Picture the scene: it’s 6pm on a Tuesday night. You’ve just picked up the kids from school. After a long day they’re tired, cranky and hungry. You get in the door and immediately have little arms and legs climbing up on you, wanting to play – while simultaneously complaining how hungry they are. With one child attached to your leg and and the other pulling out all the pots and pans beside you on the kitchen floor, you take a deep breath and start your mission – GET DINNER ON THE TABLE. And fast.
You look in your fridge. You see: 1) a few soggy looking veggies in their grocery-story bags, 2) prepared pizza, 3) some sauces. You look in your cupboard and see a bunch of dried things like beans and rice that look like they take time to make, and also some bread and jam. Your kids start fighting, “She punched me in the face!” Things are escalating. You think fast – you don’t have time to wash/ chop/ prep the veggies/ grains, so you turn the oven on and throw the pizza in.
I am a Canadian healthy food-loving marketer and mama of two energetic little ladies ages 5 and 3. After a 10-year career in marketing mostly at Proctor and Gamble, I’m now on a mission to make it easier for busy people like you and me to eat and drink well, and live healthy, energetic & abundant lives. One way I do this is through our daily green smoothie delivery service (check us out – www.bonju.ch) – taking the work out of making green routine. I LIVE and BREATH healthy! And yes, I admit that at meal times, I sometimes also reach for the jam and bread.
And as a busy mom, I hear you – being organized enough to get food on the table fast during the week is a challenge. I’ve learned one way to solve this is to try to become a Cooking Ninja and be able to reach into your fridge and cook a healthy and well balanced meal from scratch in 15 minutes. For all you Cooking Ninja’s – I salute you. This article is for the rest of us who aren’t quite there yet.
The good news is – in my quest to solve the weekday dinner dilemma, I’ve found pretty great tips and tricks that can make things a LOT easier. No Ninja moves required. All tips have been tried & tested in our kitchen and I know they work (when you put them to use!) Here are my top 8 favourites:
1) Batch Cooking is Everything.
This one used to put me off completely. Before kids I preferred to be spontaneous – to open my fridge and see what I felt like whipping together.) I have to admit that I’m a huge fan of prepping now – it’s the single most important item on this list and will make your meals 75% easier, guaranteed. Food prepping can include:
- 1) batch cooking beans/ grains
- 2) roasting potatoes/ starchy veggies,
- 3) grilling/ roasting/ steaming or marinating vegetables,
- 4) making simple yet versatile dips or dressings,
- 5) washing, chopping and storing fresh raw veggies.
For example, I might make a batch of quinoa & wild rice, roast some sweet potatoes, steam broccoli & carrots, make hummus and a salad dressing, wash all my greens and fruits, and chop raw carrots & peppers. 90 minutes later: Fridge = ready! When you prep these kitchen staples in advance, all you need to do for mealtimes is choose the combination you’re going to put together, the seasoning you will use, perhaps a few fresh veggies and voila! – an endless variety of nutritious and delicious meals served in a hurry. I try to block 90 minutes on Sundays to make this magic happen.
2) “Flexible” Meal Planning
This one is kind of like meal planning for non-meal planners. (insert picture Instagram) Before I had my kids, it seemed like a huge and unnecessary chore to plan meals every night! It still still feels that way… yet I still need some kind of system to take the decision-making out of the equation when I’m tired and short on time. My method is to go shopping – and find inspiration there. Ooh, those eggplants look amazing, I’m so making Baba ganoush. I take it all home (wait for it) but before it goes in the fridge (drumroll!) I make a list of every single ingredient I bought, and write beside it the meal inspiration I want to create (or if undecided, a list of the possibilities.) For the eggplant I might write down Baba Ganoush, or roasted eggplant with tahini dressing. I do this with every key ingredient. I might connect a few and create a few meals based on what works well together. This serves as my guideline for the week. I still give myself some freedom to decide exactly when to make a dish and what to pair it with, but this method provides enough structure to help me batch cook/ prep in advance so I never have stare blankly into the fridge and wonder what to make.
3) Buy and use your electric pressure cooker.
I know it’s a bit strange that a pressure cooker gets its own bullet point! But it’s kind of a life changer. This little piece of magic is genius to help you cook while you get on with your life! I use it to make brown rice (cuts cooking time from 50 minutes to 20), beans of all kinds (hummus in minutes), porridge (10 minutes away to amazing oatmeal porridge) and soup. I would highly recommend an electric pressure cooker that you can program, set and leave, so it cooks when you’re not there and dinner is ready when you get home. How perfect is that? The one I use is called the Instant-Pot – it’s actually a slow-cooker, rice-cooker and pressure cooker in one, and it plugs into the wall so you can set it & forget it. Sold on Amazon – here’s the link for anyone curious!)
