"I wish I were better about cooking at home," a friend confessed to me. "Then I read your menus on Twitter. I could never make food like that at home, so I don't--I just go out to dinner."
"I don't know how you do it," another friend said in an e-mail. "You have a full-time job and you write the food blog and yet you still manage to cook. I wish I knew how to do that."
Conversations like these are a real kick in the pants to someone who tries to get people to cook. When I write down a dinner menu I'm going to cook, it's meant to inspire, not intimidate; sometimes, however, the message doesn't get through.
Here, then, are five easy, general tips on taking control of dinnertime.
1. Shop for vegetables and grains, rather than meat.
This doesn't mean don't buy meat--don't worry, I'm not espousing a vegetarian diet. Instead of going to the store and saying, "Monday we'll have chicken and Tuesday we'll have burgers, Wednesday we'll have steak and Thursday pork chops," start with the produce department. Look at what's cheapest (besides potatoes!). If you don't know how to cook it, ask someone or look it up.
Produce goes in and out of season moreso than meat; by planning around what's freshest now, you'll save money and you'll find yourself adding protein to the meal, rather than just opening a can of whatever's closest to hand.
2. Treat food simply.
If you buy high-quality ingredients, you don't need to torture them into eighteen-ingredient dishes. Good bread can be sliced, grilled and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic; almost every vegetable can be roasted with a little oil, salt and pepper. Meat can be treated simply, too: there's nothing like a piece of tri-tip that's been grilled and rested so it's pink and juicy in the middle; all that's required for that is a meat thermometer.
3. Think about preparation time; save elaborate meals for when you have time.
If you only have a half an hour to make dinner, waiting for the oven to preheat isn't a great idea (though you can roast a whole variety of vegetables in just 15 minutes). Chopped salads are great, but the prep work for the vegetables is a royal pain in the patookus. Pastas, though, are usually fairly quick to cook, and a quick sauce can be cooked while the noodles are boiling.
Having an array of quick recipes (or recipe "stubs", like "pasta with...") means you're not frazzled during the week and might have time for something a little more involved on the weekend.
4. Buy ingredients, not meals.
My sister-in-law once opened my refrigerator and said, "You don't have any food in here! You just have ingredients." That's a good thing. Buying ingredients rather than pre-prepared foods means you have greater control over what goes into your family's stomachs. Most people don't keep ten-syllable chemicals, partially-hydrogenated anything, or high-fructose corn syrup in the pantry, and most people will notice if the sugar supply is dwindling too quickly.
5. Don't feel like everything has to be made from scratch, though.
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The media are full of so-called food pundits lecturing about how easy it is to make things from scratch. While that's true, and things like salad dressing, croutons, or thin fillets of chicken breast are individually quite easy to do, the time requirement adds up quickly. Trying to make everything from scratch is a bit like trying to boil the ocean; most people will fail, and will go back to eating crap from a box.
The thing to do is go for those things that a) save you the most time and b) are least likely to have disgusting nutritional problems. Buy the pre-chopped onions, celery and bell peppers if you like; get the pounded chicken breasts. Avoid buying salad dressings (they're chock full of corn syrup or sugar and only save you about 5 minutes) and canned vegetables (almost always with added salt and/or sugar).