Brilliant "dinner hacks" anyone?
January 22, 2006 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Nutrition filter: I am looking for unique ideas for making quick, easy, heathy, inexpensive dinners (in my case, for two) every night... or at least most nights. "Dinner Hacks" you might say. I feel like I've tried all the standard "solutions" already (for example, cooking a few big meals on the weekend and eating leftovers the rest of the week). There must be something else I can try.

Here's the gist... I come home from work somewhere between 7 and 9 PM every night (and generally go to sleep no later than 11 PM). I have an extremely stressful job and I am absolutely zonked when I get home. The idea of cooking anything for dinner at that point makes me want to curl up in the fetal position. But when we don't order pizza or get something prepared from the grocery store, I do manage to muster up the energy to make tuna melts or spaghetti or something equally super-easy. My husband does grill every once in a while, but can barely boil water otherwise. Side dishes and salad only exist at my house on holidays.

This has gone on for a couple of years. I am now at the point where I've been getting really sick and I know a large part of this is due to my bad nutrition and eating habits. I NEED to start *consistently* eating a real, healthy dinner every night or I'm going to fall apart. (Actually, I need to eat a healthy breakfast and lunch too, but one thing at a time...) As I mentioned, I've feel like I've tried all of the standard tricks: crock pot cooking; making dinner in the morning (yeah, right); cooking a bunch of meals and freezing them, you name it. Nothing sticks. I think the biggest problem is that although I actually like to cook, I HATE to plan meals. For a while, my husband and I had a deal where he would (in theory) plan the meals for a week and I would cook them. The problem was that he hates planning meals as much as I do and whenever he would choose recipes, he would choose pretty elaborate ones. (I consider anything with more than five ingredients elaborate.)

Anyway, I know the real answer to my dilemma is to just suck it up and plan and cook dinner every night. But having really, really tried to suck it up on numerous occasions and failed miserably, I am now looking for some brilliant suggestions. Is there a certain way you go about planning/cooking dinner that has changed your life? A favorite cookbook? A website? If I have another grilled cheese sandwich for dinner, I may turn into one. Thank you!
posted by zharptitsa to Food & Drink (51 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I like the "5 ingredients or less" type cookbooks -- there are many good ones out there (go to your favorite bookstore and pick one or two out). Many of them have an angle -- vegetarian, low budget, etc -- but they all have pretty good, quick recipes that you can make with staple items. If you have a specific thing in mind (like, you know you want to make chicken cacciatore, but don't know where to look), draws from a number of cooking magazines and has never failed me for specific recipes.
posted by rossination at 11:27 PM on January 22, 2006

Do you have a Trader Joe's near you? Are you okay with meals that amount to protein+veggies+starch?

Trader Joe's has a fair number of easily prepared stuff that is tasty. The best stuff are fresh veggies (12-16oz packages) that are in plastic bags that can be cooked in the microwave. Just the right size for two people! My husband and I practically live off of the cubes of butternut squash and yams at times. Also, they have plenty of tasty chicken & turkey sausages. And lots of very good frozen veggies. A little butter and some spices and you can get some greens that taste like they come from a restaurant. :)

Basically, you need to plan for meals that are mix-and-match. You have several meats in the fridge. Most take almost time to cook. Some of that might come from meats that take a while to cook -- but you have leftovers to be re-heated during the week (e.g. marinated roasts or whatnot). Then you have one or more veggies prepared either from frozen or fresh ones like thing mentioned above. Then you add a starch -- that could be yams or potatoes or a good bakery bread (in the SF bay area there are several local bakeries that deliver to like every grocery store). Salads are pretty easy if you are willing to buy the pre-washed cut lettuces (see Trader Joe's for good examples!). Throw some dressing on, maybe add some cheese, etc.

It also helps to have a decent number of spices on hand (and keep butter in the fridge!). That way, some plain veggies can be dressed up a little. Or you can have seasoned butter on bread, etc.

My husband manages to cook a lot of nights in maybe 10 minutes when using the above. It's tasty, if not very complicated, and reasonably healthy. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, it can be pretty cheap too.

posted by R343L at 11:43 PM on January 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

You really don't have time to cook, so hire a chef. A personal chef will come to your house every few days and cook a few day's worth of meals for you to reheat. Cheaper than you think - can come to less than $20 per serving including food costs.
posted by nicwolff at 11:45 PM on January 22, 2006

Having the right tools to save time helps immensely. So does knowing a little or a lot about nutrition.

For those nights where you don't have such time - keep the following things on hand:
- George foreman grill or something similar
- High quality non stick skillet (good non stick surface is crucial not just for cooking, but for easy and FAST cleaning)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Basil, Oregano or any spice(s) you like
- Frozen or refrigerated (but eaten relatively soon after purchase) chicken breast patties
- Frozen or refrigerated (but DEFINITELY eaten soon after purchase) fish fillets - tilapia, salmon etc can be had at a reasonable price, and are very easy to prepare.
- Frozen or refrigerated (again, eaten soon after purchase if refrigerated) hamburger patties. Ideally, you'd just buy the ground beef and form patties yourself to save gobs of money - those patties are totally overpriced.
- Kaiser rolls, onion rolls, or any other kinds of things that can be substituted for boring hamburger buns so that you can vary it up at least a little
- BBQ sauce, A1, Teriyaki
- A variety of cheeses, sliced and/or shredded. Preferably both - sealed properly, cheese can keep for a while.
- Boxes of flavored Cous Cous
- Regular pasta (shells, rotini, whatever)
- Tortilla chips
- Any other sort of healthy-ish snack chip (i.e. not greasy potato chips... baked are ok though, or pringles)
- Apples, bananas, oranges, or other easy to eat fruits that you like

Now, you can pretty much live with the above, purchase once a week (sundays?) and mix/match and eat pretty well. Throw a chicken/beef/fish patty on the foreman grill, add one of your sauces or a slice of cheese or both.

Cous Cous is incredibly easy to make, takes just 5 minutes, and tastes GREAT. It makes a perfect bed for a salmon fillet, and goes just fine as a side with chicken as well.

Keep the fresh fruit around as another nice side. Buy an apple slicer to save time/effort - just slam that thing over the apple and you've got 8 nice slices. Peanut butter, by the way, is reasonably healthy (albeit a bit high in fat content) and goes GREAT on apple slices or banana.

Will sandwiches get old? Yes. This is where the pasta comes in:

Grill any of the meat items, add sauce to taste, make a side of pasta (should take no more than 10 minutes) - top the pasta with cheese, and/or a combination of a bit of extra virgin olive oil and spices.

