If the saying goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, then I would posit “give a home cook all the ingredients in a box to make a single meal and you feed him for the night; teach the home cook planning and time management and he feeds himself nutritious food for life”.
So often I hear people tell me all the reasons they can’t cook like I do. They think it’s too fancy. It’s too many ingredients. It take too much time. Though whatever their reasons are, to each their own, I have to say I strongly disagree. I get all my food purchased, processed, and cooked within two day for the entire week.
You’ll rarely find me cooking on a during the week and yet I have a hot delicious meal on the table every single night and it’s all made from scratch. What’s the secret? Planning and Time Management.
It starts with planning. I keep tweaking how I do this. What I have found is that so far my best option was creating a spreadsheet. Days of the week and special events across the top and all the meal categories down the left. Then it’s a matter of filling in the boxes. If I know a meal or dessert will last for a set number of days then I merge the cells. If I know we will not be home for a meal then I fill in the cell with grey. It may sound simple. Well, that’s the point. It IS simple, BUT having a structured plan means a lot less fretting. Once I fill in the grid I then put each recipe in to the months recipe list. From there I then build my grocery list.
By building out exactly what I will need to make every single recipe, I can make sure when I go to cook, I will not have any surprises and I have everything I need. If I had any other reasons for meal categories like a family member with a food allergy I would add those meals to the left column as well to ensure I was planning those meals too.
When I try explaining to people, that I cook all my lunches and all my dinners on Sunday for the following week, they seem to only hear I eat the same thing Monday through Thursday. They say “well, I could never eat the same thing every day” as if it’s a hardship or an annoyance to not have more variety or something. However if you look to my recipe list for the month I hardly eat the same thing over and over. In the screenshot above you can see I have a total of 33 recipes I will have made and eaten in the month of March. If that doesn’t say variety I don’t know what does. To further support my strategy In a given day I eat 6 different things!
Not only does this type of planning ensure success of knowing “whats for dinner” but it also minimizes if not eliminates food waste. With the exception of maybe some excess condiment made specifically for that meal EVERYTHING gets eaten. There are NO leftovers because each recipe is broken out into servings and those servings are the meal for the day or week depending.
Having the plan and doing the shopping is only half the battle. The other half is cooking it. A big part of this is thinking about how will it be reheated. A lot of what I reheat is done in the microwave but some is done in the toaster oven. Another critical part is figuring out how to store it. Some meals you can just put in a container, but others you will want the different components in separate containers to not muddy the flavors. When it actually comes to reheating my biggest advice is to NEVER do it at max power when microwaving. Like most things in cooking slow and gentle is better. On the microwave this means lower power levels for longer times. The gentle approach means food is less likely to get rubbery, dry, or chewy. The other piece is having a microwave cover for a plate will allow the moisture of the food to stay with the food giving you a much better reheat as well as you’ll not have any accidental food explosions to clean off the walls of your microwave.
What I have found is that having the right size of air tight containers is key to doing make ahead prep. You want airtight and stackable for sure but then it’s about the size of recipes you’re doing or the number of servings. Some of the meals will work best if you make each container a single serving. Others will work better if you put the entire component into a container and put a label on the lid indicating the serving size.
I do realize that depending on the size of your family this could be a lot of containers, or a lot of cooking, but most meals have parts that can be made ahead if not the entire thing. If I can get all my meals prepped for the week it will make the week run that much smoother. If I can at least get sides, sauces, and any prep work done so that on the night of all I have to do is cook the meat, possibly reheat what I prepped, and assemble, that too will make the week smoother. Any of these ideas can cut a meal prep during the week from taking 30 minutes to an hour down to 10-15 minutes.
To get prep done ahead of time might mean you need to take some time on your day off to do something you “should” do instead of something you “want” to do but by doing this you are setting yourself up for a lower stress and delicious meals through better time management.
You may be thinking, well that’s all fine and good but the real issue is coming up with what to make. For this I turn to the concept of limiting choices through seasonal cooking. If I can cook anything any day this can be overwhelming. However, if I can only be cooking dishes that feature lamb or chicken then limiting the choices gives me focus.
Here’s the final piece to the puzzle. Recipe sourcing. This is hard. It takes trial and error. First it’s figuring out what your comfortable doing. Then it’s finding cooking magazines, cookbooks, and websites that match the cooking level you like. For the purpose of this post I am going to focus primarily on magazines and cookbooks. On the same spreadsheet as my menu planning I have another tab that is recipes. What this consists of is a list of every recipe that interests me. It is both what I have made or want to try. The way this works is when I get a new cookbook or magazine I thumb through it to see if anything catches my eye. If it does I add it to my master list. I include the name of the recipe, the source, what the key flavor or component is (this is the indication of what season it will fall into), the type of meal, and the season it fits for where I live. Finally there is a yes and no column to tell me if I have ever made it before.
This can seem like a daunting task but start with your newest magazine or cookbook. This list will grow quickly. Now when I am stuck and don’t know what to add to my menu plan I can simply sort by season, then by meal, and I can quickly choose recipes to add.
However you want to put together your meal plan is perfectly fine. This is just to show that through planning. To any extent will better set you up for success. You don’t need a meal in a box. You just need to take time to plan. This is no different than doing your laundry your brushing your teeth and if you do it regularly you will find it gets quicker and quicker. Using this spreadsheet I can plan and entire months meals in an hour or two in the afternoon.
One last thought on meal boxes is spices. What I love about cooking is all the leftover bits, a jar of turmeric, a bag of rose petals, or even bottle of rosewater. Having these things on hand inspires creativity. I bought pomegranate molasses for a charoset two years ago. Had this come in a box I would have only had enough for their recipe. This would have been disappointing. When I made the charoset I wasn’t thrilled with it. I wanted to try again. My second attempt (because I had a bottle I could try again) came out amazing! Not only that but I discovered that it is an amazing flavor! Now if I see a recipe that calls for it I include it in my list. This weeks dinner actually has a “Kurdish Black Rice” that is made with pomegranate molasses.
Once I discovered “The Spice Companion” I became a spice hoarder. This book is the perfect guide as to how to use all the funky spices that you don’t know what to do with. There are lots of recommendations for each one and the flavor combinations only make your food taste better.
If you’re not wanting to invest a lot in cookbooks I understand so to help you out I would recommend:
These sources should give you ample idea, recipes, and tips to make your meals really come together.