Less waste. Better food. More time (Better time). Three or four reasons why I advocate the totally mundane habit of preparing at least a tiny part of dinner before dinnertime.
In our quest to eat more whole foods and fewer packaged and prepared foods, there’s a certain amount of work that needs to happen before anything starts cooking. Broccoli that doesn’t come in a package of pre-trimmed florets needs to be washed and cut. Baby spinach purchased by the bunch and not by the bag needs to be washed and then washed again, and spun dry. Beans need to be soaked and cooked. Homemade lasagna is a one-pot dish that requires more pots than that to make. This all sounds like work—and it is—but I’ve found that if I break it all up a bit, the tasks become more manageable, and actually easy. As always, it comes down to developing the habit.
A few tips:
1. Not all minutes are created equal. There are calm minutes in a day and frantic minutes in a day. Taking advantage of the calm minutes makes for more of them. For me lately, that time is in the early mornings. The evenings in our house can feel harried. Trying to prepare a whole meal from whole ingredients while everyone is hungry and tired and the clock is ticking its way toward bath and bed time is stressful. But at the 7:00 AM hour? Belly full of oatmeal? Fresh coffee just finished? I can lazily sit in the 3-foot by 5-foot bit of available floorspace in our kitchen and show Faye how to pinch thyme leaves off a stem. I can patiently watch her mangle a strip of pepper with her crinkle knife while I make quicker work of cutting down the rest of it for an eventual stir-fry. She can drag a chair up to the sink and delight in washing spinach with me. By the time it’s ready for me to leave the house to work, we’ll have knocked out at least some of the dinner prep we’d have to do under less ideal circumstances later in the day. Maybe your mornings are harried. Maybe there’s not a toddler underfoot to consider. Maybe the weekend is better. Maybe you prefer a post-dinner prep for the next day? The key is to take advantage of whatever spare minutes you do have.
2. Do what you can. You don’t need to plan to tackle an entire casserole every morning or evening. Sometimes meal prep might just mean scrubbing the beets for tonight’s dinner during a lunchtime break. Sometimes it’s tossing tofu (or steak) in a simple marinade while you’ve got a few extra minutes and the right mood. My philosophy is this: time saved now is time available later.
3. Be prepared. Keep supplies on hand that allow you to tackle prep ahead of time. For me, that mostly means keeping some large-ish food storage containers around. My absolute favorite multi-tasking tool in our kitchen is a set of three stainless steel mixing bowls with plastic lids. I might fill one with chopped veggies. Another might have marinating tofu. The third, a leftover portion of plain, cooked rice. Dinner, prepped.
What about you guys? Do you have tricks for getting dinner on the table minus a meltdown?
Habit Shift is a new series. I’m hoping the series will offer quick tips, concrete takeaways, and a whole lotta can-do spirit for focusing on ways to shift personal habits in an effort to be little bit more environmentally friendly, a little more healthy, and a little more happy. Good for us, good for our planet.
I love little tidbits like this. You have such a way with words that I never feel like you are scolding me or talking down. Just a friend looking to help make positive changes. I’m working on that, myself, over at my blog.
As always, thank you Erin!
My newest trick is the Instant Pot. It is phenomenal for things like grains, dried beans, and even meats (they can be frozen!). We call our kitchen a one bum kitchen, as it is pretty tiny but it definitely trumps your tiny kitchen space-wise. I have about no space to store tons of cooking items like this but I ditched my crock pot as my 7 in 1 Instant Pot is a crock pot, steamer, pressure cooker, yogurt maker, you can sauté, and some others I can’t remember. I leave it on my 3 foot by 2 foot counter space continuously. For small space cooking, you can’t beat it. Thanks for my mini informercial;).
I am very intrigued by the Instant Pot. I just don’t know if it’s too complicated…but I guess no more complicated than having to learn multiple different machines!
My easiest and most favorite kitchen best friend is my Crock Pot!
I recently changed to having a set of four meals during the week for a month and then trying new recipes on the weekends. So far, so good!
