Shopping-averse cook seeks pantry-friendly recipes
January 12, 2015 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Most weeknights, I'm responsible for figuring out and cooking a dinner for two adults and a 1-year-old that is on the table by no later than 6pm. I am hands-down finding this the most unpleasant and soul-killing part of day-to-day parenting, as making it to the grocery store is extremely difficult during the workweek and the last thing I want to be doing on the weekends. I'm looking for recommendations of either a cookbook or specific recipes that use ingredients that are likely to already be present in my pantry, freezer, and/or spice rack.

Realistically, my husband and I only make it to go grocery shopping once every 10 to 14 days. That means we rely heavily on ingredients that either have a long shelf life (dry rice and lentils, canned tomatoes and beans, onions, garlic, boxes of chicken stock) or can be bought and stored frozen (all types of fish, many cuts of chicken and beef, vegetable mixes, sliced bread). We also almost always have lots of milk, plain yogurt, cheese, eggs, and fruit available on-hand, because we go through it fast enough that it doesn't spoil.

Last night I made Bittman's chicken and lentil recipe, which looked like a total one-pot win (defrosted chicken thighs plus lentils, onions, canned tomatoes and spices) and it was so disappointing to sit down after 45 minutes of cooking to a bland meal. (Smelled like heaven, tasted like... plain boiled lentils with a can of tomatoes dumped in, and some flabby chicken thighs on top.) I'm tired of using my limited mental and physical energy to try out new recipes that are disappointing, but also want to expand my mental catalog of recipes so I have more to draw on when standing in front of the freezer at 4:45pm feeling totally uninspired.

The only limitations we're really working with are an effort to keep sodium to a minimum for the 1-year-old (otherwise we'd be using a lot more pre-prepared dinners in a bag from Trader Joes and Whole Foods). Also, the extreme aversion to frequent grocery shopping means I really don't want recipes that feature ingredients that must be fresh but can't be easily used in more than one recipe. (In other words, please nothing featuring swiss chard. It would rot in my fridge when I stared at it every night and said "what in the hell do you make with swiss chard??")

Do you have a recipe book that would hit the spot for this stage of life? Or a can't-go-wrong recipe with a high ratio of deliciousness to effort? Tell me all about it! Save me from the meal-planning rut into which I have fallen!
posted by iminurmefi to Food & Drink (49 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
If you are willing to shop once a week if you knew exactly what to buy and knew you would use it and if you are willing to actively cook fro 20-30 minutes a night, I would suggest Leanne Ely's Saving Dinner. It looks like she has upgraded the system since I did it so you pick your recipes, schedule when you want them and create a customized shopping list.
posted by metahawk at 3:10 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you are in terms of budget, but I absolutely love Plated for a lot of these reasons. They have other direct competitors like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. Yes, it is without question more expensive than planning those meals and shopping for them yourself, but if budget is not the most important factor for you, there is great variety, meals are generally 30ish minutes of cooking time, and it is real food that you don't have to spend tons of time planning and shopping for. Plus, the recipe cards are well made and totally repeatable should you find some recipes you like. Unless you guys are really big eaters, almost all the meals are plenty for 2 adults + 1 year old.

Again, with problems solved by money and depending on where you are, services like Instacart (if available in your area) or the delivery service offered through your grocery store are great when the limiting factor is energy and time, not money.
posted by brainmouse at 3:14 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

There have been a lot of AskMe questions about this in the past, and in several of them I have pimped Lorna Sass's Short Cut Vegan. It doesn't matter if you are vegan or not, the recipes are "normal", mostly variations on beans/rice/veg, and all from a high quality shelf-stable pantry items. She has a long detailed intro about setting up your pantry and refrigerator to facilitate exactly the kind of cooking you are talking about.

My favorite no-fuss meal from her is this Spinach Chickpea Curry. About 6 mins start to finish, no prep, everything can sit in pantry/freezer for years before you get to it. Healthy and low-sodium if you rinse your chickpeas.

Another thing you might consider is a crockpot. You can get fancy with it if you want, or you can do as we do, and throw a bunch of chicken thighs in there, dump a jar of salsa on top, and leave it on low while you are at work. Come home, put it in some tortillas and you are done.
posted by apparently at 3:14 PM on January 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

if your location is correct, alfalfa's store in boulder does grocery delivery 7 days a week with a minimum order of $25. that might help with your not being able to get to the store.
posted by koroshiya at 3:22 PM on January 12, 2015

I'm wondering whether the blandness is a consequence of modifications you're making to the recipes to make them healthier or more palatable to your one-year-old? Drastically reducing salt, acid, and hot pepper is going to move your food to the blander end of the spectrum. Of course, you can add these back in to your own portions at table - a saltshaker and a bottle of siracha might be all you need.

If you're not adverse to a fairly tart dish, a current favorite at my house is chicken thighs baked with olive oil, hot pepper, garlic, and lemon juice. Rough proportions: juice of one lemon, 1/4 cup olive oil, three or four big cloves of garlic, 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes. Toss over 4 or 6 chicken thighs, bake at 350 for 50 minutes. You can also put a layer of potato slices in the baking dish before you put the chicken in, it might take a few minutes longer to cook.

Lemons and garlic will both keep for several weeks in the fridge.
posted by mr vino at 3:24 PM on January 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Eggs! You can make the usual fried/boiled/scrambled/poached with sides, but beat one with a cup of self-raising flour, a cup of milk, then dump in cheese/vegies/cooked protein, and you've got a sort of pancake thing to eat that is quick and easy.

