Crispy suckling pig from Maialino NYC/Photo by Ellen Silverman

I spent a couple days in New York last week meeting with two very good publishers, one of whom, a veteran and very smart editor, asked whether I’d thought about how busy people can actually integrate real cooking and real food into their daily lives. He wasn’t talking about the crispy pig I had at Maialino hours later. That, as you can see, is real food and real good. (Two standbys for me in NYC, where I go just to feel good, because NYC makes me all jittery and my eyes go out of sync like that Mad-eye guy in Harry Potter but not in a useful way: Bar Boulud and any one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants. It’s not just the food, it’s the service [and yes, I paid full price, even left my VISA the check fold, and they were kind enough to mail it on! It's a measure of my respect for them that I didn't even bother to put a hold on my card]. They put you at ease. And it’s not just because it’s me, it’s because that’s their business—service—and they know it.)

But I said to this veteran editor, who lives and works in books and probably doesn’t cook a lot but wants to be able to put a decent meal on the table when called upon even if the day has been crunched, “Yeah, I think about it all the time, because it’s important, and it’s not easy.” Especially in Manhattan, but they’re an unusual case—most people live like me—that is, not in LA or NYC.

Mainly it’s a matter of planning ahead, just like anything else. If you’re not a plumber and the toilet’s leaking, you don’t just go in there and wing it. It takes some planning and some work. But in the kitchen, after you do it once, it just gets easier and easier. You need a few techniques, five or ten, maybe twenty if you’re ambitious, and the ability to make a list of stuff to buy ahead of time. That’s it.

But this editor was obviously on to something. People like him do want to know.

Having hours to kill at Newark, waiting for my direct United Airlines flight to CLE, I read most of Peter Kaminsky’s fine book published this week called Culinary Intelligence.

Peter, a fellow jack-of-all-trades—fly-fisher, cook, ghostwriter, television producer, author, etc.—eats as part of his occupation and found himself, in later middle age, getting plump, and not liking it. In the book he talks about being smart about food, thinking sensibly about cooking and eating. Getting middle-aged and plump myself, it was my kind of book (the subtitle says it all). And for parents who want to raise food-thoughtful kids who eat real food, there’s this, from the publisher I met with before I met with the aforementioned: French Kids Eat Everything.

Well, when it comes to matters of sexuality and food, DKS aberrations excluded, the French know how to live. Again, the subtitle says it all. It’s not a cookbook, it’s a thoughtful book.

Thoughtful readers, I’d love to hear from you. What are your strategies for integrating real food and real cooking into your lives? Donna and I live and work at home, so we’ve got it easy. I’d love to hear from couples of families where the partners both work outside the home. How do you do it? In fact, I’m so interested in this subject, if I get more than 50 comments, I’ll choose one at random and send you a signed copy of Ruhlman’s Twenty (or any book of mine you’d like). Seriously, this is really important to me. (Update: 50 comments have been surpassed so one lucky commenter is going to get that signed copy of the book. Comments must be posted by 8 a.m. tomorrow, 5/4, and only U.S. readers are eligible, sorry!)

So glad to be out of NYC. But all of it—Meyer and Boulud, two smart publishers, two smart authors, a country hungry to make good, delicious choices—it makes me hopeful. Just nobody make me go to Skyline Chili in Lyndhurst with Bourdain again, please.

If you liked this post on April in NYC, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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161 Wonderful responses to “Culinary Intelligence—An Emerging Trend?”

  • Mina Yamashita

    As a food writer, my growing family of foodies has shown me how to make thoughtful choices of ingredients and cooking techniques.

    This year I revamped my small apartment kitchen to make it easy to cook a meal. My pantry is stocked with the basics for cooking and baking—and plenty of spices, condiments, and interesting shelf-stable ingredients to add variety at a moment’s notice.

    The biggest change is that I now shop almost daily for fresh and perishable products, and I’ve raised the bar on the quality of these ingredients. By not over-buying, I’m throwing away less. The higher prices for organic and natural items is more than offset by careful shopping. Portion control is the other big game changer both at the checkout and on the plate.

    I’ve lost weight and kept it off being a food writer. I have to be observant to learn the value of what’s on the plate—what to eat, and what to leave behind.

    Happily, culinary intelligence is something we can cultivate and enjoy plenty of support in the process.

