When my kids were young, I stumbled on an almost-too-good-to-be-true way to cut preparation time and vary dinner menus. They were convinced that various forms of pasta were different meals. If we had spaghetti on Monday, they asked for rotini on Tuesday, and would often suggest farfalle (bow-tie noodles) on Thursday, convinced that those were three distinctly different meals. And like many kids, they insisted that all pasta products should be served plain, with butter and cheese on the side. For several years I served pasta almost every night with a vegetable or salad and occasionally meat or fish cooked as plainly (and quickly) as I could manage. My kids would announce to anyone who would listen that they ate lots of different kinds of food. I was so tired from working all day dinners prepared on autopilot in 20 minutes suited me just fine.
Fast forward past to my empty nest. We try not to eat as much pasta (dreaded carbs) as we used to and I’m willing to experiment even if the result isn’t a culinary masterpiece. When I have to prepare a weekday dinner quickly, I invariably rely on at least 1 of these 3 tips:
- Have salad, cleaned and prepared in separate containers in the refrigerator. I separate lettuce and other salad vegetables because other vegetables (especially tomatoes and cucumbers) contain water that causes the lettuce to brown if they are mixed together and refrigerated.
- Roast vegetables.
- Freeze single servings of meat (chicken, burgers, and fish) and defrost them in the refrigerator.
I don’t believe in pre-packaged salad mixes from the grocery store. There is nothing terrible about having someone else clean my lettuce or spinach. In fact, I’d love to have a sous chef. (That’s the person in a restaurant kitchen who gets to do all the cleaning and chopping that the big time chef is too busy and important to do.) But pre-packaged salad mix is expensive and when I have bought it, rather limp and pathetic compared to the fresh stuff. Save your money for a good bottle of wine or a music download. Instead, just wash the lettuce or spinach yourself and put it in a plastic container with a paper towel. It will last for 2 days or more.
In recent days, I’ve roasted cauliflower, eggplant and beets. You can roast vegetables in a pre-heated (400-500 degree) oven with virtually no preparation (just a bit of oil or butter), and little attention during cooking (some vegetables have to be turned once or twice – big deal!) Depending on how pieces are (the smaller the quicker they roast) the vegetable will be roasted and your kitchen will smell divine in between 20-90 minutes. The longer time is for a whole cauliflower – if you want to speed it up, just cut the cauliflower in smaller pieces.
If you eat meat or fish, freezing single servings and taking out only what you need the night before to defrost in the refrigerator is the way to go. If it needs further defrosting, microwave on a defrost setting. For super-quick preparation, freezing single serving cooked chicken or meat-based chili works fine. I don’t find pre-cooked burgers or fish appealing, but it takes less than 10 minutes to grill a defrosted burger or salmon filet, broil it, or cook it in a pan.
Other tips for quick meal preparation:
- Prepare pasta the night before. Refrigerate it and reheat by microwaving the pasta with about 1 tablespoon of water (to avoid scorching) on high for about 1 minute. You may need to drain off water at the end.
- Prepare rice and use freeze single serving packets in freezer bags. Reheat in microwave, making sure to take rice out of bag and put in a glass or other microwave safe container.
- Cut vegetables such as carrots, onion, broccoli, zucchini and red and green peppers into bite-sized slices the night before. Refrigerate in plastic sandwich or plastic containers. To cook, pre-heat small amount of oil (1-2 tablespoon for a single serving of vegetables) and stir fry the vegetables for a few minutes in a wok or pan.