Now you've got a chicken breast or fish fillet with a side of pasta.. add a piece of fruit if you'd like a second side.

The Fish is best cooked in a skillet with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, in my opinion. It can be done on the foreman grill, but the wee bit of extra effort to use the skillet is worth it.

Lastly: all sorts of imaginative things can come from the above. One other thing I buy is canned chicken (i.e. just like canned tuna) - which may sound nasty, but actually makes a great topper for nachos. I just toss some tortilla chips on a plate, cover with shredded cheese, open a can of chicken and cover the nachos -- 30 seconds in the microwave and presto. Great snack, or if you make a whole big plate of it, a very quick meal.

Of course there's way more you can do than this, but if you prefer to keep a set inventory of stuff around the house and keep a routine so that your busy schedule is not messed with, the above should make for some pretty tasty but really quick meals on those nights when you can't put aside 30 or so minutes to really cook yourself something nice.
posted by twiggy at 11:51 PM on January 22, 2006 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This type of question has been asked a bunch o' times. Check these threads out for some answers or ideas:

These questions might have slightly different angles, but they're all looking for tips for easy/healthy cooking.
posted by Kololo at 11:52 PM on January 22, 2006 [7 favorites]

Now that I've made my longass post: I'll second Trader Joe's.. they rule.

Also definitely second things like canned yams, and other easy to heat up side items.
posted by twiggy at 11:53 PM on January 22, 2006

Stirfries are really fast, especially if your husband is willing to do the prep work (chopping vegetables) for you. You can buy stirfry sauces if you want to be really quick. And you don't need a wok. On an electric stove it's actually better to cook a stirfry in a deep skillet. It takes minutes, and with different sauces and vegetables it can be infinitely variable. Cleanup is also fast, as ideally you only use one dish to cook. A rice cooker helps with rice. Just toss it in, and forget about it until it's done.
posted by digitalis at 12:17 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another fast meal that I make when exhausted is this: open a can of chickpeas, and dump into a small pan. Add a little olive oil and italian seasoning, and water. Cook until warm, and serve with rice and salad. Cajun seasoning is good in place of italian seasoning, or curry powder.
posted by digitalis at 12:19 AM on January 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

One advise: make menus for the upcoming week and shop. If you come back to work exhausted, at least you can go in a semi-autopilot mode and just get to the menu sheet and start cooking.

Otherwise, when you have 15 or 30 minutes free, just prepare ingredients for an upcoming menu. Vegetables can be washed, and cut and will keep OK for 1/2 days in the fridge in a Tupperware or in a bowl covered with transparent films.

Salad is tricky because washing it takes time and washed salad is expensive.

My recommendations for salads that are easy to make (just wash, cut and dress)

- Tomatoes salads, with a hint of garlic and balsamic vinegar/olive oil dressing. Once you start adding things, it gets really fancy and more than a simple course. Suggestions: tuna (I'm vegetarians but I know people like to add tuna) boiled eggs (sliced) olives, feta cheese or cooked green beans.

- Red cabbage salad: takes 5 minutes to fix, same dressing as above and pronto: you have a fresh vegetable entree.

- Endives salad: require very little washing, dress as above, add swiss cheese cubes, walnuts and sliced apples. Real quick and a real treat.

- Carrot salad: grate (this can be mechanized) peeled carrots and dress with olive oil and lemon juice. Really good.

- Fennel salad: must mince the fennels (get rid of to stems) and dress with olive oil and lemon. Very healthy.

Salad calls for bread -- go to the bakery and buy bread, you can keep good bread for several days. With a good salad and bread, you're filling up quickly.

So, that's 5 fresh vegetable entrees -- that's healthy. Now add a choice of fruit in lieue of ice cream or a heavier desert. You can buy fruits for several days in advance.

I have you down for a week -- who's helping me with the main course? I don't do meat so usually salad and something like a curry is enough for me. Any help?
posted by NewBornHippy at 1:20 AM on January 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

It can be a bit of a chore, but in general I love planning meals. However, I do not like recipes with multiple stages. If I want fancy food it is worth getting someone else to do the labour.
It helps to have an ingredient that is going to feature, I am mostly vegan so that means a vegetable or pulse for me most of the time. Usually the descision is made by what is on offer at the shop, or what I have alot of. If you are only using 5 ingredients, you need to make sure they are very good (and ripe if fresh).

Much of the food on the world consists of 5 ingredients or so. The World in Your Kitchen is a good start.

Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries has some nice ideas, and is a good read. He helps with getting a bit of joy out of cooking and eating.

River Cafe Easy (extract) books are also full of quick and tasty recipes.

Cheap and excellent for cooking: prepare chick-peas, pinto beans, black-eyed beans, canelli beans in advance (you need 24 hours) and freeze 250g portions for addition to a sauce made on the night. Leave to simmer while you prepare the staple (rice, potatoes, pollenta etc). 20 mins later you have a meal. Or you can buy them in tins, which is much more expensive, but still next to nothing.

Steamed potatoes can be fried another night, or mashed (and turned into patties with whatever ingredients and a beaten egg), or baked, or added to soup or curry.

(Quick) Pollenta (quite wet) the first night can reappear oven cooked with grilled mediteranean veg/whatever and gorgonzola, further left overs can be cut into large chips and fried or grilled another night.

Rice one night, cold rice with nutmeg and olive oil, or mixed with sauted onion and whatever and stuffed into peppers, into the oven for 30 mins, or mixed with feta and oregano and stuffed into something.

Pre-prepare breadcrumbs in the food processor. Beat an egg, dip in something and then roll in breadcrumbs for instant batter.

I think you want a food processor and a microwave.

Anyway, maybe you should think about what you like to eat and try making that. Husband needs to pick up his game and lend a hand.
posted by asok at 3:54 AM on January 23, 2006

Small microwave ovens (700 to 1000 watts) are pretty cheap. Having 2 small microwave ovens (if your kitchen wiring can handle it, the 700 watt size being good for running 2 at the same time on a standard 15 amp circuit) makes doing much of of your cooking easy, fast, and low stress. Units with built in turntables are ideal for making small quantities of food for two people, and eliminate most cold spots, during heating. A couple of tablespoons of water added to most frozen food packages, in a covered dish provide all the steam needed for quick healthful cooking. Don't cook in plastic in microwaves, so if you don't already have them, invest in a few small covered glass bowls to use for microwave cooking. Using small microwave ovens, you don't overcook things, and timing several dishes to "come out together" is a breeze.

Frozen vegetables like green peas, green beans, corn, diced carrots, and the ever popular "mixed vegetables" are high quality and tasty because they're flash frozen near the point of harvest, and if you stick with store brands, pretty inexpensive per serving, as there is no waste. Pop a box/bag of frozen veggies into one microwave for 6-7 minutes with a couple tablespoons of water to make steam, and a pat of butter or margarine and a dash of pepper and dried basil for flavor. Maybe add a bouillon cube if you feel like it. Voila, variety, color, and taste interest side dishes for any meal, with under 1 minute total prep time... Works fine for small quantities of fresh veggies, too, but you may have some additional prep time for washing, cutting up, etc, and the cooking time for fresh veggies may be a couple minutes longer, compared to their frozen versions.

High quality canned soups from Progresso and other specialty makers are pretty good, add welcome variety, and take seconds to pop in a second microwave. If you haven't checked out the soup aisle in a while, it ain't all Campbell's and Ramen anymore. Don't forget to stock up on oyster crackers, captains crackers, and wheat thins while you're at it, as adding interesting crackers to soups can provide textures and flavors that make quick soup an acceptable main dish. Crackers also go well along side salads.

Meats are hard to do well in a microwave though. My "secret weapon" for main dishes is the Calphalon 12 inch commercial hard anodized everyday pan. You can get variants of this pan in other sizes and non-stick finishes, but the 12 inch size is ideal for 2 person meals, and the hard anodized finish version is the most versatile for a variety of cooking methods. This pan can be used equally well on the stove top for frying/browning/braising/stewing, and in the oven/broiler for baking/broiling. I tend to buy chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks, hamburger, and fish once a week in bulk, and divide the bulk packages into gallon freezer bags of a couple of portions each when I come home from the grocery store, usually on Sunday. For Monday and Tuesday, I cook unfrozen meats by quick frying in this pan on the stove top, usually adding a couple of tablespoons of marinade right in the plastic bag for a few minutes, while I start the veggies in the microwave. Marinades are an easy, fast way to add and vary flavor to meats. A couple tablespoons of olive oil in the everyday pan, turn it to medium heat, and I toss in the chicken breasts, chops, or burgers to warm pan, pop on the lid, and reduce the heat a little. I set the table, turn around, flip the meat, and cover it again for another 3 to 5 minutes. When it's done, I pull the meat out to a serving plate, toss in a bouillon cube and a couple of tablespoons of flour, stir with a fork, add a dash of pepper, and a can of beef or chicken broth, and whoop, instant homemade gravy.

Later in the week, I just pull out a package of meat from the freezer into the fridge for that evening's meal, but if I forget, I just toss the frozen meat directly in the everyday pan with a little more olive oil, and give it an additional one to two minutes cooking time. Just make sure the pan and oil are heated before adding the meat.

The everyday pan is also great for making chili and stews on the stove top, and is good for stir frying veggies, too. A favorite meal at my house is just browning some stew meat or lamb chunks in oil, pulling out the meat, tossing in some frozen veggies for a quick stir fry, adding a handful of minute rice or pasta with a can of beef broth, returning the meat to the pan, pepper and dried herbs to taste, and covering on low heat for 5 to 8 minutes while the rice or pasta cooks.

Finally, another thing that makes dinner chores easier is to make them a bit social. Asking your husband to pour a glass of wine for the two of you, or make drinks and put on the radio or some music, while you start dinner can make a better "day end" than just doing the meal by yourself every night. If you don't drink alcohol, have "virgin" cocktails or soft drinks together, and listen to some music while you make dinner. Doesn't have to be an every night thing, but if you do this several nights a week, even if it is something you initially have to ask for each time, you may find dinner hour at your house seems much less a daily chore...
posted by paulsc at 4:06 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

As an aside... another reason you may not be feeling good is workplace stress. If you're working that hard for that many hours, you're probably going to break down eventually, and you're feeling it. Once your health is broken, it can be VERY hard to get back. Good eating is absolutely important, but you might be better off in the long run if you find a job that doesn't wear you out quite so badly.

I did the work-myself-to-death thing in the dotcom years, and I've never been the same. Be careful.
posted by Malor at 4:09 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend the George Foreman grill highly enough for blazingly fast, no-brainer cooking. You can make a turkey burger (or any kind) in there in less than 5 minutes. You can throw a salmon filet on there and it's ready in about 4. A chicken breast maybe takes 6 minutes.
I like to get the schmancy chicken sausages that are all over the place these days - flavored with ginger or thai spices or red pepper or whatever - split them in half longways and slap them on the foreman. They are pre-cooked so a few minutes to heat and get those nice sear marks on them and you're done.
Add a bagged salad and you have dinner in honest-to-god five minutes with no work other than rinsing the salad and finding a bowl.

Also, making a big pot of lentil soup on the weekend can feed you all week.

And many supermarkets now have pretty decent prepared marinara sauce - just heat that with some ravioli. Or pour some over Foremanized chicken with a slice of mozzarella and run it under the broiler. You can't go wrong with a good tomato sauce in the fridge.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:24 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Saving Dinner
posted by konolia at 4:40 AM on January 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

A fast favorite of mine --

Tilapia fillets - rub with whatever spices you like and cook them up fast in the nonstick pan that people have been citing. It takes about ten minutes. In the meantime, you can make something like cous-cous, which fixes up in the microwave pretty quickly (minced garlic + olive oil for 45 seconds, chicken broth (or vegetable, I suppose) for 4 mins w/ garlic, add cous-cous, cover tightly, ignore until you're ready to eat. Reheats well.) Have some prepackaged greens (I like wilted spinach - just in a skillet w/ garlic and olive oil on low heat whilst the fish is going). If you want to be fancy, melt two tablespoons of light butter w/ a teaspoon or so of paprika and some finely chopped cilantro to go on the fish. Viola! Pretty and edible. We have something similar to this probably once a week at least. Whatever meat you want to use is probably fine, just allow enough cooking time, since fish cooks pretty fast.

And, I know I say this in a lot of threads, but look for a cooking magazine that you like. Cooking light has a "super fast" section that sounds like it might be a good fit for you.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:22 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I know it's probably not the answer you're looking for, but microwave dinners are extremely cheap (Lean Cuisine dinners often run me about $1.50 per meal), quick, easy and nutritious. There's tons of variety. They taste all right. Not fantastic, but better than just edible. There are health food microwave dinner purveyors too. You could eat two, if they don't fill you up.

