Ok, this isn’t the most exciting post, but it’s an important one!  I’m going to take a little departure from featuring a recipe to offer a few strategies that I live (and cook) by.  If like me you have a busy schedule and a family to feed, getting whole, unprocessed foods on the table every night can seem daunting.  Well, forget about falling back on frozen dinners or take-out!  With these simple tips, you can throw together nutritious and delicious meals from scratch that are brimming with fresh vegetables and whole grains—any night of the week.

Plan Ahead

We’ve all done it—purchased an armload of produce at the market with no idea of what we’re going to make, only to watch it whither away, untouched, as the week passes.  One way of ensuring that all of the produce you buy actually makes it to the table instead of ending up in the compost heap is to plan out the dishes that you’re going to make throughout the week ahead of time, either before shopping or right after you get home (I do this right on the back of my grocery list).  It takes a bit of time, but it will increase your chances exponentially (at least that’s my calculation) of actually eating your vegetables.  You can get as detailed with this as you want (“stir-fry with sautéed eggplant, spinach and cashews on Monday”) or keep it general (“stir-fry one night, pasta one night”).  Then, when you get home on Wednesday night, instead of looking in the fridge and seeing a whole bunch of random stuff, but nothing to make (you know what I mean), you’ll know instantly that you’re making a frittata with the fingerling potatoes and mustard greens, and you’ll get right to work instead of picking up the phone for pizza.

Also, if you know you have a busy day ahead, prep what you can in advance, either in the morning or the day before.  This can be as simple as chopping vegetables, snapping green beans, or marinating meats.  Also, take advantage of recipes that offer do-ahead tips.  A few steps done in advance can make a huge difference come dinnertime.

Wash Your Greens

As food writer and activist Michael Pollan asserts, “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.”  Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens and salad greens are not only good for us, they’re also perfect for busy schedules.  They’re super easy to prep (they can either be served raw or cooked), they store well in the refrigerator, and they’re delicious to boot.  To make sure that those greens actually make it to your plate, get them washed right when you get home.  Not only will washing and storing them properly help them to last longer (this is critical for folks like me who are only able to make it to the market once a week), but they’ll also be ready to use once dinnertime rolls around (and trust me, the difference between a clean bunch of spinach and a dirty bunch of spinach come Tuesday night can be the difference between salad or, well, no salad).

For hardy greens such as kale, chard, dandelion greens and collards, wash the leaves well under cold running water or in a large bowl of cold water.  Pat the leaves dry on a kitchen towel (or let them air dry while putting away the rest of the groceries, like I do), then roll them up in paper towels and store them in a reusable bag in the fridge.  For tender greens such as lettuce, arugula and spinach, swish the leaves around in a big bowl of cold water, then dry them in a salad spinner or let them air-dry on a kitchen towel.  Wrap them in paper towels and store them in the same way as above.  In this way, your greens will last anywhere from 3-6 days the fridge.  It might take a bit of work when you get home from the market, but come dinnertime, the greens will be ready to sauté with olive oil and garlic for an easy side dish, or to throw in a soup or toss in your salad bowl.

Make Once, Use Twice

If you’re cooking up a batch of greens or any other vegetable, make a double batch, and use the leftovers in a different meal later in the week.  It won’t take you much longer than making a single batch, and you’ll save a bunch of time down the road (this can be a lifesaver on busy nights).  Best of all, you can transform the leftovers into something entirely new, so that those who suffer from leftover-phobia (ahem, my husband) won’t even know they’re eating the same thing twice.  Here are a few of my favorite “re-uses:”

Make a double batch of this…And use the leftovers in this…
Roasted vegetablesCombine with cooked pasta or whole grains along with garlic, olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese; Toss in a salad with tender greens, shaved hard cheese and toasted nuts or beans; Use as omelet filling
Sautéed greensLayer in paninis with mozzarella, pesto and roasted red pepper slices; Stuff into chicken breasts with goat cheese; Add to whole grain salads (such as quinoa, farro or barley) with feta, walnuts, lemon juice and olive oil
Blanched green beans, broccoli or cauliflowerAdd to a stir-fry with beef, chicken or tofu and sesame seeds; Toss with cherry tomatoes, basil, goat or feta cheese, pine nuts and vinaigrette; Sauté with olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and tomatoes and serve over pasta, chicken or fish
Boiled, steamed or roasted potatoesBake in frittata with eggs, cheese and any greens or leftover veggies you have laying around; Toss with olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard, sliced onions, capers, arugula and tuna or hard boiled eggs; Combine with sautéed greens, garlic, chile powder and cumin for taco filling


Freeze Your Grains

While hardy whole grains such as brown rice, wheat berries, barley and farro take awhile to cook, the surprise is that they freeze beautifully and can be a lifesaver on busy nights.  As above, if a recipe calls for a hardy grain, make a double batch and freeze half in a re-sealable freezer bag (I’ll make a big batch on the weekend with the plan to freeze some and use the rest during the week).  On busy nights, you can then pull the bags out of the freezer and add the grains directly to stir-fries, soups or sautés, or defrost them quickly for salads.  With brown rice in the freezer, I can always throw together some version of fried rice with whatever vegetables I happen to have, along with scrambled eggs, soy sauce and sesame oil.  The farro or wheat berries can turn into a quick main dish salad with cubed apple, celery, gruyere and chicken, and barley adds nutty substance to a simple soup or frittata.

Stock Your Pantry

Stock your pantry with healthy, shelf-stable foods that are minimally processed.   These “back-ups,” as I like to call them, are crucial for those oh-my-gosh-I’m-starving-and-we-have-nothing-in-the-fridge moments.  These items can quickly be transformed into easy but healthy dinners, especially when combined with any leftover odds and ends lingering in the fridge.  My list of must-have “back-ups” includes:

  • Whole grain pastas and couscous
  • Canned tomatoes (for sauces, soups, stews)
  • A variety of canned beans (for salads, taco fillings, dips)
  • Good-quality canned fish such tuna, wild salmon and sardines (for sandwiches, salads, pastas)
  • Quick-cooking whole grains such as quinoa, millet and quick-cooking bulgur (for salads, side dishes, stuffings).

Make Time to Cook & Make Cooking a Priority

This might be the most important tip of them all, even though it seems to go against what I’ve been saying so far.  Aren’t these supposed to be tips for getting dinner on the table fast?  Yes, but we’re talking about good food here, not 10-minute meals out of a box.  Whole, unprocessed foods can’t be ready at the wave of a wand.  They take time, but they don’t have to take hours.  Plan on devoting forty-five minutes to an hour in the kitchen on average nights.  That’s not a lot of time for a beautiful dinner made from scratch.  Just like exercise, try to make it part of your routine.  The payoffs to your health and wellbeing are enormous.  Not only are you benefitting your body, but you’re also benefitting the health of your family—physically, socially and emotionally—once you sit to eat.  So open a bottle of wine, or turn on the music, or enlist the help of friends and family members—do whatever you have to do to make it fun and enjoyable.  A delicious reward awaits.