“What’s for dinner?” Carving out time to cook family meals from scratch every day requires commitment and, especially on busy weeknights, can sometimes feel like a time trial challenge. Work, exercise, and children’s after-school and sports activities, along with regular household chores take up a big chunk of our daylight hours. On some days just thinking about preparing dinner an hour before I hope to serve a healthy, home-cooked meal can feel daunting. Not only that, as any home cook knows, meal preparation from scratch begins with planning: scanning recipes, checking the fridge and garden for ingredients on hand, shopping for items, and the meal prep and cooking process have not even begun!
In our family, we are unenthusiastic left-over eaters, so we try to prepare just enough food for each meal, but that means coming up with a new idea for dinner every day. As a busy, working mother I adopted some time-saving practices into my culinary routine. Here are a few:
- Need protein, quick! Need protein, quick! For various reasons, I avoid using the microwave for defrosting. Instead, I significantly decrease thawing time by placing frozen meat and fish in my trusty cast-iron frying pan. This method works great for fish and ground meat, as well as roasts. A physicist could explain why iron is an efficient conductor, but, for me, I am happy to know that I can place a pound of frozen fish in my cast-iron pan, take my dog for an hour-long walk and return to thawed, ready-to-cook protein for our meal. I grill some vegetables, add a starch and a salad, and my weeknight meal becomes balanced and healthy in 45 minutes or less without opening a can or processed food package.
- Under pressure. The TV show Masterchef allured me to pressure cooking. In less time than a TV episode, competing home chefs prepare gourmet meals with ordinary cuts of meat. When my husband gave me a stove top pressure cooker for my birthday, I was a little terrified of the possible dangers of the device. I made a New Year’s Resolution to make friends with my pressure cooker and have never looked back. Pressure cooking is ideal on weeknights because I can transform frozen meat into a delicious meal in less than 60 minutes. A few of our weeknight pressure cooker meals include Korean-style ribs with steamed vegetables, Beef Stroganoff with egg noodles and corned beef and cabbage. I consult the FastCooking.ca website which lists “Detailed Pressure Cooking Time Tables” for just about every food imaginable.
- Trusty family favorites. I’ve heard that most families who cook from scratch rotate about eight recipes a month. Our family favorites are quick to prepare, don’t require a recipe and use ingredients on hand. They include Spag Bog (aka Spaghetti Bolognese), Indian Butter Chicken, Shepherd’s Pie, New England Seafood Chowder and Thai Fish Soup, among others. A key to our family’s successful rotation in making routine meals interesting is that even though we use similar main ingredients throughout the month, we change up flavors by using different spices from cuisines around the world.
- Bone broth. My friends know I am a big fan of the health benefits of bone broth. Vegetables, herbs and grass-fed beef bones, a few Parmesan rinds, a roasted chicken carcass or fish heads simmered in a crock pot of water and spices for six hours to three days turn into a staple every home cook can use throughout the week or freeze for later use. When I am stuck for time or dinner ideas, I start with a quart of bone broth and add meat or fish, vegetables and seasoning that transform into a hearty soup, stew or chowder. In addition to its potent nutritional qualities, steeped broth adds magical flavor depth to ordinary recipes.
- Embrace flavor! Our kitchen’s spice cabinet is plentifully filled with a wide variety of leaves, herbs, seeds, pods and powders. We grow fresh herbs in pots; our favorites are thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and mint. Herbs and spices awaken any dish. Revamp ordinary dishes with Italian seasoning, curry powder, smoked paprika or lemon pepper. Stock your cupboard with quick-to-prepare staples such as potatoes, rice, pasta and quinoa and generously season side dishes.
Sharing the joy of preparing dinner with family members reinforces our commitment to eating meals made from scratch. In day-to-day meal preparation, it’s easy to become bored, feel too tired to take the time effort to cook or become stumped for new ideas. I am fortunate that my husband is an excellent cook and we share the commitment to prepare meals without processed ingredients. He doesn’t like grocery shopping, so my job is to stock our kitchen with the staple ingredients for the meals he likes to cook and he is more than willing to prepare the evening meal. It’s not a coincidence that we eat a couple of Indian curries a week.
Any time of year is an ideal time of year to renew good intentions to eat meals made from scratch. In summer and fall, fresh produce just harvested from gardens and farmers markets is abundant and makes ordinary foods taste extraordinary. Involving children in mealtime preparation on weekends and school breaks encourages them to learn and experiment in the kitchen. Enthusiasm for delicious meals children participate in creating can snowball into a life-long commitment to make the time and effort to eat from scratch every day.
(Originally published for the monthly newsletter published by Inland Northwest Food Network).