If you’re staring at an empty fridge again and reaching for the take-out menus, use these insider tips to make weeknight home cooking your default mode.
Avoid the Monday to Friday dinnertime scramble
If you’ve about had it with getting creative about making dinner during the hectic work week, school week, life week, we completely get it. There’s something about ending a long day and then facing the fridge that makes so many of us instantly reach for our phones to order from GrubHub or Seamless instead. It’s true that there are many challenges to trying to cook a home-cooked meal after a long day, according Jennifer Aaronson, Martha & Marley Spoon’s Culinary Director.
“First off, the minute you step in the door, everyone seems to want your attention—the kids, your husband, the dog, so focusing on organizing a meal from the fridge can be frustrating,” she says. “Second, you need ingredients in the fridge and some sort of plan in place to cook them. No plan often means a pot of pasta or a dinner of scrambled eggs and toast, so thinking ahead is a must for anything more substantial.” All the more reason we asked several top experts—many of whom are busy moms—to offer options that don’t involve laborious 10-step recipes or super advanced cooking skills.
Keep a well-stocked kitchen
Always have go-to pantry and freezer staples (like whole grain pasta, brown rice, low-sodium canned beans, frozen fruits, and vegetables) on hand and you’ll find it much easier to throw together a balanced meal without spending hours prepping. “The same goes for your spice cabinet,” says Lindsey Janeiro, a dietitian in Sarasota, Florida. “Maximize flavour in your spice cabinet by stocking spice blends your family loves, like a taco seasoning blend, Italian seasoning for pasta night, or an herbes de Provence blend that can be used on potatoes, chicken, or fish.”
Six o’clock at night on a weekday is not the time to have zero idea of what you’re going to make for dinner. Or, so says Christina Galoozis, a Chicago mom who cooks every night despite a 45-minute commute to work. “I mark what we’re eating every night on our laundry room white board so I remember whether I need to thaw something overnight,” she says. “This also eliminates mid-week trips to the store. I go to the grocery store once per weekend for an hour—that’s it!”
Cook once, eat all week
Devote a few hours to cooking big batches of grains—or cook your proteins to mix and match throughout the week while you have a calm few hours on Sunday, suggests Diana Mitrea, a certified personal trainer in New York City. “Things like quinoa, farrow, and rice can last for three-plus days.” Beans are another item to cook in bulk, suggests Ellen King, head baker and co-owner of Hewn, a bakery in Evanston, Illinois. “I ladle out cooked beans into one-cup portions and freeze them,” says this mom. “This way I can pull a bag from the freezer and use it in tacos, beans and rice, on top of a salad, or as a spread.”
Make friends with the freezer
Frozen veggies are great to have on-hand because of their versatility. You can use them in a stir-fry, salad, or simple one-skillet dish, says Trinity Perkins, a personal trainer in Woodbridge, Virginia. “These pre-packaged veggie mixes are a quick way to get a complete meal underway.”
Try an all-in-one
Not only are one-pot meals like beef stew or your favourite chili easy to make, but you’ll also use fewer pots and pans, which means less clean-up, according to Silvia Baldini, a chef in Connecticut. “These usually freeze and reheat very well too,” she adds.
Whether it’s a pressure cooker, insta-pot, crockpot, or slow cooker, find one that you like and watch as cooking meals comes down to plugging in a gizmo in the morning and coming home to an aromatic cooked entree at night. “Any device that allows for cooking ahead, hands-off cooking, or shortened cooking times is always helpful,” says Martha & Marley Spoon’s Aaronson. Galoozis says she’s a big fan of her crockpot. “I can throw frozen chicken breasts and one full jar of salsa in the morning before I leave, and by the time I come home it can be used for chicken tacos, on a chicken salad, or something else that takes fewer than 10 minutes to pull together,” she says.
Multitask your oven work
Cook something on the burner and something in the oven at the same time, suggests Mitrea. “I’ll sauté some veggies on the stove top and then bake some chicken in the oven at the same time,” she says. “It cuts your cooking time in half. If you do one thing at a time, it will take significantly more time.”
When possible, make a double batch of your meal so you can have dinner tonight and a second batch to freeze for another night, says Janeiro. Chicken stir-fry can become tacos the next day. A bowl of chili easily transfers into bell peppers for a baked dish another night that week. “This is a great trick when you’re already spending time making from-scratch meals like meatballs, chili, fajita chicken, and vegetables,” she says.
Consider breakfast for dinner
If you have a dozen eggs, some cheese, frozen spinach, or fresh mushrooms, and maybe a strip of bacon in your fridge leftover from a weekend brunch, you’re in business. “Making a large egg scramble with meat and veggies is something the whole family can enjoy.