An alternate title for this post could be “how to simplify meal time” or maybe even “chill out about your food”. I always start my meal planning with the very best of intentions. I want to eat wholesome meals full of ethically sourced ingredients that will make my mouth happy. But then I get home from a long day of work, and $2 tacos end up happening. Suffice it to say, I have no idea how the beef in $2 tacos is treated. And then, those really great, really expensive, ethically sourced ingredients sit in my fridge and go bad.
So I decided to take a chill pill this spring. School was really getting me down. Things were difficult and required long hours, so I decided I needed to be practical about this. The 30 minute meal concept just didn’t work for me. Because 30 minute meals always take 40+ minutes the first time you make them, and that’s just way too long to spend on my feet in the kitchen when I’ve already spent all day on my feet in the classroom. So I started looking for meals that I could make in 10 minutes or less. This might mean 10 minutes of prep, and then an hour of sitting on my butt watching trashy TV. I get home from work early enough in the day that that works for me. So please note the new category to your right. You’ll be seeing a lot more of these around here. Even though I’m off for the summer, I’m finding that once you start making 10 minute meals and you realize how yummy and healthy they can be, it’s awfully hard to go back.
So here are 5 easy steps to simplify your meal time and make 10 minute meals a reality.
1. Get the right appliances.
A blender might be nice on weekends when you’re making smoothies (I’m lying; I hate blenders), but a rice cooker will serve you well every weeknight. You can cook a lot more than rice in it, but the main thing to know about rice cookers, is that they turn themselves off when they’re ready. That means you don’t have to hover over the rice making sure that it doesn’t burn. Mine is a very simple hand-me-down from my mom when my parents went all low carb. While there are varying levels of quality, the idea that you can buy one on Amazon for less than $20 has me sold. I know it takes up space, but really, for enabling you daily to sit on your butt and watch Pretty Little Liars while your dinner cooks, I think we can all agree that it’s worth it.
Another appliance that isn’t strictly necessary but sure is handy is the toaster oven. My mom’s oven broke, and she used the toaster oven for so much of her cooking, that she waited months before getting it replaced. Really, had it not been for turkey on Thanksgiving, I’m not sure she would have. Likewise, the toaster oven can quickly heat up, shortening the overall cooking time.
2. Get the right condiments.
I’m talking more than ketchup, mustard, and relish here. A store-bought sauce can pack a big punch and tremendously shorten your time chopping onions and garlic and measuring soy sauce and sesame oil into a bowl. Don’t get me wrong, homemade sauces are great. But on a busy weeknight, a store-bought equivalent can be your best friend. Know what your family likes. We love the whole San-J gluten free line-up, but a good gluten free barbecue is great too. Having the right sauce can transform meatballs, make pre-cooked chicken something magical, and help you put together meals in under 10 minutes. That’s the goal, after all, isn’t it?
3. When healthy, affordable, and tasty, buy pre-____________.
I’m talking prewashed and/or precut veg, precooked chicken, or any number of convenience foods with minimal additives and preservatives. If precut veg means I’m eating more veg, it’s hard to see how this isn’t an advantage. And while precooked chicken will probably not be as good for me as the ethically sourced farmer’s market equivalent, it’s probably a lot better for me than whatever they’re putting in those $2 tacos I love so much.
4. When best isn’t happening, start figuring out how to do better.
I know that good is the enemy of best. But for a perfectionist, best can get in the way of better. My desire to be 100% ethical and organic and healthy in my food choices along with my reality of a busy schedule and demanding career, means that the choices I actually make don’t reflect that desire at all. Instead, I need to start thinking practically here. While I’m not suggesting anyone compromise their values, we need to be realistic. When the ideal or the best choice simply isn’t happening, it must be unrealistic. Maybe that means we need to cut back on our busy schedules (for me, not really an option, as most of my busy-ness comes from a career that I’m just not willing to leave), or maybe that means we need to start thinking of practical alternatives that are still better than chicken nuggets and fries.
5. Make it simple.
My old boss used to recite a household mantra before every meal he ate with me, “something white, something dead, something green, something bread.” Basically, a starch, a protein, a green veg, and a bread. I tend to remove the bread for health and gluten reasons, but it’s not a bad idea. You do not need 5 different roasted vegetables with pan-seared pork loin and a homemade balsamic reduction. You just don’t. A starch (rice, potatoes, pasta) with a protein (fish, chicken, beef, etc.) and a vegetable will do most nights. And there are a thousand ways I change this up. But making things simpler is always a good start.
I start baking potatoes, start the rice cooker, or start my pasta water boiling. Then, I put a protein in a sauce and into the toaster oven. And at the last minute, I might sautee a frozen vegetable or chop up a salad.
For you to see this philosophy in action, check out this super simple recipe for Thai Lettuce Wraps. Sure, I could have added some bean sprouts, cilantro, and carrots. And I’m sure that would be tasty. But, when in doubt, make it simple. And excluding those tasty options made this a much more practical meal for me.
Thai Lettuce Wraps
- Rice, cooked
- Pre-cooked chicken, chopped into bite size pieces
- Thai peanut sauce (I like San-J)
- Lettuce (iceburg is ideal for its structure, but I had red leaf in the fridge)
- Fixin’s (slivered cucumbers and/or carrots, cilantro, chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, etc.)
Prepare the rice in your rice cooker or on the stove. When it’s basically done (or all the way done, as slightly cooled rice is just fine for this meal), put your pre-cooked chicken with the peanut sauce into the (toaster) oven to heat up. Wash lettuce leaves and prepare fixin’s of your choice. When chicken is hot, serve.