You could ease up on your food preparation stress by eating microwave dinners a few times a week. Or by combining a microwave dinner with something quick and easy like a salad - lettuce in a bag, salad nuts, dressing, throw in roma tomatoes, throw in some cheese, could throw in some meat, like cubed turkey or chicken pieces, et voila, you have a nutritious, quick, easy meal.
posted by Amizu at 5:24 AM on January 23, 2006

I meant cherry tomatoes.
posted by Amizu at 5:25 AM on January 23, 2006

I have found this website useful in the past -- just check off the ingredients you already have in the house and it will spit out a recipe for you.
posted by Soulbee at 5:31 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I heartily second the lentil soup idea. Any sort of slow-cooked legume is healthy and easy to prepare.

And crockpots (or any kind of slow cooker) are great -- toss in a roast, some carrots and onions and celery, add potatoes and some red wine or stock and spice to taste, set it on low, and let it cook all day. It'll be hot and tasty and ready to eat when you get home from work. Then the next day you'll have roast beef sandwiches, and the leftover veg can be the base for stew or soup.

For something different, keep some spinach, feta cheese, green onions and tortillas around. Cook the spinach, add feta and chopped green onions, and fold the hot mix into a toasty tortilla for a quick and relatively healthy vegetarian quesadilla. It's quick and easy, and if you feel industrious you can make the mix ahead of time and freeze it, then reheat in the microwave while you heat the tortillas. No muss no fuss.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:58 AM on January 23, 2006

My husband does grill every once in a while, but can barely boil water otherwise.

There's a difference between 'can' and 'won't' (or perhaps 'never has before and isn't willing to learn'). You're getting sick from stress and poor nutrition, and the added stress of making meals for the two of you isn't going to help that. There are plenty of great suggestions for easy meals in this thread and the others that have been linked, and I'm sure your husband could manage to figure them out. There is no male gene that prevents cooking. He's fully capable and you need help.

All of that aside, I find that trail mix helps when I'm too busy to sit down and cook anything decent. It gives me some much-needed energy throughout the day.
posted by heatherann at 6:03 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think winter is one of the easiest times to get ye old proverbial ball rolling on this (assuming it's winter where you are) because so many winter recipes taste good reheated or the next day. I'm talking chilli (stupid easy: beans, tomatoes, spices, meat or soy, veggies), soup (veggie, tortilla, chicken, minestrone), lasagne (can be made so many ways it's absurd) and things of that nature.

You also might want to look into a crock pot and a rice cooker - two items that can save you massive amounts of time and headache, especially in the case of the crock pot. Also if time is a huge issue might I suggest consulting the queen of the 30 minute meal Rachel Ray? Most of her stuff is pretty approachable and on her show she does give great tips for time-saving: YUM-O!

I also know that the firefox browser has an extension where you input some ingredients and it spits out a recipe - I don't know if that appeals to you at all.

Rocco Dispirito has a new cookbook out called 5 minute flavor: 5 ingredients, 5 minutes (minus prep) and you have a meal - it's gotten pretty great reviews and I saw him on The View (yes, I watch it - stop judging me) and it all looked pretty damn tasty.

For me, it's about maximizing the food. Leftovers from a roasted chicken might become part of a soup or chicken salad. Leftover salmon gets tossed with some pasta, spinach and lemon juice. I'm all about cutting corners and money.

A few recipe resources I enjoy:
one - This is part of someone's website but I know that this person actually cooks this stuff and it's okay (I've tried a lot of this and verify it's goodness), epicurious - and there are a gigabajillion foodies out there on the web who share recipes all the time.
posted by heartquake at 6:08 AM on January 23, 2006

Best answer: Making foil parcels is very easy and quick: get a large square of foil, stick a chicken breast on it, add some chopped veg (frozen is fine) and a tablespoon of lemon juice, stock or even just water. Season. Fold it up into a parcel, stick in the oven for 40 mins. Job done.
posted by blag at 6:14 AM on January 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

"Hack" is dead. Damn you Eric S Raymond.
posted by phrontist at 6:31 AM on January 23, 2006

There's a difference between 'can' and 'won't' (or perhaps 'never has before and isn't willing to learn'). You're getting sick from stress and poor nutrition, and the added stress of making meals for the two of you isn't going to help that. There are plenty of great suggestions for easy meals in this thread and the others that have been linked, and I'm sure your husband could manage to figure them out. There is no male gene that prevents cooking. He's fully capable and you need help.

I second this point, with one change. You don't need him to help, you need him to do his share (calling it "help" when he cooks a meal implies that this is somehow your responsibility and he's just being a swell guy and doing you a favour. It's no less ridiculous than calling it babysitting when men take care of their own kids.)

Now on making it easier for whoever's cooking...Consider modifying the "cook on the weekend, eat leftovers" plan. The problem with that plan is that you have to eat the same thing all week. And worse, if you cooked spaghetti last weekend it doesn't matter if you feel like pork chops tonight, you're eating spaghetti.

So, buy yourself a bunch of ziploc plates and a foodsaver. Cook on the weekends, vacuum seal up individual serving plates (this is also great for portion control), and put them in the freezer. (Maybe each weekend, you cook one thing your husband cooks another. He can grill it if he likes). After a few weekends of this, you're going to have a few plates each of a bunch of different stuff in the freezer that you can come home and pop in the microwave. Come home, figure out what you want to eat, heat it up and presto. Quicker than ordering out.
posted by duck at 6:35 AM on January 23, 2006

Best answer: A bit beyond your original question, and a second comment in this thread from me (no thread hijack intended), but certainly in the spirit of "Dinner Hacks":

Have you had a good look around your kitchen lately?

I'm often dismayed when I visit other people's homes, and see how poorly organized their kitchens are. My general observation is that friends who complain most about cooking have kitchens that are a nightmare to work in, and/or are poorly equipped.

Let me elaborate on layout/organization first. A lot of people seem to move in to a kitchen, put up their pans and dinnerware in what ever way seems best at first thought, and then live with some awful ergonomics for years. But a good kitchen supports the activities of storing, preparing and serving food equally well. I think it makes sense to think about each of these activities separately, though, and see how your kitchen really works for each of them. For example, when you come home from the market, if your only open counter space is 10 feet from the fridge, and your dried/canned foods storage is on the top shelf of one cabinet, while your potatoes and onions go in a cabinet under the counter, you are going to be doing a lot of walking, reaching, and stooping just to put away your groceries. Not fun. And you'll be doing all those same motions in reverse most every time you cook.

In the same way, you can analyze your preparation and serving activities, and how they interact with your sink/appliance layout, and dining area. If your dishes are kept in the back cabinet of a small "galley" style kitchen, and you eat in a dining area adjacent to the kitchen, having one person set the table while the other cooks is going to be a complicated "dance" every night. Not fun either. In general, I find that having a "cook's zone" and a "serving zone" makes it a lot easier to get help in serving and cleaning up. You might think of how you could re-arrange things to support these activities and phases of making and serving meals better. Put the dishes nearer the table if you can, etc.

