. That way, hungry kids and spouses might just help themselves…
7 – Having good storage containers makes or breaks the advanced prep system (especially at #6).
All of the other things I’ve mentioned are moot if the items are stored poorly. Don’t store things in foil or plastic wrap unless you want them to dry out or get lost until they turn to slime. So here’s my experience with storage containers:
The glass storage containers that you might find at a place like Costco are very nice, but they tend to be a little small, and they are expensive and heavy. They stack OK, but you might sprain your wrists moving a bunch of them around at once.
“Cheap” throwaway/giveaway plastic tub storage containers aren’t very durable and tend to crack in short order. The only thing shorter than their life expectancy is the length of time you’ll be able to keep track of the lids (which stack even worse than the containers do). Because of high turnover, they’re actually the most expensive option over time, in my experience.
Your best investment is a quality tub like the Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids, which comes in both glass and heavy-duty plastic. The plastic ones are great in the microwave, dishwasher and freezer, which is where the thinner plastic containers tend to wilt. They’re sturdy enough to stack when loaded up with heavy foods, come in an excellent assortment of sizes, and–when they’re between uses–nest efficiently. And best of all… their lids lock. Not only can they be attached to the bottom of the container they belong to (excellent in the case of travelling potlucks, etc.), they can also be locked to one another, meaning that the lids don’t get jammed stuck in drawers or lost somewhere. In fact, with these, you can do away with the “drawer” altogether if you want to and stack them on the shelf… they’ll stand vertically on their own this way (see photo below).
If these last half as long as the last set of Rubbermaid tubs I bought did, they’ll be cheaper than the “cheap” ones in the long run by an order of magnitude and therefore a much better value. Though they didn’t break the bank by a long shot… I picked up another 24 piece set at Wally world for under $20.
Disclosure: I am part of the Rubbermaid Blogger Campaign with Mom Central Canada and I receive special perks as part of my affiliation with this group. The opinions on this blog are my own.