I try to make a meal that will serve the fam two nights running. That means my meal prep is down to every other day which frees up time for other things during the week.
Cool post! We’ve been doing it for a few years now and we’re also trying to be less wasteful this year. Meal prep is the best way to cook. Keep’em coming 😉
Something that I picked up from my mom when she was pressed for time: Instead of grabbing take-out/fast food, she would make us “breakfast for dinner”. Most of the time this included cheesy scrambled eggs and toast with butter/jam. 30 years later, I still eat eggs often for dinner. They’re a delicious source of protein on top of leftovers like pasta, rice, steamed veggies, etc.
The incorporation of eggs have lead to an additional habit shift in my life: the bowl! Growing up, our dinners were very segmented- protein, starch, veggie- and only served on dinner plates. Now, one of our favorite ways to eat and explore different flavor combinations is to throw everything together in a bowl. It’s a lot less intimidating to think of dinner that way and so much more fun! Plus, it’s a great way to use up leftovers.
Breakfast for dinner is one of my favorite time-savers! My son loves it.
I love to stir-fry whatever veggies are fresh, scrambling some eggs into the mixture in the last couple of minutes. Wrap it all in a whole grain tortilla and it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner! My husband likes to add a bit of shredded cheese, and if we’re extra hungry we’ll finish with a bowl of sliced fruit and a dollop of plain yogurt. So easy — I wind up doing this for dinner 2 or 3 times a week.
I don’t have any tips, per se, but I would be very interested to know some of your recipes. (The photo at the top looks delicious!) I’ve never tried cooking with tofu. Honestly, I’ve only eaten it on a couple occasions. I’d love to read some recipe-related posts. Thanks. (And I’m loving this new series!)
Hi there: I do occasionally post recipes! You can find the archive here!
I have found I need to take care of my veggies and fruit as soon as I bring them home from the store. I try to wash them and cut them up right away and get them stored in the proper glass containers, (so we can SEE what we have to eat….otherwise it goes to waste). When making rice to go with a meal, I usually make extra as it is good for at least a week and will most often go with another meal. Also, when making a casserole, I usually make enough for two so I can freeze one for later. Having a frozen meal is such a time saver on a busy day!
I love this idea, particularly for vegetables like kale, broccoli, sweet potatoes etc. I hate when the fridge drawer is stuffed with lots of veggies all piled up. So many, sadly, get buried until it’s too late in our house! Will try this out!
My favorite trick is to take a few hours on a weekend when my husband can take our 4-month-old so I can have some uninterrupted time in the kitchen. I like to make a big pot of beans or lentils, some type of grain, lots of roasted veggies, and a “brightener” or two (like olive tapenade or parsley oil).
Have you read “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler? It has changed the way I cook forever. I think you would enjoy it. http://www.tamareadler.com/2011/10/10/how-to-stride-ahead-part-2
I love this Erin and know I would not have survived working (from a home office but as a full-time therapist), AND raising/feeding two sons and a husband. Between clients (I had random hours free each day) I would make salad dressing or prep veggies or marinate something for the husband to grill. When my last client left at 6 pm, we could get dinner on the table by 6:15. Usually the boys and Pop managed that last little bit b/c of my prep. It is a wonderful thing to eat homemade meals together as a family!
Where did you get that casserole dish? I’ve had one that I’ve loved, but recently broke. Turns out it was recalled ages ago and I didn’t know. I just bought one that I think I’ll return – it doesn’t give me the lovey feels that I need in a hard working kitchen dish.
This is from West Elm from several years ago. No longer in stock!
I love this topic! With a little pre-planning, home cooking can be such a delight, coming together swiftly, and saving so much money. Every Sunday, no matter what, I make a soup and a giant batch of rice. This ensures, at the very least, I have something that can be tossed into a mason jar and taken to lunch for work that week, as well as a base for any dinner that needs to come together at the last minute. Whatever soup isn’t eaten that week is frozen individually and thawed out for easy lunches the following week. That pre-made rice made beautiful bowls of rice and beans last night when my fiance and I got home from the theatre at 10:45 and were peckish (despite the fact I tried to talk myself into Thai the whole train ride home). I’ve also noticed that keeping a bowl of chopped, toasted nuts l on the counter, and some herbs and scallions in the fridge, allows for a lovely, flavorful transformation of humble ingredients with very little effort.
