Planning For Meals – Transition from Takeout
Most articles I read about cooking at home start with meal planning. If you don’t plan your meals, they explain, you will find yourself in the kitchen 15 minutes before dinnertime without a clue – and without a meal. They vary in the ways they want you to do this – write it up for a month, or a week, or set Monday Chicken, Tuesday Pork sort of systems…
Digression – does anyone else remember the ads? “On the North Side of Boston (says the voiceover) Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” (Woman’s voice) “Aaanthonyyyy….” – shot of child running home to his spaghetti… I’m showing my age, aren’t I?
Anyhow… That kind of planning never worked for me. I don’t want to have chicken every Monday (or spaghetti every Wednesday…) I’d write up a nice plan and have a schedule change. And, now – I don’t know from one minute to the next what I will physically be able to do.
At the same time, all those experts are fundamentally correct. Without any planning, you find yourself in the kitchen looking at an empty fridge, a solid chunk of something that will never thaw in time for dinner, and a vague idea that you might have a can of chili… somewhere… but here is the number of the pizza place…
I do plan meals – but I also plan for home cooked meals. I plan to always have the components of a meal available, but I then may assemble those components in different ways at the last minute. I make sure I always have at least some of these components available in a form that I can get to the table quickly.
For me, a meal needs some kind of protein, some kind of complex carb, some kind of vegetable (or occasionally – usually at breakfast – fruit.) I make sure I have some of these of these foods – cooked or ready to be cooked and ready in 15-20 minutes – on hand at all times. I freeze everything in 1-2 serving containers, so they thaw quickly. I have single serving pieces of various meats or other protein foods – I will talk more about them later.
I make a whole pot of brown rice at a time, so I always have containers of it ready (and am lucky to have a rice cooker – I can set it up in the morning and have rice ready when I get home.) And there is always pasta, and quinoa, both of which cook in about 20 minutes or less (including time to bring the water to a boil.) Couscous is even faster. Potatoes or sweet potatoes can be microwaved. Or there is bread, or rice cakes, or crackers… usually lunch, for me, but available.
Any regular reader knows I prefer and use fresh local vegetables most of the time – but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Cabbage, zucchini, and a few others are quick and easy, and I freeze leftover greens, which reheat well. And, you know – I truly do believe that commercial frozen vegetables are one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century… they give us variety all winter, and something quick all year.
In some ways, this is the easiest time of year to start this transition to essentially home cooked meals. Soup, stew, pot roast, or chili or other bean dishes are appealing, are easy to make without much attention when you are around the house (or in a slow cooker) and they reheat easily – so you can have some fully prepared meals without feeling put upon. And it not really being salad season means that there is less temptation to buy a lot of tender vegetables – and watch them wilt, and feel guilty…
Flavoring makes it all work. I don’t want a plain piece of chicken with plain rice and plain green beans any more than you do. Not to say that we never eat that… but that’s not the goal. I always have seasonings, and the wherewithal to make a sauce of some sort. Spices and herbs – and spice and herb mixtures, such as curry powder and Mrs. Dash – of course. A couple of the better commercial sauces to your own taste – pesto, black bean sauce, a jar or two of decent commercial pasta sauce as a fallback… And, if I’ve had the chance, some of these that I have made myself. Some of them I’ve categorized as Convenient Foods – frozen cooked onion, celery, leeks, frozen chopped peppers,homemade pesto or herbs frozen in oil or butter…
And canned tomatoes. They’re especially valuable in winter,as a vegetable serving, and they can help tie a meal together. Add some tomatoes and some herbs, and you have a sauce… Or use a dab of tomato paste to add depth of flavor and richness to any dish.
I never used to use tomato paste – I couldn’t usually use a whole can at once. Last year, I started using some and freezing the rest – and this gives you a good example… Sometimes I just use about a third of the can, and put the rest in two small plastic containers I have, each of which holds about a third of a can. But you can also (especially if you don’t have handy little containers) easily freeze individual spoonfuls.
I simply lined a flat container with waxed paper (to make removal easy) and used a spoon and a spatula to put roughly tablespoon sized mounds of paste on the paper. Then, I froze it. When it was frozen, I peeled the paper off, and put the little red lumps in a zipped bag (which I marked. Please do remember to label your bags – I promise you will be mystified someday if you do not…)
Then – a meal from the freezer… as an example.
Most grocery stores these days have skinless boneless chicken breasts and/or thighs in the freezer case. They have been flash frozen to stay separated – usually cased in ice to prevent freezer burn. (This does mean you pay chicken prices for the ice… you can also just freeze your own boneless skinless pieces, but use them before too long – freezer burn is a risk. And you need to be careful that they don’t stick together in a massive chicken lump.) I like to have some of these on hand, as a good emergency meal.
You can just cook them as they are, on a grill, or braise in a little water. The pieces are often different sizes, though, so I sometimes cut them up – which also helps them cook faster. I find that I can just let them sit on the cutting board for about 5 minutes, and then I can cut them in chunks with a reasonably heavy knife. Looking at the picture, you can see the ice sparkling on the meat – and the sharp edges of the pieces show that it is still frozen.
I heated olive oil in a frying pan, then added the chicken. Stirring them around, I very slightly browned some of the meat – then added water. And now I added some of the tomato paste, and a sprinkle of a seasoning mix – I used Mrs, Dash, this time, though I could also have used any herb mixture. I let the meat simmer in this improvised sauce until it was cooked – then I added frozen cut green beans. Nothing exciting – but handy. Brought it all back to a boil, which cooks the beans enough for our taste – it can be simmered more if you prefer your beans cooked more.
Meanwhile, I took a container of rice out of the fridge, put the rice on a plate, microwaved it for 2 minutes, and divided the rice between plates. I served the chicken mix over the rice, and called it dinner. Very simple, and a home cooked meal ready in very short time, including the first brief thaw (while I can change clothes, or set the table, or…) on a day when I need it.
Chicken and Green Beans in Light Tomato Sauce
- 1/2 pound frozen boneless skinless chicken thighs
- olive oil for pan
- 1/2 c water
- 1/2 t Mrs. Dash or other herb blend
- 2 T tomato paste
- 2 c frozen cut green beans
- Let the chicken thaw on the cutting board for just about 5 minutes. Cut it into bite sized pieces.
- Heat the oil in the pan. Add chicken, stir around. Brown the chicken slightly. (It will still be frozen.)
- Add 1/2 c water, seasoning of your choice, and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, lower heat and let simmer 5-10 minutes.
- Add green beans, Return to a boil, cook until done.