Since we’ve come back to Chengdu with Will, Chris and I have done something of a 180 in terms of cooking. We used to abhor meal-planning and we were as likely to spend 3 hours making an elaborate meal together as we were to look in the fridge, throw up our hands, and high-tail it to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
Now though we eat at home every night and, with Will still doing a bit of fussing in the evenings, we’re all a lot happier when we know what’s for dinner ahead of time, can make it, enjoy it, and get Will into his pjs by 7…even if he doesn’t actually conk out until 11. Yeesh, anyways!
It’s taken some getting used to but we’re hitting a pretty good stride now I think and so I thought I’d share what we’re doing and how it works for us.
The big caveat here, of course, is that we live in China where we can afford to have a part-time house-keeper and where I can afford to stay home. Our ayi rocks our world and I have no idea what we’d do without her. Obviously, the process of keeping house and getting homemade meals on the table every night with a little baby in the house looks a lot different when there is someone else around to keep the floors clean and help with the laundry.
On the flip side though, of course, living in China means that we don’t have access to all of the food conveniences we had in the States. Buying vegetables is a time-consuming chore. If we want good bread, we bake it ourselves. If we want yogurt, we make it ourselves. If we want salad, we wash the lettuce three times in soapy water and bleach and then rinse it rather than being able to reach for a bag of the pre-washed stuff. There are time-saving and time-eating trade-offs to both situations I think, but its just something to note.
Since Chris and I are horribly indecisive and spontaneous people, I try to keep things pretty flexible. I aim to have 4 or 5 ideas for meals by Monday morning and produce for them all by Tuesday morning. I try to pick recipes that either come together really quickly or that can be made ahead of time and put in the fridge for later. That way, there is always something to eat and always ingredients to cook with, but Chris and I can decide night-by-night what we are actually in the mood for. On the weekends, with both of us home, we enjoy a little more freedom to shop together and then cook things that take a bit more time.
When I used to try to meal-plan, I’d get overwhelmed by all of the options and all of the things I wanted to try. Now, being limited a bit by what I can get done with the baby before Chris gets home, it’s almost easier.
First I give myself a few parameters:
1. Veggies-there must be a high proportion of vegetables or leafy greens to all dishes or we are also eating a salad on the side.
2. Mostly out of convenience, but also because we like Mama Earth, we limit meat to twice, maybe three times a week.
3. The meal should be fairly easy to prep and require less than about 30 minutes of hands-on cook time, or I should be able to make all of the components in advance, at my own pace.
For instance, tonight I’m making some fig and caramelized onion pizzas with a balsamic “sauce.” It would be complicated except that I made the pizza dough last night after dinner, reduced the balsamic vinegar before Will woke up with morning, and caramelized the onions for an hour while playing with Will by cooking them over very low heat, stirring for 30 seconds only every 10 minutes or so, and adding some water to keep them from burning when I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in the kitchen to check on them for a bit. Now, all we need to do tonight is slice some figs, crumble some cheese, and bake.
4. To limit the amount of time I spend combing through recipes, I usually settle for one pasta dish, one soup or stew, one Chinese dish, one very simple night involving bread and salads, and one random something or other. Random could be anything from “taco Tuesday” to Tandoori chicken. Every other week or so we’ll skip cooking on Friday night and order pizza. It’s a nice kick off to the weekend.
Cooking for two people, I don’t worry about side dishes beyond having some bread and some salad on the table. As long as there are veggies and we are getting some protein from somewhere, that’s all we need. And while I’ll often look on Epicurious or other websites for recipes, I usually use them more as inspiration than as a step-by-step guide, making all sorts of substitutions and changes based on what ingredients I can get and how much time I have.
So what does dinner and dinner prep look like in our house? Here’s a quick example from last week:
Even if I have a whole week’s worth of meals planned on Monday, we usually just use whatever we bought over the weekend to cook, so Tuesday morning I figure out what vegetables we need for the week and I either go shopping or I give our ayi a shopping list of produce to buy for all of them at one time. Whether she goes shopping or I go shopping depends a lot on the air quality and Will. If it’s yucky out, I keep Will inside with me. If its not so bad, I’ll drag Will to the wet market with me and do the shopping myself.
When our ayi gets home with all of the produce, either she or I washes some of it and put the rest in the fridge. Sometimes she’ll also help me chop everything up when she knows I’m going to be doing a lot of cooking at one time and Will is not napping well.
It’s rare for me to get more than 20 minutes at a time in the kitchen so I try to always have a list in my head of quick tasks I can get done during those tiny windows. I’ll use one to start a loaf of bread. I’ll use another to get a pot of soup started. Sometimes I’ll use another to roast some vegetables or even just set up my mise en place for that night’s dinner. It’s always faster cooking when you’ve got everything out and organized in front of you. If I can, I’ll usually use try to work on two meals at a time since it’s more efficient that way. I’ll work on a pasta sauce while I’m baking bread or I’ll have a stew simmering while I cook some quinoa.
