Whether you’re a single person with a demanding job, a two-income couple, or part of a family with one child or seven, then by definition, you’re a busy cook. Vegans aren’t part of some mythical, laid-back counterculture, but are soccer parents, car poolers, corporate executives, self-employed entrepreneurs, and our children are involved in just as many extracurricular activities and have just as much homework as anyone else’s kids!
Many people say they’re too busy to cook, but no one is too busy to eat. Even among plant-based food fans, this is often remedied with lots of eating out, take-out, and prepared entrees.
I like to encourage people cook and eat at home, so here are some of my tried-and-true tips for making cooked-from-scratch meals a daily reality, even after the most exhausting days. The two main ingredients for success among these meal-planning tips are a little advance planning and keeping things simple:
1. Make sure your pantry, freezer, and fridge are stocked with basics. Keep good-quality ingredients for quick and/or “emergency meals” on hand as a matter of routine.
My pantry standbys include canned beans, canned tomatoes, quick-cooking grains (like couscous and bulgur), white and sweet potatoes, and pastas.
Stock your pantry with prepared sauces like marinara, barbecue, Thai peanut, and salsa, then, obviously in the fridge once opened if not finished. Keep prepared hummus in the fridge — it’s such a versatile staple!
In the freezer, keep whole wheat English muffins, veggie burgers, pita bread (for quick pizzas and sandwiches), corn and wheat tortillas. Basic frozen veggies to have on hand include corn, peas, green beans, and cauliflower (organic if possible).
And with fresh produce at the ready, there are a myriad of nearly-instant meals that can be created with these basics.
2. Plan three full meals for the week ahead. Allow for two nights of leftovers. Plan your meals before you go grocery shopping to prevent running back and forth to the store all week for ingredients.
There’s nothing worse than walking into the kitchen after a long day without a clue as to what you want to make. I try to practice what I preach, but whenever there is a week that I’ve left unplanned, I really regret it! Just 15 or 20 minutes of meal planning per week saves lots of time and simplifies your life immeasurably.
3. Indulge in prepped fresh vegetables from time to time. Your local supermarket has gotten to be better than the proverbial Mom in getting people to eat their veggies. Supermarket produce sections offer vegetables that are cut and ready to go — a great shortcut to stir-fries, sautés, and salads. These include diced butternut squash, coleslaw cabbage, broccoli slaw, grated carrots, trimmed green beans, and more. Now there really is no excuse for not eating your 5-a-Day!
4. On Sundays, prepare a couple of basics for the week to come. Cook some plain brown rice (or other grain), bake some potatoes, sweet potatoes, or squash.
Bake a quick bread or muffins, or prepare a good pasta sauce. Knowing that you have even one item that’s already prepared when you enter the kitchen at 6:00 is a sweet feeling, and the rest of the meal then comes together quickly.
5. Once a week, make a big one-pot meal. We’re talking the kind of meal that can stretch to at least two nights, such as a hearty soup or stew, chili, or casserole. Double recipes if you have a larger family. Then, all you need little more than salad and fresh whole grain bread to accompany the meal. Leftovers of this kind of one-pot dish can make great portable lunches as well.
6. Develop repertoires and routines. If you don’t mind a little repetition, you can choose just a few menus that your family likes and rotate them throughout the month. An example of a routine would be something like that described in suggestion #4, above, where you prepare certain ingredients in advance.
Another would be to get your older children and teens to take turns making dinner, or at least part of it, once a week.
Or, try designating each night of the week for a certain kind of meal. Monday could be soup and salad night (with the soup having been prepared on Sunday), Tuesday, homemade Asian, Wednesday, pasta night, one night to clean up all leftovers, and so on. This kind of predictability makes meal planning easier when you’re strapped for time.
Photo: Hannah Kaminsky
Bottom line — keep it simple!
This brings me back to the most important point — keep it simple! You need not spend hours cooking or use dozens of ingredients to create tasty meals. I truly believe that it’s the quality of ingredients, rather than the quantity, that matters most.
Adapted from The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas.