Part II: from frozen dinner queen to healthy weeknight cook

This is part two of my journey from slapdash meal assembler to cook. If you missed the first two posts, find the the post detailing why I made a resolution to get my weeknight cooking buttoned up and my post about the first tentative steps I took on my journey from slapdash meal assembler to organized cook.

Phase II: Mastering the Basics

After the fits and starts of January and February (okay and most of March too), I was starting to feel like I was getting the hang of cooking.

Because I kept making and re-making “standards,” I now could prepare the likes of a very basic baked ziti, red lentil dahl, and baked fish without consulting a cookbook. Not to mention rice, barley, and couscous, which were (and still are) my go-to starches.

As far as vegetables were concerned, I found my boys gravitating to salads, green beans, and broccoli. Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale were not ever well received when I experimented with them. So I didn’t fight it and focused on keeping the things they liked rotating in and out. My default prep for veggies is still to this day steaming.

Here are two of my “standard” menus from around this time. They are basic, basic, basic – some might even say boring. But they weren’t frozen or take out. That meant I was, in the words of Charlie Sheen, “WINNING.” The rest of team Welch loved them too.

Super Basic Baked Ziti Dinner

• 1 lb of dried ziti pasta
• 1 15 or 16 oz tub of ricotta cheese
• 1 jar of pasta sauce (sometimes I make my own by sautéing a little garlic in 1-2 TBSP olive oil, after a few minutes adding a can of diced tomatoes and some Italian seasoning or fresh herbs if I have them like parsley, oregano, and basil. I let it simmer for 5 min or so and voila. Done and look ma, no preservatives! Now if they’d only start canning tomatoes in glass jars rather than BPA lined cans…sigh)
• 1 Cup shredded Mozzarella Cheese
• Italian seasonings
• Salt & Pepper to taste

To make, just boil the pasta until it is al-dente. Once you drain it, return it to the pot and add the ricotta cheese, pasta sauce, and about 1 1/2 tsp of Italian seasonings. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then dump the coated ziti into a 9×13 baking dish, top with the cheese and put in the oven for 30ish minutes at 350. Sprinkle the top with parmesan cheese and serve.

While the pasta is cooking, use the time to make a salad or steam some veggies.

{Baked ziti image via Real Mom Kitchen}

For working moms, I used to make this dish in the morning as everyone was eating breakfast. Then, instead of putting it in the oven, I’d cover the baking dish with foil and put it in the fridge. When I was done with work at 5:30, I’d pop it in the oven and we’d all be sitting down to a delicious meal by 6pm.

My Go-To Rice & Dahl

To some, this dish might sound exotic. But it is incredibly easy and fast to make (20 minutes start to finish). The fact that it’s both nourishing and fabulously healthy is an added bonus. To make it sound less scary, the boys helped me rename this dish protein and rice, which incidentally is a great technique for getting kids to try new things. If they get to name it, they usually are game to try it.
• 1 Cup dry rice (add to 1 3/4 cups water, bring to a boil, then turn heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
• 1 cup dry red lentils (add to 2 1/2 – 3 cups water, bring to a boil, then turn heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes)
• Salt to taste – I usually end up using about 2 tsp

As the core ingredients above cook, prepare the seasoning for the dahl.

Seasoning:
• 1-2 Tbsp olive oil + 1 small onion, diced. Sweat the onion in the oil over medium heat for 3-5 minutes
• Add A few dashes of curry powder (I honestly don’t measure, perhaps about 1 Tbsp) along with a few dashes of garam masala (I made up a batch and keep it in a Ziploc bag in my spice drawer), cumin, and coriander to the pan with the oil and onion.
• Cook for 1-2 minutes, then pour the spice & onion combination on the cooking red lentils.

Once that’s done, put a veggie on to steam. 10 minutes later, you’ll be sitting down to a yummy dinner.

{Dahl image via Simply Recipes}

Bit by bit I expanded my repertoire.

Where possible, I looked to “learn” a new cooking technique, like roasting. Towards the end of March, I happened upon a roasted chicken recipe from Ina Garten that simply involves stuffing a whole chicken (parts taken out) with quartered lemons and fresh thyme, drizzling with a little melted butter and then sprinkling it with salt, pepper, and more thyme and roasting for 90 minutes.

