We've all been there. The clock marches up to the dinner hour and you have that wide-eyed 'deer in the headlights' look. Uh. Oh. What are we gonna eat? Nothing got thawed out. The leftovers in the fridge are now officially moldy 'science projects'. It doesn't have to be this way. With a few tips and hacks, and a bit of determination on your part, you can say 'good-bye' to the expensive last minute takeout blues. The benefits to this are many: saving money, since cooking at home is going to be cheaper than take-out, keeping your weight down, since we all know that take-out is more calorie dense than what you probably make at home, and you'll be healthier, since you can control the sodium, fat, additives and chemicals that will come pre-loaded even in 'vegan' take-out.
1- Plan your meals. Even for one day. I'm serious. I use a Stickie-Note system - both on my iMac, and on the kitchen cupboard. I list what I'm planning to make for lunch and dinner every damn day. Plus, a couple of loose suggestions about future meals based on what I bought at the grocery store. You're looking at the note for today. Honest. I believe in having a plan. You may not follow the plan, but you'll have it in your back pocket, just in case. This saves a lot of grief.
Because I like to cook, I plan my meals out for several days, according to what I plan to buy or have already bought. I don't like throwing money out, so I make a point of using what I have in the pantry and fridge. But, even if you don't really enjoy cooking, don't you prefer to sit down to a well-prepared meal - even leftovers, presented in a nice way. At the table, on a plate, instead of paper wrappers.
And, notice that I also plan for the leftovers?
2- Make use of what you have. When you come back from the grocery store, it's time to do 'inventory control'. Think of your refrigerator and pantry as a very small grocery store. You have inventory with limited shelf-life to sell. You've made an investment in food. Do what the stores do, and move the newest to the back and bring the older items up in front where you'll see them. Go through the produce bins and refresh some items. Pick out the bad leaves or berries. Take a quick tour through the other pull-out drawers. It helps to have your fridge organized with dedicated bins or other containers for various types of food.
You're looking at my bins for onions/garlic/ginger, potatoes, root vegetables.
Go through the salad stuff, and run it under the cold water, and through the spinner. I actually store my 'salad making elements' in the spinner basket, with one of the Blue Apple packets in there to absorb the ethylene gas that causes produce to ripen, and then to go 'bad', and snap on a 'shower cap' container cover. I haven't seen icky salad stuff in my fridge in years.
3- Learn to 'batch cook' like the pros do. That's right. Chefs know that they can't waste time cooking rice for every order that comes back to the kitchen. If you're going to get the rice cooker or Instant Pot out, then cook enough whole grains for at least a couple of meals. When you have a couple meals worth of cooked grains, beans, sauce or even soups and stews, you have options. You can mix and match on the fly.
I made an Instant Pot batch of small red beans the other day. I used half of the red beans in a vegan chili, and saved the other half for 'whatever'. I can toss 'em into a soup or stew, or stir in some BBQ sauce and serve them as a side to something else. All for a cost of about $1.00 per 16 ounce bag of beans. They'll work into probably 3-4 meals in some manner.
When you make a pot of soup, realize that you can 'freshen' it up by adding leftover, batch-cooked pasta, grains or beans. See how that works?
4- Prep ahead. I love Butternut Squash. Buy the ones with the longest 'necks' as that's the money part of the thing. But, who can eat all that at once? So, I cube it, and freeze it. Then, I can reach in for 'enough' for a meal, or soup, or stew. It microwaves or steams in no time flat to be a side dish or part of a steaming bowl of Ramen, or a Buddha bowl with some cooked grains, a plant-based protein, salad and such.
5- Keep a running list of what you need. I keep Stickie Notes handy in the kitchen, and then take a photo of it before heading to the store. Failing that, I can call home and ask my husband to tell me what's on the note. Yeah. It happens. You can also keep a list in various apps on your phone. Even stores have apps you can use for this purpose.
6- Use your freezer. Sometimes you just can't finish all that soup. That's okay. Freeze it before it goes 'bad'. I've been using a FoodSaver vacuum system for years, and I've more than recovered the cost of the thing by freezing leftovers or turning 'batch cooking' (cooked rice, pasta or beans are incredible time savers!) into future frozen meal ingredients. And, don't forget to label the stuff?
7- Learn to appreciate frozen vegetables. They're your best weapon against the dreaded "what's for dinner" blues. It's funny how times change. When I was a kid, back in the day when the Jetsons were a new idea, frozen foods were considered 'Modern!' and healthful. Then, fresh vegetables were all the rage. I've learned that frozen vegetables - with very few exceptions - are every bit as good as fresh. You can reach in and get just what you need for a meal, and move on.
8- There's more to frozen plant-based protein than veggie burgers. A lot more. There are so many great plant-based options now, that my freezer won't hold it all. I have to be choosy. But, items like the Gardein Meatless Chick'n Strips can be on the table in no time at all as part of a bowl of Ramen or Udon soup, or a no-chick'n salad. Have you got a bag of Gardein Meatless Meatballs? That makes killer spaghetti and meatless meatballs with just a jar of pasta sauce. We love the Chick'n Scallopini, with a baked potato and perhaps some quickly sautéed greens or a salad. The Plant-based patties are awesome in place of a more traditional 'burger'.
And, I almost always have my own, homemade seitan in the freezer - either the more 'beefy' looking/tasting, or the most 'chick'n' looking.
9- Buy staples in bulk. During this pandemic, we're learning about shortages of things like pasta. Well, if you're going to buy some, then buy enough for a couple months. Pasta has a good, long shelf life. I bought six or eight packages of the kinds that we particularly like - and that always seem to be missing from the store shelves lately - online. It's in a coat closet. What can I say.
We particularly like the DeLallo and Banza pasta. It seemed like the stores were constantly out of the whole wheat Casarecce, and the Banza chickpea Gemelli and Rotelli. I've got enough to last till spring.
10- Learn to like cooking. This is probably the most important tip. Ask questions. Borrow cookbooks. Subscribe to online recipe search engines. My favorite? The New York Times Cooking subscription. You can actually build a 'Recipe Box' in the site to keep all of your favorites, and they'll send you a newsletter with ideas. You'll find all manner of tutorials on there. You can even 'import' recipes from other sites - like mine! - into your NYT Recipe Box for safekeeping. Then, think of cooking as a creative outlet. One that offers the benefits of keeping your family and friends closer and maintaining better health. Oh, and there's that money-saving thing, too.
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