I was asked about my dinner prep strategies during an interview last week, and I had to confess: I don’t give much thought to meal planning.
I’m not proud of it. I often wish I were more like the marvelous Melissa Joulwan, whose ingenious Weekly Cookup and Hot Plates concepts in her cookbook, Well Fed, make meal preparation a breeze. Or like Tammy Credicott, whose new book, Make Ahead Paleo, just arrived in the mail yesterday. If I really had my act together, I might even try cooking all my meals a full month in advance, à la Tricia Callahan of Once A Month Meals. (Update: You gotta check out Real Plans if you want to experience customizable meal planning at it’s finest!)
Sadly, I’m a shambling mess when it comes to meal prep, and there are days when I’m tempted to go foraging for a carnitas salad bowl with extra guacamole at Chipotle instead of turning on the stove. After all, meals are the one thing that can be easily and cheaply outsourced…
But then, I remember: nothing beats home-cooked meals.
Since going Paleo a few years ago, I’ve found that the only way I truly understand what I’m feeding myself and my boys is to roll up my sleeves and prepare our meals from scratch. In doing so, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for whole, nutritious ingredients. Now, with countless hours in the kitchen under my belt, my culinary chops have slowly but surely improved. Like all skills, the only way to get better is to practice, practice, practice.
Plus, I love our little clan’s nightly ritual of gathering together at the dinner table; there, we can come together as a family to: Instagram the food (that would be me), wearily complain about all the Lego bricks underfoot (Henry), share defensive strategies in response to zombie attacks (Big-O), and count aloud the number of days until Christmas (Lil-O). I have fond memories of cracking jokes over supper with my parents, sister, and grandparents, and I want to pass on this important tradition to my kiddos.
Besides, cooking at home is far more budget-friendly than dining out every night.
I’m still terrible at meal planning, though. If I’m feeling ambitious, I might pre-cook a bunch of stews and freeze ’em (e.g. Slow Cooker Korean Grass Fed Short Ribs), but my typical M.O. is to fly by the seat of my pants. I don’t have the self-discipline to consistently make meals days in advance—and even if I did, I can’t reliably predict what I’ll feel like eating. (I’m a pain in the keister like that.)
And let’s be honest: I procrastinate like crazy. Instead of carefully planning out my meals in advance, here’s what I typically do:
During the weeks I’m not dealing drugs at the hospital, I enjoy a bit more flexibility; I don’t have to rush to get ready for work, and I only have to cook for our family of four. Most importantly, my little posse is cool with simple, thrown-together meals like brinner (e.g. frittata, sausage and eggs, etc.) or some slapdash form of emergency protein. So when I’m not working, cooking’s pretty chill.
But when I’m working nights, I have to cook for six people. My in-laws and my parents take turns watching the kids while I sleep during the day; they stay for dinner, and I don’t want to feed them slop. Hence, I do my best to prepare a main protein dish and at least two vegetable sides.
How do I make this work?
First, at the start of my workweek, I make sure that the big defrost bowl in my fridge is filled with a variety of meats, and the crisper is stocked with vegetables delivered by my CSA and Good Eggs. And before I go to bed each morning, I spend a few minutes on ingredient prep so that I can quickly throw everything together when I wake up in the evening.
For example, yesterday morning, I spotted a few pounds of thawed chicken thighs in my defrost bowl, so I figured I’d make a batch of Super Easy Tandoori Chicken. In a large storage container, I mixed up the marinade, added the poultry, snapped on the lid, and stuck it in the fridge.
Then, it was bedtime.
Several hours later, after rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and sleepily greeting the kids, I staggered into the kitchen to attend to my first order of business: preheating the oven. That way, while the temperature’s rising, I can leisurely prep my ingredients. (One of my all-time favorite cooking tips: Make your oven wait for you, and not the other way around.)
I placed a wire rack on a foil-lined baking sheet and arranged the marinated chicken on top. As soon as the temperature hit 400°F, I shoved everything into the oven.
Next, I rooted around in my vegetable crisper to see what I could serve with my bird. With the oven occupied, I knew had to use different heat sources in order to get all the dishes on the table at approximately the same time. After assessing the contents of my refrigerator, I knew exactly what to make: Pressure Cooked Braised Kale and Carrots (something I knew the kids would happily eat)…
…Simple Cauliflower Fried Rice (because it’s, well, simple)…
…and Broiled Eggplant with a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (which took just a few minutes under the broiler after the chicken was done cooking).
I served up the veggies with the chicken, and that was that.
As always, I made extra so I’d have plenty of leftovers to toss into grab-and-go containers. With lunch boxes assembled and stashed in the fridge, the morning hustle is made a tad less hectic. Bonus: no food gets wasted.
Here’s what Henry packed this morning for Big-O’s school lunch:
Out of curiosity, what does your dinner routine look like?4