1. Plan a week’s worth of dinners. Many of us don’t know what we’re having for dinner as late as 4pm in the afternoon. Yet planning ahead takes just a few minutes. Here’s how to do it. Every Friday night or Saturday morning, sit down with a pad of paper and your favorite cookbooks or some cookery magazines. Think about what’s in your freezer and fridge, what your family likes to eat, what your upcoming week entails. Then plan out a week’s worth of menus (you can always leave one night for takeaway pizzas). At the same time, write out your shopping list. Now stick the list of menus on the fridge or bulletin board so it’s the first thing you see when you get home. Voilà! No more thinking ahead.
2. Enjoy the cooking process. Of course, not everyone loves cooking. But there’s no reason to not like doing it. If the thought of cooking fills you full of dread, you need an attitude adjustment. Cooking is a pleasure, far easier than many non-cooks realize. For the sake of your health, your pleasure and your wallet, you should learn – or relearn – the pleasures of cooking. Make it a project. Spend time with your friends and family while they cook so that you can absorb the methods and routines. Consider taking a class, or buy an introductory cookbook. Most of all, lose your fear. It is harder to be a bad cook than a good cook, particularly if you use good ingredients.
3. Delegate, delegate, delegate. If you have children aged ten-plus or another adult who gets home before you do, get them started on dinner. For example, you might ask your partner to pick up ingredients on the way home, your teen to start chopping vegetables for the salad and fill the pasta pot with water, and your pre-teen to gather necessary ingredients for a given recipe and put them on the worktop for you, preheat the oven and set the table. Yes, they may think of it as a chore, but if you build in a little opportunity for them to ‘create’ (for example, with place cards for dinner, fancy napkin folding, their own recipes) it will make your children more interested in nutritious food and will encourage them to try new things.
4. Stock your freezer with homemade meals. Stews, soups and chili all freeze wonderfully. Work out how much of a one-pot meal you need to feed your family for one dinner, then buy plastic containers of that size. Make a pot of your family favorites at the weekend and you’ll have four or five meals waiting in the freezer. A smart freezer is filled with plastic containers of several different homemade meals, each labeled with the contents and the date it was made.
5. Base a meal on good-quality soup stock. Soup makes a great dinner. It’s healthy, filling, delicious and easy to make. If you keep homemade chicken stock in the freezer, or cans of low-salt soup stock in the cupboard, it often takes just a few minutes to whip together an impromptu vegetable soup. Use 1 litre of stock or low-salt chicken consommé as the base. Then just toss in a variety of chopped veggies such as spinach, carrots, sweetcorn, peas, green beans and zucchini. Be sure to include lentils, chickpeas, butterbeans and other legumes. They provide excellent protein, lots of fiber, an array of micronutrients, and are filling and satisfying at a relatively low cost in calories. To round out the meal, have some whole-grain bread (dip it in olive oil rather than spreading it with butter) and a salad.
6. Invest in a slow cooker and/or a breadmaker. Imagine popping a few ingredients – chicken, a few vegetables, barley and stock – into a slow cooker before you leave the house in the morning and coming home to a satisfyingly healthy home-cooked meal. Or waking up to the delicious aroma of bread in the timed breadmaker. These gadgets can make life simpler and tastier.
7. Include three old standbys on your weekly menu. No one expects you to come up with a new meal every night. Pick three low-fuss, nutritious recipes that you and the family enjoy and, most importantly, that you can almost cook in your sleep. You might designate Monday as pasta or casserole night, Tuesday as grilled fish night and Wednesday as roasted chicken night. Include similar vegetable and grain side dishes as well. This eases the headache of grocery shopping – you’ll need many of the same groceries from one week to the next. Feel free to try new recipes on weekends when you have more time.
8. Eat together as a family at least three times a week. Children who eat dinner at the table with other family members are more likely to enjoy a healthy diet according to research by the National Family and Parenting Institute in the UK. Shared family time, including mealtimes, may also hold the key to building successful relationships. Families that eat together are also likely to consume more fruit and vegetables and drink fewer soft drinks. Hold a family meeting and pick nights and times that work for everyone. Make eating together at the table non-negotiable.
9. Instead of forcing kids to clean their plates, enforce a one-bite rule. Encourage your children to take one bite out of all the foods on their plate. If, after one bite, they still don’t want to eat their spinach or broccoli, let them push it aside. This technique encourages children to try new foods, but doesn’t create a stressful eating experience. Also, involve young children in preparing foods you want them to try. A sense of ownership makes them bolder.
10. Have breakfast for dinner. A great ‘breakfast’ option for dinner is an omelette. It’s quick and easy to make, a good protein source and relatively low in calories. Fill it with veggies instead of cheese, and you have a complete meal in a frying pan.
11. Plan which night you’ll eat out – and stick to it. Rather than eating out whenever you lack the inspiration – or groceries – to cook at home, eat out on a designated night. This makes eating out what it should be – a treat. You’ll enjoy the restaurant more and eat more healthily throughout the week.
12. Keep your shopping and recipe lists on the computer. That way, you can just rotate your weekly menus (along with the shopping list) every month or every two months. Thus, once you have, say, eight weeks of menus, you’re set for the rest of the year.
13. Use parts of last night’s dinner for tonight’s meal. This allows you to cook once and eat twice. For example, if you have roast chicken one night, use the leftovers to serve up chicken fajitas or chicken salad the next. Prepare all key protein foods – chicken, turkey, fish, etc. – in larger-than-needed amounts so they will last two nights instead of one. Do the same with rice and other grain-based side dishes. Serve as a side dish one night and use the leftovers to make a casserole, stir-fry or soup the next.