Check out Dinner, A Love Story. Lots of quick and easy meals there.

One of my faves is tortilla-based stuff. So a chile of some sort - meat, meatless, whatever (I sometimes do a slowcooker one with beef cheeks or some other tough cut, or a quick one with mince, or a quicker one with tinned beans) and it's burritos the first night, a few nights later enchiladas and if I made a big batch, it can go over rice at some point.

And I find a lot of chicken-y recipes need a blast of super high heat at the end to caramelise skin and crisp up. Tomatoes can benefit from that too.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:24 PM on January 12, 2015

What To Cook When You Think There's Nothing In The House To Eat by Arthur Schwartz.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:32 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think a few freezer meals and/or freezer crock-pot meals would really work for you. Ideally you'll find recipes that you can double and throw half in a Ziploc bag and freeze for later. For example, I've found a very easy Taco Chicken recipe (corn, black beans, salsa, taco seasoning and chicken breasts) that I make 4 batches at a time and freeze 3 of them (we eat one that night). I throw the saved meal in the crock pot once they've thawed 24 hours and serve over rice or a salad. If you sacrifice one weekend day a month, you'll make your life so, so much easier. Soup and stews work great for this too- double batch and freeze half. Dinner planning sucks, you have my sympathy.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:32 PM on January 12, 2015

Response by poster: Three clarifications and I'll butt out and let the recommendations roll in:

Budget is not a limiting factor. I'm definitely willing to throw money at this problem if it will lessen the pain significantly. My major hesitation with meal-planning services in the past is that I'm worried they will be bland or underwhelming--kind of Applesbees-type fare aimed at being inoffensive to the largest number of palates--and I don't want to spend a lot of money on something mediocre, since I can cook pretty tasty food given enough time to plan in advance. (Which is in critically short supply these days.) I'm very open to recommendations for meal-planning or shopping services that people have experience with and can vouch for their tastiness.

I'm not sure grocery delivery services will help me, as the limitation with shopping isn't making it to the store. Instead, it's the process of sitting down and and making a grocery list in advance of running to the store, which requires planning out all our meals for the next week in advance, then ending up with a huge long list that requires two or three stops (Costco for cheap meat, plus WF for bulk grains and various stuff I want organic for the kiddo, plus a plain grocery store to bat clean-up) and invariably there's one ingredient I can't find.

I'm totally down with using a crockpot--I work a fairly corporate 40-hour-per-week job, but from home, so stuff that requires an hour of prep in the morning won't work but things that require just physically being here are fine. I've had a hard time finding crockpot recipes that are really tasty without relying on a crapload of sodium, though.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:39 PM on January 12, 2015

I make Budget Bytes' Chorizo Sweet Potato Skillet every few weeks because it is PERFECT for this. I leave out the green onion because it's just a garnish, so the only fresh ingredient is a whole sweet potato which you will use up (and they last a long time). I prefer it with Trader Joe's Soy Chorizo which has a lot less sodium than real chorizo.
posted by capricorn at 3:45 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's two we do.

Veggie Soup:
-onion, chopped
-potato, chopped or canned
-canned or frozen mixed veggies
-can of crushed tomatoes
-can of beans
-box of chicken broth
-garlic powder, Italian seasoning, s+p

Put it in a pot and cook. We usually add chicken sausage which isn't a pantry staple but lasts a week or so. We cook pasta on the side and our one year old gets lots of pasta, lots of veggies (scooped from pot with a slotted spoon) and a little bit of broth. You can get low or no sodium broth and veggies, too. Also any veggies you do have in the fridge can be thrown in.

Black bean and corn quesadillas:

Mix equal parts seasoned black beans and frozen corn and microwave till warm. Make quesadillas in a pan with buttered tortillas and some cheese. You can also get low sodium beans and just add some seasonings of your own.

Sorry these are not fancy, but I make at least one every week because I also need pantry meals for my one and three year old.
posted by that's how you get ants at 3:45 PM on January 12, 2015

Three Good Things is a cookbook and a site which has really simple recipes.

But I feel with you. I was you when our first was a baby. And on top of that, I had an allergy which meant I couldn't buy prepared meals or take-out ever. The stress….

Things I did:

I almost always cooked potatoes and broccoli or spinach. For baby I mashed or blended potatoes, greens and some sort of fat, either butter or fat from the meat we were eating. If she ate the other items that was a bonus, and she usually did.

Cook a huge batch of sugo during the weekends, freeze it down in portions, so I could make lasagna, pasta with meat sauce, cottage pie, and toast with sauce during the week.

Today, like literally today, I've cooked a large batch of Puy Lentils, because they are good in themselves and good with a lot of other dishes. Gently sauté onion, carrot and celeriac, then add lentils. After one minute, add water (or stock), garlic, bay leaf, thyme, and simmer for 30 minutes.
I like them with mashed potatoes, with lamb chops, pork chops and just by themselves.

My favorite dish was: Cook rice. Then, in a wide pan, sauté spinach gently in butter. Add cream, salt, pepper, chili. Add thawed fish and shellfish to taste. Serve on rice when the fish is ready. This should take about 10-15 mins in all. It can be served mashed with rice for a 1-year-old.

