Q: How to simplify weeknight meals?

7 min

Do you ever want to eat healthy, but don’t want to cook healthy. It is so much easier to grab your phone and login to the wide variety of delivery apps to get a meal, or go somewhere for take-out. There are many ways, however, to make cooking at home fun, simple, AND healthy.

Dear Ellie,

I am burnt out from cooking dinner every night for my family. However, I really enjoy eating healthier.

Any tips on ways to simplify the weeknight meals?

~ Homemade Holly in Hartford, CT

Lauren, today’s Dear Ellie columnist, breaks it down for us:

Dear Burnt Out Home Chef,

After almost a year of cooking at home (supplemented by the occasional delivery) I hear you!

Even the most passionate at-home chef is about to throw in the towel! As I slowly move back into adding more socially distanced outdoor dining to my weeks, I can already see the impact on my energy levels and overall health.

I’m glad that you are already a believer in the benefits of cooking at home. But, I understand why you are looking for some hacks to make it more sustainable and not seem like a chore. I’ll share some of my tips to keep the healthy meals coming and leave the burnout at the door.

Create a flexible weekly menu

Each Sunday or Monday, you can find me pulling out the recipe books and my iPad to create a new menu for the upcoming week. I get bored quickly with the same recipes and need variety to keep me passionate in the kitchen. Like most people who menu plan, I try to plan for the week and then go shopping. However, I have started to switch it up a bit.

I subscribe to a local, organic CSA box on a bi-weekly basis and love the fresh, seasonal produce. Instead of menu planning before my delivery, I have started to navigate the farmer’s market on the weekend. Then create my menu from the available ingredients. One of my favorite food bloggers, Catherine McCord, who started Weelicious, inspired this new habit. It’s a great way to embrace the seasonality of local produce, and be visually inspired by the colors, textures, and smells of food.

My traditional method is a recipe-centric menu plan. I use this method to add a few new inspirational recipes to my routine. I tend to only add in one or two for the sake of time and sanity, keeping a labor-intensive recipe for the weekend.

Finally, I want to emphasize the word flexible. I don’t know about you, but if I ‘food prep’ early in the week and find myself eating the same meals and being too rigid, I get bored and start moving my fingers towards a delivery app.

Take notice of your family’s habits and see what works for you. Does a meal plan every three or five days work? Is one trip to the grocery store sufficient? Or do you like to go every day and find the freshest produce?

Additionally, I try to allow ‘free blocks’ on the weekends for a spontaneous dinner out or delivery. I generally keep breakfast and lunch consistent with my list of hits (see below) and use dinners as an opportunity to experiment. Tackling one more elaborate meal vs. three a day can help with burnout.

Prepare your list of hits

Every artist needs a compilation of their greatest hits, and the same goes for every chef. Sit down with your family and list each person’s favorite meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m often amazed that the most simplistic meals make the cut. Keeping this list handy is vital. You may want to create a document that you can edit and print out quarterly to post on the fridge. Or keep with your menu planning materials and cookbooks. I use the reminders section on my iPhone for this list and share it with my husband.

Are you interested in healthy snacks? I use this same method to keep a list of my go-to snacks on my fridge and keep simple ingredients stocked. When the dreaded 3 pm slump hits and my hunger hormones start to rage, this list keeps me honest in choosing something healthy vs. mindlessly shopping my pantry for a salty snack. If you have kids, this list can empower them to make healthy choices and be independent.

Double up and transform what you cook

Doubling recipes is a classic way to get more mileage out of your meals. Although, I find that leftovers can either be a treasure or another meal for the garbage disposal. I can only ‘enjoy’ leftovers for a day before I grow tired of them. One option is to freeze half of your meal automatically. I use this trick with soups and stews and tend to find that their flavor becomes richer and more developed the second time around.

Transforming leftovers is my favorite way of embracing last night’s meal. I not only get to engage my creativity but it also successfully tricks my mind into eliminating the word leftover. If I have extra roasted veggies from an earlier meal, I reheat them, add a few fresh veggies, and scramble some eggs for an easy frittata. Leftover meat or fish from dinner? Toss it in with a salad for lunch or stir fry it with some veggies for an easy bowl.