Is there a prep task with which you’re not particularly thrilled that keeps from you enjoying a specific food because you don’t have time to whip it up yourself? Give yourself a break and keep a convenience version on hand. I always buy greens from the farmer’s market, but then laze out when it comes time to wash, dry, and then chop them into a salad for lunch. I caved and bought a spinach/mustards greens boxed mix from the store on Sunday, and as a result have made more salads this week than I have all year. The more you play around with meal prep, the more you know what works best for you.
Thanks for this post, Erin. My husband insists on salad every night. For some (silly?) reason I hate making it. Sometimes it feels so tedious to wash and dry the greens and to slice up all the veg. I remember my mother used to make a very large salad every couple nights, we would take a portion at dinner and dress our own portion and then she’d wrap up and put in the fridge for the next dinner. I think I may try this. Might compromise the freshness of the salad some nights but I suppose not-so-fresh salad is better than salad resentment or no salad at all! Currently on maternity leave and your blog and book have been such pleasures
to read during nap times.
Thanks so much for the kind words! So glad to have you reading! I think your salad plan sounds great (though I’d suggest that perhaps your husband needs to be the one to get put on salad duty ;))
ha, ha. Might try that approach too!
Have you tried kale (specifically lacinato/dinosaur kale) for your big batch salads? It’s a sturdy green, so it stays fresh for a few days rather than getting soggy and limp overnight like some dressed greens 🙂 game-changer!
Try only dressing the greens you’re going to eat that evening, and put the rest of the salad (undressed) in the fridge for the next day. It’ll stay crisper that way. I like making a big salad (enough for 2 or 3 days) and then adding different things on top to make a meal — chopped almonds and some feta, or a chicken breast that I slice up and stir fry in ginger and garlic, for example. It’s much quicker than washing/chopping veggies every night.
Oh man, I always need to do some prep when its my day for dinner. I would be a mess if I didn’t. Mostly done when one (almost two) or the other (six months) is napping.
Roasted broccoli, cooked quinoa and shredded cheese this morning. Later I can put it all together. It’s a new dish I’m making from Cookie & Kate. Looks and sounds great!
Thank you for the tip Joan, I just googled the blog and recipe and it’s delicious!
I incidentally also did one step at the time during breaks.
I love to cook, but it can certainly be stressful to get dinner on the table each night. To make Monday-Friday more relaxed I plan meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday before I go shopping. During the week if I can get up early enough (and that’s a big IF) to make entire dishes (or parts of dishes) ahead, then that is helpful, but if that doesn’t happen, then just knowing in the back of my mind what I’m cooking that night takes a certain amount of any stress away.
I’ve found many cookbooks that make the process of weekday meal prep and cooking more enjoyable, including Keepers by Kathy Brennan & Caroline Campion , Weeknights with Giada by Giada De Laurentiis and Make It Ahead by Ina Garten. (Sometimes I adjust recipes in these cookbooks so they are vegetarian.) I recently started cooking from Near & Far by Heidi Swanson. It’s a beautiful cookbook, although I find most of the recipes a little too difficult for weekdays.
As a rule of thumb I pick cookbooks with recipes that have relatively short lists of ingredients. For me, that’s generally a good indicator as to whether a recipe is going to be too frustrating or too time consuming. My success factor with cooking definitely increases when there are less variables. Of course, there are nights when dinner is a complete failure and someone inevitably makes a PB&J to make up for the Pad Thai that simply didn’t taste like Pad Thai. Oops.
