It's Just Dinner

June 11, 2012

Laura Kumin, the creator of the blog Mother Would Know and a cooking educator, loves to share cooking tips, recipes, and the joy of home cooking. But tapping into that joy during the weeknight dinner rush can be challenging, to say the least. In this column, Laura offers up no-nonsense tips to keep home cooks and their families both sane and sated come dinnertime.

For her inaugural post, Laura introduces us to her weeknight meal philosophy and offers guidance on shopping efficiently and planning realistically.

grocery list
Photo by Nicole Franzen

- Laura

Preparing a weekday evening meal is not supposed to be a stressful marathon or a trial by stir-fry. After all, it’s just dinner. You can eat well -- and feed others, too -- with modest effort and planning. You don’t need tons of money or hours to research online or rummage through cookbooks, either.  

My blog posts here will focus on tips for staying sane while managing to make good -- and sometimes even great --weekday dinners. Before we head into the specifics, here are three "preview" suggestions. If you like them, then we’re on the same page, and I’ll look forward to joining you in the kitchen.  

  • First, leave your competitive, Type A qualities (if you have them) at the kitchen door.
  • Second, if you notice that your dinner plate has a chip or doesn’t match the placemat, resist the urge to switch it. That’s for company; this is about weekday sanity. You can throw out the chipped plate after dinner or switch out the placemat next time.
  • Third, take a deep breath, ditch your heels or your tie (if you dress that way at work) and smile. After all, it’s just dinner.

Still reading? Let's push on to the first tip.

Tip 1: Plan and Shop Ahead 

Although I’ve been known to start my dinner preparation with a glance into the refrigerator and pantry to see what’s available, that’s not the ideal first step. At some point, you have to shop, so you might as well make it a well-planned trip with a list. 

Shopping List Strategies

If you’re an organized type, you may already have a basic list of foods you like to keep in stock. Keeping an electronic or paper copy nearby during the week and circling or highlighting the items you need creates a ready-made list of staples needed on the next shopping trip. 

Other folks start their list "from scratch," adding items they use up from their pantry or refrigerator during the week. 

Either method works. The bottom line is that an efficient shopping trip begins with stock items that need to be replenished, includes as "special" purchases (those ingredients that will go into a recipe or meal planned for that week), and new items that you would like to try.

I’m a big believer in shopping sales and buying what is in season, even while using a list. For example, if I need a vegetable to go with a particular chicken dish, I’ll note that on the list. Then at the store, I'll check out which vegetables fitting that bill look especially good, which are local, and which are on sale.

Don’t Overbuy

I hate seeing food go to waste. Figuring out how many nights in the week you will need to make dinner and how many people will be home to eat each dinner ensures that you buy -- and cook -- what you actually need. Cooking for the freezer is one thing, but buying food for five weekday dinners when you have three evening meetings and a weekday dinner date is not smart.

Be Realistic

Being realistic when you shop for weekday dinners can require self control. Sure, grilling is a great idea in the beautiful weather, but do you really want to set up the grill on a weekday night?  Sometimes I do, but it is not always an option. Similarly, roasting a whole chicken takes a lot more time than sautéing or poaching chicken breasts. Think about preparation methods and timing. You might save the roasting for a weekend and employ a quicker method during the week, or buy a pre-roasted chicken and make two sides with fresh vegetables and a grain. 

As much as I love to read food blogs, they can make me feel as though every homemade meal is supposed to include exotic ingredients and look like edible art. But I fight that urge to turn my life into a culinary can-you-top-this. After all, there is no shame in having breakfast for dinner or a super-simple pasta meal. In fact, that's what is on tap at my house tonight, as we go in separate directions for evening activities with barely any time for a quick bite together.

Dan Dan or Peanut Noodles

Serves 4

8 ounces thin spaghetti (other types of thin noodles work, as do Japanese buckwheat noodles, a.k.a. soba)
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
5 tablespoons strong brewed black tea (don't use tea with a distinct taste such as Earl Grey)
4 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 (+ more to taste) teaspoon chili oil (also called pepper sa-té oil)
2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
2 teaspoons granulated (white) sugar
1-2 cloves garlic

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

As a mother and a daughter, Laura knows firsthand that a call to mom for a quick answer to a cooking question can turn into a long conversation about work, love interests, and when you last saw the dentist. On her blog, Mother Would Know, and as a cooking educator, Laura maintains a "no nagging zone," so her focus can remain on cooking tips, recipes, and spreading the joy of home cooking.

laura kumin

6 Comments Add a Comment
  • Pot

    MotherWouldKnow says: Hi Anne. I have to keep reminding myself of that "don't overbuy" one - like yesterday when I went in to the store (Whole Foods as it happens) for 1 item, and found myself cruising for bargains. I had to give myself a stern lecture about sticking to my shopping list :)

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Missing_avatar

    Myna says: Good suggestions. I'm looking forward to hearing more from you.

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Pot

    MotherWouldKnow says: Hi Myna. Thanks. I'm enjoying writing the blog and so glad you're finding it helpful. It's funny how no matter how much I learn, I keep going back to these basics.

    about 1 year ago
  • Missing_avatar

    annefalk says: Laura! Congratulations on your debut! Some very good ideas and common sense recommendations - something we all need to be reminded of. Especially the overbuying for a week when we'e not eating in so much. Keep telling us! I'd love to see a new recipe for quinoa or bulgur. Any thoughts? Anne

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »
  • Pot

    MotherWouldKnow says: Oop - meant to let you know that I've been experimenting with quinoa, but haven't had great success yet. I will definitely keep at it. (My attempts at quinoa/veggie burgers have been blah, but I never let a few failures stop me.) As to bulgur, I've mostly used it for tabouli - your comments inspires me to try experimenting with that grain too.

    about 1 year ago
  • Maddy-macau-robuchon

    Maddy is the senior editor of Whole Foods Market Cooking.

    Maddy, Editor says: Hi Anne, Here are a few quinoa & bulgur recipes that I hope inspire you (and you, too, Laura!): Coconut Quinoa Pudding: http://greaterdc.wholefoodsmarketcooking.com/recipes/12403 Almond Raisin Quinoa Granola: http://greaterdc.wholefoodsmarketcooking.com/recipes/12590 Bulgur and Black Bean Burgers with Yogurt Sauce: http://greaterdc.wholefoodsmarketcooking.com/recipes/11768

    about 1 year ago

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