As for equipment, recognize that free counter space is the most important and yet scarce commodity, especially in small kitchens. Unless you actually use small appliances like a food processor, blender, toaster, mixer, etc. at least 5 days out of 7, giving them a permanent counter-top footprint is a bad idea. You'll be far better off by banishing them to cabinets, and having more counter space. Why?

A lot of bad cooks I know walk into a kitchen and start cooking something. Especially if they are hungry, or in a hurry. But you can't cook well, and stay relaxed, if you are constantly "behind" the dish you are cooking. Good cooks and almost all professionals start by getting their prep work completed, before they light up a burner. Having enough counter space, to pull, prep and organize your ingredients before you actually start cooking, is hugely conducive to low stress cooking. Even if it's just some frozen veggies and pan-fried fish, having your ingredients and implements all out where you can see them, and put them together in the right way, at the right time, makes a big difference. And, of course, having free counter space helps when coming home from the market, plating dishes to serve, etc. Also makes clean up easier, and spills less of a problem.

Turning to the subject of equipment, if you've been cooking in a kitchen for a couple of years, maybe your appliances and utensils could use some maintenance, too. When was the last time you replaced the drip pans under your burners? On an electric stove, the drip pans act as reflectors for radiant heat, and if yours are black with crust, they're not doing that effectively. Replacing them with shiny new ones costs $25 and takes 10 minutes, and will save you some electricity, while making your burners much "hotter" and more predictable. Water will come to a boil faster, and you will find you can set your heat generally lower. Take the old ones along to hardware store, as a guide for picking the correct style of new ones. May be time to replace the filter element on the ice maker, too...

Further on the subject of equipment, many women have small hands, and limited arm strength, so the relative effort of basic prep operations for them can be greater than those of us meat fisted Neanderthals. My observation is that small handed folk often compound their problems by using small, dull knives, and tiny inadequate cutting boards. This makes simple jobs like cutting up produce a difficult, and even dangerous task. Not good for relaxed, efficient cooking. So, if you're not already so equipped, get a couple of 10" x 14" high density white polypropylene cutting boards, and at least one or two good quality 6" or 8" chef's knives. You'll be surprised how much easier these simple tools make life. If you do use a food processor, make sure the blades and attachments sharp, and in good working condition. Replace those that aren't.

In the same vein, go through that utensil drawer, and toss that dull potato peeler you never use, those bent whisks that don't work anymore for the omelets you never make, and the turkey brine injector you got as Valentine's Day present last year. Spend a few bucks on decent spatulas that will survive the dishwasher, and a set of measuring spoons with all the sizes, and have a few spares of frequently used items, like cooking forks, measuring spoons, and cups. Have a set of glass or stainless steel bowls just for cooking, and don't cook with serving pieces. Look over your collection of food storage containers, and toss any orphans. The Gladware semi-disposable containers are cheap, see through containers that will make figuring out what leftovers you have a single glance, and can be readily replaced when needed with no guilt.

Finally, pay attention to lighting in the kitchen. So many kitchens I see are lit, like prison cells, with one overhead florescent fixture, and maybe a stove hood light. The oven light is burnt out, and the hood light is a dim, greasy 25 watt bare bulb, that's never used. If the lighting in your kitchen is bad, it's not likely to be a pleasant experience to be in there working.

Etc., etc. The basic idea is just to think about making your kitchen a pleasant, effective place to work, that is easy to clean, and that supports the important life activity of eating well. Sorry if I've seemed to ramble on, or been peripheral to the discussion, but I hope I got you thinking. If you are presently cooking in a dungeon, spending a Saturday to fix some of the basic problems may so improve matters, you actually begin to look forward to dinner again...
posted by paulsc at 6:54 AM on January 23, 2006 [11 favorites]

Rice (and don't even bother with the instant stuff) only takes a few easy steps to prepare and 20 minutes to cook. If you need some inspiration in rice, try some jasmin rice or basmati. During those 20 minutes you can do any one or more of the following:

-bring some water in a saucepan to boil and add one of the following veggies for 5 minutes (or less): brocolli, baby carrots, green beans, yellow beans, etc...

-cook two salmon steaks in a pan (just rub some olive oil on the steaks first, then while one side is cooking, baste a bit of terriyaki sauce on them, or find some other sauce you like).

-cook a sliced/cubed up chicken breast and then add any Sharwood sauce (i like the tikka masala or red curry while the gf likes the butter chicken) and toast some pitas in the toaster.

-stir fry some thinly sliced beef/pork/chicken or tofu or shrimp with some veggies (I like the combination of peppers, onions, mushrooms and random "asian" veggie such as bok choy, bamboo strips, baby corn or similar. Most of the 20 minutes will be slicing up the stuff, stir fry itself only takes 5 minutes, start with oil, then garlic and onions, then meat, crunchy veggies and soft veggies (such as spinach or bean sprouts) last.
posted by furtive at 6:56 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second the crockpot recommendation. It's easy and requires no thought or effort in the evening. Stuff ingredients in the pot before you leave for work, come home to a wonderful smelling home and a hot, scrumptious meal.

My favorites include:

Boneless pork chops covered with sliced sweet onions & sliced apples (sprinkle salt, pepper & a little brown sugar on top).

Boneless skinless chicken breasts with carrots, sweet onions, diced potato (white or sweet) and a can of lowfat cream of ______ soup (mushroom, chicken, asparagus, broccoli, etc).

Chili! The options for crock pot chili are endless. Seriously.
posted by catfood at 6:58 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Martha Steart has a really good magazine out called Everyday Food. It is small, the recipes are really easy and require minimal ingredients. It is not at all like some of her recipes where you need to take hours of finding ingredients and preparing them in a meticulous Martha Stewart manner. All of these recipes are posted (for free) on her website.
I don't really go for her other stuff but this magazine is pretty great. It is made for people who still want to eat good, fresh, nutritious food without spending hours in the kitchen.
posted by TheLibrarian at 7:19 AM on January 23, 2006

posted by TheLibrarian at 7:19 AM on January 23, 2006

I'm sure this has already been said in this quite long thread--but there is no 'magic bullet,' just competence in the kitchen coupled with easy recipes.

I know that my girlfriend and I can get to be the same way: totally zonked out and uninterested in making a complicated meal, but also very averse to pizza or takeout, which we almost never eat. Every single night that we feel this way, we make one of two meals: a healthy pasta or a simple meat or fish with rice and salad.

