My sister and brother-in-law are very busy career folk with 2 dogs, a house under renovations, and a million other things to do, and freeze a lot of meals for quick dinners on busy weeknights. After a recent conversation, I was inspired to share what I do for quick and easy meals, and how this preparation and routine has helped me maintain a healthy, whole foods diet (for the most part, haha!).
1. Have cooked or thawed protein in the fridge at all times.
I like to buy in bulk and freeze meat, and there is nothing worse then being hungry for dinner and having to defrost something before you can even cook it! I like to bake 5 or 6 chicken breasts in the oven, with a simple seasoning such as salt and pepper, or some herbs. This way, they can be doctored up later. Add a drizzle of oil for extra flavour and juiciness. Chill in the fridge in a container for later use. P.S. Cutting cooked and chilled chicken is so much easier and slices SO nice. Now you can add it to a salad for an entree-style salad, make a quick wrap, or pasta. You could also cook a whole chicken, bone-in chicken, etc. and do the same thing. For pork and beef, I prefer to have them thawed and even marinated for a day or two in spices or whatever, or even cut up and put on kabobs for quick grilling. This works with chicken too. Or with thawed meat you can cube it or slice it when raw and store in the fridge. Sometimes cleaning and cutting the meat takes awhile, but this way, it is already done.
2. Make a big batch of homemade tomato sauce.
When you have tried this, you will never go back to the canned store bought kind again. I freeze it in batches and always have one ready in the fridge. Chicken parm sandwiches, english muffin or pita pizzas, or pastas are made super quick easy.
3. Triple recipes, or just make a TON of something at once.
Put on the radio, and spend some time in the kitchen on the weekend and cook up a favourite dinner. We love pasta dishes in our house and make huge batches of them. Mac n’ cheese is really delicious for leftovers, and can easily be healthified. We will make a pasta that has 4 or 5 chicken breasts in it and a mound of veggies is on the cutting board waiting to go in. Pasta is good for leftovers and re-heats well too. If you have a microwave at work (or like cold pasta) you will have lunches for several days, or leftovers to eat anytime.
4. Prep all your produce.
Wash, cut, and prepare all the fruits and veggies (including lettuce and greens) in your fridge store in containers (which also makes for easy snacking, I find I am much more likely to grab them if they are ready to go). For lunches, I even take it a step further and portion them into baggies for small lunch containers for the week. That way, all the work is done and I plop them into my lunch bag. And having peppers and mushrooms sliced and washed already, and lettuce clean and dried, cuts dinner prep time way down. I even sometimes do things 2-ways, for example, I will cut carrots into sticks for snacks and side dishes and also shred some for salad toppings. Words cannot describe how useful it is to have a fridge full of washed and prepped fruits and veggies. If I have edamamme, I will cook it and do the same thing (it is good hot or cold, or added to salad or stir fry). Or I will have a can of beans or chick peas rinsed and ready in a container for salads and topping any dish basically.
5. Cook up a batch of rice. A big one.
With your veggies already prepared and meat thawed, you can stir fry it all together and then serve over rice for such an effortless, yet delicious dinner. I find rice re-heats well, in my opinion. Or make a curry, which is really easy, yet really hardy, and serve with rice. And combine leftover cooked rice with leftover cooked chicken, you get an amazing homemade chicken fried rice. I even like our homemade, healthier version better then take-out now. We almost never buy it out anymore.
6. Use the slow cooker for everything.
Casseroles, meat, roasts, sauces, etc. It does the work all day and you come home to a delicious meal! For extra fast meals, do something all-in-one, like pork loin with potatoes/onions/carrots, seasoning of choice, and voila. You could even add a side salad or corn on the cob for something extra.
Now I bet all of this sounds like a ton of work, and just really not do-able at all. But I don’t have every single example above ready in my fridge. My rule of thumb is: always have cooked or at least thawed protein available and abundant, and prep all produce. One week I might have a ton of cooked chicken breast and rice in the fridge, the next week might be more grilling with side salads, and the next week might be making loads of 1 or 2 dishes for leftovers.
I pick a day when I have some time, put on my favourite radio station (oldies or NPR usually) and head into the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. It’s very relaxing, because there is no time frame, I am not starving, and can putter around. Or the Artist and I will do it together one night, and catch up, be silly, or have really great talks about life, or all of the above. Being in the kitchen together is one of our favourite ways to spend time together. Sometimes we even take it a step further; the Artist will prepare a big dinner with tons of leftovers, and I will prep all the produce for the week, and we will pour drinks, turn up the tunes, eat the dinner by candle light, and make a mini-date out of it.
When these are all prepared, and I even pre-portion for lunches (so I literally grab my lunch from the fridge and plop it in my lunch bag in the morning), I eat a lot healthier and a much more balanced diet. We are less likely to resort to junk or take-out when we get home tired after a long day because we can make something delicious and homemade in minutes.
The fastest meals, I would say in 15 minutes or less, would be: entree-style salads, tacos (using already cooked meat or beans), quesadillas, wraps, and grilled kabobs.
On the more medium side of things, in about 20 minutes, you could have: grilled meat, stir fry (less time probably if you use cooked meat instead of sautéing), pita or flatbread pizza, or grilled paninis.
And in about 30 minutes, you could make: spaghetti, chicken fried rice, any pasta dish, prepare pizza dough ahead of time by rolling it in desired shape(s) and freezing (you could even cook it for a few minutes to help it hold its shape) for taking pizza at home to the next level, spicy orange chicken with cashew nuts (or any Asian dish that doesn’t involve battering and frying the meat before starting), or larger cuts of meat including larger cuts of bone-in meat either grilled, or oven roasted.
In 30+ minutes: mac n’cheese casserole, sweet and sour chicken (or Asian dishes that include battering and frying meat), Mongolian style stir fry with Sriracha sauce, and of course things in the slow cooker. These just mostly require time for cooking and don’t need as much attention other then checking or stirring during this time.
And for all of these examples, having prepped produce will come in handy for easy and quick side dishes and salads. For example; grilled peppers, corn on the cob, steamed broccoli, roasted asparagus, raw veggie platter with hummus, and never ending combinations of salads. And to keep things as healthy as possible, choose whole wheat options, make your own marinade instead of using a bottled one, and be aware of how much sodium and sugar you use so that you can adjust to fit your needs/wants.
I hope this was helpful :)