Here are a lot of ways I’ve found to make “real food” without spending hours each day making dinner. I don’t always follow my very good advice, so I thought writing them out would keep these tips in my mind when I plan meals.
Planning meals in the first place is a great time saver – no time wasted trying to figure out what can be made from ingredients on hand, and less wasted food because you have a use for everything you buy. Plus grocery shopping is finding specific items and purchasing them, not wandering through the store picking anything that looks good.
I generally cook more than we need and have “left overs” for lunch the next day. That may mean exactly the same thing as dinner or it may mean dinner became a main ingredient in lunch. Quiche turns into egg salad for a sandwich, or chili is used in a taco salad.
Freezer meals are a big time saver for me – the basic idea is that you prep a dozen meals after picking up groceries (dicing, measuring) and put it all into glass freezer containers or freezer bags. It’s a lot of work one day (and a lot of shopping, but that’s a big money saver too since I buy stuff when it’s on sale) but a few hours one day make a lot of quick low-effort meals in the future. You toss everything into the crock pot, add some sort of liquid, and let it cook all day. Or you toss everything into a pressure cooker, add a little bit of liquid, and cook it for 20 minutes or so.
For things that don’t cook well in a pressure cooker or crock pot, make a big batch of stuff and freeze half (or more) of it. When I make a lasagna, I usually make three meals worth. Two for the freezer, one to eat that night. The frozen ones take a while to bake (let them thaw in the fridge that day), but it’s hands-off doing-something-else time. Homemade ravioli, vareniki, or piroshki are a time-consuming meal to make on a weekend afternoon/evening, but the ones that get frozen are a super quick weekday meal.
Big salads – if you’re making freezer meals anyway, more dicing and chopping isn’t a big deal. Store chopped foods in glass containers in the fridge. There are recipes for pre-made salads in a jar that stay fresh all week too. You can get a lot of different flavours by using different ingredients and spice blends. I’ll throw in tinned corn, artichoke hearts, olives. Add some pickled green beans or banana peppers. For people who eat meat, I’ll add some diced ham, shredded chicken, grilled steak (basically whatever meat is left over previous meals). For those who don’t, I’ll add black beans or garbanzo beans (another great use for the pressure cooker – I buy super cheap dry beans and cook enough for the week). Add sliced almonds, dried cranberries, walnuts, diced apple, or pomegranate seeds to add some extra crunch. If you have bread going stale, you can cube it up and toast it for homemade croutons.
Fresh bread takes hours to make, but the dough can be frozen. Frozen dough and pre-chopped foods turns pizza into a quick weeknight meal. Pizza is a single rise dough. Mix it up, freeze it. When you’re ready to use it, take it out and put the frozen lump in a large bowl & cover with clingfilm. Let it sit on the counter all day to thaw and rise. When you get home, everyone spreads their dough out on a small pizza stone (yeah, I know that’s not the right way to use a pizza stone), spreads some sauce (I freeze tomato sauces in the autumn when we’re harvesting tomatoes, so a container of that thaws in the fridge all day too), adds their toppings and cheese. Then I bake them for eight to ten minutes @ 550F (highest oven temp I’ve got).
Bread dough I freeze without shaping it. You *can* shape the dough first, but my thawed & risen loaves never turn out right. They’re all funky, misshapen, and partially collapsed. So I thaw & rise my dough lump during the day, shape the loaf when I get home, and then have to wait an hour to bake it. Perfect if you want a fresh loaf to make sandwiches for lunch the next day, fine if it’s going to take an hour and a half to cook dinner anyway, but not so useful for a quick dinner after soccer practice.
Quick breads work for dinner rolls though – I make a lot of my own mixes. Take all of the dry ingredients, measure them out, and mix them together. I store them in canning jars & have a tag with the liquid ingredients needed as well as the cooking time/temp. Making dinner rolls means preheating the oven, dumping a jar of biscuit mix into a bowl, adding some amount of water (I’ve got buttermilk powder from King Arthur Flour that’s great for making buttermilk biscuits) or milk, adding some oil, mixing, maybe some extra add-in like shredded cheddar or diced onion greens, shaping, and baking for about 20 minutes. About 30 minutes to have fresh bread, 20 of which is spent setting the table and getting the crock pot meal into bowls and on the table while they cook.
Sandwiches are a quick meal – egg salad, tuna salad – sometimes I make them with avocado or yogurt instead of mayo. Add some sweet curry powder to the yogurt/mayo for a different flavor. You can use large romaine leaves instead of bread for a salad instead of a sandwich. Use tortillas to turn sandwiches into wraps. Use pitas for pocket sandwiches. Grilled cheese – all sorts of different cheeses, I go with whatever is on sale in the fancy cheese section. That spinach artichoke dip that was everywhere for a while makes an interesting sandwich filling too – I about triple the veggie component so we aren’t eating a pound of cream cheese with a speck of spinach in it. Add a little sausage for the meat eater, the rest of us eat just fresh warm French bread with reheated dip.
And one of my favorite summertime meals – grilled everything 🙂 Marinade whatever protein in a glass container overnight, marinade veggies overnight in foil packets, wrap some yams or potatoes in foil. Veggie marinade: oil/vinegar mixture infused with various herbs (think oil/vinegar type salad dressings), garlic infused olive oil, soy & honey, honey & lemon, balsamic vinegar, brown butter & vinegar. In a foil packet, veggies steam in their own water so sometimes I’ll just sprinkle on some spices (I get different spice blends from Penzey’s – sweet curry, zatar, mural of flavor, northwoods, southwest). Yams and potatoes can be partially sliced and spiced. Or thinly slice apples and insert them between the slices in a yam.