4) Make large portions and reinvent or freeze.
I’m a big fan of making my life easier. One way to do that is to NOT cook something brand new every day. When you do cook, make big portions so you have enough to reinvent leftovers into something new, or freeze them, ready to be thawed in a pinch. For example, let’s say I’ve batch-cooked a bunch of quinoa and beans. One night, we might have a quinoa salad with broccoli and beans. The next night, I could mash up the quinoa and beans and turn them into veggie burgers, served with steamed carrots, sweet potatoes and beet ketchup. If I still have leftovers, into the freezer they go. A good tip is to freeze portion sizes in small bags – they keep much better that way and are easier to thaw/ reheat too.
5) Make a list of your fave dishes
I am sure you can name your top 5-10 meals right off the top of your head – your go-to’s, the ones you know your family loves and looks forward to. Pizza is high on the list for us. So is quinoa salad, coconut lentil soup, and vegetable tian. Take all of these dishes, and get them in a spreadsheet. Yes, I am actually suggesting you use excel for meal planning! I know it sounds a little crazy, maybe it is, but think about it – what’s the point in thinking/ rethinking the same question again and again and again? It’s efficiency we’re going for! The 15 min meal requires many decisions to be made in advance… so pull out that laptop. Add to your list every time you make something new that’s a hit with your family. Include the ingredients. Refer to your list when you’re looking for mealtime inspiration.
6) Make your “staples” shopping list
While you’ve got your laptop open, make a new spreadsheet for your “basics” shopping list. You’ll likely end up buying a lot of the same items week after week, so simplifying this process in a list makes life a lot easier for you when you’re shopping with a toddler attached to your leg.
7) Use your pantry!
Your pantry is where you keep things like whole grains (flours, pastas, grains) beans and canned foods (dry beans, canned/ jarred beans, jarred veggies), condiments (vinegars, sauces, butters, tamari/ soya sauce, salsas) seasonings (spices, spice mixtures, starches, sweeteners) and snacks (dried fruit, nuts/ seeds, whole grain crackers, fruit bars – and for us, definitely some good quality dark chocolate.)
The dream is to be able to open your pantry (with a few items from your fridge/ freezer) and find everything you need to turn ingredients into your meal. The pantry can be a huge time saver – you can make endless varieties of pasta with tomato sauce and fresh or frozen veggies, quinoa/ bean salads with simple vinaigrette and leftover veggies, or burritos with beans, salsa and a handful of veggies – to name a few. Try your best to make it beautiful – use jars and sealed containers and label them well, so when the time comes it’s a pleasure to open your pantry and pick what’s for dinner.
8) Taco Tuesdays, Falafel Fridays – Have fun with Theme Nights!
The underlying theme here with many of these tips is really to SIMPLIFY the decision making as much as possible so when it’s time to cook, you have to decide as little as possible and just focus on execution. Enter Theme Nights. Some examples: Soup & Salad Mondays, Pasta & Veggie Tuesdays, One Pot meal Wednesdays (made in the Insta-Pot!), Pizza Thursdays, Stir-fry Fridays. You can also make theme night flavor-based , such as Mexican night, Lebanese night, Italian. Get creative and have fun with it!
So there you go! Give it a try and let me know how you get on – I would love to know if some of these tips work for you as they did for me. Remember a few principles:
- Take it easy! Don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t work and you end up eating pizza 2 days a week at first! The learning curve is really about making it a habit, and this takes time. The best thing you can do is time-block 90 minutes on the weekend for most of your prep. The week will go so much smoother with this one step.
- Involve your kids in the cooking. There are lots of things that little hands can do – tear herb leaves, wash/ dry greens, stir soups, shake nuts into salads, set the table. Get them to work!
- Have FUN! Cooking can be a real joy if we give ourselves space and time to enjoy it. By simplifying the decision making, we get to focus on execution and actually eating together with our kids. Put some music on, grab a glass of wine and put that Ninja outfit on! It’s go time.
Judy is a Canadian living in Geneva for almost 9 years. After a 10 year career as a marketer in P&G she became a little obsessed with healthy food and is a graduate of Rouxbe Professional Plant Based Cooking Course, and Cornell University Plant Based Nutrition certification program. She is a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and is co-founder of Vitality Food Lab Sarl, creator of BonJu Super Green Smoothies.