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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Blog, Food | 4 comments

Simplifying meals: Share Your Brilliance

Simplifying meals: Share Your Brilliance

Food: it’s a basic need and a basic pleasure. But too often the procuring, preparing, planning, and cleanup involved (especially if there are picky kids in the mix) turns mealtime into a relentless chore.

Not only that — food choices are tied with bigger issues of nutrition, health, money, and the environment. Lots of parents feel guilty and ambivalent about “good” vs. “bad” food.

It’s also frustrating when the kid next door happily brings a thermos of vegetable chili to school while your kid will only eat bread-and-butter sandwiches. You want to support your family’s health — but what if they’re not cooperating?

It doesn’t have to be this way! With a few minimalist tricks on board, grocery shopping, cooking, and eating can become a simple, nourishing part of your week.

Let’s talk food. Specifically:

1. How do you balance time spent shopping and cooking with budget considerations? Pre-chopped vegetables and other convenience foods are…convenient. But they’re also expensive, and sometimes less-than-healthful. We’re big believers in balance — not every meal has to epitomize the Food Pyramid. But we’d like to know which convenience foods you consider worth the money.

(Asha here.) My favorites are bagged salad greens, good quality frozen vegetables (no prep!), and dried fruit. Lately I’m picking up a weekly rotisserie chicken which really simplifies weekly cooking. I still have a childhood weakness for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Cup O’Noodles, both of which I buy a couple times a year as a diversion.

2. What are your favorite quick, healthy, go-to dinners?

3. Any tips for streamlining the weekly meal parade? Meal planning ideas and resources, shopping shortcuts, attitude shifts?

(If only we could host this conversation over a potluck dinner!)

Photo credit: Flickr/SweetOnVeg


  1. Almost-homemade soups — often using one of those rotisserie chickens — are one of our standards, especially in the winter. Simple pastas, quesadillas (with veggies), and we sometimes do a “baked potato bar” where the kids pick and choose from (mostly) healthy toppings. There’s also a start-up in Cambridge, MA that offers “ready-to-make” meals; everything arrives at your doorstep ready to go. No shopping, no prep — just the cooking (and eating!).

  2. I use GroceryIQ, a free grocery shopping app that occasionally offers coupons, to keep track of my grocery list. I share the account with my boyfriend who can see the automatically updated list sorted by store. No more calls to ask if we need anything from Trader Joe’s!

    Y’know the Portlandia skit, “Put a Bird on It”? Quick, empty-pantry dinners are “put an egg on it” territory! I start with a grain – quinoa, farro, Israeli couscous and brown rice are all favorites – and add vegetables, flavorings, and a poached or fried egg (runny yolk = instant sauce). Last week, we had a version with a miso fried egg, ginger, garlic, scallions, and snowpeas, and tonight, I’m planning on poached eggs with roasted tomatoes, baby spinach, feta, and parsley on quinoa. Obviously, these can be individualized for more or less picky eaters.

    I keep a recipe archive in Evernote. (I’m starting to sense a theme here: my grandmother had recipe cards, I have Android apps.) I link directly to the recipes and sort them in categories that I can refer back to when I’m making a grocery list. Having that list and sticking to it keeps our grocery bill down to very reasonable levels (even for New York!)

    Overnight breakfasts are the perfect solution for my not-a-morning-person self. Steel cut oatmeal that sits overnight on the stove, muesli and chia seed pudding that thicken up in the fridge, and cinnamon rolls that proof overnight for weekends.

    Non-intuitive staples (at least at our place): buttermilk (for quick marinades and pancakes for dinner), frozen shrimp (defrosts in minutes, quick-cooking), bacon (a little goes a long way and it lasts forever!), halloumi (also keeps forever, delicious with most anything), and chickpeas (easy salad topping and cheap protein).

    • I totally agree with you about chickpeas, they are so handy!

  3. I’ll give it a go – my budget went out the window with the specialty foods we have to buy because of food allergies but some tips are still useful!