  • April

    Like many readers, making good food throughout the week is about planning. My week is split, though, so if I have a busy weekend, I can get back on track in the middle of the week. I am very big on multi- purpose meals. For example, pan roasted pork chops, pan gravy and potatoes (usually mashed) with whatever veg night one turns into chops with a fast citrus or soy based sauce with either noodles or rice, and can even go into night three as a casserole with a tomato-ey based sauce. Using lots of fresh herbs is also very important. My biggest struggle is always good ideas for fresh veg or fruit ideas, because my husband does not eat them, and it is just the two of us. Can’t buy too much, or it’ll go bad, and if i want something different, it can be hard to eat all of it before it goes bad.

  • Tara

    We plan on Sundays and use a thing we like to call “the magic envelope” a lot of the time. The magic envelope is filled with recipes (or simply names of dishes, if we can make from scratch or by ratio). We pick a handful and shop for ingredients needed, then whoever gets home first starts the meal. We have a very precocious 9 month old, so planning ahead is key. Of course, things come up. Last night we went up to our local pizza/pasta place because I was wiped out and my husband has a tendency to get home late. So to recap: planning is key; delegation of responsibility helps.

  • Andrea

    Honestly, meal planning. Having staples in the cupboard/refrigerator is a huge boon. Do you know how many different things you can do with beans and sausage? And pasta? There’s also an application called Mighty Grocery that syncs between a website, and my phone, so during the day as I think of things that we need, I can add it immediately, which is a big improvement on my former system of post-its everywhere. I’ve also found Farmer’s Markets to be a good source of inspiration, when I feel like my meals have gotten too repetitive.

    I think it’s really important to have a couple go-tos in your repetoire. Roasting a chicken on Sunday and using it in other meals throughout the week is obscenely easy. Everyone can make pasta. Pasta sauces from scratch can take almost no time, and be a million times better for you than the pre-made stuff.

    I also keep a few different kinds of frozen veggies on hand, which can be steamed, roasted, etc.

    Oh, and oddly helpful: audiobooks or the radio, or just having my boyfriend in the room to talk to while I’m cooking makes it seem like a lot less of a chore.

  • Brad Barnett

    I try to multi purpose meals meaning if I want roast chicken one night, I’ll either roast two or one large chicken to then reuse in a totally different preparation later in the week. That one simple idea can translate virtually any main course into innumerable possibilities. I buy a good variety of veg. at the farmers market once a week and try to keep it varied and interesting…I also don’t throw anything out until all possible utility has been realized…like trimmings, bones, and the like.

    To some degree, they’re already prepped thus saving time. Combining those two ideas with an exceptionally well stocked pantry provides me with an especially well fed family. Real food made by my hands. Isn’t that the whole point?

  • Carly

    I’m afraid I can’t add much, because for years now in our household, one or both of us has always worked out of our home, and we don’t have any children. So, getting a healthful meal on the table is relatively simple. We eat mostly meat-free for the sake of our budget.

    (I will say, though, that being at home presents another problem, which is that you can snack constantly if you like, and it seems that I often DO like.)

    I still do think pretty often about why Americans by and large seem really not to know how to eat. In my case, I’m lucky enough not to have many serious barriers in front of me limiting my access to nutritious foods, and I think I’m a thoughtful person who has educated herself pretty well, but nonetheless I find myself carrying around some really messed-up attitudes toward food. Maintaining a healthy relationship food has always been an uphill battle, an when I look around me, it doesn’t seem like I’m alone in that. So I’ll be very interested to read the Kaminsky book.

  • Thomas Marks

    I work full time and my wife is a full time student in a very intensive program that requires 85-90% of her time. Even with that said, I think it’s fairly easy for us since we’ve made the choice to make real food and eating well a priority in our lives.

    Key number 1 is staying well stocked. If you have to go out every night and buy your food to cook with, look up recipes, and then put it all together, it’s quite a time suck.

    We belong to a CSA, which make shopping a little bit easier during half of the year, and supports a great local organic farm. We’ve turned to culinary adventures like canning and preserving with our extra produce, especially when our CSA opens up some of the crops to unlimited amounts. This has turned out to be a great way to spend quality time with family members and friends while also doing something productive and allows us to have local food on hand all year long. I also hunt (deer, turkey) and tend to keep a pretty well stocked freezer (standup freezer might be one of the best things I’ve ever bought). Certain things tend to be out of our price range in the stores here (notably organic chicken), so we’ve found a local farm that is not organic, but does not use hormones or antibiotics and is very reasonably priced to stock up on chicken.