Another easy dish is: buy hearts of lettuce, 1 apple, 1 orange, two pieces of duck breast.
Cut the apple into small squares. Peal and cut the orange into thin slices, arrange the orange slices on the lettuce.
Cut the fat on the duck into squares, season with salt, pepper, ginger. Fry the meat on both sides in a very small amount of butter. In all about 12-15 minutes. Leave to rest on a plate.
In the fat from the duck (and butter), toss the apple cubes, add the juices from the duck (now on the plate), and a small spoonful of vinegar (can be balsamico but doesn't have to). let this simmer for 3 minutes. Then pour it over the salad, and slice the duck in thin slices and arrange these over the salad. Serve with bread. For 1-year old, cooked apples with fatty dressing are added to the usual mash, and pieces of duck and orange are offered.

Wok-food is simple, but I am not at all educated here. Maybe other mefites have good ideas. I'd just fry some curry paste and very finely cut onion or leeks in oil, add fine strips of chicken breast and vegetables, then coconut milk and a cup of stock. Lemon or lime, soy sauce and cilantro to taste. Served with rice. We practically lived from variations of this for years.

Another thing we had a lot of, to the point where the kids eventually said stop, was cous cous with various Moroccan stews. You can make a lot of different really simple and extremely easy stews. They are easy because you just cut everything into chunks and put it into the pot at the same time. With a pressure cooker, it can be even simpler. Today, the kids (who are 16 and 21) are craving these dishes, so don't worry if they don't want something for a while.

The most favorite dish of all, which none has ever tired of, is Minestrone This recipe is similar to the one I follow
posted by mumimor at 3:54 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, and this is reeeeal simple, but I found that I could always come up with a few meal ideas staring in my pantry but they never had enough vegetables. Now we always have a stack of frozen steam-in-bag vegetables in the freezer to go with those meals.
posted by that's how you get ants at 4:00 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

This lentil soup is insanely easy to make and it's quick. I've thrown in italian sausage, as well as chicken thighs, to mix it up a little. The Parmesan cheese at the end makes all the difference.

This red lentil soup is awesome. I use dried mint instead of fresh, and purée the soup at the end with a stick blender. I also put a spoon of full fat Greek yogurt on top at the end. You can play with the cayenne to make it as spicy (or not) as you want.

Shakshuka! This stuff is awesome and freezes beautifully. I freeze it in mason jars and then only need to fry the eggs. Serve it with some nice pita or crusty bread to soak up the extra sauce. Totally nom!

Another stock dinner option we have in the house (yes, I know carb fest) is mega grilled cheese. Good bread with a few kinds of cheese instead of just plain American. Maybe throw some ham on the sandwich and if so inclined, add a salad; you're good to go. Less than 20 minutes and done.
posted by dancinglamb at 4:02 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Burritos! It only takes about 15 minutes to make them.

What you need from the grocery store:
- Soft tortillas
- Can of Refried Beans
- Can of Chipotle Sauce
- Green onions
- Sour cream
- Block of cheddar cheese
- Eggs
- Sausage patties (or throw in any leftovers that sound good to you)

All of these things keep pretty well. I have successfully stored all of the above for ten days, though you'll have to trim the onions eventually.)

Throw one sausage patty per person into a small pan at medium-high heat.

While that's cooking, per tortilla, spread a generous tablespoon of the beans to about 1" from the edges. Do the same again with a tablespoon of sour cream. Sprinkle that area with chopped green onion and grated cheddar. Somewhere in there, flip the sausage patties.

Remove the sausage from the pan to a cutting board and reduce the heat a bit. Break one egg person into the pan and scramble. Dice the sausage. Sprinkle both equally among the tortillas.

Drizzle each with a tablespoon of chipotle sauce. More if you like your burritos runny with sauce.

Wrap* and throw in the microwave until hot. About a minute.

Voila! And the bonus is that there is one pan plus plates to wash afterward.

* The wrapping is greatly facilitated by Kabnet Waxed Paper Sheets. I have found a zillion uses for these that save washing up, and at a thousand sheets per box they last forever.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:09 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here is my can't-go-wrong recipe that is so surprisingly good.

- sausage links - 4 or 5. Hot or sweet. Cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- butternut squash, diced. I buy diced squash at the store, but a whole squash would last longer. I hate peeling and dicing squash, though, so...
- onion, roughly chopped - I like red, but any kind will do
- bell pepper if you have one, roughly chopped - any color

If you buy the squash diced prepping all of the above should take you maybe 7 minutes. Put it all into a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil - maybe a quarter cup - stir it all up, add some salt & pepper. Bake uncovered at 350 for about 45 minutes, till the sausage is done.

That's it! You could make a double batch and freeze it. You should always be making double batches and freezing them.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with meat and a side of veggies. Tonight we had ham steaks (open packaging, plop in pan, spread a little honey on while cooking) and some green beans.
posted by lyssabee at 4:25 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I love love LOVE this BBQ Chicken Cornbread Pie recipe. The only fresh veggies you need are an onion (which lasts forever) and one bell pepper (which will last... a while). I use a red bell pepper because I hate the green ones. (I also add some chopped up spinach to the barbecue chicken stuff, around the same time the recipe asks for the garlic, because I like to pretend it's healthy, so you could also do that if you had some laying around for whatever reason.) You could also just make the chicken part and eat it in sloppy joe-like sandwiches, but the cornbread is so so delicious.

