Recently, I blogged about running my home kitchen like a restaurant kitchen in order to ensure we get a nutritious, home-cooked meal each night, even though my hands are full taking care of a 2-month-old baby. I was going to try to prep ingredients for meals ahead of time so that when it was dinner time, I only had to finish up the cooking.
So how’s it going? On many days, I am able to prep when my son takes his afternoon nap, and on those days, we have a great dinner. On those days when he doesn’t take a nap as expected, or I get caught up doing other things and forget to do the meal prep, we are still not resorting to takeout. Rather, I am keeping the freezer stocked with a few quick and easy options that might not be as healthy as a fully home-cooked meal but are certainly better than carryout pizza. These include:
- veggie burgers
- chicken sausages (which are already fully cooked and only need to be thawed by poaching in a pot of boiling water and can be served hoagie-style)
- the old fallback, scrambled eggs
- frozen potatoes for a side — I love the organic Alexia brand, which includes oven fries, red potato wedges and the perennial favorite, tater tots; these are the best frozen potatoes I’ve found, and they make good dinner rolls too
- salad, either quickly made or using a vinaigrette I made earlier in the week
We have managed to reduce our meals out to once a week, which was my goal, and I think my husband and I are both seeing the results at our waistlines.
Here are some things I’ve learned so far:
- Plan a week’s menu ahead of time. Even if I don’t manage to make everything on the menu, I don’t have to think each day about what we’re going to eat. Meals I don’t get to can usually be carried over to the next week. Also, planning the menu ensures that we eat all the fresh produce I buy.
- Simple recipes are key. I look for recipes that have fewer than 10 ingredients — the fewer the better — and don’t have a lot of complex steps. It is important to read the recipe ahead of time, preferably when making up the weekly menu.
- Look for recipes that cook quickly. Once all the prepping is done, the final cooking time should be 30 minutes or less. So if I start dinner when my husband gets home and can take the baby, we’re not eating at 8:00. Or…
- Look for recipes that can be adapted to the slow cooker. I just broke down and got a slow cooker, but I need to use it more. Soups, stews, chilis, roasted dinners and braises can all be done on the slow cooker.
- Adapt and substitute. Sometimes I start to cook and realize I ran out of or didn’t get an ingredient that’s called for. But I don’t have to be a slave to the recipe. I usually can find something that will work as a substitute in the fridge, freezer or pantry, which saves a trip to the store.
- Make extra and refrigerate or freeze for later. I used to try to cut down recipes to serve 2, but now I just go ahead and make the full recipe and freeze or refrigerate the leftovers (some dishes aren’t well suited to freezing). Then I know that I always have a home-cooked meal on hand when I don’t have time to prep beforehand. I usually pull something out of the freezer on the weekend to thaw for the upcoming week. Refrigerator leftovers often make healthy, no-prep lunches as well.
Over at BabyCenter, Andrea Frazier has also been blogging her tips for advance meal prep — she preps all her meals for the week on the weekend! (And thanks for mentioning my blog.) I am not quite there yet, but I do have the goal of making 2 or 3 dishes on the weekend, especially those that freeze well. I also want to start using the weekends to build up a stock of healthy snacks and lunches.
And let’s not forget the most important meal of the day. It’s critical to keep a large selection of fast-cooking breakfast options around — granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, oatmeal, English muffins, frozen waffles, mini-bagels — so that I’m never tempted to skip my favorite meal of the day. It’s also a good idea to use the weekends to boil eggs or bake for the upcoming week’s breakfasts.