Michelle Meyers has come a long way since the tuna casserole and overdone pork chop days of her youth: She packs daily salads for lunch, and family dinners (two of her three children are still in the house) often involve chicken and veggies. She is fit and thin. But her long workdays mean little time for cooking. “I don’t have time to prepare meals on a daily basis,” she explains. And because weekends are so precious, she doesn’t want to spend too much time organizing or preparing meals for the week. Two family members don’t eat red meat, and her vegetable vocabulary is limited.“I need some help with how to stock a pantry,” says Michelle, who, though healthy, has fallen into the repetition and boredom trap of her youth.
Creative, quick ideas are in order—inspiration for a pantry overhaul, for example, or ways to vary weeknight dinners. Although she doesn’t want to spend weekend time prepping ingredients, a bit of work ahead of time will help come, say, Wednesday at dinnertime.
- Create a recipe queue. Clip or print recipes you’d like to try, and put them in a folder. If you don’t do this, chances are you won’t remember where you saw that delicious-looking curried chicken recipe or the interesting salad with pumpkinseeds.
- Try new ingredients to stay out of the cooking rut. Stir butternut squash into your favorite chili recipe. In place of the usual green beans, try roasted broccoli; instead of mashed potatoes, try mashed rutabaga. Get more ideas from our “If you like this, try this” produce guide.
- Stock your pantry (and fridge and freezer) well. Keep a variety of pastas and noodles, canned beans, quick-cooking grains (like quinoa), chicken broth, light coconut milk, frozen edamame, and flavor boosters like curry paste, olives, or capers. With these on hand, you’re well on your way to dinner. See our top 20 go-to items for easy, quick meals.
- Invest 30 minutes into ingredient prep on the weekend. That’s not a lot of time for the health and flavor payoff. Use a food processor to shred some butternut squash; refrigerate in a zip-top bag. Shredded squash cooks quickly and can go into pasta sauce, a stir-fry, or a pizza. Parboil parsnips, rutabagas, or carrots. Simmer in soup, or sauté for hash or a pasta toss or simple veggie side dish. Maybe chop and bag a few onions. The idea is to get a jump-start on ingredients you would like to cook with but that take too long for rushed weeknights.
- Embrace the slow cooker. This is the rushed cook’s finest companion. Lots of foods—not just red meat—benefit from a long, slow simmer while you’re at work. Try braised collard greens or a vegetarian chili. See our top-rated slow cooker recipes.
- Some convenience products are worth buying! Not everything has to be made from scratch to be healthy. Precut produce, bottled sauces, rotisserie chicken, and premade pizza dough are a busy cook’s allies. See our favorite healthy convenience food products.