I'm so crazy that I'm actually thinking of trying out for the next season of Food Network Star - open casting calls are here in SA Monday. But -- I love my day job and I don't think that I'd win anyway, so I may not waste my time. However. IF I had my own cooking show, I would probably try to format it for people who want to shop once a week and make 5-7 dinners, but also work full time (8-6ish). This is more or less what I do, although working from home does make it easier for me to prep dinner sometimes.
No matter what my schedule is like, I am a HUGE fan of menu planning, because I don't love going to the grocery store and I want to avoid going more than once a week (I go even less than that, when I can swing it). I manage to get a meal on our table almost every night, even when I'm working at the office all day or I'm too busy to take "dinner prep" breaks at home. So, I'm here to tell you -- it can be done! AND it can be done with fresh produce and meals that don't require a slow-cooker! I spend about an hour after work cooking. That hour is also spent taking care of a 6mo baby, so if you have other responsibilites like I do, don't worry. It is absolutely possible to shop once a week (or less) and make actual meals that require use of a stove and oven within a busy 1-hour time span if you follow my 3 simple tips.
1) Treat recipes as suggested guidelines, not rules you must follow. Don't freak out if you don't have basil -- substitute italian herbs or maybe oregano. Use black beans instead of pinto beans. Use water instead of broth or broth instead of water. It's going to be ok. It might even be better.
2) Multitask, multitask, multitask. If you need to cut up meat and veggies for a main and 2 sides, do them all at once with one knife and cutting board- while your water boils, the oven preheats, the butter melts in the pan, and the baby plays on the floor.
3) Clean EVERYTHING up AFTER dinner. Even refrigerated ingredients can stay out on the counter until after you eat.
Here's my menu/shopping list from this week, as an example of how I do it.
So, you can see that I've listed "non-meal" groceries next to Wednesday's "CHURCH" dinner. I don't need ingredients for that day since I'm not cooking dinner that night, so I use that space to list groceries like cat litter. Yuck.
On days when I am making dinner, I list the ingredients I don't already have in stock. For example, Monday's coconut curry chicken with rice, I already have chicken, rice, onion, & coconut milk on hand. All I need to buy is curry powder and spinach. Tonight I'm using frozen leftover squash (+ other soup ingredients I keep stocked), frozen extra steaks, and leftover veggies from last week. And so on and so on.
Saturday morning I'll make breakfast (baked mexican eggs + fruit - a favorite meal of mine) but we're going out for dinner & a movie that night, so I'm going to get a pizza and a bag-o-salad for my cousin & his wife, who are going to stay with the boy (yay!).
Lunches are usually leftovers for Drew, and either leftovers or a weird snack/veggie assortment for me. And sometimes, leftovers work for dinner too. I don't like to "schedule" leftovers but Drew likes them and when I travel or have a crazy work schedule, it's easy to make extra of something we both love and that keeps well in the fridge (like coconut curry chicken). Learn what meals make the best leftovers, and you'll learn to love leftovers. Hot main dishes that have a lot of vegetables IN them (rather than on the side, in a salad etc.) make better leftovers.
Now, everything on the menu above can be made in 1 hour or less. I promise. Squash soup will take 30 minutes, steak will take 15, roasted veggies will take 25 -- but since I'm going to MULTITASK and cook all of them concurrently, tonight's entire meal will take 45 minutes tops. If you want to make sure that the things you make are going to take an hour or less, do a web search for 30 minute meals, 5 ingredient meals, meals under an hour, etc.
Here are a few ways I cut down on prep time even more:
- Thaw out frozen ingredients by setting them in the sink on your way out the door in the morning. 8 hours is a good amount of time for most foods to sit at room temp and thaw out. Don't worry about meat going bad as it thaws over 8 hours. It won't.
- Over the weekend (or when you're cooking them for a meal already), precook extra chicken breasts, steak, ground beef/turkey, even rice, pasta, or beans. Freeze the extras and use them in future meals. Having meats and starches frozen and ready to thaw/use makes meal prep that much simpler. For example, I'm using grilled chicken and cooked rice from last weekend as ingredients in my coconut curry chicken on Sunday. Tonight I'm making butternut squash soup from squash I roasted last weekend. All of it has been in the freezer, just begging to be used in another meal.
- I regularly roast whole chickens (it only takes a couple of hours, including prep time, so you can even cook one while you make a completely separate dinner at night). The meat from one chicken makes at least 2 chicken-based meals for 2 people, or even more if it's not a main meal ingredient.
- When chopping vegetables for a meal, I try to chop enough for use in other meals. For example, tonight I'll slice up an onion for my roasted veggies. I'm going to need more onion - chopped - for tomorrow's pizza, Saturday morning eggs, and Sunday coconut curry chicken. So, I'm going to cut up 3 onions tonight, use one for dinner tonight, and throw the rest in plastic bags for use in my other meals. Make sense? Nobody should be cutting up onions 4x a week. That's 4 knives, 4 cutting boards, and a lot of unnecessary time (and tears).
I hope that helps a little! I know it can be daunting to plan a week ahead for meals and go to the store only once a week, but once you get into the habit it is more than a little bit freeing. I look forward to my weekly planning -- I take a quick mental inventory of what's in my fridge, pantry, and freezer, and the I hunt for recipes or come up with experimental combinations that I want to try that week. I research what's in season and what's on special at the store so that I can be sure what I buy is seasonal (produce) and priced right (meat, etc) and it becomes a little game, a challenge that results -- 99% of the time -- in delicious, creative, healthy meals.