    What we don’t put up ourselves, or have in the freezer, we try to buy in bulk, knowing the types of pantry foods we can use in all sorts of different meals, especially things we go through a lot of.

    Second is actually remembering to take something out of the freezer in time. Having frozen meat on hand doesn’t help you if it’s frozen and you’re ready to eat! This is our biggest battle.

    Third is taking the time to actually educate yourself on cooking. Books like Ruhlmans 20, Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, Ferran’s Family Meal etc, have great information on what types of tools and techniques you can use to throw together meals on a whim. Taking some time to master some classics (the roast whole chicken) especially help.

    I do about 90% of our cooking simply because I am the one with more spare time, but my wife loves when she gets a free night to cook. At it’s most basic level, we are able to do it because we enjoy it, and we enjoy it because we have the knowledge and tools on hand to make it fairly simple and get good results.

    I think most people just don’t know where to start, and most of the “Cookbooks” out there just have recipes and don’t aim to teach people how to cook, or how to have a well stocked pantry, or how to best set a kitchen up for efficiency.

  • Kristin

    Like the other comments, I think the secret comes down to planning out your meals. Once a week I sit down and plan the meals I want to make for the coming week, taking into account days when I know I’ll be busy or home late, making one night’s dinner do double duty during the week by having leftovers and using the weekends to try out new or more time-consuming recipes and have some fun in the kitchen. I can then shop for ingredients accordingly, meaning I always have what I need on hand and never have to stand in front of the fridge wondering what to rustle up for dinner at the end of a long day. Sometimes it’s a pain having to sit down and think about what to make for the next seven nights, but the effort always repays itself.

  • Andrea

    Thank you for this topic. I have nothing unique to add, but for myself and most people it comes down to planning and making it a priority. I do create customized grocery lists and meal planning forms that work for my family, nothing fancy, just in excel. A well stocked kitchen is important but I have realized that over the years a home cooked meal takes about the same time as going out to dinner when you include the time driving and rounding up my children.

  • Dennis

    I’m fortunate. Over the years, I’ve learned to keep reasonable supplies around the house, have a broad palate (and kids who will at the very least try just about anything, including trying and liking the crispy pig’s ear salad at The Spotted Pig on our recent trip to NYC—color me proud papa!), drive by multiple sources of food for last-minute items on my commute, grow a selection of herbs year-round and a small collection of veggies in the summer months, and I’m not bad at improvising in the kitchen. So, even though I get home late most nights because of said commute, I’m still able to put something tasty together for my wife & I when I get home after the kids are off to bed (she feeds the kids dinner during the week, often leveraging leftovers from the weekend supplemented with fresh veg and fruit.)

    All of these things can be learned; after all, I learned how to do them.

    Having some go-to meals helps. Omelette and veggies isn’t an unusual weeknight meal; neither is stir-fry. Last night was a good example: I had about 10 minutes available to cook dinner, since I had to bake whoopie pies for a bake sale at the kids’ school today. That, and available food in the house, meant a sort of open-faced sandwich of toast topped with goat cheese, slices of tomato and avocado with salt, pepper, aleppo pepper, and dry marjoram, with some plain yogurt with fresh berries and honey on the side.

    Other than keeping a well-stocked pantry, it’s having some repertoire of techniques and knowing some “recipes” that use the items in that pantry and be able to improvise based on them that are the keys to the way I cook during the week.

  • Carolyn

    As a bran new mom in a house where me and my husban work, making dinners is difficult. I try to plan healthy easy meals. During the week, dinners are usually something I can make in 30 minutes, like pasta or a meat dish with potatoes. Once during the week we will eat out. On the weekends I try more elaborate meals if I can. A five month old can’t stay occupied too long. I try to make something new once a month. It’s difficult. And that includes a weekly trip to the market. There’s a lot of planning. Thanks to smart phones I can make my grocery list and have it with me.

  • Mili

    this is exactly the problem we’re trying to solve at mor.sl. completely agree that the hard part is not cooking – it’s planning and prep. our moms had a mental algorithm that they relied on to compute all the combinations and permutations of ingredients, recipes, etc. busy folks (and especially younger busy folks), lack that model. we’re automating it to help people over the ‘hump.’

