How to plan dinner now that school has started


Mexican Chicken Tenders and Rice (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 4, 2012

It took a derecho to teach me that I was just like everyone else.

I always thought I was spontaneously whipping up dinner every night. We would walk in the door at 6:45 p.m. or 8:45 p.m. or 10 p.m., and somehow within an hour, sometimes less, I’d produce a meal. Planning was for other people. I didn’t plan. I just made it happen. I was so impressed with myself.

So the power outage that followed the derecho — the violent storm that roared into the area on June 29 with punishing winds and rain — brought a rude awakening. When the lights finally came back on, the food in my refrigerator was smelly and my freezer was full of mush. It all went straight into the garbage pail.

With my carefully stocked fridge and freezer empty, I was a mess. I started rebuilding, but I had months of preparation to make up for. It took me weeks to get back up to speed. It turned out I had been planning my dinners all along.

True, I didn’t have lists. I didn’t make menus, and Thursday wasn’t always burger night, but I had been quietly, subconsciously planning nonetheless. And it was all that preparation and shopping and stocking that let me “throw together” dinner at a moment’s notice. I’d had a strategy, and just because I didn’t talk or write about it didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

So I started over, and now, two months later, I’m ready to face the new school year. Practices, games, tutoring sessions and music lessons will mess with the calendar and make dinner preparation a race, but I’ve come to realize that with my bag of tricks, I’ll manage.

I’ll keep the refrigerator stocked with vegetables, some essential basics and a trick or two. With those vegetables, I can manage a stir-fry as long I also stock a bottle of soy sauce and have some chicken, pork or beef around. Or I can roast the vegetables for a quick and easy side dish. And if I need to stretch that into a main course, I’ll add rice, pasta or couscous, and maybe some packaged diced pancetta that has a relatively long shelf life. I don’t need much to make a meal.

I’ll make two of anything that can be frozen. A pork-and-carrot stew can be eaten now, with half stowed in the freezer for a night when I need something ready to go. Ditto homemade spaghetti sauces, which can do triple duty as a filling for lasagna and as a hearty sauce for the pizza I’ll make on the fly with some nan, which I keep frozen, and a package of grated mozzarella. As the days get colder, you’ll find soup in my freezer: a Sunday afternoon project that pays off when a youth basketball game goes into overtime and messes up our evening.

I’ll prep early. I’m more likely to make a one-pot chicken-and-rice dish if I spent 20 minutes in the morning chopping the onions and peppers. I’ll use the time in between the early middle school bus and the later elementary school bus to cut up everything I need for my stir-fry so it’ll take only 20 minutes once I walk in the door and hang up my coat. I can also make sauces ahead of time. The cheese sauce for mac and cheese is easily cooked in the morning and stashed in the fridge so it’s ready to go as soon as I get home. Even pasta can be cooked earlier in the day, as long as I cool it fast and refrigerate it.

I’ll stock the freezer with quick-defrosting chicken breasts, thin steaks, pork chops, fish fillets and hamburgers I’ve formed ahead of time. As I’m running out the door in the morning, I’ll throw them into the fridge to defrost slowly. If they’re still frozen when I get home, I’ll slip them into a resealable plastic bag and place them in a sink of cold water to finish thawing while I get everything else ready.

Finally, I’ll remember that no matter how tired I am, almost anything I make at home will be quicker, better and less expensive than takeout food. I’ve already helped myself out by filling the freezer and stocking the fridge. I just need to take a minute, look at what I’ve got and start cooking or defrosting. The plan works.

RECIPES:

Sweet Sausage Spaghetti Sauce

Chicken and Broccoli Stir-Fry

Swiss Mac and Cheese With Ham and Peas

Beer-Braised Pork and Carrot Stew

Mexican Chicken Tenders and Rice

RELATED:

Dad’s a chef, and Mom packs the lunchbox

Sedgwick writes the Food section’s weekly Nourish column. She’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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