When my friend Dana and her baby Violet were visiting last week, we were so busy with our babies that we had no time to plan meals or go to the grocery store. Yet we managed to eat tasty, healthy dinners at home every night. After Lucy and Violet went to sleep, I’d open the fridge to see what ingredients we had to work with, then whip something up and within 20 minutes or so, we’d sit down with a glass of wine and satisfying plate of food.
Dana asked me, “how do you just look in your fridge and think of something to make without a recipe or a plan?” Though people have asked me this before, her question made me realize that I follow a specific formula whenever I set out to make a meal. Here are the steps I take:
1. Pick a protein. The first thing I look for when I open the fridge is a protein source. Meat, fish, chicken, sausage, tofu, beans, eggs, or when we’re really low on food – some cheese crumbles and a handful of nuts.
2. Decide on a food genre. After finding my protein source, I examine vegetables and condiments. If I see cabbage, carrots, and green onions, I’ll check to see if I have peanut butter and rice vinegar and if so, it’s an Asian-style meal. If I have fresh cilantro, bell pepper, and avocado, plus either salsa, lime, and/or cheddar cheese — we go with Mexican. Tomato, cucumber, olives, and a fresh-style cheese (feta, goat, blue, etc) means we’ll have Greek. When I see a veggie that needs to be used up, I see what other ingredients and condiments could help turn it into a themed meal.
3. Decide on hot or cold. Many times, the fresh ingredients we have lead me to make salad. You can throw anything into a salad, so the options are endless. During the summer, I often have baby greens, berries, grapes, or stone fruit. With cold leftover chicken, some random cheese crumbles, and any kind of nuts you can have a complete meal in mere minutes. You can just as easily assemble a salad using savory produce instead of sweet. During winter, I’m more likely to go for a hot meal – onions, celery, plus meat and/or beans, pasta or rice, canned tomatoes or broth, is all you need to make a soup or stew that lasts for days.
4. Don’t forget about the freezer. There are definitely times when I don’t have much fresh produce around, and this is when I delve into the freezer. Keeping frozen veggies (spinach, corn, edamame, bell pepper strips, squash) as well as frozen meats (chicken sausages, ground beef or turkey, Gardenburgers) on hand, makes quick meal prep a breeze.
The meal pictured above came about when I only had these items on hand:
An ear of corn on the cob
A small hunk of goat cheese
1 large tomato
2 wilting green onions
leftover couscous that had been cooked with broth and zucchini slices
I made a meal “bowl” — couscous on bottom, topped with a fried egg, fresh cooked corn, tomato chunks, crumbled goat cheese, and sliced green onion. All of the sudden, pitiful looking leftovers became a delicious dinner:
You, too, can follow these steps to make easy meals at home! More tips to come in the coming days….