Healthy pasta: take a bunch of veggies (squash, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, and so on), take some garlic (chopped or whole, in which case you chop it yourself), and stick it in a saucepan with olive oil and a pat of butter. Sea salt (get Maldon sea salt, it's great), pepper from a pepper mill, parmesan cheese from a cheese grater, and whole wheat pasta, and you have a nutritious healthy meal in about 15 minutes. If you don't feel its substantial enough, add a few drops of cream.

___, rice, and salad is even easier: get some seriously good brown rice, which you'll find in the gourmet / int'l part of your grocery, and prepare it in a saucepan: 20-30 minutes, no fuss. Then just toss some chicken or fish on the grill in a little olive oil, toss the salad in oil and vinegar, and you're done. You can buy veggies, like cherry tomatoes, to add to the salad.

The principle I follow is that you want all sorts of colors on your plate. Strive for a wide range of colors and you will be getting your veggies, and especially your greens.

Both of these meals, which we eat probably 4-5 times a week, take us less than half an hour and require very little effort. You just have to prepare them enough times that it's no big deal. This is, as you say, 'suck it up' type advice, but it's also just not hard to make healthy food. You should be uncompromising about it. Eating crap is really, really bad for you and no fun. It is also _really easy_ to prepare healthy food that's tasty. It comes down:

- Buying good groceries. Spend a little more for organic meats, fresh veggies, and whole grains. You will save money on takeout and eat healthy. This is especially true with oil: buy olive oil, not Wesson.

- Buying good kitchen equipment. Get yourself a good cutting board and real knives; Marshalls always has good chef knives from Wusthof and Henkels on sale, at least in my neighborhood.

- Making dinner social. Your husband _has_ to at least keep you company in the kitchen, and he ought to be cooking himself half the time. As someone else has said, at the very least have him open a beer for you and turn on some music.

This is something you can do, and it should be very pleasurable. Remember that food is actually a central part of your life. It's not peripheral and you shouldn't skimp on it. Good luck!
posted by josh at 7:21 AM on January 23, 2006

The easiest way to do meal-planning, from someone who also hates it, is to assign each day a main course: Monday chicken, Tuesday fish, Wednesday pasta, etc. That way all you have to decide is which way you want to prepare each main. I’d also recommend that for the first month or so, you use the same recipes for each main (Monday honey-dijon broiled chicken, Tuesday lemon-grilled fish…). Get to know each recipe really well so that you learn all the shortcuts and can do it with your eyes closed. Then, when you get bored or if you have some extra time, you can change it up: add different herbs or spices, change the veggies.

I find that the easiest way to get more veggies in my diet is actually to take meat out of the equation (and I am not a vegetarian, by any means), which can frees up so much cooking time. Instead you can spend your time on chopping more veggies. Beans make a versatile, super-healthy form of protein and opening and draining a can is really fast. Or, if you can’t bear not having meat every night, buy precooked or make your own on the weekend (maybe it would be less arduous if you’re just cooking plain meat, not designing a whole meal). Then you can throw it into whatever preparation you can come up with.

Also to add veggies, you can get various permutations of frozen “stir-fry mixes” from the regular old supermarket. Go for the kind without the prepackaged sauces, so that they’re more versatile and you can control the amount of salt. Such mixes can be used in traditional Asian stir-fries, in Moroccan or Indian curries, in veggie soups, or nuked quickly and eaten with some butter as a side dish or thrown on top of pasta and sauce for quickie pasta primavera. Frozen veggies are a lot healthier than canned and almost as good as fresh (sometimes even more nutritious, as they’re picked at the peak of freshness). Or try raiding the supermarket’s salad bar for already-chopped bell peppers, onions, broccoli, carrots. The aforementioned Trader Joe’s has a lot of pre-made stir-fry and simmer sauces to help this along.

Finally: Bagged salad. I personally think it's worth the expense (and in my markets, esp. when they have a two-for-one sale, it isn't that much more expensive than a head of lettuce). Throw some grape tomatoes on top to dress it up. If you have a bottled dressing you like, keep it in the fridge at all times. Alternatively, make a big batch of vinaigrette on the weekends, or just keep small bottles of olive oil and vinegar to dress your own salads at the table. In the same area of the market where you get your bagged salad, you can find bags of baby spinach that say “microwave in this bag!” (can’t remember the brand, but they’re quite yellow). Easy and fast, finish it off with a touch of olive oil, some butter, and/or a squeeze of lemon. Good luck!
posted by CiaoMela at 7:31 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow there are a lot of great ideas in here. I'm going to get out of this thread way more than I contributed... Thanks AskMeFi!
posted by twiggy at 8:10 AM on January 23, 2006

Sounds like you need to ditch your husband and find someone who cares about your health and sanity enough to realize you have only 2-4 hours to your life outside of work and FRIGGING LEARN HOW TO COOK its not too hard.

C'mon guys why do you perpetuate this caveman thing?
posted by Chuck Cheeze at 8:48 AM on January 23, 2006

"C'mon guys why do you perpetuate this caveman thing?"

Not everyone's life is the same. People have different roles in their relationships. She's not asking for anyone to evaluate her choice in a husband or her beliefs.
posted by heartquake at 8:55 AM on January 23, 2006

FRIGGING LEARN HOW TO COOK its not too hard.

Yeah, it is. If you didn't grow up cooking, there are tons of basic things that even the most basic recipes expect you to know. And if you fail, you run the risk of making yourself and your partner seriously ill. Or maybe setting the house on fire.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:31 AM on January 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

I second what others have said about becoming familiar with a few recipes that you like and that meet all of your criteria. Once you do this you don't really have to plan the meal.. just make sure to keep the staples on hand and make a quick trip to the grocery to buy the perishables. One of my favorite quick and easy meals is this tuna rice bowl recipe, which doesn't even require any cooking other than the rice. Tuna steaks can be expensive and hard to find, but my grocery has them on sale sometimes. I've also made a few recipes from the Three Ingredient Cookbook.
posted by komilnefopa at 9:34 AM on January 23, 2006

I haven't noticed anyone commenting on it, but I have real misgivings about you eating anything other than a tiny and light meal between 7 and 9 if you're horizontal and asleep no later than 11. It's bad for your sleep and your waistline to put down many calories and still be digesting them that close to bed.

I'd suggest you consider a variety of cereals for your last meal of the day if you're going to keep on this schedule. Save the variety and interesting for breakfast and lunch, when you have more need for the calories anyway.
posted by phearlez at 9:43 AM on January 23, 2006

FRIGGING LEARN HOW TO COOK its not too hard.