  • Mike

    I do the bulk of my cooking on the weekend; at least during the cooler months I make a stew or roast every Sunday. During the week I can heat this up. Also during the week steaks and chops only take a few minutes to cook, and a roast chicken takes a little over an hour but little actual prep time. I keep the makings of a quick pan sauce on hand; cream, frozen homemade chicken stock in silicone ice cube trays, boxed white and red wine so its easy to get a small amount when I want it. Veggies cook in a few minutes, so I prep and cook as needed. I make a vinaigrette weekly; my immersion blender blends it nicely and I keep it in a jar in the fridge, so a salad is nothing more than cutting a few things up, handful of lettuce, Tbl or so of vinaigrette.

  • Mary

    Ah… yes. Two things really, help me navigate getting three square meals as a single working person with no help. On Saturday after returning from the farmers market, I rinse and prep all the veggies (especially the greens) and stick them in the fridge in damp paper towels and plastic so that during the week when it is time to cook, I can pull out, chop and go. The second is that I tend to cook Indian food — after living in India for two years. Everyday home-cooked food in India is fairly fast. And, full of healthy spices! And very tasty! Regarding thoughtful books about eating and cooking, I very much enjoyed Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. But I don’t follow her approach. I haven’t yet been able to make the switch back to American/European food. But it was a very thoughtful and engaging read.

  • Ashley

    I am with my parents in Michigan for two weeks, helping my parents as my dad recovers from a heart attack. I’ve been cooking with a CSA box in San Francisco for five years, and I’ve been really striving to take what I’ve learned there and help my parents apply it to the limited options available in the local grocery stores and get them to cut back on processed foods and start cooking simply. I’ve been buying frozen vegetables, cartons of unsalted soup stock, and using very flavorful ingredients like lemon juice, tapenade, red wine vinegar, and smoked paprika because they add a lot of flavor with no effort and they replace the salt and sugar my parents are used to. I’ve got a repertoire of quick and tasty recipes that require maybe 20 minutes of prep time, and I’m scanning my favorite blogs to find new ideas.

  • John Doty

    I work out of the home and volunteer excessively at our local school and my wife is an MD. That keeps us rather busy. Our solution to the real food dilemma was to teach our two kids (14 and 11) to cook. It started off with Mac & Cheese, then moved on to other meals. We don’t buy any preprocessed foods, so all of our meals come from basic ingredients.
    So, to manage our time and to get good meals on the table every night, I take four nights a week to cook a meal, and everyone else in the house is responsible for one meal a week (planning, making the shopping list, prep and the actual cooking). It has been going on like this for two years now and my 14 year old now wants to take over all the cooking duties. Probably not yet because her sister still needs some more time in front of the stove!

  • Chris P

    “What are your strategies for integrating real food and real cooking into your lives?” I had to re-read this question about 10 times. It befuddles me. I can’t imagine not cooking and not eating real food. Cooking relaxes me and makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something. I take great pride in making my food presentable, sometimes beautiful and (most often) delicious. My 9 year old granddaughter loves to visit, just to cook alone. She always has to go home with something we’ve made whether it’s fresh peach pies, pickled sea beans, or homemade ice cream. Given a choice the grandkids will pick real food every time. I make a regular pilgrimage to the local farmer’s market to get the freshest and best quality ingredients I can find and plan menus by what’s in season and available. I use a few iPhone apps to list out ingredients I need or to remind me to pick up what I need. (My favorites are Grocery IQ-because I can scan most bar codes to add things to my list, like: flour, butter or yogurt, and Recipe Distiller because it allows me so store links to either my own recipes or my favorites and with one tap create a grocery list for that or combined recipes. )
    This year I’ve started a rather large raised garden and I’m hoping to harvest enough real food to give to family and friends.

  • Carolyn Z

    So many good ideas here. We get a CSA fruit/veggie box every other week. It’s an adventure to cook the veggies as they have their turn before they spoil. We shop for groceries when we need to. My hubby goes to the market to pick up a few things when we are running low.

    For our breakfast, I bake low-fat bran muffins, which we eat three times a week. When I have time, I make bread as well. The easiest thing is to make a soup with a pound of beans. I like great northern beans. Since there are only the two of us, it lasts for a few days and I get a break from cooking. I take online classes at the community college, so at times I am really busy with homework assignments and exams. I also enjoy recipe testing once a month for a tab.