I’m a big fan of the “Clean Out the Fridge Salad.” At the end of the week we will always chop up whatever vegetables are left in the fridge and throw a vinaigrette on top. One-pot meals are a good go-to for us as well. I avoid using our indoor, cast iron grill pan as much as possible. Chefs make it look so easy on TV, but I set off the fire alarm every time and it’s just messy. My grandmother was a fabulous cook and she always said: “Clean as you go.” That was a hard habit to get into, but it does make cooking (and cleanup) more enjoyable.
I enjoyed this post and enjoyed reading the comments as well!
On good weeks I plan the dinners over the weekend and then I try to make something that will help with dinner the following day fex; quinoa salad one day, make extra quinoa and use for patties the day after. Very nice! Tonight I made a quiche and while it was in the oven, I quickly chopped up veggies for a soup = tomorrow’s dinner.
Gosh, doesn’t meal time come round so often, and with little ones (and not so little) constantly claiming their hungry I do often resent the tie. However, I am slowly getting better and love your carving out of time during the day …and i finally get batch cooking at the end of summer and canning/freezing to make other meals just that bit quicker. When my oldest was little, I used to make my own cake, muffin and biscuit mixes. Seems silly that you can’t weigh the ingredients when you need them but a 2 year old attention span is short! I now have a newly (as of today!) minted 2 year old and think I need to get back to those mixes. I day spent making a dozen or so would so help in the post school run call for snacks! A great series Erin, Thank you!
I love this mindset and this series.
On Sunday, planning and shopping; making a big pot of soup; cleaning a big head of lettuce, thoroughly spinning it dry and making a vinaigrette to store separately (for whatever nights we’re planning to have salad); having a designated take-out night, which gives us something to look forward to and eliminates the temptation on other nights–these are the things that are keeping us fed and sane on the meal front right now with less packaging and processed foods.
What a good idea, Stephanie, a designated take-out night to give you something to look forward to and eliminate temptation on other nights. I’m going to implement that idea right away. . . .
I love to cook, I find it therapeutic to drop all my worries and focus on one thing and create something delicious. That said, I work a high-stress job (construction management)with 10-12+ hour days – so most weekdays I don’t have the time or energy to cook meals from scratch. The greatest thing that happened to my husband and I was when he decided to do Whole30 and we began meal prepping. We’d go grocery shopping on the weekend and spend 2-3 hours on Sunday cooking/prepping all our meals for the week. Now there’s soups, ready made protein, cut veggies ready to be eaten raw or roasted, and no extra thinking during the week.
Love this series with easy to implement, and thought provoking ideas! I cook the following on Sunday mornings: large batch of beans to freeze and use as needed (I rotate types so I always have my favorites on hand), a vegeatiran dish for lunches throughout the week, homemade hummus, at least one dinner (often 2) that can be eaten on two nights. Lots of healthy food and only one clean-up! We can eat well for the week with little effort after that.
We usually make one large meal at the beginning of the week that lasts for 3 nights (M/T/W) and then throw together something easier for the rest of the week, mixed in with a couple nights of eating out. Lately we will reheat our leftovers as soon as we get home, and while that’s happening I will roast some fresh veggies and we will eat them as an after dinner treat…sometimes an hour or two after our actual dinner. Works great since my kids always want additional evening snacks.
I find that a few nights a week I cook from scratch, with prep done during the day while kids are at school. Last night we had Chicken Caeasar Salad, so I washed the lettuce, cooked the chicken and did the bacon while the kids were at sport and then later we had a healthy mid week meal from scratch.
One other night we have left overs, my friend calls it IFITS, if its in the fridge you can eat it! Ha.
And usually on the weekend we have kinda relaxed meals, which we shop for on the weekend.
I am loving your blog, I bought your book and finished it in 2 days, with implementation starting right away. I’ve donated many clothes & perishables to our local womens shelter and I’m just going to keep going.
Thank you for following your passion so many of us can be inspired to get back to the Simple Matters!
Thank you for posts like these, they are my favorite! I love to hear how helpful ideas, changes, or items make a difference.