Meal prep kits

Blue Apron, Green Chef, Sun Basket, you name it, I’ve tried it. Meal prep kits can be an excellent way to add variety, learn new cooking techniques, and try fresh ingredients without going out. If you have kids, they are also an excellent way to teach cooking skills and treat preparing dinner as an activity instead of a chore. You can specify most boxes to dietary needs, and it’s also a great way to try out a new style of eating. I have been interested in learning how to cook more savory and satisfying vegetarian meals. So, I tried a meal prep kit specializing in that diet.

Operation zombie apocalypse

Friends of ours mentioned that they would be implementing the zombie apocalypse on their fridge in the next week over drinks.

My reaction was probably the same as yours right now. What in the world…?

Once every month or month and a half, they put together meals using only what they have in their fridge, pantry, and freezer until they have cleaned out some space to start over again. I thought this was a brilliant idea and a great way to eliminate waste.

So, I started the household tradition. One resource that is very helpful for this operation to have on hand is The Flavor Bible by Karen Page. Do you have an excess of thyme but don’t know how to use it? Check out The Flavor Bible and see how to pair it with something else in your fridge. What kind of protein can you add? How do you want to cook it – grill, sauté, sous vide, steam, poach, roast? Preparing for the zombie apocalypse will help you save on food waste and transform you into a more creative chef.

Healthy choices for dinners out

A dinner out does not have to blow up your diet if you do a little pre-planning. I like to use a healthy restaurant locator app like Clean Plate or InBloom to identify a few clean meal options. Pick a restaurant that looks exciting and different from what you usually cook at home. New meals out can transform your tastebuds and inspire you to try new techniques and flavors at home.

Protein, pre-wash, and meal prep

The difference between me making a healthy lunch or ordering out can often come down to prepped protein. If I have pre-cooked chicken, fish, or tofu to add to a salad or bowl, I’ll stick to my healthy regime. If I don’t, I’ll often make excuses and find a more comfortable option. To me, protein makes a meal a meal. Prep extra protein with your meals that you can quickly transform to use in lunches or quick dinners for the next few days.

When I return from the farmer’s market or store, I like to take some time and prep and wash my veggies and fruits. I use OXO Good Grips GreenSavers for my storage. Berries, I move into a food saver and only wash each portion as I go, keeping them fresh for longer. Herbs, I keep fresh and accessible in an herb saver. There are different options, but when you have veggies washed and prepped, you are more likely to use them. Adding herbs on top of a cooked meal can load you up on extra vitamins and flavor. Just remember, a chef uses herbs!

I typically eat a lot of salads for lunch and used to create a large salad for the week. It would not look as appealing by the third or fourth day, and I would usually toss it. Now, I keep my lettuce washed and fresh in a lettuce spinner and use the veggies I have prepped as I go. Easy protein includes canned wild-caught fish, prepacked organic hard-boiled eggs, beans, nuts, or the protein I have leftover from the previous night’s dinner.

Smoothie station

Sometimes a salad or bowl is not going to work, especially when you are running around. Inspired by one of my favorite nutritionists, Kelly LeVeque, I have created a smoothie station directly above my blender. When I need a meal on the go that will keep me satiated, I turn to her Fab 4 Smoothie methods combining protein, fat, fiber, and greens for a complete meal. I can keep most ingredients in the pantry or freezer, so the smoothies are always an option, even if your fridge is looking a little low.

For the base, I use nut milk, water, and or coconut milk combined with one to two scoops of protein powder (one for a snack, two for a meal). I love her clean protein as an option or any by Primal Kitchen. Make sure you check sugars and additives when shopping for protein powder. The last thing you want to do is create a sugar-crash bomb.  I use chia seeds, flax, or hemp for fiber and add a little MCT oil (ease into this one, a little goes a long way) or ¼ of a frozen or fresh avocado for fat. Frozen spinach or kale is my go-to green. Add a small handful of frozen fruit, and you have a meal that you can drink on the go. Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavors and tape your favorite options inside the cabinet door.

Keeping a balance between your routine and adding variety can help you avoid burnout in the kitchen. I hope that some of these ideas reinvigorate you to continue your journey as a home chef. Dedicating time to your health and the health of your family is always time well spent, and if you can make it fun, that’s a bonus!

Cheers to you on your culinary journey.

Hugs + Lashes,

Ellie + Lauren

Lauren Baxter

Lauren splits her time as an artist, writer, self-professed health and wellness junkie, and community builder. She is is most passionate about helping divorcees thrive and believe that great partnerships are still possible.


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