My New Time-Saving, Stress-Free Approach to Cooking

woman places frozen bags of vegetables into freezer for meal planning and prep

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Preparing weeknight meals used to be a nightmare, but now it's a breeze, thanks to a few key changes.

Back in March, I wrote about why we need to rethink the way we cook. The ‘single-meal model,’ as presented by most cookbooks, is hugely inefficient for everyone, whether you’re part of a large family or a single person living alone. While using lots of different recipes keeps meals interesting, it is impractical and discouraging to cook like this on a regular basis.

My family has two working parents and a packed evening schedule. Preparing, cooking, and cleaning up after a nightly meal is nearly impossible, which is why I pledged to develop better “kitchen craft.” This has been my mission for the past three months, and I am happy to report that my family’s food situation has improved tremendously. Here’s what has changed:

I bought a cookbook recommended by several commenters

A New Way to Dinner,” by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs of Food52 fame, features seasonal week-long menu plans. Each plan requires a few hours of prep time on the weekend, which then makes the weeknight meals a snap to prepare. The cookbook is frustratingly meat-centric (maybe I need to write the vegetarian version!) but the ideas are brilliant and inspiring, and I’m able to vegetarian-ize some of the recipes.

The biggest change has been dedicating two hours each Sunday afternoon to preparing ingredients in advance

I never, ever allow the week to start without a plan in place, taped to the fridge. A few things stay the same. I make sure there’s a batch of granola for quick breakfasts, muffins in the freezer for bag lunches, salad dressing in a jar, and lettuce washed in the fridge. In the interest of saving time, I’ve stopped making bread, tortillas, and hummus from scratch because I simply cannot do it all and would rather focus on the ‘big-ticket’ items.

Next, I cook double batches of staples that are easy to freeze.

Food like spaghetti sauce, ricotta gnocchi (it sounds complicated, but Food52’s recipe is easier than making cookies), lentil shepherd’s pie, or mac ‘n cheese. One goes in the freezer, the other is eaten that night.

Meanwhile, there is always a pot of beans, chickpeas, or lentils simmering on the stove because you never know when it will rescue a meal. If the oven's on, I put in anything that can be roasted -- spaghetti squash, sweet potatoes, tomato halves, cauliflower, apples, rhubarb.

“A New Way to Dinner” has introduced me to two revolutionary recipes – pickled red onions and charmoula. Both recipe descriptions promised miraculous results, and they’re bang on. These two simple things take every meal to the next level. Charmoula is a pesto-like blend of cilantro and parsley with garlic, olive oil, and vinegar. It is divine on top of fried eggs for breakfast, mixed into grain salads with chickpeas, drizzled over grilled vegetables, stirred into soup, used on top of burgers... the sky’s the limit. Sweet-and-sour pickled onions go with tacos, eggs, salads, sandwiches, etc.

I’ve been working hard to develop basic cooking formulas –- concepts that I understood before, but didn’t practice regularly because I was distracted by specific recipes. Now, my family’s mostly-vegetarian meals are a revolving door of the following formulas, shaped by whatever’s in the fridge:

Burritos = beans + sweet potato + vegetables + chipotle + tortilla

Stir-fry = vegetables + tofu + black bean sauce + rice or noodles

Curry = vegetables + coconut milk + curry paste + rice

Noodles = fried egg + kimchi + noodles + green (scallions, chives, cilantro)

Dal = lentils + vegetables + curry paste + rice

Salad = leaves + crunch + color + soft + dressing (it’s all about the texture!)

Pizza = dough + sauce (pesto or tomato) + vegetables (fresh or marinated) + cheese

Our meals are more repetitive than they used to be, and significantly less fancy, but they’re more satisfying because my husband and I are not burnt out from cooking at the last minute.