How to Simplify Weeknight Meals

From the WebMD Archives

By Alia Hoyt

Work. School. Chores. Kids. Who has time to cook, right? Contrary to popular belief, you do! A few simple shortcuts are all it takes to transform hectic, thrown-together weeknight meals into culinary nirvana. We talked to Mollie Katzen, author of best-selling cookbooks like The Moosewood Cookbook and The Heart of the Plate, and got her expert ideas for how to make healthy meal-preparation easy -- and appealing -- all week long.

Devise a plan of attack. Though it may not be terribly sexy, planning is key. “Having the ingredients is 90 percent of cooking,” Katzen says. She suggests mapping out two weeks’ worth of meals, creating a shopping list and taking regular inventory of your fridge and pantry. Seems easy enough, but these simple tasks often get overlooked, leaving you in the lurch at mealtime.

Cook ahead. Weeknights tend to be jam-packed, so spend some time Sunday getting ahead of the game. Many soups, stews, salads and casseroles can be made in advance and refrigerated for three or four days. If your refrigerator is stocked with ready-to-serve meals, all you need for a healthy midweek dinner is a stove top or microwave.

Be strategic with leftovers. Don't just serve the same meal again. Give it a makeover! “It takes the same dish and gives it a new life,” says Katzen. Leftover baked chicken? Turn it into a casserole or chicken salad. Extra hamburger or macaroni and cheese from last night? Roast some acorn squash halves and use them as bowls for the leftovers.

Prep your veggies. To make nutrient-rich fresh vegetables like carrots, green beans and broccoli a cinch to serve (and store), cook them partway soon after you purchase them. Katzen recommends blanching: Place your veggies in boiling water for roughly one minute, then drain, dry and refrigerate. When you're ready to use them, all you need to do is heat a pan with a little bit of olive oil and garlic, and cook the vegetables until tender. Serve alongside a piece of broiled or grilled chicken for a healthy, filling and fast meal.

Nip cleanup in the bud. “Cleanup is a large part of what makes people want to go out to dinner,” Katzen says. If dirty pots and pans are your Achilles' heel, cut corners by cooking ingredients together. To make a fiber- and vitamin-packed dish of whole-grain pasta and veggies, for instance, simply drop the veggies into the pot of boiling water when the pasta has a minute or two left, then drain and toss with olive oil. Simple? Yep! Yummy? Oh, yeah!