I'm about to try making this Layered Vegetarian Egg Bake, which uses frozen and canned things. It looks pretty tasty, and also easy, which I like. The recipe claims it's for breakfast but I like to live on the wild side.
posted by Weeping_angel at 4:31 PM on January 12, 2015

Or you can make pulled pork or chicken in the crock pot. Put some boneless meat in the crock pot, cover with a bottle of bbq sauce and some water, put on low for all day. The meat should be easily shredded. Have on a sandwich or on a platter with coleslaw, with mashed potatoes, over a baked potato, in a wrap...This also freezes beautifully.
posted by lyssabee at 4:34 PM on January 12, 2015

's the process of sitting down and and making a grocery list in advance of running to the store, which requires planning out all our meals for the next week in advance, then ending up with a huge long list that requires two or three stops

That does seem like a huge hassle. I can't help but wonder whether flipping the script might not be helpful -- could you reverse engineer, from the recipes you know suit your family, a list of common ingredients to keep on hand? Plenty of vegetables will last a couple weeks in the fridge --- if you have in your head a list of four or five things that you know your family likes that contain say, red peppers, than when you open the fridge and see them you can think to yourself, "oh, I guess I can make a salad/fajitas/chicken cacciatore/sausage and peppers so we use those up." Recipes are specific and finicky; your family's palate probably has a lot of common ground. If you like Chinese and Japanese flavours, you're going to want to have garlic and ginger, scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar always on hand, but so long as you have that stuff you can make a dozen different variations on stir fries by varying the meat and the vegetables according to what you have on hand. Ditto any cuisine, really -- canned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil, oregano, crushed red pepper flakes, fennel and you can do a bunch of different Italian dishes. And if you have 90% of the stuff on hand already, it's not so bad to be like, hey honey, could you grab some olives on your way home, I want to do puttanesca.
posted by Diablevert at 4:46 PM on January 12, 2015 [10 favorites]

I live by Bittman's How to Cook Everything Fast. It really delivers on tasty meals in under 30 minutes, including prep. I know because I cook for a 2 year old + hubby and me + baby, and the baby always melts down just as dinner gets on the table... trust, it's a serious crunch.

But seriously, get the book. Choose recipes that involve long-storing vegetables like root vegetables or things you can sub in frozen equivalents for. (You can actually make some delicious stuff with chard, but you sound like the sort of person who should avoid leafy greens.) A lot of salad vegetables keep for a good long time too. Boring salads are made from lettuce. Try one with sliced radishes, carrots, chickpeas, edamame, nuts, and cheese! You'll never go back.

Pre-make your proteins. Poach chicken breasts on the weekend and you'll have nice juicy chicken you can slice and throw into anything. Grilled or pan-seared flank steak can be sliced and frozen; move a baggie of it into the fridge as needed and throw into tacos, salads, or sandwiches.

Eggs last forever. Get three cartons, hard boil one of them. Instant protein and good finger food for baby. Add bacon and frozen hash browns, because who doesn't like breakfast for dinner?

Make rice bowls. Rice can be made in huge batches and frozen or stored in the fridge. Quinoa is another good one. Make pilaf by cooking rice in a broth and dump a bag of frozen veg and some spices in there. Fried rice can use up any meat or veg that's about to go bad.

As for seasoning... always remember that YOU have the power to avoid bland food. Be the change you want to see! And by that I mean... taste the food! Salt and pepper on everything, especially proteins but also vegetables. Meals taste salty when the salt is thrown on at the end of the cooking process. When it's added bit by bit, you end up enhancing the taste of the ingredients in an amazing way.

Also taste it at the end, and if it's lacking in flavor, add one or more of the following: lemon juice if it tastes flat; hot sauce if it tastes bland; salt if it doesn't taste like anything at all.
posted by annekate at 4:47 PM on January 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

I highly recommend Every Grain of Rice. Get yourself a wok ($15ish) and a rice cooker $(20ish). You can get most of the specialty ingredients on Amazon, if you don't have a local place. Then, if you can keep garlic, ginger, and scallions around you're basically set. Prep for most things (chopping; marinating) takes maybe 10-15 minutes, but can be done in advance (sliced scallions keep in the fridge for at least a week) and the active cooking takes less than 10 minutes in most cases.

I particularly like:
Fuschia's Emergency Midnight Noodles
Egg Fried Rice
"Send Down the Rice" Chopped Celery w/ Beef
Ma Po Tofu
Xie Laoban's Dan Dan Noodles
posted by melissasaurus at 4:49 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Two freezer crock-pot meals I can vouch for are the Thai Peanut Chicken and Slow Cooker Black Bean and Corn Salsa Chicken from . Note that meat shouldn't be frozen twice, so you do need to buy fresh chicken breasts.

I think chili works great as a freezer meal too- just add rice and sour cream. I do a slow cooker version and when it's done I freeze half for another night. It's beautiful because I microwave the chili and shred some cheese while the rice cooker does its thing. Easiest meal ever. My recipe is full of veggies too, so no need for sides. Lentil Stew is good for freezing too.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:54 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Couscous is something that's dead easy to make from a box. It's not super exciting by itself, you'd have to have something interesting to put on it....but it's easy, and a change from spaghetti, rice, etc. starches.
posted by gimonca at 4:55 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

We're using blue apron right now. It's way too fancy for us, but we're philistines who would actually prefer something more Applebeesian. The cooking is semi-elaborate but everything does get cooked in 35-50 minutes. You should check it out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:02 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I found this recipe last week and it was pretty freaking fantastic and it ticks all of your boxes!

