I enjoy a nice meal out as much as the next person. Especially if we’re talking about a “candlelight and white tablecloth” sort of place. But last minute fast food because I didn’t get around to planning dinner? No thanks. So let’s talk about some easy ways to avoid unplanned take out and cook at home instead.
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Easy Ways to Cook at Home
1. Maintain a well-stocked pantry
When the cupboards are bare it’s pretty hard to cook a decent meal. Get in the habit of keeping a well-stocked pantry. It doesn’t need to be “prepper style” with enough food to weather a zombie apocalypse. Consider the basics needed for the meals your family likes.
I like to keep a stock of pasta, rice (brown, white and arborio), a few kinds of dried beans, lentils, flour, sugar (white, brown and confectioners), salt, herbs and spices, various tomato products (sauce, diced, whole, paste), canned tuna, coconut oil, olive oil, backup condiments (mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, a couple of kinds of mustard), etc.
In addition to shelf stable items, I nearly always have onions, garlic and potatoes. In the refrigerator I make sure to have butter, eggs, cheese, lemons, cream, good mustard and about a thousand other things which keep my fridge in a perpetually overstuffed condition. You don’t need to follow that part of my example, though.
2. Create a weekly menu
A menu is a HUGE help in avoiding take out. If I have a plan for dinner I’m pretty likely to follow through and actually cook. Not always, you understand. I’m human. But for the most part, if I have a written menu and don’t have to try to come up with an idea at 5 or 6 p.m. there’s a good chance I’ll cook.
Here is the method I use for making a menu:
How to Create a Weekly Menu Plan
3. Grocery shop on a regular schedule
Of course, the most delicious menu won’t do you any good if you don’t have the ingredients on hand. After you create your menu, the next step is to make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need for those meals and then go shopping. Or if you live where delivery is an option (lucky you!) place your order.
It’s very helpful to have a certain day of the week that you make your menu and a scheduled day for grocery shopping. Most people do this on a weekly basis but you can do it on whatever frequency works for your family. I make a weekly menu but do the bulk of my grocery shopping once a month. My daughter and I shop together in the city and make a day of it. This is when I restock my pantry and freezer. I then fill in with dairy and fresh produce as needed.
Here is how my daughter does it:
Once a Month Grocery Shopping
4. Create a list of easy meals for busy nights
Make a list of easy, go-to meals for busy nights. Sometimes you’ll know in advance that a particular night will be busy and you can take that into account when planning your menu. But we all have those unexpected situations that call for something fast and easy.
Keep these meal ideas listed in a handy place for easy reference. You can put them in the notes on your phone, tack a list to a bulletin board, stick them on the fridge with a magnet, or write them on a sticky note and stick it inside a kitchen cabinet. And then make sure you keep the necessary ingredients for these impromptu meals on hand.
Here are a handful of my favorites:
5. Invest in helpful equipment
You can most certainly put delicious meals on the table every night with little more than a basic set of pots and pans, a good knife and a wooden spoon. But if you have the funds (and the storage space) there are a few pieces of kitchen equipment that can make the whole process much easier.
A slow cooker allows you to throw in a few ingredients in the morning and have dinner ready when you are. This was a huge help to me when I was working full time as a hospice nurse and had a husband and two young children to feed at the end of long and often stressful days.
A bread maker is another item I made good use of in those busy days as a nurse. I would package up the dry ingredients for a loaf of bread in several ziploc plastic bags all at once. All I had to do in the morning before work was to dump one of these packages in the bread maker, add water and butter and turn it on. It was so nice to come home to a main dish in the slow cooker and fresh bread in the bread maker. All I had to do was make a salad and cook a vegetable.
A rice cooker is one of those items I did without for the first 20 years or so of marriage but wouldn’t want to be without now. It’s not hard to cook rice on the stove but it does bear watching if you don’t want a burned on mess to clean up afterwards. I love being able to dump in rice and water, push a button and know that the rice will be perfectly cooked and warm when we are ready for it.
The Instant Pot is the latest addition to my small appliance collection and I love it! It does a fabulous job cooking dried beans or lentils (no presoaking required!). You can even cook frozen meat in it which is great if you forgot to thaw something. I like to keep a small ham in my freezer for “emergency dinners” or unexpected company. You can even cook a whole frozen chicken in the Instant Pot.
6. Consider an accountability method
Anytime we try to implement a new habit it can be helpful to have some form of accountability, at least at first. Consider joining a Facebook group where members share their dinner plans each day. Or find a friend who is also trying to cook at home more often and check in with one another each day.
In all honesty, I started posting my weekly menu on my blog (and now share it in my weekly newsletter) in part for this very reason. Knowing that my readers expect a menu each Monday helps keep me on track. I might be inclined to skip it for myself but I’ll do it for y’all. Well, most of the time.
7. Consider a meal service or menu planning service
Many people enjoy having all the ingredients for dinner delivered, along with easy-to-follow directions. Blue Apron, Sun Basket, and HelloFresh are a few popular options. These can be somewhat expensive, especially for a family, but if it fits your budget the time saved might be worth it to you.
Another option is a menu planning service. A new one on the scene that I’m really excited about is Eat at Home. Your membership gives you access to four different meal plans: Traditional, Wholesome Traditional, Slow Cooker and No Flour, No Sugar. You get printable menus, recipes, grocery lists, 15 minute meal options, and a 1-hour freezer stash. A menu planning service such as this can save you hours every month!