With the end of summer comes the flurry of fall. Whether you are working, parenting, or studying (or doing all three), getting a home-cooked meal on the table is daunting on a weeknight. But with preparation and a well-stocked pantry, it is not just doable, but more healthy and economical to cook at home than stop for takeout. So save yourself both calories and cash with these tips.
Put together a detailed shopping list organized around the layout of your grocery store. Choose a day (preferably on a weekend when you have more time), and arrive when the store opens and is less crowded. Always avoid shopping on the way home from work. When you are tired, hungry, and in a hurry, you are far more likely to grab groceries that fill your cart but don’t create a meal.
Each week, buy five items in each of these three categories: protein, starch, and vegetables. Don’t worry if you don’t have specific recipes in mind; just pick one representative from each category to be the main focus of a weeknight meal. At the very least, having all these items in-house will help jump-start a meal. Do your kids play sports? Increase the starches. Just you and your partner? Cut back on the starches and add more veggies.
Fill your pantry up with dry ingredients like pasta, couscous, and polenta as well as cans of tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers, fish, and chicken or vegetable broth. With so many ingredients on hand, throwing together a meal in the evening is far easier. Items can be combined to make healthy meals, like a dish of spaghetti with tuna, tomatoes, and olives.
Embrace Frozen Vegetables
There’s no reason to be snobby about frozen vegetables. They are picked, blanched, and then frozen in a process that keeps them fresher than many raw vegetables, which can sometimes languish on supermarket shelves for days. What’s more, they don’t need to be prepped. All they need is a quick dunk in boiling water and a little butter or olive oil, and they’re good to go.
Break free on weeknights from the traditional evening meal. Whip up a substantial sandwich, a hearty soup, or a breakfast recipe (eggs, not cereal). As long as you build all of your food groups into that one dish, it doesn’t matter if it’s not the typical dinner fare.
If you are a meat-eating family, cook a roast of beef, lamb, pork, or turkey on the weekend. Simply season it with salt and pepper, brush it with olive oil, and pop it into the oven. Its weight determines how long it should cook. Serve it that night, and then repurpose the leftovers during the week into stir-fries, burritos, frittatas, pasta sauces, and soups. If you don’t have time to cook a roast, remember that a rotisserie chicken or two picked up from the store is your best friend and can accomplish the same thing: more weeknight meals.
Be a Minimalist
The fewer ingredients in a recipe, the less time it takes to prepare. Rozanne Gold’s cookbook “Recipes 1-2-3” and Jamie Oliver’s “5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food” are both good primers on this subject.
Try This Easy Weeknight Recipe
Buffalo Pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 1 1/4 cups of orzo and boil 7 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add 8 ounces of boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into 1/2-inch cubes (or small shrimp, cubed pork, or, for a vegetarian option, broccoli florets). Cook through for about 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of hot sauce, stir, and set aside away from heat. When the orzo is done, drain it, saving 1 cup of cooking liquid. Add the orzo and 4 ounces of crumbled blue cheese, Monterey Jack, or cheddar to the skillet, and cook over medium-low heat until hot and cooked through. Serves four.
Cookbook author Sara Moulton (saramoulton.com) is currently the host of the public television show “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.”