Sometime around 3 or 4 I’ll check in with Chris to see what we’re feeling for dinner. Since I try to make a lot of stuff that can be done ahead of time or done very quickly, it doesn’t matter so much what we decide on, as long as its one of the 4 or 5 options we have ingredients for. Tonight we decide to make a quick pasta with spinach, pine nuts, and mushrooms in an anchovy and garlic “sauce” so my only prep for the night is to rehydrate some dried mushrooms and wash and clean some spinach. I also start a loaf of bread in the 15 minutes I get while Will naps.
Tuesday Night: Chris gets home from work around 5:30, changes his clothes, gives Will a hug, and we all head into the kitchen together.
We’ve tried putting Will to bed at every hour between 5pm and 11pm and while we can get him to take a little evening nap sometimes, he never falls asleep for good until around 10 or 11pm. Apparently both Chris and I did the same thing until we were about 6 months old so we do what we can to try to get him to fall asleep earlier but we don’t sweat it too much. Anyways.
Usually one of us will cook while the other one is on Will duty. If I’m cooking, Chris will go get Will ready for bed and then come into the kitchen with him so we can talk while I cook and he cuddles Will. Other nights, I take care of Will while Chris cooks. It’s split pretty 50-50.
We usually have dinner on the table by 6:30 at the latest. We put Will in his little bouncer on top of the table in his pjs so that he can eat with us. Even though he’s too little to contribute or even eat any of the food, its still nice to have a family dinner. Tonight’s pasta dish is a success in that it uses up some of the massive supply of Chinese pine-nuts that we have in our freezer and we like the flavor profile they add. We definitely used the wrong kind of mushrooms though so we’ll keep in this dish in the rotation but change it up a little bit probably.
After diner Chris will do the dishes and wash any other produce that needs washing for the next day while I go on Will duty again, reading him some stories and cuddling in hopes that maybe tonight will be the night he falls asleep before 10. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.
After Chris is done with dishes we talk dessert. I like to have at least the option of dessert everyday so I usually bake on the weekends, freezing cookie dough, brownies, etc, to be used during the week. A lot of nights, we’ll pull 2 cookie dough balls out of the freezer and pop them in the oven. Warm gooey cookies straight from the oven with a glass of milk-yum.
And that’s how we do it. It’s pretty simple.
A few other notes:
Stews and soups are my new favorite thing because as long as I can get 20 minutes to prep things and throw them in a pot, I can stir with Will on my hip, taste-test, and voila! Dinner! Lunch! And it always tastes even better the next day! And it can be frozen and saved for another, even crazier day!
Quinoa is another new favorite thing, at least for lunch. Did you know quinoa contains the sort of perfect balance of carbs and proteins that vegetarians need to eat together in order to be healthy? We are soooo not vegetarian but we eat like veggies most days so I’m always looking to make sure we’re getting enough protein. Quinoa is perfect because I can make up a big batch early in the week, reheat it, add some seasonings and some veggies and I’ve got a super quick, healthy meal, even when I’ve only got 5 minutes to eat. I’ve even used it like oatmeal, adding brown sugar and some dried fruit. Yum.
Making sourdough every few days also fits well into my “20 minute chunks” strategy. We eat a lot of bread in our house and I just prefer that we have the homemade good stuff made with only flour, water, salt, and whatever yeasty organisms are living in my starter. I spread the process over a few days. One day I make the firm starter, the next day I knead the dough and let it rise then put it in the fridge. The next day or the day after I bake. A few days ago I made a monster loaf that I had been letting ferment in the fridge for over five days. Chris says its the best loaf he’s had yet so maybe that’s a good trick. I’ll do a big sourdough post soon.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but I always make extra food and freeze it. If I make soup, I make enough for 2 or 3 different meals and put the extra on a flat pan in 1 or 2 labeled plastic bags in the freezer. After a few hours, they are frozen solid and, by laying them flat, I save freezer space and, when we need them, the thin, flat package de-thaws much faster. The other night we made a big batch of Chinese pancakes for a meal I like to call “Chinese Tacos.” We froze 3 extra batches to have later on. Some nights you just don’t feel like cooking you know? Having a well-stocked freezer keeps us happy on those nights.
So yea, surprisingly, Chris and I are still eating good food now that we have Will. We’re possibly eating even better food now that we’re planning ahead rather than settling on pasta or take-out every other night. Who knows what it will be like when there are more than one baby Dumm’s underfoot or when I go back to work, but at that point, I’m hoping we can start following the Dash and Bella example a little bit?
What are your strategies for getting dinner on the table?