Braised Chicken with Spinach

Your crock pot concerns are valid, and you can get the Crock Pot Bags and fill them with ingredients at night after dinner. Then tie them off and throw in the fridge until morning. Before you leave for work grab and put in the crock pot. Dinner is hot and ready when you come through the door. Add a salad or a side and you're done.

You can also do cooking on the weekends and freeze for later. So when you make one Baked Ziti, make a second for the freezer. Chili, stews and soups are also excellent items that will lend themselves to freezing for later and bonus, make them in the crock pot.

Pretty much all of my meals are thrown together for week nights. Sometimes it really helps to look at dinner in a different light:

1. Burrito night. Browned ground meat. Refried or pinto or black beans, Lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream and tortillas. Everyone assembles their own. It's very quick to put together and super popular at my house. A lot of the ingredients have pretty long shelf lives, lettuce being the exception.

2. Sandwich night. Tuna salad or egg salad on a nice pumpernickel bread with soup and/or salad.

3. Omelet/frittattas and salad.

4. Pasta, marinara and meat of your choice.

Really, even the lentil recipe seems like more work than I would normally commit to making dinner on a week night.

One great trick is to line some cookie sheets with foil, and then roast things. Chicken breasts (seasoned however you like), cubed potatoes (long shelf life) tossed in olive oil, bake at 400 for about 20 minutes. Toss some broccoli in olive oil and put it in about 8 minutes before the other stuff is done. Very little clean up and it's super yummy and healthy.

Invest in fun condiments. Sirracha, terikaki, tonkatsu sauce, barbecue sauce, thai chili sauce will live in the fridge and make a plain chicken breast special.

Try shopping in non-traditional places. Check out your local Asian Supermarket or farmer's market, it's more fun than the local A&P and you'll get to try new fruits and veggies.

If you're committed to stocking your freezer, go whole hog. Literally, buy a whole hog or a side of beef. Then you're just augmenting with seasonal produce and staples.

There are hacks, hacks for shopping and hacks for cooking. Having set nights for particular meals is corny, but damn, it's like a uniform, how nice not to have to think about it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:11 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

tonight I made a tofu and veggie stir fry with peanut sauce. serve over rice and sprinkled with sesame seeds. packaged tofu lasts a few months in the fridge, but you can sub frozen meat or chicken if you prefer. veggies are frozen and my peanut sauce ingredients are all pantry staples (peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil).
posted by sabh at 5:16 PM on January 12, 2015

Sliced (from a tube) polenta, a can of fire roasted tomatoes and frozen kale in a frying pan.
Add any protein of choice that's in your house already: sausage, eggs, beans, parmesan, tofu, even a can of salmon works (throw in some capers or olives).
Add some liquid (like a small carton of broth, a splash of any open wine, or just a bit of water) if the tomatoes aren't liquid enough. Cover, cook til it's all hot and delicious (does not take long at all).
We eat a variety of this very often after a long work day; it's fast, delicious, healthy and most importantly, so easy to clean up.
posted by third rail at 5:39 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sorry, shouldn't have mentioned wine and capers and olives for the one year old...! But the polenta (especially with cheese) would be good for toddlers.
posted by third rail at 5:53 PM on January 12, 2015

it was so disappointing to sit down after 45 minutes of cooking to a bland meal

That's unusual for a Bittman recipe in my experience. The problem you're likely facing is lack of salt--everything tastes bland without some salt. The amounts you're going to use in unprocessed homemade food should, absent other medical concerns, absolutely not harm you or your child. You will use less salt, actually, if you season food as you go rather than adding at the table.

Also, here's a week's worth of recipes with a shopping list.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:26 PM on January 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

I know how disappointing it is to put work into a meal that's just blah. I eat everything, but I can be a very picky eater, because being a good home cook has raised my standards. So I present to you some of the pickily-vetted meals in regular rotation around our house:

Cauliflower sausage casserole
Requires a head of cauliflower, which I think you could sub for frozen, though I haven't tried it. I skip the bread crumbs, use a pound of chicken sausage, and serve this with a bag of sautéed spinach. The link mentions the book this casserole came from, which I haven't had a lot of luck with, but I generally do like the recipes on

Baked béchamel pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage
Requires broccoli rabe, but you can get that frozen. The recipes on Deb's site are so, so reliable. If you don't know her site (she has a cookbook too), I can't recommend her enough. She really goes through all her recipes and tests them to make sure they're worth your time.

Lentil walnut burgers
Calls for cilantro-yogurt as a condiment, but you could use plain yogurt or add something else to it. Toppings are up to you, but I don't bother buying tomatoes in winter anyway, since they're awful. We do a batch of caramelized purple onions, which last a long time in the fridge and can be tossed onto other things like eggs, salads, grilled cheese. The cookbook this is adapted from, Everyday Food, is a good one, because it's Martha Stewart quality without all her fussiness. That book is also the source of another of our standbys, Black bean polenta pie. It's kind of a Tex-Mex twist on shepherd's pie, turned upside down. I use ground turkey in addition to beans, but you could leave it as is and make it vegetarian. I also make my own polenta rather than buying polenta rounds, which I have never tried.

Turkey enchiladas
You could do this with turkey chorizo or a rotisserie chicken. Or do a black bean version with canned pumpkin (just don't buy pumpkin pie filling).

