When both parents work outside the home all day, time is scarce to prepare an evening meal. It is tempting and quick to reach for a ready-made meal or bring home some takeaways.
Whilst this is absolutely fine and enjoyable from time to time, it can become a drag in the long term on your health and finances. Also, it is useful to educate our children, boys and girls alike, how to cook a homemade meal that is balanced, satisfying, healthy and quick to put together.
If you are like me, then maybe you want to gather your loved ones around the dinner table every night and help them learn about good food, but you don’t have a lot of time to cook. So I thought I would share my tips to help you. Because there is no reason why working full time should prevent you from keeping the tradition of a family wholesome meal alive !
Tip 1 : Meal-plan
Planning what you are going to eat in advance is investing time now to save some time and hassle later. It will help you balance the meals over a week, save time shopping and reduce the mental load of wondering every day what you are going to eat tonight. It also makes it easier to share the load of cooking as you can plan meal according to the skills and tastes of who is going to cook that night.
How it works in the Powernappy house : I do the meal planning and do it once a week. It usually takes me 30 minutes. I try to put meat on the menu only twice a week and always around the week end as this is when our grocery shopping arrives so we have fresh meat in the fridge. Fish is once or twice a week. Towards the end of the week, there’s usually more vegetarian dishes. If we have a calorie bomb one day (like our favourite winter dish Raclette, which is basically lots of cheese and potatoes), then we’ll have a lighter meal the next day.
Tip 2 : Tins and frozen veg
Several studies have shown that there is little difference of nutritional quality between fresh and frozen veg. Whilst fresh veg is lovely, it doesn’t last long in the fridge and also usually take some time peeling and cutting. By contrast, frozen veg are easy to throw in a pan or a soup, without any prior preparation.
Tins are the same principle, especially for pulses …. Pulses cooked from scratch may require multiple rinsing, overnight soaking or 1 hour cooking, all very unpractical when time is limited.
How it works in the Powernappy house : on the week-end we’ll have fresh seasonal veg but during the week mostly frozen. We always make sure to keep a good stock of various frozen veg mix (usually a country mix, a ratatouille mix and a soffrito) to have variety. We also have frozen onions as onions are particularly fiddly to peel and cut. Regarding pulses, I like to buy borlotti beans, black beans and chickpeas and always make sure I have a couple of tins of each.
Tip 3 : Recurring meals
One quick and easy way to meal plan is to dedicate a few days of the week to specific food. For instance, you can decide that Monday is pasta night and can then vary the pasta dish every week. This makes meal planning easier as it restricts your options and also helps you balance nutrients.
How it works in the Powernappy house : Monday night is soup night and Tuesday night is salad night. We then vary the recipes. It helps us increase our weekly veg intake. Both are also very easy meals so it doesn’t matter who is home and cooks them, they don’t require any particular skills.
Tip 5 : Batch cooking
Batch cooking is the practise of cooking to store (typically frozen). The principle is that it both makes it more efficient to cook (it typically doesn’t take much more time to cook for 4 people or 8) and also helps take advantage of the moments when you have time to cook to prepare for the moments when you don’t.
Pretty much everything can be batch cooked and frozen, although it works particularly well with soups, pot dishes, burritos, lasagnas, pasta sauces. The only think that don’t freeze well are egg recipes and raw potatoes.
Batch cooking requires containers, some freezer capacity and a labelling system to know what you have in your freezer and when it was cooked.
How it works in the Powernappy house : we batch cook almost every week end by simply doubling the quantity of whatever dish we are having. It means that every week we store the equivalent of one or two meals. We typically have one of these meals every week, which is the equivalent of our take away night but way healthier and cheaper. We try to use reusable containers to limit waste. Sometimes we batch cook only for one day in advance. For instance, our Monday soup is typically prepped on the Sunday.
Tip 6 : Leftovers
Learning how to cook leftovers is a fantastic way to limit waste and save money. It requires a bit of creativity but is very satisfying. A few recipe books focused on leftovers exist.
How it works in the Powernappy house : we aim at using all leftovers. Leftover veg is thrown in a soup. Leftover pasta or rice typically will go in Peanut’s purée or will be kept for a lunchtime salad to bring to work. We sometimes make roast chicken for Saturday lunch and will keep the leftovers to cook our favourite soup, Lebanese chicken and chickpea soup. When I meal plan, I take likely leftover into account to maximise opportunities to use them.
Tip 7 : Fridge, freezer and cupboard basics
Having a well stocked fridge and cupboard is a must. Using food with long shelf life gives you flexibility and ensures you always have what you need to whip up a quick but healthy meal together. It also gives you that little bit of flexibility and creativity.
How it works in the Powernappy house : here is our entire list of basics :
* Cupboard : pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes, tinned chickpeas, tinned borlotti beans, red split lentils, chicken and veg stock cubes *Fridge : butter, mozzarella, natural yogurt * Freezer : veg mix (3 kinds), frozen onions, one serving of fish, one serving of chicken breasts
Combining all these, we are able to make a dozen meals, which comes in very handy.
Tip 8: Spice cupboard
Spices are magical because they can make any ingredients special and can help make wow meals in a matter of seconds. Also, most world cuisines actually use similar spices so you don’t need hundreds of different ones. Spices have no use-by dates, are cheap because you don’t need much and can bring variety to the same set of ingredients. If you don’t have a spice cupboard, it can be a great Christmas present !
How it works in the Powernappy house : I gradually built my spice cupboard. Here are our go to spices : Paprika, Ground Coriander, Ground cumin, Cumin, Hot Chili pepper, Powdered garlic, Oregano, Basil, Nutmeg and Turmeric are a good base to cook most Mexican, Indian and Italian type recipes as well as flavouring pretty much anything.
I hope this is helpful ! Eating healthily does not mean complicated recipes and a lot of time in the kitchen, it mostly means planning ahead a little bit, using creativity and varying nutrients. A bit of everything and nothing in excess. Our bodies know what they need so we only need to listen to them !
Any other tips, please post them below !