Busy Mom's Guide to Cooking: Five Meals for Five Nights in Just One Hour

I like to cook. Okay, I used to love cooking - when it was fun, creative, and romantic. Two years and two kids later, the kitchen is the last place I want to spend my free time. So I have devised a plan to get myself in and out of there as quickly and efficiently as possible:

  • Sit down on Sunday night and create a menu for the week. Weekly menus eliminate that nagging "what am I going to make for dinner" feeling and allow you the time to cook, not scramble, in the kitchen.
  • Plan on two meat, one fish and one vegetable dish. Include sides such as broccoli, sweet potatoes or couscous. The fish should be your Monday night meal (since you want it fresh). Friday is for your leftover surprise.
  • Set aside about one hour of intensive cooking time to prepare all the ingredients you will need for the week.
  • Begin by marinating the meat, fish and, if you like, tofu. Keep marinades simple with ingredients such as soy sauce, rice vinegar, olive oil, mustards, garlic, ginger or, even better, any gourmet ready-made brand. If you can, save time by using the same marinade for your meats and tofu.
  • While the meat is marinating, do all your washing, chopping and slicing of vegetables. Wash and peel the potatoes and other root vegetables. Let the green leafy vegetables soak in warm salty water to remove the dirt and sand. Or do it the easy way and buy pre-washed greens or good frozen vegetables all ready to go.
  • Invest in a large steamer that is deep enough to fit a lot of vegetables. In assembly-line fashion, steam the veggies until just tender. Since you need to saute them later in the week, you don't want them overcooked. Keep the water boiling in the steamer as you cook the different vegetables. You don't need to change the water and waste time waiting for it to re-boil.
  • While you are steaming, get the oven or roaster going with the root vegetables. If mashed potatoes are on the menu, bake or boil the potatoes beforehand and mash them with milk and butter just before serving.
  • Get the grill pan ready with olive oil, garlic or whatever ingredients you need for flavor. Grill your meat until just done. Again, you don't want them overcooked when you re-heat later on. The tofu should be browned on both sides. Unlike meat, the more tofu is cooked, the more flavor it will absorb from your other ingredients.
  • If your menu calls for rice, pasta or other starches, you can get them going as well. Since they take little time and effort, I suggest waiting until the night of the meal to prepare them.
  • When everything is done, wrap the meats and whole potatoes tightly in tinfoil. Put the vegetables in different sealed containers (the clearer the better, unless you are into labels). Store the lettuces in resealable plastic bags, and you are armed with "prepped" food for the week.

Here is a quick look at how your week may go:

Monday: Maple mustard salmon with mashed garlic potatoes and an apple and red cabbage saute

Since the salmon is grilled and still hot, keep it warm in the oven until dinnertime. The cabbage is steamed, so just saute with sliced apple and ginger and sprinkle with brown sugar. Mash the potatoes with garlic, milk and butter, then re-heat in microwave and serve hot.

Tuesday: Greek chicken with couscous and broccoli rabe

Make Greek sauce. Saute onions, garlic, capers and black olives. Add tomato puree. Let simmer. Pull out your steamed broccoli rabe. Heat chopped garlic in oil and saute rabe in garlic and oil until soft. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Cook the couscous. Then right before you are ready to eat, add the grilled chicken to the Greek sauce, increase heat for one minute and serve.

Wednesday: Thai noodle dish

Slice the remaining grilled chicken breast and set aside. Boil rice or thin vermicelli noodles. In very hot saute pan, saute ginger and steamed vegetables (such as broccoli, small green beans, peppers, spinach). Add chicken, noodles, Thai fish sauce, Thai chili sauce and soy sauce. When pan is very hot, add one egg and stir until egg is cooked. Top with cilantro, peanuts and bean sprouts.

Thursday: Vegetable burrito

Prepare white or brown rice. Get out the marinated and grilled tofu and saute with onions and whatever vegetables you still have in stock. Add a can of black or red beans. Layer rice and vegetable mixture on a heated burrito. Top with cheese and salsa and roll. Serve with salad (don't forget that it is already washed, chopped and ready to go).

Friday: Leftover night Salmon can come back as fish chowder by combining leftover potato, salmon, dill, low-fat milk and chicken broth. The salmon is so rich and delicious you need nothing else. Serve with salad or any remaining vegetables. If there are no leftovers or, more likely, you are tired and feel that four home-cooked meals is enough, do what I do: Order in.

For more meal inspiration, try the Recipe Finder

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