Front-page article in today’s NYT: Meals That Moms Can Almost Call Their Own, talks about the latest fad, meal assembly centers, where
families like the Robbinses prepare two weeks’ worth of dinners they can call their own with little more effort than it takes to buy a rotisserie chicken and a bag of salad.
While I certainly applaud the entrepreneurial inventiveness of the people who came up with the meal assembly center concept (and of course, there’s the socializing factor of cooking with several other families) here’s my take: you can do this yourself in less time.
Due to sugar intolerance and soy and MSG allergies, I can’t eat most “prepared” meals. By prepared I mean anything with added sugar, MSG, or with soy in its many forms (soy sauce, tofu, miso, etc.). Pick up a can of Campbell’s Soup, read the ingredients, and you’ll see why I have to prepare my own. Aside from that, we’re not talking rocket science. A simple meal takes, at the most, 20 minutes to prepare.
In addition to a salad, think of dinner as three things: a protein, a starch and a vegetable; Ideally, two vegetables (one starchy, one not starchy) and a protein.
Here’s the shopping list: By all means buy a bag of salad. It saves you shopping, washing, and cutting time.
Also buy a bag of frozen vegetables for each day of the week, with a different vegetable for each day.
For starches, any kind of potato, acorn squash, rice, whole-grain pasta, noodles.
For a protein, boned chicken breasts, meat, pork chops, fish, lamb. You can broil any of these, or pan-fry on canola oil (which has no cholesterol and doesn’t burn easily).
If you’re having fish, buy it and cook it immediately. Don’t keep fish overnight.
A jar of prepared pasta sauce (in my case, making sure it has no sugar or soy)
A jar of gravy. Franco-American makes a turkey gravy with no soy, MSG, or sugar.
Canola oil, butter, salt, pepper.
A steamer that you can use for cooking rice or pasta in the bottom section while steaming vegetables on top.
A tenderizing mallet.
A cast-iron frying pan. If you prefer non-stick stainless, fine.
A broiler pan.
Like I said, think of dinner as three things: a protein, a starch and a vegetable; Ideally, two vegetables (one starchy, one not starchy) and a protein.
Here’s a simple meal in twenty minutes:
Fill the bottom of the steamer with water, and add 1/2 cup of frozen vegetables per person to the top section. Place on a high flame. As soon as the water boils, add 1/4 cup of rice per person to the boiling water. Make sure you have 3 x the amount of water for the amount of rice. Bring down the flame so the water doesn’t spill over.
If you have no allergies, you may add two bullion cubes to the water. (However, all bullion cubes have at least one of my three no-nos, i.e., sugar, MSG, or soy, so I’d have to buy organic broth, which gets pricey and is much better used for soup.)
Add 2 tbs canola oil to a hot cast-iron frying pan (heating the pan before you add the oil prevents the food from sticking). Take 1/2 boneless chicken breast per serving, pound with a mallet, add salt and pepper, and place in oil, on a medium flame. Cover. Set kitchen timer on 10 minutes
After 10 minutes, turn the chicken over. Cover again. Set timer on 10 minutes again.
Distribute salad on salad plates.
When the timer rings, the vegetables and the chicken will be done. I have everybody serve themselves in the kitchen, straight from the cooking pans, but it you want to have serving plates, by all means, place the chicken and the vegetables each on their serving plate. Drain the rice, add butter. If you haven’t set the table, have each person pick up their utensils and napkins right next to the dinner plates.
NOTE: If you have teens in the house, DOUBLE THE AMOUNTS. Trust me on this.
If, instead of frying, you’re broiling, always place aluminum foil on the bottom part of the broiling pan so it’s easier to clean.
If you want to have even more veg, buy a bag of coleslaw (cabbage, broccoli, or red cabbage), and a jar of Lemonnaise. Mix and serve.
The following day, follow the same procedure, but make sure you have a different vegetable, a different starch and a different protein. To avoid repetition, keep track by making a list of what you have prepared each day by date. Keep the list on the refrigerator door.
For instance, cook some noodles (read the cooking time so you don’t overcook them and they turn into laundry starch), warm up the gravy, and serve together, along with steamed green beans and pork chops.
If you have more time, oven-bake the potatoes, or cut the acorn squash in half, add a pat of butter, and bake for an hour (half a squash per person).
If you’re feeling fancy, sautee mushrooms and onions before you add the meat.
Like I said, it isn’t rocket science.
The hard part is coming home from work exhausted and having to start dinner, which is hard enough. What I’m saying is that simplifying the menu and making sure you have the ingredients in advance will save you an even more exhausting, and more time-consuming last-minute trip to the supermarket right after you get off from work.
For “guidelines on choosing a dinner menu” see page 57 of the housekeeping bible: