Planning Ahead for Healthy, Stress-Free Weeknight Meals

by sockii

Whether it's a Sunday or a weekday you spend at home, you can do a lot of your meal planning - and cooking! - in advance to enjoy better family dinners every night of the week.

For many of us, planning on satisfying, healthy and affordable weeknight dinners can be major challenge. Even if you work at home instead of in an office, it can still be a lot of effort, time and stress coming up with meals to satisfy our partners and families if it is your primary responsibility in the house! All too often your best plans and great ideas can fall apart because you run out of time, out of energy, or simply find you don't have the ingredients you need on-hand when you need them.

So what happens? You fall back on take-out fried chicken or Chinese food, a pizza, or just a quick pasta with jarred sauce.

Fast meals like that aren't bad every once in a while, but the calories—and cost to your wallet and your health—can add up in the long run. But if you have a few hours one day a week, say on a Sunday morning or afternoon, you can take care of a lot of the work in planning your cooking for the week ahead. The tips below are ones I try to follow as best as I can and it helps me keep my kitchen organized, my weeknight evenings less stressful, and my diet full of a variety of fresh, healthy and varied dinners to share every night with my sweetie.

Image above: A quick weeknight dinner of Indian-spiced fish and marinated tomato salad. Planning ahead means making sure I have the ingredients on hand to prepare a variety of healthy food for the week to come.

All photos on this page are by the author, sockii, unless otherwise indicated.

1. Take a Trip to Your Freezer

Chest freezerA good way to start your day's work is to take a look in your freezer, to see what you already have stored up to use in the week ahead. I know I love to have a well-stocked freezer at all times, but sometimes it's easy to forget what's in there, or to not take it out to defrost in time to use for a meal you want to cook. So you end up wasting time and money by having to rush out to the supermarket to buy "fresh" ingredients when you've already got plenty already at home—but you can't use them because they're frozen solid!

So, on that Sunday morning, take a quick freezer "inventory" and think about what you could utilize from it in the week ahead. Take out a large item such as a pot roast, ham, or turkey breast that will take several days in the fridge to defrost. That can then be cooked up one night when you have more time at home, or left in the crockpot to cook all day while you're at work. (It might even produce enough leftovers for several days' worth of meals different meals!)

Also take out any items such as a pork loin, chicken breasts or skirt steak that may need an overnight or longer marinade to then make for a fast grilled supper entree. Seafood often does not take long to defrost so you may not need to take such items out more than the night before you cook them—but move them to the front of your freezer so you know where they are and can find them quickly during the week.

Don't, however, end up wasting food by defrosting more than you are going to end up cooking in the week ahead!

2. Clean Out the Fridge!

Toss out the old and funky stuff and start that shopping list

fridgeAfter you've checked the freezer, go on and spend some time looking in your fridge. Toss out any old leftovers, vegetables gone bad, spoiled dairy, or other items that are of no longer of any use and just hogging space. See what items you may need to use in the next few days so that they won't go bad and thereby go to waste.

Then start up a shopping list of what you need to buy, especially considering what you've taken out of the freezer to defrost for the week ahead. What might you need for side dishes? What basics like eggs, butter, or fresh herbs are you running low on?

Note that I actually don't like grocery shopping on the weekend unless I can't avoid it—too crowded and hectic. But having a list of what I need to buy when I get the chance makes sure I don't forget anything critical for the meals I'm planning ahead of time.

Image credit: cheriedurbin at MorgueFile.com

3. Keep on Hand Pantry Basics for Fast - but Homecooked - Pasta Dinners

A great healthy sauce shouldn't come from a jar

pasta primaveraA pasta dinner is often a go-to choice when you need a hearty family-friendly dinner—and fast! But that doesn't mean it needs to or should be made with a pre-jarred sauce that's likely full of preservatives, too much salt and too much sugar. There are countless fresh, fast, and authentic Italian pasta sauces you can make in less time than it takes to boil a pot of water and cook those noodles. What are a few examples?

  • Quick-cook marinara with canned plum tomatoes, olive oil, fresh onion and herb
  • Fresh "flash cooked" cherry tomatoes with jarred capers and olives plus fresh basil (or, completely raw chopped tomatoes just mixed with herbs and hot pasta)
  • Canned tuna fish with garlic, lemon juice, parsley and red pepper flakes
  • Canned chick peas with rosemary, garlic and olive oil
  • Fast vegetable primavera with canned artichoke hearts, frozen peas, diced fresh carrots and white wine
  • Cauliflower sauteed with chopped bacon and onion, finished with toasted breadcrumbs
  • Roman Cacio e pepe with just butter, cracked pepper, Parmesan and Pecorino cheese

Any of these make a great meal with just a side salad (use one of those mixed bagged salads from the supermarket) and possibly some bread.

So, a Sunday morning is a good time to check your pantry and make up a shopping list of any staples you might need to buy when you next go grocery shopping, or stock up on when they're on sale.

Pantry items are not just useful for pasta, either, but for all kinds of cooking whether in advance or for a quick weeknight meal. Canned beans can be used for quick side dishes or salads; coconut milk and curry paste can make for a fast curried chicken or beef curry or stir fry.

My Favorite Pasta Cookbooks

For fast, healthy, and delicious meals
100 Great Pasta Sauces
$14.95  $10.47
Giuliano Hazan's Thirty Minute Pasta:...
$27.50  $1.51
Pasta: Every Way for Every Day
$19.95  $4.89

What's in my Pantry?

my pantryAs much as I try to cook from fresh ingredients, I also keep a well-stocked pantry to enhance my meals and have things ready to prepare in a pinch—without having to rely on boxed "instant" side dishes or sauce mixes. Some of the things I try to make sure I always have in my pantry include:

  • Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and other vegetables that hold up well to canning such as green peas and corn
  • Canned and dried beans (chick peas, black beans, black-eyed peas, lentils)
  • Dried peppers (such as Chipotle, Ancho, and Thai chilies)
  • Dried porcini mushrooms
  • Canned seafood including tuna fish (good quality Italian tuna in olive oil), crabmeat and clams
  • Anchovies (great for pasta sauces and salad dressings)
  • Vegetable and chicken stock, clam juice for making fast soups and stews
  • Various pastas and rices
  • Coconut milk and curry pastes
  • Jarred Italian specialties such as capers, artichoke hearts, black and green olives

4. Research Recipes

Spend some quality time with your cookbooks (or online recipes)

cookbooksDo you find you get stuck in a rut cooking the same things over and over again, just because you end up in a panic to cook something fast on a weeknight? Maybe you've got a new cookbook that's been sitting on the shelf for months and you've never gotten around to trying out any of the recipes. Or you have a ton of recipes pinned on Pinterest that just look so good, you keep meaning to try them, but never get around to it.

If so, pick a book or two on Sunday morning and spend some time exploring. Make it a goal to try cooking at least one new recipe every week. Look for something you can either cook in advance when you have the time to try it out, or something quick for a weeknight that you just need to be sure you have all the ingredients handy to use. Add anything that you don't have to your shopping list—there's nothing that frustrates me more than planning to make a new dish and realizing at the last minute I'm missing one or more crucial ingredients!

5. Prepare Some "Make-Ahead" Meals

Use your time to cook up meals for the week-ahead

Turkey and chick pea chiliFinally, if you have the time (and energy) to do a little extra cooking, make some dinners for the week ahead so they'll be ready to serve when you need them. "Make-ahead meals" are nothing new and there are countless cookbooks published on the subject (see below). Rachael Ray even has an entire TV series devoted to"Week in a Day" cooking!

What are some great make ahead meals to prepare? Things that would just take too much time and effort to whip up after a busy day's work, but can easily be reheated from fridge or refrigerator storage such as:

  • Hearty soups and stews
  • Baked pasta dishes like lasagna or stuffed shells
  • Pot pies and casseroles
  • Meatballs and marinara sauce
  • Enchiladals and chilis
  • Stuffed Peppers

You don't have to think "full meals" with make-ahead cooking, either. Some other cooking projects I like to tackle on a Sunday for the week ahead include:

  • Making pizza dough. Pizza's always great for a fast weeknight supper, but preparing the dough can take a few hours of proofing and rising. So I'll make enough dough in one day that I can store ready-to-go dough balls in the fridge or freezer for the week ahead.
  • Pasta and rice salads. These are almost always best after having at least a night or two to marinate in the fridge. It's also a great way to use up "odds and ends" of vegetables that you've accumulated during the week, to turn them into a tasty side dish.
  • Marinated vegetable salads. Another good make-ahead side dish that generally tastes best in a few days' time. Try making marinated mushrooms (I love this recipe), Japanese pickled vegetables, cole slaw (traditional or perhapsAsian-inspired), grilled vegetables in olive oil and herbs...
  • Slow-cooker beans. While I keep canned beans on hand for "emergencies", I generally prefer the flavor and texture from dried beans I've cooked myself. But that can take hours! So a quiet Sunday at home is a perfect day to cook up a big batch of beans to then use later in the week (or freeze in 1-2 cup servings for use at any time.) Note that you don't even need to presoak the beans if you don't have the time; see How to Cook Dried Beans in a Crockpot Slow Cooker for instructions.
  • Homemade wontons and dumplings. These can be time-intensive to put together, but then easily frozen until you need them. Then steam them, or pan-fry them, or add to soup whenever you need them! (From-scratch ravioli, too!)

Preparing these side dishes and meal elements ahead of time makes it easier during the week to just focus on the "main dishes" on a weeknight, like quick pan-sautéed fish fillets, a chicken stir-fry, or grilled steak.

Looking for more food and recipe ideas? Check out my blog, South Jersey Foodie

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Updated: 04/24/2015, sockii
 
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sockii on 04/24/2015

Hi Mira,
I'm actually working on a page about making pizza at home, including my dough recipe. So look out for that article soon!

Mira on 04/24/2015

I like your suggestions and cooking style.
Do you have a good recipe for pizza dough that you care to share?

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