A few weeks ago, I taught a cooking class at Ciao Thyme, the first since before I was pregnant. As the room filled and I listened to the laughter and chatter build, I remembered why I love to teach how to make nourishing food delicious and doable, why I love to persuade people they CAN do it, and why I love being a cheerleader for home cooking. Because food is so much more than just food. Food nourishes. Food gathers us around the table and creates an opportunity for openness, for communication, for communion. Food brings families together and food creates lasting memories of love and safety and home. Those were the thoughts running through my mind as class began.
And yet, it’s not always easy. Grocery shopping takes time and patience, especially if you have an impatient toddler in tow. Prepping food takes time and often has to be squeezed into nap time or after bedtime. Cooking takes time and hungry bellies can’t always wait. I always understood this conceptually, but until I had Theo, it wasn’t my reality. I’ve always loved to grocery shop and plan dinners and prep and cook, and I spent a lot of time doing it, because it’s my happy place.
So, now when I teach, I have so much more empathy and understanding of what moms and dads or busy working adults go through to get nourishing meals on the table. But, it can be done.
I plan our meals for the week and figure out how to re-use prepped ingredients in multiple meals. I know how to power through the grocery with a list in my hand and a banana in Theo’s. I carve out Monday’s nap time to make a chicken stock and pot of rice and roast a few sheet pans of vegetables. When my fridge is stocked, it’s a good food week. And when I don’t take the time (or Theo takes a short nap), it’s a losing scramble for what’s for breakfast/lunch/snacks/dinner every day.
Here are a few tips for making meal planning doable. And on the weeks when you can’t or don’t do it, be kind to yourself. A packaged meal or take-out every now-and-then didn’t kill us when we were kids, and it won’t harm our little ones either. It’s the love and gathering together that matters most.
A Method for Meal Planning
Keep a running list of your family’s favorite meals, so you can refer to it when you need inspiration. Post the list in the kitchen where it’s easy to find it and add to it.
Think about ‘theming’ dinners for the week and vary the ingredients and/or ethnic influence. This helps me narrow down choices and look at what I have/what’s in season, for inspiration. Ask your family for input on the themes, but here’s an example to get you started:
MONDAY: burger night/burger bowl (beef, chicken or turkey, quinoa/veggie burgers, meatballs)
TUESDAY: taco Tuesday or enchiladas (vary the fillings each week)
WEDNESDAY: rice/grain bowl (Mediterranean, Middle East, Indian, Southeast Asia, Japan…)
THURSDAY: pasta/noodle bowl (Mediterranean, Middle East, Indian, Southeast Asia, Japan…)
FRIDAY: pizza/cauliflower pizza (recipe coming soon)
SATURDAY: put an egg on it (shakshuka, frittata…)
At the beginning of every week, create a menu for the week and then create a grocery list. Try to create a menu that re-uses ingredients in multiple dishes. For example: roasted poblanos stuffed with black rice and a black rice and roasted vegetable salad.
Do one big grocery shopping trip on the weekend or at the end of the week. Don’t forget your list!
When you get home from the grocery (or during nap time), prep ahead what you can. For example:
Wash and cut vegetables so they are ready to use. For greens, wrap in paper towel and store in plastic bag.
Make a pot of chicken or vegetable stock and/or braise meat.
Make a large pot of your favorite grain/seed, a different one each week (quinoa, brown or black rice, buckwheat, farro, etc.).
Bake russet potatoes or sweet potatoes and store them in the refrigerator. Quickly browned in a pan, they make a great base for many dishes.
Roast vegetables so they are ready to use in dishes (broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, squash, pumpkin — whatever is in season)
Roast nuts/seeds so they are ready to use in salads, for snacking, and as toppings for meals. Roasted nuts and seeds add flavor, crunch, texture and nutrition.
Make sauces/salad dressings/salsas that can be used all week in different dishes. I’m sharing one recipe, below, for one I keep in my refrigerator all the time.
Use your freezer! When you have leftovers (even one serving), pop them in the freezer for an easy lunch/dinner later. When you’re making things like tomato sauce, soup, lasagna (anything wet or saucy) make extra to freeze. I freeze meals in glass containers and then just pop in the microwave or even to reheat.
BULK COOKING PREP: METHODS
Here are a few basic methods for some of the staples I keep stocked in my refrigerator all of the time, like a homemade roasted vegetable sauce, roasted vegetables and toasted seeds.
Roasted Tomato Salsa
Use this salsa any way you would use a regular salsa, or as an enchilada sauce. Double, triple or quadruple the recipe, as needed. Freeze leftovers for later. Also, think about this ingredient list as a guide and vary it depending on what you have on hand.
Makes about 1 ½ cups
1 onion, cut in large pieces
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, or two large tomatoes, cored
4 tomatillos (husks removed), quartered
2 poblano peppers, stems removed
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons olive oil
large pinch of salt
pinch of red pepper flakes
large handful of fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley, basil)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers and garlic in an oven-safe dish. Add olive oil and salt and toss to coat. Place in the oven and roast for 25 – 30 minutes or until the vegetables are very soft and starting to char. Place in a blender with fresh herbs and blend until smooth.
Cut vegetables (whatever is in season, available at market) in the same size. Toss in olive oil, season with sea salt, red pepper flakes and any desired spices or flavorings (cumin, coriander, lemon zest). Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast in hot oven (about 425 degrees) until tender and caramelized.
Use this method for one pint or ten. It works in so many dishes: as a simple pasta sauce, a base for pizza, on noodle bowls, with eggs. It also freezes beautifully. Use it to preserve the last of the summer tomatoes. The roasted lemons are delicious – don’t toss them.
Place cherry or grape tomatoes in an oven-proof baking dish. Per pint of cherry tomatoes add: 1 whole clove garlic, ½ lemon (cut in wedges), a big pinch of salt and red pepper flakes and 1 – 2 tablespoons olive oil. Roast in a 425 degree oven until tomatoes are blistered, split and have released their juices. Remove from oven and use as desired.
Toasted nuts or seeds
Place nuts or seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds) in a dry skillet and place over medium-low heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and toast, stirring often, until the nuts or seeds are browned and fragrant and starting to pop. Season with sea salt and/or other spices.
I hope you find these tips helpful in making your meal planning easier! Check back soon for additional methods and recipes from this class.