A reader recently asked, “How do I feed a hungry husband with food he enjoys (i.e. not a bowl of plain yogurt or scrambled eggs – if you want to be really exorbitant) without spending an hour+ on dinner and cleanup every night, making something on the weekend and eating it five times in one week, or making a few things on the weekend, enjoying the variety the first week, and then gagging on the freezer-burned leftovers the second week?”

DinnerFor those who refuse to subsist on take-out, dehydrated chicken from the frozen dinner aisle, or soggy Wheaties, making dinner is a requisite nightly event. In our household, we’ve learned that making dinner after a loooong workday requires a few key ingredients: food on-hand, a weekly menu, and motivation. Noodle on the following tips and lessons that the hubster and I have learned in recent years.

Plan ahead. You’ll thank yourself later.

The hubster and I used to occasionally find ourselves at a grocery store after work having the following conversation: “What do you want for dinner?” followed by, “I don’t know. What do you want for dinner?” This unmotivating exchange would lead to a stroll through the store in search of something that would jump off the shelf and tell us that it was our dinner for that night.

After realizing that inanimate objects don’t just jump into your grocery cart, we switched gears and came up with the oh, so clever idea of making two dishes each weekend to be “enjoyed” throughout the upcoming week, and frozen in individual servings for future meals. Occasionally we got creative and made things like paella (delicious) or barley cabbage soup (the latter sounds about as good as it tasted). But we usually filled our food storage containers with homemade turkey chili, lentil soup, and the like.

And then we’d have enough meals to last a long time. A really long time. Herein was the problem. Even when consumed in my office in a china bowl using actual utensils, five consecutive lunches of homemade lentil soup lost their appeal. Pronto.

This short-lived leftovers frenzy soon motivated us to create weekly menus. Since then, the weekday cooking process has became a lot more fun (and efficient). And every weekend since, we’ve planned our meals for the week ahead and grocery shopped accordingly. I highly recommend this activity for anyone who eats dinner regularly.

A weekly menu can change your life.

Every weekend, the hubster and I take stock of the week ahead and the evening activities involving either or both of us. Then we create our meal plan for the week, trying to have leftovers on the nights when one or both of us has a commitment and trying to cook on the nights when we have no set plans.

When planning our weekly menu, we sometimes have a need for a simple two-serving dish. That’s when we use one-off meals as fillers.  Fish and vegetables, eggs cooked any way, and salads are quick once-a-week dishes. They don’t make for great left-overs, but they’re super simple to prepare and they taste good.

Tip: For easy reference throughout the week, hang a white board in your kitchen on which you write your weekly menu. When planning your menu, think in terms of how many servings you’ll need for a week’s worth of lunches and dinners.

White boardOur menu planning saves us precious time at the grocery store. It eliminates the “we have no food in the house” and “what should we eat for dinner?” conversations, and discourages grazing or ordering take-out at the end of a busy day.

Of course you should spontaneously update your menu if your inner chef comes alive on a quiet evening. But if you just need to get dinner on the table (and make lunches for the next day), already having a meal planned – and the ingredients for said meal – makes a world of difference.

Tip: Keep a list of tasty, easy meal favorites posted in your kitchen. Update it frequently to keep things appetizing and to make your meal planning process easy. While you’re at it, challenge yourself to make at least one new recipe every few weeks.

Maximize your cooking time.

Make a key ingredient once each week for use in multiple recipes. For example, baked chicken can be served with steamed asparagus on Monday, in a fajita on Wednesday, and over a spinach salad on Friday. This tip saves you oodles of cooking and clean-up time, and it keeps things appetizing.

Use your resources (and time) efficiently. If you’re already baking chicken, why not simultaneously put yams and some squash in the oven to be enjoyed later in the week? If you’re cooking pasta and you have a double boiler, why not steam your edamame or broccoli in the top half of the boiler while your pasta cooks below? Planning ahead enables you to cook ahead.

Tip: When cooking vegetables ahead of time, under-cook them so they don’t get overdone when reheated later in the week.

Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize.

Accessorize your main dish leftovers with delicious – and easy – side dishes. If you have baked chicken and steamed broccoli on Monday night, enjoy your leftover chicken for lunch on Wednesday with a fresh salad comprised of grapefruit, avocado, and pear. The new side dish takes two minutes to make, and the chicken just needs to be re-heated. Other items that spice up leftovers include: nuts, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, salads, spices, and sauces.

Be realistic. Really realistic.

When planning your meals, be honest with yourself about just how many times you’re willing to eat split pea soup in a space of seven days. For this reason, the hubster and I tend to limit each dish to being served three times a week.

And now, march forth into your kitchen and with a notepad or dry erase pen in hand, craft your weekly menu and create a corresponding grocery list. Take a few minutes to figure out which nights you’ll be able to cook this week and which nights you’ll be thrilled to have leftovers already made. Identify what can be cooked or baked ahead of time (bonus points if you can make multiple things simultaneously) – and then reclaim the hours previously spent in the kitchen or roaming the grocery store aisles by sharing that time with yourself, family, or friends. Bon appétit!

* Photos by Jonathan Eggers

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