Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eating more meals at home: Tips for busy families

I'm often asked how to get in the habit of cooking more meals at home. Five O'Clock chaos seems unavoidable: arriving home to hungry kids with an ensuing chauffeur service to practice, lessons and other errands. The drive through or local pizza joint is so convenient....just not satisfying or nourishing.

While it may be a challenge to cook every night, several nights a week is accomplishable and you'll find that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. These tips will help you build the habit.

1. Plan ahead
Meal planning is the best way to make sure you have meals every night. But that means I have to set aside weekend time to plan. And if our plans change mid week (work dinner, late evenings, forgotten meetings) it means I'll have extra food which could mean food waste. And I hate waste. Instead, I try to make a couple sides early in the week that will hold in the fridge for several days. I might make vegetable or bean salads, slaws, pickles or vegetable casseroles I can heat up quick. Even if I don't have a dinner plan, I can pull burgers, pork chops, chicken breasts etc, from the freezer, thaw in the microwave, grill or saute and serve with a pre-made side from the fridge.

A stocked pantry makes meal prep easy. Some of my favorite ingredients are
olive oil, a variety of vinegars and whole wheat pasta.

Spices will keep for a year. Start out with a few favorites
and add to your collection based on your tastes.

2. Maintain a stocked pantry and freezer
With a few freezer or shelf stable ingredients, you can prepare a quick meal even if you didn't plan ahead. These items won't spoil, and having them on hand will encourage you to cook.

Pantry Staples

  • Dried herbs & spices: oregano, basil, cinnamon, cumin, garlic
  • Granulated sugar
  • All purpose flour
  • Canned beans - I like black, cannellini and chick peas
  • Tomato sauce
  • Pasta and rice
  • Cooking and olive oils
  • Balsamic and white vinegars
  • Chicken and beef broth
  • Panko bread crumbs
  • Oatmeal
  • Fresh potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • Onions
  • Bread, buns or tortillas
  • BBQ sauce
Freezer Staples
  • Ground meat: beef, sausage, chicken or turkey
  • Pork or beef roasts
  • Boneless chicken breasts
  • Pork chops
  • Pizza dough
  • Blueberries or raspberries
  • Green beans or peas
  • Corn
  • Butter
You may have to defrost a few items in the microwave, but in about 30 minutes with your pantry ingredients you could make:
  • Pasta with red sauce
  • Pizza Pasta
  • Crispy chicken sandwiches (breaded with flour and panko and pan sauteed)
  • Enchiladas with rice
  • Tacos
  • Salad dressings
  • Chicken rice soup
  • Minestrone soup
  • Fruit crisp
  • Oven french fries or sweet potato fries
  • Pan sauteed or grilled pork chops or chicken over rice
  • Pork or chicken kabobs
  • Quick veggie sides: sauteed green beans with onions, rice pilaf, pasta salad, bean salad, corn & black bean salad, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • Meatballs
  • BBQ chicken or pork chops
  • Pizza or strombolis
  • Start roast beef in a slow cooker: meat, beef stock, basil, garlic, pepper and quartered onion. Cook on low 10-12 hours. For pork roast, add chicken stock, BBQ sauce, cumin, garlic and quartered onion.
  • Burgers or sausage sandwiches

3. Master a cooking technique
When I'm feeling rushed, I don't want to search for recipes. Instead, I rely on a few cooking techniques I use frequently. One technique can produce different flavors depending on ingredients. Fast cooking methods include pan sauteing, pressure cooking and poaching/boiling. In our house, the go-to technique is roasting. I can have a delicious, crispy vegetable side ready in 30 minutes or less. We roast lots of root vegetables (beets are a fave), but also roast cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. To prepare, cut veg into bite size pieces and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, stirring once (potatoes and beets should be roasted at 425 degrees, cauliflower, broccoli and asparagus will be done in 10-12 minutes). Remove from oven and top with herbs or spices of your choice, a squeeze of lemon juice or hot sauce.

Roasted vegetables are easy, crispy and satisfying. These roasted red and golden beets
are tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted at 425 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

My goal is to curb my desire to call the pizza joint for dinner. While takeout may seem easier, I know I can make a tastier and more nutritious meal in the same (or even less) time. What are your tricks to fast and delicious dinners?

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