Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Convenience food

Packing lunch and dinner (L) Pork shoulder with rice and sides, (R) eggplant parmigiana and a sausage

Preparing several dishes ahead of time allows me to pack different meals for my husband when he works through lunch and dinner at the office.

For a typical 9-to-5er, who comes home hungry to more hungry family members, the idea of a home cooked dinner isn’t a welcome relief at the end of the work day: it’s a setup for failure. When you’re hungry and tired, and have one or more hungry, tired people waiting for you to feed them, is the very last time that anyone, even a joyous foodie, wants to whip up a dinner from scratch. It’s when you scuttle over to the drawer where you stash your takeout menus, and make a call, head hung in shame and relief. In the 30-45 minutes that follow, you wonder why you didn’t just make something, or wish there were something already made that you could heat up right now.

The solution is to make your own convenience food. You don't have to start cooking dinner on an empty stomach. When you come home to a stocked refrigerator—stocked because you cook when you have time, not when you’re hungry—you can heat up meals for everyone in minutes.

Wherever I have an hour in my schedule to cook, I prep and steam a vegetable or two, or marinate some chops, or cook some rice or oatmeal. When I have more time, like on my days off from work, I make more time-consuming dishes. I keep at least two prepared entrees in my fridge, as well as prepared vegetables, a bag of washed salad greens, brown rice, and whole wheat tortillas.

Staying well-stocked means that even when my schedule changes on the fly, I don’t have to worry that there’s going to be nothing to eat, later. And when my friends drop in, I always have plenty to offer them.

If your free time comes in the mornings, or only on weekends, do your cooking then. Most dishes will tolerate up to a week of refrigeration, but if you want to keep it fresh at the end of the work week, use the cook ahead system to get through part of the week, and plan to carry in, dine out, or cook something quick on the other days of the week. By spreading out my cooking and doing it throughout the week, I always have a variety of foods to choose from, without having to prepare them all at once.

If you cook for a fussy eater, eat a special diet, or someone in your family works an odd shift, this is the way to be prepared. Their favorite, homemade foods—foods they can eat—can always be ready for them, whenever meal time comes. I always make a point of having vegetarian food around, and gluten-free foods, for some of the people I cook for at home.

Greens take up a lot of space in the fridge, until you cook them. Washing and cooking all of the spinach at once, when the farm share arrives, means it takes up less space. Ditto the kale and collards, though these store better without wilting than more tender greens like chard and spinach.

I make large batches of dishes like pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, and big roasts that feed the family for a few days. A lamb roast, or a pot of beans, can be served for a few days before it wears out its welcome. Some dishes are in such constant demand that a supply is always on hand, at least for its season: potato soup in winter, pan roasted vegetables in summer. If there’s too much, you can freeze the portions that you won’t eat within a few days.

When it’s time to eat, fix a plate and heat it up. In the evening or the morning before work, pack lunches from the assortment of good, home cooked food in your fridge. It’s convenience food, because you make it when it’s convenient for you to cook, and it’s already prepared when you need it.
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