5 Secrets That Make Weeknight Cooking Easier

Arriving home after the end of a busy day leaves most people more in the mood to take a nap than to cook a gourmet feast. Ordering takeout or microwaving a frozen burrito will always win when starting from scratch is the alternative. Even chowing down on a few bowls of cereal is often a more appealing option (we’ve all been there).

There’s no reason a homemade meal means starting from nothing, though. You just have to change the way you think about weeknight cooking. With a little bit of extra preparation during the weekend and some smarter strategies, making a delicious dinner during the week is completely attainable.

1. Cook recipes that easily morph

roasted vegetable medley in a bowl

Roasted vegetables | iStock.com

The thought of leftovers causes most people to scrunch up their nose, which is a real shame. When done right, cooking with leftovers can be just as varied as making something from scratch — yet much faster. The key is making dishes that can easily transform. Think braised meats and stews, which can become quesadillas, sandwiches, pastas, and casseroles. Roasted vegetables and potatoes are another good option that put you on a fast track to soup, hash, or stand-alone side dishes.

Luckily, the web is full of recipes designed to easily go from one day to the next. Check out these delicious beef cheeks from RecipeTin Eats that can morph into three different meals. Vegetarians should consider cooking a big pot of beans or lentils for the same reason.

2. Portion and freeze individual amounts

freezer filled with food

Frozen meats | iStock.com

Unless you cook for a crowd every night, it’s unlikely you’re going to defrost a gallon-size bag of frozen soup or chicken breasts. The smarter, faster way to go about freezing food is storing individual servings. This way, you can quickly thaw a small amount to cook for one or a few people at a time. Martha Stewart shares a recipe for fully-cooked crispy chicken cutlets that can become dinner in hardly any time.

The same goes for raw meats. Packaging individual steaks, pork chops, and chicken pieces allows you to quickly thaw just what you need. This method also prevents food from going to waste since you’ll only be defrosting what you plan to eat.

3. Prep produce as soon as you get home

man washing lettuce for salad

Washing salad greens | iStock.com

The odds of anyone separating lettuce leaves, thoroughly washing, drying, and chopping them on a Tuesday evening are slim at best. Instead of tossing your produce into the fridge as soon as you get back from stocking up at the store, take some time to prep your greens. Serious Eats did an experiment with herbs and actually found the delicate leaves lasted longer if they were washed before storing.

For sturdier veggies like cauliflower or broccoli, you can cut them into florets to minimize chopping when you’re pressed for time during the week. You can certainly buy prepackaged versions of these cut veggies in the produce department, but you’d be surprised at how much you can shave off your grocery bill if you do it yourself.

Keep in mind, this strategy doesn’t work for all produce. Washing and cutting up delicate foods like berries is just going to leave them slimy and spoiled before you get a chance to devour them all.

4. Have a few planned nights every week

Two fish tacos with two sliced limes on a white plate

Fish tacos | iStock.com

For some people, the decision process is the most difficult part of cooking. When you’re starting with nothing, you’ll waste a lot of time and energy just figuring out what to make. You can significantly reduce the brain ache if you plan to have a set meal type a few days a week. Meatless Monday and taco Tuesday are both good examples, but feel free to invent your own. The strategy works just as well for sandwiches, soups, and pizza. Check out even more ideas over at The Kitchn.

This tip also makes grocery shopping significantly easier because you’ll always know if you need buns, pizza dough, or whatever building blocks are essential to your set nights. Even if you don’t employ the plan every night of the week, you’ll be able to easily plan out nearly half of your meals for the month in a matter of minutes.

5. Embrace the slow cooker

Slow cooker meal

A meal made in a crockpot | iStock.com

Crockpot recipes from several decades ago were a little, well, gross. While they were easy, most of them involved condensed soup, mushy vegetables, and bland meat. Fortunately, people slowly started to figure out how to keep the convenience while boosting the delicious factor.

The key to successful crockpot cooking is treating the ingredients the same way you would for a braise. This means searing the meat, adding simple aromatics, and relying on quality cooking liquids to build flavor. We also think adding something fresh for a garnish goes a long way.

Admittedly, this means you’ll have to devote a little more of your morning to meal prep. But it’s usually not much and the results are worth the extra effort. Need some ideas? Check out some of Food Network’s favorite low-and-slow meals.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec