Being Your Own Prep Cook Is an Easy Way to Get Healthy Weeknight Dinners on the Table Fast
Borrow this technique from chefs and caterers.
We all know the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet, and we start doing so with the best intentions. But the reality of a busy schedule combined with the usual dinner demands can quickly have us reaching for the easiest answers. Everyone needs a little boost after a long day, and a good-for-you meal will make you feel much better than the quick-fixes, which often come with extra fat, salt, and processed ingredients. The solution to getting a healthy dinner on the table soon after you get home is not trying to make dinner from scratch every night.
While you will cook food from scratch, you won't do it all at one time. By borrowing this trick from the tool kit of chefs and caterers, you'll set yourself up for a calm dinner service. The building blocks of nutritious and filling meals include whole grains and legumes, light proteins, and lots of vegetables. You may not even need to follow a recipe if you have a selection from each food group waiting for you when you get home.
On a quiet evening or over the weekend, cook a batch of grains such as rice, farro, and barley, or make a big pot of beans, lentils, or chickpeas. Pop them in the refrigerator or the freezer in portions just enough for one meal. This will make them easy to defrost and toss into a salad or reheat. And give yourself a break; if you haven't had time to cook your own, reach for some canned beans—it's a good idea to always have them in your cupboard.
If you see a recipe that sparks your interest, read it through carefully—are there elements that can be made in advance? Or can you make the whole dish ahead and reheat for dinner? A simple soup, like this healthy, hearty Split Pea Soup with Spinach and Barley, can be made a few days ahead, the barley that gets stirred in just before serving can be pre-cooked, reheated, and stirred in when you heat the soup to serve. In this Caramelized Beet-Lentil Pilaf, simmer the lentils and roast the yellow beets on the weekend or the night before. For this vibrant Green Coconut Zoodle Soup, the prep work could include roasting the mushrooms and the squash wedges ahead of time, keeping them refrigerated for two-three days, and bringing them to room temperature before adding to your soup.
Many recipes allow a flexible approach to cooking just what you're in the mood for. So, if you choose to use rice noodles or wheat noodles instead of zoodles in this recipe, for example, they can be cooked, rinsed, and kept chilled. Another thing you can do to save time on weeknights is wash and trim greens, such as Swiss chard or kale, when you bring them home from the market. Then, if you pack them carefully in a clean towel, which you place in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator, these greens will keep well for two-three days before you cook them.
Professionals know that planning ahead and breaking down cooking into stages, makes everything much more manageable. Start when you feel calm and focused, read through your recipes, and decide how to break them into parts. Be your own prep cook, and you'll find that a healthy weeknight meal is as attainable as a frozen entrée.