Yeah, it is. If you didn't grow up cooking, there are tons of basic things that even the most basic recipes expect you to know. And if you fail, you run the risk of making yourself and your partner seriously ill. Or maybe setting the house on fire.

The number of things you could do to make yourself seriously ill are basically 1: Undercook meet 2. Improperly store perishables. It would take all of 5 minutes to read a page on how to know if your meat is cooked (or you could have your partner check the cookedness with you) and any idiot can check a package for "refrigerate" and expiry dates.

As for the other things you need to know (agreed, there's lots of implict knowledge), take a cooking class on the weekend or buy yourself a nice copy of the "The Joy of Cooking" which will explain all the cooking terms. Surely you don't believe that if this guy were alone in a place with no take-out he would just starve and die. He would learn to cook because he had to. He has an obligation to do his share here too and he can learn just like anyone else can. Do you imagine that if two people who hadn't cooked as kids got married they would just never ever be able to cook because their stove-free childhoods made them incapable?
posted by duck at 9:44 AM on January 23, 2006

Why not try one of those places that let you pick out a menu, assemble the meals in take-home containers, freeze, defrost and bake.

I've tried Dream Dinners. It was pretty fun. Each recipe portion serves 4 but since it's just 2 of us here, we packed each meal into two containers so it worked out to 12 meals for $120 (you can't do better than $10 a meal). It was kind of fun. You select the meals you want and then go from station to station assembling the raw ingredients (no chopping, no cleaning, etc.). The most problematic part was finding room in our freezer for the 12 meals we brought home.

Each morning, just pick out the meal you want that night and defrost. By the time you get home, all you'll need to do is stick it in the oven.

Unlike buying ready-made meals from the grocery store or freezer section, this concept allows you to prepare fresh food yourself, no preservatives and you can modify the seasonings to suit your taste. If you like a lot of onions, add more onions. If you like things mild, add less hot sauce when you are putting the dish together.

If you have a couple spare hours on a saturday morning, I suggest you give it a try. Dream Dinners seems to be almost everywhere. There are several other meal preparation companies like My Girlfriend's Kitchen and Let's Dish.
posted by necessitas at 9:44 AM on January 23, 2006

Response by poster: Wow. I posted this before I went to bed and woke up with nearly 40 responses. Thanks everyone. Keep them coming. Although there have only been a few of them, I do want to put these "ditch your husband" comments to rest. Heartquake (cool username) is right... everyone has different relationships. My husband and I have a very good division of labor which has very little to do with gender stereotypes. On the whole, I'm a pretty good cook and -- except for the situation I wrote about it -- do enjoy it. So, that's my job. He actually likes to clean, is good at it, and subsequently does the vast majority of it. He even cleans the cat's litter box every morning... he's definitely a keeper.

Surely you don't believe that if this guy were alone in a place with no take-out he would just starve and die. He would learn to cook because he had to. He has an obligation to do his share here too and he can learn just like anyone else can.

P.S. Duck... I hear what you're saying, but before he met me this was a guy who lived EVERY DAY on cereal, cereal, cereal. He put Jerry Seinfeld to shame. You're right, he does have an obligation to do his fair share (as everyone in a partnership does), and he does more than his fair share around the house. Just not in the cooking department, which is totally fine by me.
posted by zharptitsa at 10:01 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

P.S. Duck... I hear what you're saying, but before he met me this was a guy who lived EVERY DAY on cereal, cereal, cereal. He put Jerry Seinfeld to shame. You're right, he does have an obligation to do his fair share (as everyone in a partnership does), and he does more than his fair share around the house. Just not in the cooking department, which is totally fine by me.

Glad to see I wasn't lumped in with the "dump him" comments since I wasn't suggesting you do so. Also glad to hear that he does do his share overall.
posted by duck at 10:05 AM on January 23, 2006

Here's one little tip to add to this tremendously useful thread:

When you find a recipe you like, cook it a couple more times in the near future. By doing so, you will learn the recipe well enough that you won't forget it, and you'll be able to cook it reliably and consistently in the future.

Also keep a list of favorite meals. My wife and I have wasted tremendous amounts of time and energy trying to remember quick easy yummy meals that we've eaten previously but since completely forgotten about and therefore lost from our repetoire. (You know there's something wrong when you're trying to plan the menu for the coming week and you can only think of five possible dinner entrees.)
posted by alms at 10:42 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Duck, absolutely none of this applies. You surely don't believe that every bachelor cooks himself gourmet meals every night, do you? No, they're eating out or eating prepackaged meals. Futurama's "Bachelor Chow" comes pretty close to reality in many, many cases.

Also, we're clearly not talking about a couple that doesn't cook, we're talking about one person who can cook but lacks the time to cook (and therefore presumably the time to have an in-depth teaching endeavour) and one person who cannot cook. This alters a number of things, of course. You don't have two people learning together, you have one adult trying to catch up on basic concepts.

If you grew up cooking, you have absolutely no right to say what should be simple or difficult. Anything you've always done is the simplest thing in the world. It's like telling a non-native English speaker that English is easy to learn. After all, you had a good comprehension by the time you were five years old, didn't you?
posted by dagnyscott at 10:59 AM on January 23, 2006

If you grew up cooking, you have absolutely no right to say what should be simple or difficult.

I didn't grow up cooking, so I guess I'm fine to say. And note that they could cook the same simple meals a bachelor does, the OP did not say she was looking for gourmet meals. I also never suggested that the partner who could cook engage in in-depth teaching (or any kind of teaching), for exactly the reason you mention. Finally of course, one adult trying to catch up on basic concepts should be a lot easier than two people learning to cook together.

However, what was unclear in the original posting (which said the partner didn't cook because he couldn't) was that doing her share of the household work requires that the OP do all the cooking. So ok, she absolutely shouldn't shirk on doing the cooking. But that's not because he couldn't learn to cook. Obviously if he had to he could, and if doing his share meant cooking, then he would have to.

