Cooking ahead

Preparing meals ahead requires planning.

Planning is the first step to good organization, with the added bonus of saving time and effort when you are actually doing the chores.

Some ways to plan menus more efficiently

Begin with Planning weekly menus

Plan your weekly menus before shopping for groceries and fresh produce

Find your comfort cycle. I shop weekly but when it comes to menu planning, I try to plan for two weeks at a time. This saves and some blank page stress, when I stare at an empty page not knowing which meal to plan. Planning only for a week usually has me staring back at the blank page in a flash. Planning for a whole month usually leads to many changes. This does not let me enough room to include seasonal food or unexpected good produce I find at the store. I also find easier to balance all nutritional needs over a fortnight than over a single week. There are simply not enough meals in a week to follow all nutritional guidelines.

For a balanced meal, half of the plate should be covered in vegetables, one quarter with meat -or your chosen protein- and the starchy food should cover the other quarter.

The easier meals to plan are the typical meat –or other protein- and two vegetables plus one starch. Let us explore the options.

Proteins first

Begin by choosing the meat and fish –fresh or frozen- you will serve each day. Consider including one meatless or vegetarian day each week with beans and pulses as main source of protein.

Vegetables on the side

Source of protein chosen; select the vegetables to serve on the side. For those pressed for time, there is a wide range of frozen vegetables to choose from –fully cooked or simply blanched. Finish off blanched vegetables by adding butter, minced onion –sautéed- and cream, crispy bacon, or accompany vegetables with cheese sauce, tomato sauce –as an option, prepare a vegetable bake or finish them under the grill.

Frozen vegetables –even a 1 lb package mixed vegetables- are usually not enough to grant sufficient amounts of the nutrients we need from vegetables in a balanced diet. I suggest to add some more, even if they are also frozen or canned.

Some seasonal vegetables and others we find all year round are easy to wash and prepare from fresh –and far cheaper than the frozen or canned versions. Think of cauliflower, leeks, peppers, zucchini, squash, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and so on.

For vegetables, when pressed for time, consider the washed and ready to eat packages of salad leaves and crudités – chunks of peppers and broccoli, celery or carrot sticks, and so on. Add some dressing to have a side salad; add a dip to have and appetizer.

Source of energy

There are three main sources of starches, but lots of variety here.

Those with literally no time in their hands can think of bread as source of starch and choose wholegrain breads to get the maximum fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Potatoes

Baked or jacket potatoes are easy, and fast when using a microwave; steamed potatoes are healthy, and easy when done in a steamer with other veggies; mashed potatoes and home fries are liked by every member in the family.

There is plenty in the convenience potatoes:

  • No need to deep fry, use frozen oven fries and potato croquettes
  • Ready mashed, potatoes and other root vegetables for even more variety
  • Prepared potato dishes, like gratin Dauphinoise or a creamy potato bake
  • Canned potatoes, easy to heat up in boiling water or sautéing in butter
  • If one must, there are potato flakes to prepare your own purees and thicken sauces.
Pasta

All shapes and colors, easy to cook –soak in boiling water couscous and some Asian noodles, 5 to 12 minutes for other noodles and Italian pasta. Whole grain versions add the extra fiber. Super-quick when using pre-cooked couscous.

  • Don’t over cook, serve “al dente,” and rinse before placing them on the serving dish.
  • Add a little olive oil, butter, or cream.
  • Sprinkle with chopped aromatic herbs –fresh or dried- and grated cheese.
  • Tomato sauce goes well with almost every one and it is healthier than the usual cheese sauce.
Rice and other grains

Long grain rice only takes 10-12 minutes to cook and short grain rice about 15-18 minutes. Whole rice, the brown one, can take 30-35 minutes for long grain to 45 for the short varieties.

For wholegrain rice rinse, boil in water with salt for 30 minutes, drain and go on with the recipe as you would with white rice.

When pressed for time, there are sachets of frozen cooked rice for any number of helpings and fast cooking rice.

Don’t forget the assortment of grains, like wheat or spelt, that can double as rice, as there are pre-cooked versions that can be prepared quick enough.

Interior of a freezer

Time savers

Having these ingredients at hand saves time.

  • Frozen chopped, minced or sliced onions and shallots – commercial or home made.
  • Frozen aromatic herbs – parsley, tarragon, coriander, chives, basil, mint, mixed herbs - as chopping them is as easy as snapping the frozen leaves.
  • Ground garlic – garlic powder – in the pantry or garlic paste in the fridge.
  • Corn flour, arrowroot or kuzu, as instant thickeners.
  • Stock cubes or powdered stock: chicken, beef, fish, vegetable – the organic ones don’t contain MSG. 
  • A selection of aromatic vinegars –cider, tarragon, raspberry.
  • Canned food – tuna, salmon;  petit pois, corn; a selection of canned beans and pulses; tomato, passata or tomato puree; a selection of canned fruit and fruit cocktail.
  • Frozen foods – spinach, peas, green beans and vegetable mixes, sliced mushrooms; frozen berries or peaches, especially in the winter; pizza bases, oven fries and other prepared potatoes, sachets of cooked rice.

Rough guide to portion sizes: for a balanced meal, half of the plate should be covered in vegetables, one quarter with meat or your chosen protein and the starchy food should cover the other quarter.

Veggie soup in a cup.

What else?

One would need sauces to complement the main course or side dishes, and a dessert option to finish the meal with a sweet touch.

Sauces

Dressings and vinaigrettes

Mayonnaise, salad dressings, or vinaigrettes help to prepare salads in a flash. Though they are quick to prepare, home made vinaigrettes will keep for days in the fridge, so many times I do a little more I need and use it a couple of days later. Some dressings –like my favorite ranch dressing- take time to get them ready, so I always make plenty. These usually keep well.

The variety is huge in the ready-made kind. I enhance them by adding a little aromatic vinegar, oil and chopped aromatic herbs, or make them lighter by adding yogurt, cottage cheese or a little cream.

Hot sauces

When in a real hurry, I consider de-hydrated sauces or the ones in a brick.

Dessert

Fresh fruit is the best for a sweet, light and fresh touch to round a meal. Washed and cut tropical fruits and fruit salad baskets are always on the grocery store shelves.

Yogurt, cottage or farmer’s cheese, rice puddings, flan, creams and custards are still light enough. Serve them as they are or accompany with fresh fruit, coulis, or fruit sauce –fresh, frozen or preserved.

For the winter, try steamer or microwavable fruit pouches, ready made or easy to prepare your own.

If nothing else, there is always ice cream or a quick sorbet made with syrup and frozen fruits.


Double your pleasure