Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tips for Quick and Easy Weeknight Dinners

This week I am tempted by this packable straw hat (perfect for the beach or pool), this designer mascara sampler set (a great deal since you can redeem a full-size version of your favorite), this beautiful cover-up, and this airy linen tee (yes, summer is on my mind).

I love eating good food, and I consider myself a foodie (Exhibit A: Instagram), but I used to hate cooking. Well, that's not entirely accurate. I liked to cook experimentally, but I could never get into the habit of making dinner every night. Similarly, J loved to cook, but the types of meals he liked to make were so complicated that they took hours(!) to prepare. Nobody has time for that! As a result, we rarely made dinners at home, opting to eat out instead which got to be expensive and unhealthy.

Eventually we said enough was enough and started trying to figure out a better solution. As it turns out, the reasons we didn't cook regularly were: a) we were spending too much time per meal, and b) we get tired of eating the same thing every day. After much trial and error, I think we figured out some tips and tricks for making "nice" healthy dinners every day that taste unique without spending too much time (less than 30 minutes for simple proteins if you get the timing down):

1) Create a basic dinner formula. Ours consists of a protein + a vegetable + a salad + a starch. Out of those elements, we only pick ONE item to spend significant time on. For example, if we decide to make a protein that needs prep, marinating, seasoning, etc., then we'll make a really easy vegetable like grilled asparagus or zucchini. If we're really low on time and/or energy, we'll use a frozen protein that's already premarinated or even precooked and spend some time on the vegetables instead. For example, I like to get some of the frozen premarinated fish from Costco, and Trader Joe's always has good frozen stuff.

Protein: prepackaged precooked sliced beef from Costco
Vegetable: grilled zucchini
Salad: lettuce, cherry tomatoes, red onion, parmesan
Starch (not pictured): take-and-bake bread (Target has some)

2) Eat more salad! Most salads are super quick to make, add another element to your dinner, and provide an extra serving of vegetables. We frequently just make a simple salad out of lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and shallot or red onion. I alternate between different lettuce blends, like spring mix (although I'm currently avoiding it because of the e.coli outbreak on romaine) or spinach blend, and different dressings. Sometimes we'll add fruit and nuts or cheese. I also like kale salads, but I only make them when I have more time because they need massaging.

Protein: premarinated frozen mahi mahi from Costco
Salad: lettuce, roasted brussel sprouts, heirloom tomatoes, shallot
Starch: wild rice from Trader Joe's
Wine: Trader Joe's

3) Use "fancy" starches to dress up your meal. If we have time during the weekend, we sometimes get fresh bread from a local bakery. Otherwise, we keep take-and-bake bread in the freezer (bake in the oven). Instead of dried pasta, we use fresh packaged pasta from the grocery store (boil on the stove). We keep Trader Joe's wild rice, brown rice medley, and couscous on hand (use the ricecooker). We keep frozen naan from Trader Joe's that we use as flatbread (bake in the oven). By switching up these simple elements that require almost zero prep time (just heat it up), the meals instantly taste different and like you put in more effort than you actually did.

Protein: premarinated frozen salmon from Costco
Vegetable: grilled asparagus
Salad: lettuce, grape tomatoes, carrot, shallot
Starch: brown rice medley from Trader Joe's

4) Grill or bake as much as you can. This is pretty key, because you don't have to watch the food that closely, and it really saves clean up time. Stovetop cooking is very inefficient in my opinion, because you have to constantly monitor and stir the food. By comparison, for grilling or baking, you just season it and pop it in. In terms of clean up, for stuff that goes in the oven, make sure you use aluminum foil, because you'll save time on scrubbing the pan afterwards. Stuff that gets stuck to the grill just burns off. We scrub the ash away the next time we use it. If you don't have a charcoal or gas grill, an electric grill works just fine too (but not a Foreman Grill because you still have to wash the grill plates).

I have more tips I want to share, but this post is getting too long, so I will share them another time. These days we make dinner at home most nights. We're not super strict about it since trying new restaurants is still one of the primary joys of my life, and I don't want to give it up entirely. There's nothing wrong with treating yourself once or twice a week, but it should actually feel like a treat. I don't want to eat out just because I'm hungry.

Do you have a formula for weeknight dinners? Do you rely on frozen stuff to supplement your meals? What other tips do you have?

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