And again, I did not grow up cooking.
posted by duck at 11:23 AM on January 23, 2006

Response by poster: People... enough already. I saw that the thread I'd started had a few more posts and gleefullly went to see what new ideas had come in... just to find more on this "should the husband cook more or not?" debate. You'd think my previous post on this would've stopped this silly banter. No, my husband does not cook although he can and does grill and can and does make me a PB&J sandwich when I'm too tired to cook. I'm FINE with this arrangement because on the whole he does way more around the house than I do. Couples need to divide household work equally. This does not mean that every specific task needs to divided equally. Especially if one person is good at a particular task (and is happy to take it on entirely) and the other one is bad at it. Since I don't like to spend money on take-out and don't enjoy eating most pre-packaged food, the original intent of this thread was to get some good ideas for quick, easy, healthy, inexpensive dinners. This has been a really awesome dialogue and I appreciate all the good suggestions. If there are more out there, please post away! But, no more about gender/household politics! :)
posted by zharptitsa at 11:53 AM on January 23, 2006

Ok, as my penance, a recipe... Pull out your rice cooker or pot and turn it on:

1. Add a little olive oil, throw in some onion and garlic powder and black pepper. Let the oil get all yummy while you add some combination of the following:

Shredded carrots (I buy them preshredded)
finely chopped mushrooms (a lot - you'd be stunned how much you can sneak in there)
Finely chopped red, yellow or orange (or multiple) peppers
a handful of raisins
a handful of chopped walnuts
You can also chop up a couple of dried apricots or a handful of frozen cranberries.
Some chicken cut into strips.

Let it sit/fry in the hot oil for a while, stir it around if you feel like. Then add some rice. Add orange juice and top it up with water until you have enough liquid for your rice. Add some chicken broth powder. (I really like throwing in an envelope of Lipton Cup'a'soup). Add some pepper...there's always room for more black pepper in my opinion. Toss in a very small amout of chili flakes if you're so inclined. If you cook with salt, add salt.

Stir it up and walk away until the rice cooker turns itself up. If your rice cooker tends to burn, then do whatever you normally do to deal with that (watch it, stir it, whatever).

Don't leave out the raisins or walnuts, they're yummy and you don't have to chop them!.
posted by duck at 12:18 PM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow; there's so much great advice here. Neither of us have the time or inclination for time-consuming planning or cooking, either. I'll just throw in what finally worked for us:

Keeping the kitchen clean and the pantry/fridge stocked was a massive step towards keeping ourselves fed well.

I created a shopping list. Basic foods that we like to keep stocked, or eat often, are all listed. It hangs on the fridge, pencil handy. All we have to do is, when something runs out or something sounds good, make a little check mark next to the food item. Having a list of regular food items really helps to remind us of things we might not have thought of. There are blanks for scribbling things in, as well. On weekends, we pick a few meals that we would like during the week and scribble them down on the back of the list, then mark off any additional ingredients needed. After shopping, I just stick the list back up on the fridge with the meals side out for glance-and-go decisions. A clean shopping list hangs next to it.

The picking-meals-out bit: I made a little database of meals we've actually tried, liked, and found quick and easy. There's a lot of info that went into this, including the actual recipes written in our own words with our own preferences, but the most useful part is just having a list of things we know how to cook. This means I bring it up, we pick a handful from the list, we're done. It takes mere minutes. We try new recipes on occasion and add them if we like them.

Having these things set up means that time spent choosing what to eat and buy has gone down to almost nil. We rarely spend more than a half hour cooking, and it is never complex. Beyond that, follow what the others said: purchase as much ready-to-eat as you can, keep some variety around to balance your meals, and have the tools to make things easy. If you're not getting much nutrition during the day, you'll need to pack more variety in during the evening, and that will add a bit to cooking time.

I know you're focusing on dinners here, but I did want to add one thing about breakfast, a meal I have always struggled with: I keep it simple, fast, and light. You might consider having bagels around to munch on while you're running out the door. My biggest triumph came when my husband bought a handheld blender. Every morning, I dump frozen fruit, yogurt, sliced almonds, and milk or juice into the container. Mix, pour, rinse, done. Two minutes. It hits several food groups and has made a huge difference in my energy level during the day, particularly when eaten in combination with some cereal or a bagel.

E-mail me if you have questions, want a copy of our list for editing, or are interested in smoothie proportions. And good luck to you.
posted by moira at 12:32 PM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I totally sympathize with your plight. You might check out a dedicated steaming device. I don't know about red meat, but you can throw chicken breasts, frozen vegetables and rice into one of these for 15 minutes, and poof, you have an instant healthy meal. Having a steamer around might also encourage you to eat more vegetables, which might address your feelings of poor health, even if you eat them along with takeout and delivery foods.

Good luck!
posted by macinchik at 12:55 PM on January 23, 2006

Get a Bread Machine, they rock. You pour in stuff (premix bought in a 20kg sack) which takes about 2 minutes, set the timer and then at some point later (breakfast, dinner, whatever) you have the most awesomest smelling fresh bread to eat. Nothing beats the smell of hot crusty bread and it's so easy it's not funny.

If you're in a hurry and forgot to put the machine on, those par-bake supermarket rolls are good too. 5 minutes at 200C and you have hot bread, though not quite as nice as from the bread machine.

For pre-preparing food, what I find works well is to make a HUGE (several kilograms of meat) curry or stew and freeze it in serving-sized sealed containers. If you've got the cooking & freezing space, make enough to last WEEKS. Do this 4 or 5 times with different curries/stews/whatever and freeze them all.

When you set to eating, just pick one of the 5 different stewy things from the freezer, defrost, heat in saucepan and eat with steamed potatoes, rice or fresh bread. Chow down on raw greens while reheating.
posted by polyglot at 5:14 AM on January 24, 2006

i feel your pain. i am pretty much in the exact same station as you, and when i asked my boyfriend for dinner ideas he actually suggested "lobster thermidor."
posted by nyanko at 9:34 AM on May 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

We have the same problem. We are both dead tired at night, and the thought of cooking, and then cleaning up is just torture. We do some light dinners, like veggie plates. Just throw any 4 veggies on the stove in boiling water for 5 minutes, instant potatoes, and other canned or frozen veggies. This is if you don't mind rinsing off a few pots.

Another suggestion I have had success with is have a hearty breakfast with some protein, and a fairly filling lunch. Then have something light for dinner, like cereal or soup. Some people's system isn't like this, and they still may be hungrier than this for dinner. Try having later lunches or more protein, and don't totally eliminate all the fats. If you have a light dinner, I wouldn't worry too much about gaining weight since it will be easier to burn off the breakfast throughout the day. This method might actually help you lose weight.

This may be more effort than you want to put into dinner, but our default is chicken and rice. Throw on some instant rice, and either grill, bake, or stir fry some chicken or pork. Smother some pesto (if baking) on it or BBQ sauce (if grilling) or other sauces you might find. If you bake it, put some pats of butter in the glass pan to keep it from drying out.

Lastly, try some of the one-step canned dinners or frozen family types. We like the La Choy varieties that come in a can - make some instant rice and heat it up in a sauce pan. This literally takes 5 minutes and its pretty good and healthy.
posted by jayder at 2:26 PM on May 20, 2006

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