Another good site to explore for recipes is They are pretty reliable because they compile recipes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet (RIP), but they also have user reviews so you can see whether the recipe wowed or disappointed others. Here's a Moroccan chickpea stew I like to make from that site. Oh, and these not so typical tacos with chorizo, sweet potato, poblano peppers, and feta which I like to serve with coleslaw (cabbage lasts forever).

Not to diss Mark Bittman, because I like many of his ideas about how we should eat, and his cookbooks did help me learn to cook, but I think once you're beyond the basics his recipes often turn out kind of bland and boring. He'll tell you how to make a dish, but his method won't necessarily result in the best version of that dish. That said, if you're willing to give him another chance, his Black beans with orange are a favorite. The only adaptation we make is we use a pound of sausage instead of sausage + pork shoulder. We serve this with polenta, either soft like grits or allowed to set and then cut and roasted to make polenta fries. I also do a lot of beans in my slow cooker, because then I control the amount of salt that goes in them, and I think they taste better than canned. It's practically no work to do in advance, and if you freeze them in 2-cup portions you can use your freezer supply wherever a recipe calls for a can.

I like to cook but try to avoid doing it on weeknights, when I know I'll be too ragingly hungry to think straight about food after getting home from the gym. For that reason I do a lot of weekend/batch-cooking and freezing, as people have suggested. I don't mind eating the same casserole a few days in a row, and I love the feeling of not having to worry about what's for dinner tonight because I know I'm set for the week.

I second Diablevert's suggestion to have some things that stay on your shopping list semi-permanently. When we go shopping for what my husband calls "all the things," (i.e. we don't make a list because I don't have a plan) I usually pick up cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots, because I know those will keep pretty well until I figure out what to do with them. Usually I end up turning them into sides by cutting them up and roasting them at 400 (oil, salt, pepper) for 25 minutes or so.
posted by unsweetenedminerva at 6:51 PM on January 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

I find Budget Bytes is often great for pantry-based meals.

I really love to cook and eat and try new things, and I tried Blue Apron and I think it would probably be perfect for you (that thread may give you some other ideas, too). I actually discontinued it because I find the meal-planning part to be fun but not the grocery-shopping part, and so I disliked them taking over the meal planning. The quality of the ingredients was consistently excellent, and the recipes were definitely far above Applebee's.
posted by jaguar at 6:54 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Per your update: you say you're willing to throw money at the problem, but then list one of the limiting factors as going to a specific store for cheap meat. If money's not an issue, couldn't you just centralize your groceries? It doesn't solve the whole problem, just jumped out at me.
posted by lizifer at 7:18 PM on January 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

This chana masala is my go-to when I haven't shopped, but I'll also say that Bittman's recipes are good if, but only if, you double the spices and add some salt.
posted by dizziest at 7:22 PM on January 12, 2015

I refuse to cook overnight, but want tasty meals.

Every so often, I make a giant batch of bolognese sauce:

1kg mince meat (beef or beef + pork mix)
2kg tinned tomatoes (diced or whole)
a jar of tomato paste
lots of dried oregano/italian herb mix
salt & pepper

I dump it all into a dutch oven, then put that in a low heat oven and leave it there for 3-4 hours (stirring once per hour). It should make about 16 servings. I portion it, freeze it, and then on a weekday night it just takes the time for pasta to cook + microwave the portion. The slow cooking makes this delicious.

I also make large batches of fried rice (any recipe is usually quick), and freeze it in portions.

We make Pita base pizzas a lot - the ingredients are pantry friendly, and pita bread keeps for ages. Super quick.

We also do puff pastry open face tarts - some packaged puff pastry, and whatever you like on top. Very quick and easy. Sometimes I make pies, and they freeze nicely too.

Any vegetable (frozen too!) + stock + blender = soup! I use evaporated milk instead of cream, and it still tastes wonderful. Bonus: can be simmered on stove during day, and extra portions can be frozen.

Quiche is quick and easy, and uses ingredients you mention having on hand, and you can use frozen or tinned vegetables.

If you can defrost the meat during the day, steaks are very quick, and so are chicken tenders, to fry up. Add a bagged salad on the side, or steamed frozen vegetables.

Honey soy chicken is ridiculously easy - combine soy sauce and honey until it tastes good, pour over chicken to marinade (bonus if overnight), and oven bake. Serve with mashed potatoes, or couscous, or rice, or vegetables.

You could roast a huge pan of vegetables on supermarket day - just chop roughly, olive oil and seasoning, and throw in oven - this should last a week in the fridge for sides.

I also make a super quick creamy pasta by using just pantry ingredients (tuna + tinned corn, or bacon + mushrooms if you have them) - I use evaporated milk for the cream, and simply simmer with the ingredients whilst the pasta cooks in a different pot. Combine at end with lashings of cheese.

I hope these help - I've honed the above over years of lazy cooking and being time pressured. Enjoy!
posted by shazzam! at 7:39 PM on January 12, 2015

Seconding what FFFM said above. Unless your kid has a medical issue that the pediatrician called out, you can and should serve him/her normally seasoned food. Properly salted home cooking will not harm a one year old. (I am pointing this out because I made myself horribly miserable in my first week of parenthood trying to avoid salt because I had post-partum swelling issues, and it was self-imposed torture that made that first week much harder than it had to be... unseasoned food NEVER tastes right.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:39 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

oh, and easiest baby-friendly dinner is scrambled eggs with vegetables mixed in... throw a package of sliced mushrooms and a bag of frozen bell pepper strips and some frozen chopped onions and even some frozen chopped spinach (plus, optionally, some cut up tofu or morningstar patties or whatever protein) in a pan, season, saute, add beaten eggs, serve with toast and a side of fruit, voila. Bonus: dirties just the one pan and the bowl you mixed up the eggs in.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:52 PM on January 12, 2015

I can give you three days meals on a really short shopping list (and cheap!) obviously you can make any of the sauces yourself, but, you don't have to. (I exonerate you. I also work a soul crushing full time job and I don't want to make enchilada sauce on a monday, world.)

shopping list:
carrots, celery, onions, other veggies you like for soup.
can of refried beans
medium tortillas
enchilada sauce
tomato sauce (or ingredients for tomato sauce)
ingredients for a simple salad
a cooked chicken

1. chicken enchiladas!

pull the breasts off the chicken and shred the meat, mix with half the enchilada sauce. smear a spoonful of beans on each enchilada and then add some chicken mix and roll. pack into a baking dish and top with cheese. I usually eat 2 or 3 enchiladas, the boyfriend always eats 3. it depends how big you make them. try to portion them with baking dishes. these freeze well, and can be cooked from frozen. serve with rice (get a rice cooker if you don't have one! mine even does brown rice well! a zojirushi.)

2. chicken pasta sauce.

pull the wings and drumsticks and the rest of the meat you can get your fingers around off the chicken. put it all in a container. on the day you want to eat this, put the tomato sauce and the chicken and a chopped up onion and some garlic and some oregano and basil and stuff (pine nuts are delicious.) in either a dish or a crockpot and either bake it all together (bones in is fine, I always leave mine in and then just pull them out of the sauce later) for as long as you can, or in the crockpot all day until the chicken is all kinda dissolveish in there. that makes it sounds gross, but it's delicious. serve on top of cooked pasta with some simple "wop" salad (ripped up butter lettuce and 2/3 oil and 1/3 vinegar and a chopped up carrot and tomato and green onions) (we're italian so I guess that little bit of racial slurring is passable? I don't know, but everyone calls that salad a wop salad in my family. families, eh?)

3. chicken soup.

make a mirepoix with onions and celery and carrots and garlic and butter. when it's glossy and fragrant, throw in your chicken carcass and cover with water. simmer it forever. add some salt. add some pepper. add other stuff you like. I like seaweed and miso paste. my boyfriend likes a little bit of hot sauce. sage and thyme are both nice in chicken soup. eventually, strain this broth through cheesecloth (or a thin clean dishtowel if you're cheeseclothless. or just a colander if you don't care about clarity of broth.) freeze or frig.

on soup day, add broth and a whole bunch of new veggies and other stuff you like (you can add chicken here. if you're not making pasta sauce, use that chicken! or use half of that chicken and have both. everyone eats too much meat anyways.) I cook rice at the same time and serve half a bowl of rice covered up with soup so it's like a rice and chicken soup. I do not cook the rice in the soup, as I think that's gross. ymmv on how gross you think soup rice is. cooked egg noodles or barley or quinoa are all also good.

if you cook on sunday, this will give you three easy meals during the week. all of these things freeze well, too, so if you double your shopping list and make some room in your freezer, you can have half of next week done too.

ALSO, if you have a rice cooker with a lid (ie: NOT a zojirushi, I know I just recommended one, but on the offchance you don't) you can buy a nifty steamer attachment for most rice cookers, that just sits on top of the rice bowl and the lid goes on top. this means you do the rice on the bottom, then throw a bunch of chopped raw veggies and frozen prawns or fish in the steamer part, and turn it on. it cooks the rice and steams your fixins, and then you can toss it all together with a sauce (I like satay sauce, but that's not really a 1 year old thing :P) and it's healthy and pretty tasty. If you don't have a rice cooker with a lid, you can just make rice, and buy a steamer basket for a regular pot and it will work just as good, but two steps!
posted by euphoria066 at 8:19 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

it was so disappointing to sit down after 45 minutes of cooking to a bland meal

That's unusual for a Bittman recipe in my experience.
In our experience it's par for the course. We have been known to double all spices in Bittman recipes.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:40 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, seconding doubling or even tripling spices in any of Bittman's recipes; I've found that while he's generally excellent on technique, he's spice-averse to the point of ridiculousness.
posted by Tamanna at 8:42 PM on January 12, 2015

So I have given this plug several times in the last couple months (I should get a commission or something!) anyways. We use Fresh 20 meal planning service. I know you said no "fresh" food but stay with me on this. The program gives you a *divided by zone* grocery list and recipes for 5 dinners. The freshest foods most likely to spoil are used up first and the recipes use everything up (1/2 an onion Monday, the other half Thursday sort of thing). We use to do the whole cheap meat at costco, basics at Target and everything else at Whole Foods. Now I just take the list they send to WF and buy all the things. It usually comes in around $100 rather than the $70 the service thinks it should cost but whateves. Lately I take my list, enter it on instacart and have it all magically delivered!
posted by saradarlin at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Once you have recipes you like I strongly recommend a set 3- or 4- week cycle, if you don't have to buy on sale, or even a rhythm. Just as an example, we often have fish on Saturday (the day we shop), homemade pizza on Sunday (leftovers go for meals on the go) and a crockpot soup or stew on Wednesday.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:54 PM on January 12, 2015

This is one of my favourite cookbooks of all times More with Less for exactly that reason - it has recipes with stuff you have at home and no fancy requirements (although you can supplement those).

Another one is What to cook when there is nothing in the house to eat

Neither of those requires you to make a grocery list first.
posted by 15L06 at 2:25 AM on January 13, 2015

I tried this Martha Stewart One-Pot Chicken, Rice and Swiss Chard dish on the basis that I had the stuff to make it in the cupboard and fridge (except I just used chicken thighs, chopped up a bit). Amazingly delicious for little work and I felt quite good that it had meat, veg and rice in it.

I see there is a whole Martha Stewart One Pot book, which I can't vouch for, but it could be worth a look.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:06 AM on January 13, 2015

Pasta. You can do so much with it and all the sauces and other ingredients can be found canned.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:22 AM on January 13, 2015

Also, here is a really easy flavor-enhancing tip that I learned from the chefs at Vedge: before you finish cooking any dish, add a little bit of acid right at the end. It brightens up all of the other flavors in the dish, and doing this has turned many an underwhelming meal in my kitchen into something I could feel good about. Balsamic vinegar would have probably helped your chicken and lentil dish, chinese black vinegar or rice vinegar is great for pan-asian dishes, red wine and sherry vinegar are lovely for almost all things, a little lime is great for Mexican food, and a little lemon juice spruces up anything springy/veggie-heavy. Plus, bonus, bottles of vinegar and lemon or lime juice keep for ages in the pantry or fridge.

Note: the Vedge cookbook is delightful, but save it for when you have some time. It is definitely not about the quickness.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 10:33 AM on January 13, 2015

Yup, CAD--basic chef maxim: start with fat, finish with acid. Works wonders on every every dish.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:45 AM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Cabbage is a versatile vegetable that keeps for weeks. I try to always have a head on hand for soups, quick sautees, slaw, sandwiches, pretty much anything. Carrots also have a crazy long life in the fridge.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 11:24 AM on January 13, 2015

Flavour comes from taking time when you are cooking, or from grease and salt. The way I see it you are throwing some ingredients together, heating them and hoping it will taste good. It usually doesn't work that way.

You probably don't want to deep fry everything even if it is quick and flavourful so that leaves taking time when you cook. This is not as hard as it sounds. Sunday night make a nice dinner and let is simmer for an hour. Then put it in the fridge. Monday night pull your dinner out of the fridge, skim the fat if you want to and then heat it up. Meanwhile start preparing Tuesday's dinner. It can simmer over a low heat while you eat dinner, give the kid his bath and all your other nightly activities. Pack it up at bedtime and while it keeps in the fridge overnight the flavours will blend and improve even more. If you make all or most of your work night suppers a day ahead you will be spending close to the same amount of effort you are now, but the results will be more savoury.

Chili, stew, lasagna, casseroles all reheat beautiful, marinades can age for twenty four hours and a pre-cooked roast can be served cold for variety.

Another thing you can do is make sure your ingredients are good ones. A random can of tomatoes is going to taste like a random can of tomatoes. A random can of beef broth or a cube of bullion dissolved in a pint of boiling water is going to taste like salt, msg and artificial beef flavouring. So make some beef broth from bones and freeze it. Make your tomato sauce with caramelized onions and slow cook it and when it tastes like ambrosia, put it into tubs and freeze that. The results beat the heck out of just opening a can.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:02 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Flavour comes from taking time when you are cooking, or from grease and salt. The way I see it you are throwing some ingredients together, heating them and hoping it will taste good. It usually doesn't work that way.

Except when it does; adding olives, capers, or anchovies to anything will up the flavor substantially. So much so that I always have at least two of those three in my house at all times.

And they fit into a lot of pantry-staple types of meals too -

* A cup of olives, a spoon of capers and a couple anchovy filets thrown in a food processor with a squeeze of lemon juice and you have tapenade, which can be used as a spread, a dip, or a sauce-enhancing thing.

* Take a spoon of capers and throw it in with a can of tuna, and then toss that with cooked pasta and herbs for a pasta dish.

* Another pasta dish I know is an upgrade on the classic of olive oil and garlic - heat up olive oil and add some chopped garlic and a chopped-up anchovy filet or two, then throw in some bread crumbs at the last minute and toss that with drained pasta and a couple handfuls of chopped walnuts.

* a couple handfuls of chopped olives, a spoon or two of capers and a couple chopped anchovy filets can be simmered into some plain old marinara sauce from the supermarket to turn it into pasta puttanesca.

If you want to get into Asian cooking, too, some Japanese staples, like mirin and miso and soy sauce, have a flavor wallop that you can use to jazz up something you can throw together last minute. You can make a cheat's ramen, and use up leftovers in the process, even just by doing this:

* Assemble the ingredients. You'll need the noodles, your choice of broth, vegetables (raw and chopped, or frozen and thus pre-chopped), and your choice of meat (if you have already-cooked meat, even better, it'll save time).

* Get two pots. If the meat is raw, maybe get out a small skillet to stir-fry it just to get it cooked.

* Dump the broth into one pot and start heating it up. When it starts boiling, throw in the vegetables to cook them right in the broth.

* Fill the other pot with water, and cook the noodles separately in that.

* When the noodles are done, dole them into your bowls, chuck the meat on top and ladle broth and noodles over them. Done.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:37 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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