My strategy is a little bit of a hybrid--get the fresh food ready for cooking easily each night, but not over-think what each night will be. My gang is not keen on leftovers, especially now that we are only eating one full real meal each day. That means that making a big batch of roasted veggies for the week, for example, is not a winner here. So here are some of the things I do to get ahead of the week:
- Make a huge bowl of salad. When I make salad, I make as much as I can fit in my large salad bowl. Lettuce, radishes, onions--maybe some peppers all goes in a big glass bowl with a nice lid. Usually I can get 2 dinners and 2 lunches out of a batch (for everyone), and then it's time to make again. You can use the pre-washed lettuce, but we prefer romaine to give our salads a little crunch. The key here is to make a big batch and use it for a few meals instead of making new for each meal.
- Process proteins on the weekend. When I go to the butcher (or your grocery store, whatever works for you), I typically buy chicken breasts or fish or meat for a week or two. At some point over the weekend, I take 30 minutes and cut everything up and freeze in ziplocs in portions for a meal (for us, that's about 1.7 lbs with two of us on IP and two kids). For example, with chicken breasts, I take the 4 pound package, divide into two, and cut it all up into chunks. I do chunks because these cook quickly on the stovetop and work well if I haven't defrosted something in time. Also, quick cooking over high heat helps keep the pieces juicy--chicken breasts are known to get dried out easily.
Just like with the chicken, I do the same processing with chopped meat, fish, etc. -- I divide everything into ziplock bags, each with enough for one family meal and all the bags go into the freezer. Sometimes I include spices or a marinade in the bag and then as it defrosts, the meat gets extra sauce time. I especially do this for crockpot chicken recipes -- everything goes into the bag and then I can throw it all into the crockpot whenever I've defrosted it. More often than not, it's plain tilapia or chicken breasts (our two staples) and I just figure out the spice angle when I'm making dinner.
Every night, I take a bag out of the freezer for the next night's dinner. So my decision is really which protein bag, and which vegetable, and then we always have salad (unlimited lettuce!).
Chicken cooking--pre-cut into chunks
Having extra portions in the freezer really helped me out today, in fact, when one of my beloved packages, all ready with chicken parts and wonderful spices, got nabbed by the dog and was gone in a blink of an eye. Luckily I had a bag of chicken in the freezer and I grabbed it, soaked it in a bowl of water, and got it defrosted in time to make dinner.
- Chop up as many veggies for the week as possible. Whenever I can on the weekends, often while making dinner on Saturday or Sunday evening, I process as many veggies as I can for the week. I slice up 10 zucchini, chop up a couple heads of cauliflower and broccoli, cook up some Rhubarb Compote, slice up radishes and onions--you get the gist. That way when I get home from work, I grab the prechopped veggies and start cooking those, get my protein on the stove and voila--dinner in less than 30 minutes.
- Always have fresh veggies for raw eating. For those meals when I don't have time to cook, or for lunches at work, I love to grab a cucumber and a red pepper. So that means I always have them in the crisper--and then there's never an excuse to not have something to pack! For things like jicama, I like to peel and chop two into finger-sized pieces, and then I have a bowl from which to grab some whenever I need it. Easy.
- Chop more than you need. Whenever I'm chopping veggies, I chop extra and stick it in the fridge. I usually have a container of chopped onions, for example, or radishes so that I can grab it. When I'm cooking, I can easily toss in some green onions or leeks if they are all ready for me. If they aren't, I'm likely to let them rot in the fridge. I like to use the Debbie Meyers Green Bags to keep veggies fresh -- these really work!
If you are catching on to the theme here--it's Touch It Once: when you are dealing with your veggies or proteins, chop all of it at the same time and then put some in the fridge/freezer for when you need it. Processing is what takes most of the time, so only do it once a week if you can.
- Make a big batch of dressing. We like to use homemade dressings. At the start of the week, make a big batch and you'll use it all week long. No temptation to use something with ingredients you can't have, and we prefer the taste to most of the Walden Farms collection. I'll post some dressing recipes soon.
- Pack lunches while cleaning up dinner. For us, packing up lunches goes hand in hand with cleaning up dinner. First of all, the kitchen is already a mess so adding to it is no big deal and then you are only cleaning up once. Also, half of the stuff is already out. The salad bowl is already on the counter--grab some lettuce and put into containers for lunches the next day. If you like leftover cooked vegetables for lunch, make extra at dinner and pack up some while you are cleaning up. This way, once the kitchen is truly closed you can feel a sense of accomplishment, and in the morning you can easily grab what you packed for lunch and head out the door. Many times I will even make up a pudding (my favorite is my peppermint chocolate pudding, which also works for shakes). That way it's easy in the office as well.