Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Cook Dinner Every Night (Almost)

Over the past couple of weeks, the blogosphere has been a-blogging about the recent article in Slate that contends that making dinner every night places an undue burden on women, especially working mothers, and therefore might not be worth the trade-off.

My initial reaction to this piece was, "what trade-off?"  We all have to eat dinner, and, for most of us, neither our waistlines nor our overall health nor our wallets will allow us to eat out every night or subsist on wholly-prepared grocery foods (like heat-and-eat dinners).  So actually going into that big room with all the expensive appliances and rattling some pots and pans seems like a necessity, not an option.

But is it oppressive and an undue burden?  For one perspective, I invite you to visit my friend and colleague Natasha over at Dance Love Sing Live.  I can personally attest to the fact that Natasha can juggle multiple writing and editing jobs, homeschooling, a farm, and some food allergies and sensitivities, all without becoming oppressed.  The last time I saw her, she had spent the morning chasing a 1200 pound bull, and yet her hair was perfectly done and her lipstick was on.  I promise you want to follow along with her on her blog.

Anyway, Natasha can give you the working farm mom perspective, but I thought I'd share the suburban sustainability perspective.  For those of you just tuning in, Mr. FC&G and I are a family of two with four businesses, an active amateur ballroom dance schedule, and a large garden.  So here's how we get dinner on the table every night, along with most of our lunches and all of our breakfasts, without experiencing any oppression or unacceptable trade-offs.

Saturday and Sunday
These are our big cooking days, especially Sunday.  At least one day each weekend, we go all-out in making a big meal.  This might be a pot roast, a pork roast, a roast chicken, or a homemade lasagna.  In the summer, Mr. FC&G heads out to the fire pit and cooks a ton of burgers, fish, and kosher hot dogs.  Alongside all of these meats, we cook whatever veggies are in season: potatoes, whipped butternut squash, shredded zucchini and tomatoes, or the like.

Note that these are big meals, but they aren't all that complex.  One of the easiest things you can do is roast a bird or a cut of meat; you pretty much just put it in the roasting pan for a couple of hours and baste it once in a while.  Likewise, grilling out takes very little extra time to add some extra burgers or salmon fillets to the grill top once the fire is going.  But all of these "large" meals will throw off maybe two more dinners for each of us, along with a lunch or two for Mr. FC&G.

Weeknights are usually taken up with us trying to wrap up work and head off to dance or work out, so we rely on simple meals.  These might include:

  • Leftovers: the exact same meal we had on Sunday, reheated
  • Pollo saltado, made with the leftover chicken
  • Wrap sandwiches with shredded pork or chicken and fresh garden veggies
  • Homemade spaetzle with jarred sauce (mine or store-bought organic) and cheese
  • Beef and sausage meatballs in a jarred masala sauce
  • Cheesy potato soup or similar hearty soup
  • Grilled cheese and canned or boxed tomato soup
All of these are accompanied by garden veggies in season. None of these meals take long to prepare or eat.

I eat all of my lunches at home, so I'll depend on more traditional lunches like salads of garden veggies or PB&J (one of my favorites!).  But Mr. FC&G is at a client site most days, so he takes a lunch with him 3-4 days a week to save money and give him a healthier option.  To make this happen, we package up a lunch for him while we are cleaning up the dishes; often, he'll take the leftovers of dinner, but sometimes we'll make a wrap sandwich or something similar that will travel well.

I find cooking relaxing, so I often incorporate some kitchen time into my relaxation.  I might make bread, bake cookies, or even dabble in making yogurt or sour cream.  I also have a number of food activities I can do while I work, like making a batch of homemade ginger ale in the crock pot or drying fresh herbs for future meals.  I also like to can items that will stock the pantry:  homemade tomato sauce, beef stew, or soup stock.  All of these activities keep our pantry and fridge stocked with the elements that will make for easier meal prep on a busy night.

Friday (or Saturday) is often our night out to eat, depending on schedule and budget constraints.  We try to choose a healthy option when we can, and we bring home any leftovers for the next day's lunch (if that's appropriate).

We rely on a few overall tips to keep us going through our week.

  • Cook in bulk.  Any time you are turning on an appliance, make extra of what you are cooking, whether that's cooking a whole roast for two people, making a double batch of spaetzle, or making an extra grilled cheese.  Never cook just one meal if you can help it.  If you turn on the oven, make it do its job by making a loaf of bread alongside that roast or otherwise combining foods that need to cook at the same temp.
  • Process the food immediately.  What makes leftovers difficult is turning them into another meal:  cold roast or chicken gets hard to shred or cut, and it is unmotivating to turn the leftovers of almost anything into something else once they've been stored a while.  Go ahead and cut your leftovers down into the form you will need them later in the week while they are still warm and fairly appetizing: shred, trim, slice, or the like.  Don't forget to put bones in the stock bucket to make stock for soup.
  • Package future servings.  Again, it's the prep that keeps people from packing lunches.  Have some glass containers that will go from fridge to microwave, and go ahead and package up the next day's lunch while you are doing the dishes.  That way, it is easy to grab and go.

Do you have great ideas for speeding up meal prep?  Let me know in the comments!

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