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We all know the value of making our own food, and I think most of us like the idea of having a home cooked meal every night, but despite intellectually understanding the benefits of cooking for ourselves (and starting each week with the best of intentions), many of us often find ourselves reaching for the phone or the microwave when it comes down to actually feeding ourselves after work. And it’s not that we’re all lazy, or undisciplined (though of course that is the case for some). The problem is that we are disorganized, and the unforgivingly rapid pace of modern life rarely accommodates those who fail to plan ahead.

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If this sounds like you, or even if you’re someone just looking to enliven your weeknight meals, then the below list should help making real food every night become an (almost) effortless reality. And while the words ‘meal prep’ may send a shudder of anxiety down your spine, I promise: it gets easier with practice. Soon you’ll have a Pinterest-worthy fridge filled with prepped veggies and cooked grains just waiting to be turned into delicious, inventive, and fast meals.

Plan

It all starts with a plan. Creating a weekly menu plan may sound tiring, even restricting, but it is actually the most liberating thing you can do towards realizing your dinnertime goals. Deciding what to make for dinner when you’ve just come home from work and are exhausted, starving, and rushed is no way to cook. It promotes neither creativity nor healthy choices, and it’s certainly not fun, which means you’re more likely to avoid the whole experience the next time it rolls around (which, unless you are superhuman and don’t require food for extended periods of time, will probably be the same time tomorrow night).

Your plan can be as detailed or as cursory as you like, so long as it enables you to organize yourself ahead of time: grocery shopping, meal prep, recipe searching, whatever. This will save you from so much unnecessary stress each night, and allow you to avoid falling into the trap of trying to make healthy choices when you’re feeling desperate. You should be able to come home already knowing what to make for dinner, with everything necessary to prepare it already in your fridge.

It also gives you something to look forward to. You planned your menu, so (presumably) you filled it with things you like to eat, or are excited to try. This really doesn’t need to be a chore — it should be fun! I can’t be the only one who loves scoping out (and drooling over) restaurant menus before I ever enter the building; now you can have that experience every night!

List

Making grocery lists saves you time and money in equal measure.

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When you create your menu plan, you should create your grocery list at the same time, seeing what you have on hand already and planning to buy what you don’t. You can also do this backwards, planning a menu based on what’s in your fridge or cupboard.

Either way, writing a list ensures you don’t wander around the grocery store aimlessly, picking up whatever catches your fancy, which often leads to a fridge full of food and you having no idea what to do with all of it — or worse, a cupboard full of junk you bought impulsively. And while I admittedly do love to get my recipe inspiration from the store (or even better, farmer’s market) itself, I still go with a list in hand and an idea of meals I’d like to make during the week, then adjust according to what looks fresh.

Making a list also helps you keep your food costs down, as you only buy what you are planning to use for that week. This eliminates food waste as well, a major problem in North America.

But my favourite part about making a shopping list? It means I probably won’t have to make any last minute trips to the store while I’m in the middle of cooking something — an occurrence which, without a car, is always a major hassle!

Prep

Arguably the most crucial element to eating well during the week, meal prep is the hallmark of organized chefs and efficient home cooks the world over. All you have to do is set aside an hour at some point during the week that is convenient for you; Sunday afternoons always worked best for me, but perhaps you’d rather do it after dinner one night while catching up on your favourite show.

Depending on what you’re making, this probably isn’t going to be a full hour of active cooking time. Meal prep can be as simple as cooking a pot of your favourite grains — maybe you want rice this week, or perhaps you’re craving quinoa — and/or some beans, and steaming a big batch of vegetables. Make yourself a couple of dressings, quick pickle some onions or other veggies if you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic, and you have yourself the basis for a number of great weeknight meals. When you’re ready to eat just throw in some fresh greens, some nuts or seeds, and protein of your choice, and you’re done! And these same principles can be applied to making your lunches for the week, too.

The other option is to make a large batch of one or two full meals that you can eat throughout the week. A big pot of soup or stew is a timesaving dream, or if your Sunday is particularly free from commitments, why not make a veggie lasagna? The time invested will be worth the joy you feel coming home to an amazing dinner each night.

Either way, the difference between having rice and veggies already cooked in the fridge and having to cook them when you get home from work — plus all the dishes this means you’ll have to do when you’re tired — will be incredible. You get home, you’re hungry, you want dinner now, not an hour from now. Just think about how easy dinner would be this way.

On a related note, every good chef knows the importance of the mise en place, which is the French culinary term for “putting in place,” or in other words, setting up. It means having things ready before you begin to cook — your onions are diced in one bowl, your garlic minced in another, all prepared so you aren’t scrambling about trying to chop and measure while your sautéed veg goes from perfectly caramelized to utterly burnt. While meal prep in the sense that we have established above doesn’t take things quite this far, the concept is the same, and once you begin organizing yourself in this way, you may find yourself investing more time beforehand into making the actual experience of cooking efficient, stress-free, and fun.

Slow Cooker

What could be easier than throwing some things into a pot, turning it on, and coming home several hours later to dinner stewed to perfection? The smell when you walk in the door alone should be enough to convince you to use your slow cooker more often, but the convenience really can’t be beat. You can make all kinds of things in these devices — soups, stews, baked beans, overnight oats — even caramelized onions!

Here’s a list of 10 vegan slow cooker recipes to get you started.

Go Online

Don’t be afraid to try new recipes! The internet has a staggering wealth of resources to draw from — everything from classic recipes to the latest vegan innovations — and offers plenty of how-to videos and tips and tricks to help you along the way. You can also find healthy versions of all your favourite takeout foods, ensuring you don’t feel like you’re missing out on that Thai curry or pasta al forno you love so much just because yore cooking for yourself.

Your own version will probably taste better and be healthier for you, anyway, and you will come to value the sense of accomplishment that comes with trying something new. Plus, once you’ve mastered that difficult recipe, having learned about new ingredients and spices in the process, you can show off what you’ve learned to your friends and family. Master your fear of trying something new and going outside your comfort zone, and you will be grateful you did so.

Let the internet inspire you. Whenever I need recipe ideas, I always turn to my favourite blogs; between the often thought-provoking and informative written posts, the stunning visuals, and the creative recipes, today’s blogs are a foodie’s dream come true. Sometimes I browse just for the fun of it, while other times I search for ideas to help me use up whatever leftover veggies are sitting in the fridge. Bought a vegetable you’ve never tried cooking with before? The internet can help!

This is also a great time to catch up with your family. It’s likely you have many treasured memories of your mother cooking for you, or your grandparents, or some other adult in your life. There is always that one dish from your childhood that comforts you from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes, making you feel safe, and warm, and loved.

Whether it’s the soup your mother made for you every time you were sick, or that special bread your grandmother used to bake when you came to visit, food connects us to our heritage, to our family, and to our own past. Why not set up a Skype call with your grandmother one day and learn how to make that borscht, or arancini, or whatever it is that brought a smile to your face as a child? Not only will she appreciate hearing from you and having the opportunity to pass on her significant knowledge and experience, but you will be preserving a part of your culture for future generations to enjoy.


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