how to make dinner most nights, bring your lunch to work, and still have a life
a couple of month’s ago, mark bittman asked his blog readers to share tips on brown-bagging it. my approach to workday lunches is certainly the “planned leftovers” approach. i often get comments on how great my lunch looks, but that’s probably because it looks like dinner! if i didn’t take the time to cook at night, i’d be scrambling to put together a lunch that looked medicore at best, but worse, tasted mediocre, and, i could argue, was less healthy and less affordable. so if making double the amount of food is easy enough, why aren’t more people toting lunchboxes that are just as impressive? in my experience, it seems that most busy peers of mine are not actually cooking that often during the week. after i blurted out my thoughts in a comment to bittman, i thought they might be worth sharing here. i fleshed them out a little more. if it helps, here are my tips and strategy for weeknight cooking.
it does take a lot of planning but it gets easier with practice. on the weekend, i plan what i’m going to make each night and do as much shopping over the weekend as possible. during the week, i may pick up a couple of ingredients i have to get fresh, but any more shopping than that after work means coming home a little later, a little more tired, and that’s only going to demotivate me to cook.
personally, i’m not a fan of big-batch cooking on the weekend. for me, being chained to the kitchen for longer than necessary on sunday is neither practical nor appealing. i’d much rather spend a little time in the kitchen on weeknights. that way i get a fresh hot meal every night, i don’t have to eat the same food for several nights and i have fewer containers crowding the fridge.
keep it easy–which does not mean boring
i have learned to make peace with the fact that we’re talking about weeknight cooking. despite having some experience with this, things always take longer than i thought they would to make or prep and i often start later than i intended to. if i didn’t keep my weeknight meals simple, i’d get nothing else done in evenings.
so i only put on the plan what i KNOW will be easy for me to make. that doesn’t mean making a sandwich every night. for me it means that if i want to make a stir-fry, i’ll make one that’s quick for me to make, like soft and spicy tofu and mushrooms, the way i’ve always made them, and leave out snow pea shoots that take forever to clean.
cook what you like and you’ll like cooking
i don’t think of lunch when i cook, i think of what i want for dinner. i don’t worry about how transportable everything is, i just make what i love. so what if you have to put dressing in a little sauce container, toasted pumpkin seeds in another? the 4 minutes it takes to pack that lunch will be sooo worth it when you’re eating something much better than any lunch you might have bought within 4 blocks of your workplace (not to mention healthier and cheaper). plus it’s nourishing in another way–it gives you something to look forward to.
be flexible without giving up on the plan
my schedule isn’t so static that i stick to my plan 100% throughout the week. if i end up going out on a night that i’d planned to cook, i incorporate the unused produce into another dinner. or if i head out to lunch with friends spontaneously, the lunch i brought to work stays in the work fridge until the next day and i don’t have to make an extra portion of dinner that night.
for me, the cost and health benefits of cooking most nights and doubling dinner for lunch are great, but the main benefit is that i eat food i really love and am in the mood for, and that’s probably much tastier than what i might have had otherwise. looking forward to hearing how you approach this yourself every week–share your tips with me!