It’s so funny that you just posted this because I’ve been asking all my “mom friends” recently what I can do- once I even get near the fridge, my 15 month old starts bellowing like she’s absolutely starving and won’t stop until there’s food in her mouth. Sigh. Something l’ve noticed is that she really likes to watch. I’ve been trying to find opportunities for her to help- she has a vegetable brush for helping me clean veggies, but she mainly wants to be higher up, seeing what I’m doing on the counter. High chair doesn’t work for this sadly. The carrier won’t work either. I’m getting to the point where I’m really considering investing in a learning tower. Though, as we live in 550 sq ft, I’m not quite sure where we would put such a large item. Other than that, I’ve found that even putting the items I need on the counter in advance is a huge help for me!
Yes: the fridge is Faye’s one true love. It’s maybe a bit out of mode, but we’ve been doing the very old-fashioned drag the kitchen chair up to the counter and stand on it to help with all manner of stirring, etc. When that feels like too much effort, or if there are too many moving parts to make that feel manageable, I come down to her level. Faye helped stir the ricotta and spinach into this very dish with a large bowl propped onto the seat of a chair as a makeshift table at the right height! I’ve never heard of a learning tower, but I imagine it’s a kitchen chair in disguise 😉
I am 60 yrs old and live alone, so certainly have the time…but not the motivation…to make a proper meal. What I have been doing since Jan 1 (a New Years resolution that is working so far!) is that on Sunday afternoon I make a huge pot of homemade soup, because I come home each day for lunch, so this is just reheated each day. I then put on a Crock-Pot of rice and beans or something similar, which is then supper for the week. All I have to do daily is whatever veggies or salad I am adding to the meal. I never have a problem doing breakfast, it is just yogurt and fruit, which is pretty quick to put together while coffee is brewing. So far, this system is working for me. I think back to my busy days when the kids were home…who would have thought it would turn out to be much more difficult to cook for one?
Cooking for one is definitely the hardest! My fiancé is away all the time for work and dinner can be so hard to come up with when you’re on your own. What I do know is I do one shop a month for a family of four. And I cook 5-6 meals that are for 4 people. And I freeze 3 portions of each and just pull out of the freezer, reheat and add salad/few fresh ingredients to jazz it up. And I switch up the way I have it. If I make a chili, then the next time I have it over sweet potato fries with some cheese. Fajitas? Next time the chicken goes over a salad and I had a fun dressing. It’s really helped with meal prep and is a lifesaver when I’m busy. I try to make 50% of the meals on the big cook weekend in the slow cooker so I only have to monitor a few. This week was fajitas, broccoli cheese soup, quiche, chicken tikka masala, Carolina pulled pork and tacos.
these are great tips. i try to meal prep every Sunday by making a batch of rice, which i eat with beans, salsa, corn, and lettuce or avocado and seaweed. it saves a lot of time and money.
I’m in grad school and share a small kitchen with two other girls, so/but having a crock pot is super worth it. I make big vats of chilli, veg/potato soup, scalloped potatoes and ham…and then I put all the leftovers in the freezer and eat them for weeks. You can freeze other stuff like burgers, lasagna, etc. but I don’t really eat meat myself. The crock pot can be a bit tricky to store, but it’s way better than running the stove for several hours on our gas bill…
If efficient meal prep and pantry meals are topics you’re interested in ,Amy Chaplin’s In the Whole Foods Kitchen and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler both inspired me to better meal prep and planning.
An Everlasting Meal is one of my very favorites!
I am loving the habit shift series! I’m always trying to find the most beneficial way to do things and this one makes so much sense. I’m going to start scrubbing my potatoes ahead of time/in the morning along with other prep that can be done in advance. Also side note, I’m currently reading your book and I am SO in love, such a wonderful book! I got it about a week ago and it’s currently my happy quite moment of the day.
My diet choice means that I eat a lot of grains and legumes, so I plan ahead and overnight soak them (for ease of cooking & digestion)! Like you said, having lots of containers is key. I’ve got some big glass and stainless steel bowls–some with lids–so at all times I can have a couple bowls soaking, maybe something cooking, a couple in the fridge, a frozen batch, etc. With those staples ready to go, prepping a cold salad, stir fry, curry, or soup is a quick affair! There’s a rhythm to it for sure, but it’s easy once you develop it. 🙂
I think about this ALL the time. I love to cook, live in NYC (so stopping at markets on the way home is super easy) AND my dh is a chef so you’d think this would be easy for us but it’s a constant struggle. When I went back to work last January after my 2nd was born I was SO organized-I made meal plans for each week, did two hours or so of prep on the weekend and then my weeknights were SEAMLESS. You’d think I would have kept that up but alas, I have not. Right now I am doing some amount of prep though-I cook a big batch of quinoa (I use Gwyneth Paltrow’s method in her recent healthy cookbook-it’s on GOOP too, think it’s called “no fail quinoa) and it really works so much better than the package instructions and that becomes the base for a quick stir fry, a simple side dish, or I toss in some feta and chickpeas and make a quick tahini dressing and maybe some toasted nuts and that’s dinner. But, I always do have beans on hand-every week I cook black beans, chickpeas and/or cannelini beans and then freeze some, sometimes I roast a bunch of beets to use in salads or as a side, and I keep a simple tomato soup in the freezer that is eaten as soup, used for my quick bolognese or for spaghetti and meatballs. I also typically have Melissa Clark’s “Dahlia’s Chicken Fingers” on hand-make a huge batch, so easy, and then freeze some and my kids eat them for lunch or we have them for dinner in a pinch. They have a ton of flavor in them and I think they helped contribute to my kids being such good eaters. No bland baby food here!
My best tip is this-every week I chop up at least a head of garlic, put it in a small glass jar with a lid and cover it with olive oil. This lasts for a good 10 days and is invaluable when cooking as it alleviates having to chop, cleaning the knife and cutting board and keeps your hands from smelling like garlic.
I walk in the door at 5:30 and try to have dinner on the table by 6. During that time, my 16 month old is usually playing in the fridge getting stuff all over or melting down on the floor in my small kitchen, my cats are yelping loudly to be fed and my older dd is talking NONstop. At least once a week I think to myself-how do people do this on a regular basis?!? I am doing it, but it is often not pretty!
I am so enjoying this series! My husband has started putting boxes of chopped veg in the fridge, one with peppers, one for carrots, cucumber, broccoli, and whenever we can we keep stocking it up – makes salads a breeze! A handful of this and that on a bed of leaves and you’re good to go. The other thing that I’ve been loving recently is when I buy chicken breasts planned for stir frying I cut them up before freezing for later in the week – means on the day I can just get them out before work, and in the evening the meal takes care of itself as everything is pre-chopped!
One thing I would say (and I’m sure you’re aware of already but just in case!) is be super careful when reheating rice – the grains carry bacillus cereus spores which aren’t killed by cooking, and if the rice isn’t cooled and refrigerated immediately they can develop into bacteria and cause really nasty food poisoning. I’ve never known anyone personally to be affected but I’m a doctor and it was always drummed into us by microbiology tutors at med school!
Oooh thank you someone else a bit concerned about everyone making rice for the week. It is one of the biggest culprits for food poisoning so please be careful, especially if feeding to your kids. I’d always been taught to eat it by the day after it was made and then into the compost it goes.
I am scouring your posts for one thing: cookware. I have a few old nonstick things that are scratched and peeling and generally probably putting nasty stuff in my food. I want to replace them with something that won’t need replacing, versatile good pots and pans. You must have ideas? What’s a minimal kitchen stocked with?
Well I do have a chapter on the subject in my book 😉 But I’d go back to basics with a really great cast iron skillet!
I love this! Love the “Habit Shift” title too – that’s a lot of what we try to encourage on our blog — taking little steps to start new habits. For us, we do most of our cooking on the weekends and munch on leftovers most of the week. It works for us at this stage, at least — but we don’t have kids — I assume that would add a whole new dimension. Love your book, btw!
Thanks so much, Sonja!
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