While chatting with Mili earlier this week, amid all of the Friends gifs and Beyonce lyrics and vacation ideas, she asked me a few questions about how I cook during the week. She was struggling with fitting in grocery shopping, meal prep and cooking during a busy week, which is something we can all relate to — there’s a reason Seamless exists. But I truly believe that anyone can find time to cook, so I want to share a few tips:
Cooking for One
While cooking for a big family is certainly no picnic, cooking for one poses its own unique challenges. Apples and oranges aside, many ingredients come in large packs or bags, so you end up with six tomatoes when you only need one. How to minimize waste?
For one: cook often. Ingredients have no option but to rot if you never use them. It might seem like cooking dinner every night is a time-consuming affair, but here’s a secret — you don’t have to. Using all six tomatoes in a big batch of tomato soup means tonight’s leftovers can easily morph into tomorrow’s dinner and Friday’s lunch, etc. If you get bored of eating the same thing over and over, switch it up! Turn a stir-fry with brown rice into fried rice with a scrambled egg. Turn a quinoa salad into filling for stuffed peppers with spicy jack cheese.
But if you’d rather scale recipes down (which involves math and fractions BOO) or the original recipe only calls for a small amount of an ingredient, you’re stuck with a lot of extra. Here’s where planning comes in handy.
Planning My Meals for the Week
It is vital to prep before you hit the grocery store. Deciding what to make and finding a recipe can be overwhelming: the possibilities are literally endless. Having a plan speeds up both the shopping process and the cooking process, meaning you’re not wasting any time in the kitchen.
I do most of my meal planning and prep on the weekends, since that gives me time to find recipes, get to the store and start cooking. Saturdays are my shopping day, and then I cook on Sundays (though obviously, that doesn’t always happen). First I’ll figure out how many meals I need for the week: 5 days of breakfast, do I have any lunch meetings with free food?, what are my dinner plans this week, etc. Keep it flexible — last-minute plan changes happen all the time, so I try to make at least one “freezable” recipe per week — a recipe that, if I don’t get around to eating, I can stick in the freezer for another day.
The second step is deciding what I want to eat — soups or stews when it’s cold, chunky grain salads for lunches at work, something with asparagus since it’s finally (maybe?) spring. Half the time, I already know what I’m cooking, since I’ll see a recipe somewhere that I must.make.now. (I spend a ton of time looking at food blogs and websites, if you couldn’t already tell.)*
But other times, I’ll scan my store’s sale paper to see if there’s a discount that I want to take advantage of (Whole Foods posts their sales online, which is helpful) or I’ll check what produce is available when I want to eat seasonally. Then I’ll search for recipes that feature those few key ingredients. If I’m really stuck, I’ll look through food blogs that I like — usually I can find something that looks good pretty quickly.
If I decide I want to make one recipe and know that I’ll have a lot of extra ingredients, I’ll pick a recipe that features those ingredients. For example: last week, I bought parsley for a lentil salad. Stuck with a ton of extra parsley, I knew I’d need to make something parsley-heavy this week, which, after Googling like mad, became chimichurri roast chicken.
Finding and Storing Recipes
Once I know what I want to eat for the week, I turn to the Interwebs. Google has an endless archive of recipes, and sometimes I’ll click through a dozen before I find something I like. But that can be time-consuming, so it also helps to bookmark a few sites (like maybe this one here?) and search on those to see if they have something you’re looking for.
Keep things simple. Some weeks, I know I have the time and will to get ambitious with my cooking. But most weeks, I’m busy and know I’ll have zero patience for “projects,” which is why you see a ton of basic grain salads and roasted vegetables here. Look for recipes that require a few ingredients and rely on basic skills (sauteeing, roasting, simmering) to make things easier in the kitchen.
After picking recipes, check your pantry for what you have and what you need. Save yourself the agony of “oh-em-effing-gee, I thought I had that absolutely crucial ingredient that I need to add RIGHT now” and actually check to see if you have more than one egg in the carton. Make a list, whether it’s on a fancy app, in an email draft or on a piece of paper, and stick to it.
In the Store
While all this prepping takes time, the time you spend planning your groceries makes it 100 times easier to get in and out of the store quickly. There’s no need to spend hours perusing the aisles wondering “what should I make?” You can grab what you need and get out fast, an absolute must if you’re shopping after a long day at work.
If you regularly shop at the same store, you likely have a good sense of where everything is. Be strategic — map out your route beforehand, so you know exactly where you need to go and aren’t crossing back and forth to find each ingredient. (If you’re extra OCD, which I am, as this post has made very clear, list your ingredients by section: all of the vegetables/produce at the top, since that tends to be the front section of most stores, all of the dairy products together, etc. Makes it much easier to grab everything at once.)
Then, all that’s left is to cook.
And if you’re looking for an easy recipe, try this one: a simple sauce of parsley, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil becomes a marinade/rub for chicken thighs (or whatever part of the chicken you prefer). Then the oven does the work: roast the chicken for 35-45 minutes (about the same amount of time that it takes to bake a sweet potato and make some brown rice, hint hint) and serve it with the remaining chimichurri sauce. Voila! Dinner can be as simple as that.
*I’m pretty ghetto and keep a running list of “Recipes to Make” in an email draft. But there are plenty of apps that organize recipes in a more useful way: Evernote has a Food app that I tried to use a few times (I’m not tech-savvy enough for it) and in sure there are others. Try a bunch and see what you like! Continue Reading →