    1. How do you balance time spent shopping and cooking with budget considerations?

    I have to stop at several different stores because each one has something “safe” that we need. So that complicates things, however, you have to know your prices and know the sale cycles. Sunflower Farmer’s Market has “double ad Wednesdays” here where the two sales flyers overlap, so if something is a great deal I’ll buy a lot but the caveat is check expiration dates. I root around in the back of a shelf if I have to because it is silly to have food go bad or buy something close to expiry even if it is a good deal. As far as food prep, we can’t use a lot of convenience foods but frankly a head of iceberg lettuce keeps better and for longer than a bag of pre-chopped lettuce. I do indulge in a bag of butter lettuce at Trader Joe’s sometimes, though! Also, though Costco’s portions are big, their price on, say, quinoa, is so very good that I just portion things out when I get home. I put them into lock & lock containers for easy scooping and storage. I do use canned beans which are an indulgence but if you watch Amazon’s sales plus use subscribe and save you can sometimes get organic canned beans for a good price. The cans WILL be dented but if you don’t mind that I’d say go for it. Whole Foods does a 10% case discount, so I know that their Lundberg Spinach and Mushroom Risotto (my kids LOVE it) is 12 to a case and if I buy that many it is like getting one free. That depends on storage space, I know, but you can store overflow out of the kitchen if you have to.

    2. What are your favorite quick, healthy, go-to dinners?

    Quinoa with roasted veggies, you can squeeze fresh lemon juice and put some salt and pepper on the quinoa and mix it up on your plate and it is light, fresh, healthy, and delicious. I serve it to the kids with some bean dip (garbanzo beans food processed with spices, lemon juice, olive oil and sunflower seed butter or arugula bean dip to sneak greens in: ) so they dip their spoon in the bean dip then in the quinoa.

    We also love refried beans in the crockpot, easy prep and you can freeze leftovers – serve it with chopped fixings like tostadas, lettuce, onions, and daiya cheese (Daiya is $5 a bag so my husband and I skip it but the kids really like it):

    If you do have a Costco or big box membership, I used to use this Marinara sauce recipe before my son’s tomato allergy and we’d spend maybe $5 to make 7 pounds of sauce (so 7 jars). Now that I’m counting calories I’d probably adjust the oil lower but as written it was my husband’s favorite:

    Bakes potatoes using an oven delay timer are a life saver:

    3. Any tips for streamlining the weekly meal parade? Meal planning ideas and resources, shopping shortcuts, attitude shifts?

    I think it is all about attitude shifts. My relationship with food has changed SO MUCH since I had kids. Then it changed all over again when I started using to track my calories – this may sound kooky but our food expenditure has gone down drastically since we started watching our portions. We used to go through a lot of food just eating those extra 1,000 calories a day but now I’m having to shop less (except for fresh stuff but if you’re smart that doesn’t have to be pricey). The interesting thing is that we’re repeating meals a lot more but when you eat whole, fresh food (it does take time to wean yourself off of the fat and salt in some of your favorites!) you don’t mind repetition. I recently steamed my first artichoke and served it with quinoa. Another day we roasted corn in the oven under the broiler and made a meal around it. What I do now that I didn’t do before is buy pre-made frozen meals for my husband’s work lunch. That way he isn’t getting the food blahs eating last night’s leftovers at work the next day and is not tempted to eat out because he has a pretty good $3-$4 frozen meal in the freezer at the office. Snacking so you don’t get super hungry helps you feel less frustrated with some meals repeating. I have never had luck cooking a week ahead like some people but I do cook extra rice or quinoa so I don’t have to make it fresh every day. You can also turn stir fry into filling for a calzone the next day or the like so re-imagining may be useful.

    Now I’ve rambled a bunch, I have been contemplating these issues a lot lately and how I never used to read labels or look at serving sizes or the like but it becomes second nature. If someone is approaching things from scratch, that is, they’re used to lots of convenience foods, I’d suggest picking your all time favorite and getting really good at making it yourself. Before food allergies this was pizza for us. Throwing together dough became so easy and the results were worth it. Commit to a day a week for practice, so maybe Saturday night is pizza night – in focusing on one thing at a time I started to view making food as a game, like how far could I go with my own ingredients? That is how the marinara recipe was born, we were having fun tweaking the recipe. One I liked before food allergies was also spanikopita with store bought phyllo dough. Phyllo dough is so versatile and if it tears or breaks it is still yummy, I promise.

    Most of all, go easy on yourself. I’ve known people to go headlong into “no more processed foods” and then they get frustrated. Start small, streamline the things you know you already love, and if you can afford it, get a food processor. I thought I was indulging by getting one but we use it all the time and it makes prep easy. I can chop an onion or shred potatoes for hashbrowns and then make some extra before throwing the components into the dishwasher.

    Our circumstances are a little weird, I know, and no one feels like cooking after a long day, so if you can spend 15 minutes throwing together some ingredients in the crock pot and pick up a fresh loaf of bread on the way home you’ll have a nice soup and more time to spend together around the table.


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