It made me feel like a freaking rock star when I pulled that sucker out of the oven all brown and crispy and delicious the first time.

And can I just say, God bless Ina. She may not be the healthiest chef on the planet, but she sure knows how to create recipes that are relatively easy to make, use amazing but normal ingredients, and taste insanely good. Nowadays I prepare her dishes mainly on special occasions, but when I was coming up the curve, she was the absolute, best teacher. I have her book Barefoot Contessa at Home: Everyday Recipes You’ll Make Over and Over Again
and it’s very, very well used. Another great recipe of hers to try is the lemon fusilli pasta. It’s always a hit.

Okay, enough gushing about Ina. I think it’s safe to say that by the time April rolled around I had lost my fear of the stovetop – although I’ll be the first to admit that’s certainly not the same thing as liking to cook.

I had also become a little more proficient at putting together the meal plan for the week.

Organizing Meal Planning Quickly

I had been using our menu planner printable religiously from the beginning, which I love. But after about 12 weeks, I had amassed quite a few papers. So I got out my three-hole punch and started keeping them organized in a three ring binder, which I keep with my cookbooks.

I love having a record of the menus I’ve put together, because it enables me to look back and cherry pick ideas straight from previous weeks. It cuts down significantly on the time I spend developing a weekly menu. When I first started, I think I took 2 hours (hey, looking through cookbooks for ideas takes time!). Now it usually takes me about 15 minutes.

Interestingly, around this time, my reliance on physical cookbooks started to wane. Not because I was Julia Child all of a sudden and no longer needed them, but because I found a better way to find good dinner ideas.


It’s called Pinterest.

And seriously, if you want to get your cook on, there is almost no better tool at your disposal. You can follow my “Dinner Ideas” board if you are curious about how it works. If you don’t already have a Pinterest account, you can email me (sarah @ getbuttonedup dot com) and I’ll get you an invite.

Basically all I do now is type in search terms like “healthy dinners” or “quinoa” and boom – hundreds of beautifully photographed recipes other people have tried and tested pop up on my screen. I scroll through until I see something that interests me and pin it.

Then I add the menu item to my printable, check to make sure I have the ingredients and if not, add them to my shopping list.

Then, when it’s time to cook, I put my computer on the counter, pull up Pinterest, click on the pin and follow it to its original source and follow the recipe. The added bonus is that a big percentage of food bloggers post step-by-step photo instructions, so you can be sure you’re doing it right.

If you’re just starting out, I highly recommend getting a cute 3-ring binder and keeping track of your weekly menus in one place AND using Pinterest instead of traditional cookbooks.

I had one more breakthrough when it came to organizing myself to cook healthy weeknight dinners.

One thing kept getting in the way of my cooking every night: my work schedule. It’s fairly unpredictable; deadlines, fires, and meetings that run long were constantly knocking me off kilter in the kitchen. When you walk in the door at 5:55 and are faced with hungry boys who are ready for dinner NOW, it dramatically reduces your options.

So I did two things to try to ensure those interruptions would happen less frequently:
• I will not schedule meetings past 4pm. I don’t tell people why I can’t make their late meeting, they just assume I have a conflict and we pick a different date. It has not been an issue so far.
• I usually prep items in the morning. While my guys are slurping down their cereal, I usually chop veggies, measure spices, and generally get anything I can ready. It’s saved my bacon more than a few times.

It’s amazing what a little bit of organization will do. By the end of April, cooking was becoming something I looked forward to. I gradually moved from two or three nights a week of cooking from scratch to four.

Stretching

My newfound skills were making me more confident in the kitchen. So confident in fact that I actually volunteered to host the formal Easter dinner chez moi. I put together a rather aggressive menu and hoped to God my confidence wasn’t entirely misplaced.

It turned out beautifully. I think in large part because I organized my kitchen time down to the minute before the big day arrived. So all I had to do was follow my script.

My confidence got a huge boost from making such a big stretch, one I wasn’t quite sure was even feasible.

In fact, my identity began to shift. Whenever the topic of cooking or baking used to come up, I would say almost reflexively, “Oh, I can’t cook.”

But that no longer felt true.

By the end of May I was up to cooking five nights a week.

Diner was slowly becoming an institution of meaning in our house. And it felt good. Really, really good.

Read on about Part 3 of my journey and get even MORE recipes!