We actually love to cook in the Provident household. Prof. de Cuisine makes the best Mexican food in town (admittedly, it’s a pretty small town), and I bake bread and make a mean roast chicken. Eating well is important to us.
But though we like to cook in general, we often really don’t like to cook on a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of teaching and grading and meetings. And we really, really don’t like to cook on Thursday evenings when it seems like the week has taken twice as long as they should. Those are the nights we order pizza or convince ourselves that we deserve to go out.
Not only is that reaction expensive and unhealthy, but we’re often too tired to really enjoy eating out. So we’ve developed some strategies to cut down on those mid-week calls to Pizza Hut and keep us cooking dinner, even when we don’t want to.
- Stock quick-thawing, easy-to-cook proteins. We buy individually packaged frozen fish filets from Costco and the grocery store. Because we try to avoid unsustainable seafood, we tend to stick to cod and catfish. The cod is great after a few minutes under the broiler seasoned with olive oil and a little lemon. The catfish can be prepared similarly, or it can be breaded and fried, pan-fried, or even cooked en papillote if we’ve got a bit more energy.
We also buy a few packages of boneless skinless chicken breasts when they go on sale and cut them up into uniform pieces. Then we make two or three marinades and package a two-person serving of chicken along with some marinade in a quart-sized freezer bag. If you freeze the bags flat on a sheet pan, you can easily stack them in a freezer basket for easy storage. The marinade keeps the chicken from getting freezer burned, and when you defrost the chicken, it’s already marinated and can be cooked quickly on the stove top or under the broiler. We tend to wing our marinades, but there are some great recipes here if you’re looking for some guidance.
Both the fish and the chicken are prepackaged in individually sized servings and can therefore be defrosted in a flash, especially if you put them in some cold water on the counter. You can get home at 5, put a few filets in some water, and be ready to cook by 6.
- Learn how to cook frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh ones, and because they’re flash-frozen right after harvest, they’re often fresher in a certain sense than the wilty broccoli that’s been sitting around as it travelled thousands of miles to your supermarket. This sets them miles apart from canned vegetables, which are often leached of nutrients and should probably be avoided (not least of which because they all taste a bit like aluminum).
There are plenty of frozen vegetables that are quite good if you pop them in the microwave and then add some salt, pepper, olive oil and maybe lemon or vinegar: broccoli, green beans, cauliflower. Others are great with a bit more effort: lima beans and okra are fantastic if you cook them together for 15 minutes or so on the stovetop (though I’m a dyed-in-the-wool southerner when it comes to my food preferences, so ymmv when it comes to okra). Frozen brussels sprouts can be roasted right from frozen—just put them on a sheet pan, toss with olive oil and spices, and slide them into a 450 degree oven.
Frozen vegetables are usually a dollar a bag at our grocery store, and we keep the freezer stocked with a huge variety. They’re helpful if we have some leftover protein or main dish that we want to make into a meal. They make great additions to risottos and pastas. And they’re so dead easy that there’s no excuse not to eat vegetables, no matter how tired we are.
- Keep your pantry stocked with quick-cooking grains and starches. We’ve always got at least three or four sweet potatoes on hand, as well as half a dozen kinds of rice and as many whole grains. The whole grains require some advanced planning, but you can put rice in the rice cooker when you come home at 5 (right after you pull the protein out of the freezer) and have a side dish in an hour. Even easier, poke some holes in a sweet potato, rub olive oil all over it, and put it in the microwave for 10 minutes. Maybe turn it over half way through. Voila! You have an immensely nutritious side dish.
White potatoes can also be prepared in no time at all. We don’t keep them stocked because they’re not enormously healthy (and because I will eat my weight in mashed potatoes if given the opportunity), but you can bake or roast Idaho potatoes in half an hour, or boil waxy potatoes in even less time.
If you do those three things, you will always be able go from total exhaustion at 5:00 to dinner on the table by 6 or 6:30. As an added bonus, it doesn’t get much healthier than a small serving of a lean protein, a large serving of a green vegetable, and a medium serving of a complex starch.
Of course, if you did this every evening, you would get very tired of the protein-veggie-starch combination pretty quickly. That’s why you reserve the foods I’ve described for those bone-tired end-of-the-week days. Or for the times when you thought you’d get two meals from your leftovers, but only ended up getting one. Or the days when your week has been so crazy that your meal plan has been completely abandoned.
But ideally, though? I mean, ideally? You’ll have a meal plan you laid out, shopped for, and started cooking for over the weekend. The Provident household is a meal-planning machine. Next time, tips for how you can be one, too.