    We go out once to twice a week to our favorite restaurants. I am fortunate that hubby is flexible about what we eat for dinner, so I rotate through various dishes on an occasional basis. We don’t usually eat fast food, but once in a while it’s a real treat. Yes and his favorite, pizza. He takes his turn cooking once a week. He works long hours, so I really appreciate it.

  • cybercita

    I live in Manhattan and have a very long subway commute to work {an hour each way}. Despite the double whammy of the long commute and living alone, I make ALL of my meals. I pack my breakfasts and lunches and make dinner at home almost every night unless I am socializing. I do not own a collection of menus. I infinitely prefer eating my own food because I am in control of what goes into it and because I feel so incredibly much healthier and better when I don’t eat restaurant food, which is always too salty and greasy.

    It definitely takes some planning, but it’s not that hard! In some ways it’s probably easier here to do it because you can almost always hit a decent produce market on the way to or from the subway, so no going out of the way or driving involved. I always have dried fruit, nuts, canned salmon and sardines on hand in the pantry, and stock up on things like carrots, cucumbers, jicama, tangerines, etc. So breakfast is a handful of dried apricots or mango and a handful of walnuts or almonds and a few tangerines with a purchased cup of coffee. Lunch is a plastic container of cut up raw vegetables, some hard boiled eggs, whole grain crackers, Trader Joe’s seaweed, and some nice olives. Dinner is whatever vegetables look interesting that day at the market {last night it was roasted asparagus with a small handful of parmesan, some tatsoi stir fried with garlic and soy sauce, and a Japanese yam, sliced into rounds and baked on a cookie sheet until browned on each side} with Fage yogurt for dessert.

    If I have a craving for fresh fish, I will buy a filet of whatever looks good, chop up a bunch of garlic and put it on the top with some salt and olive oil for half an hour, then sear it on both sides. I use store brand olive oil for cooking and then drizzle some really good olive oil on at the end.

    I often eat cherry tomatoes, cut up and dressed with good olive oil, tarragon, and sherry vinegar, or I will mash an avocado, dress it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and dip it with carrot sticks or whole grain crackers. Or I will grate carrots and dress them with garlic and cumin, or use a mandoline on a red cabbage or some fennel and and make a slaw. {Michael, you gave me the idea to include raw cabbage in my diet, and I love it! Thanks!}

    When I have company, which I love to do, I will make more labor intensive fare like spaetzle, homemade soups, fruit tarts, bread, etc.

    It’s good to have excellent equipment, like great knives, All Clad pans, etc. It make cooking a real pleasure.

    I eat very simply and very well. When I first moved to NYC I did the take out/coffee shop/bagel/pizza thing and noticed that my health and energy were nosediving, so I had to take control.

    It really does make a huge difference in my health and energy to make my own food and to stick to a mostly plant based diet.

  • Brian Matheson

    I find the easiest way when working with kids is to get them doing the more tangible stuff. Whipping cream, kneading bread, and blending a sauce are some of the things I find to be easiest with my niece. It’s hard to get them to work over a pot, or even chop up the mirepoix with a knife. But throw it in the food processor? Yeah it’s kind of a short-cut, but kid’s like contraptions, and they like to see a process evolve right in front of them.

  • Sharon H

    As others have stated, it’s about planning ahead with weekly shopping and menus. But it’s more than than that, for our family of four (five when the college guy heads home for the summer). It’s about thinking and planning ahead each day. We’re challenged by constantly varying schedules, inevitable last-minute evening activity changes, and a wide range of preferences. We manage by buying the very best ingredients available – mostly from our local farmers’ market – and that allows us to minimize complicated preparations. (You have to work long and hard to “disguise” an inferior piece of meat, but a superior one is amazing with very little help from us!) We also keep the weekday dinner hours (for us, between six and eight o’clock) as uninterrupted as possible. No phones, no computers (well, unless looking up a recipe). This makes it possible for us to all share in the amazing ritual of building our family relationships through working together to meet the most basic of human needs. We build our friendships in the same way on weekends, inviting friends to come and cook with us.

  • Lupe

    My husband and I have 2 kids, I work full time and I am going to school part time to finish up my master’s degree. My husband works from home and is able to help with some of the cooking (grilling, cooking pasta, steaming vegetables, etc.!) This time of the year is especially busy because both of our sons play baseball. I agree with most of the comments here that planning is key so I usually go shopping once a week and plan my meals for the week. I have a friend who plans her meals a month at a time but that seemed to involve too much planning (her calendars are all typed up with each day displaying a meal). I believe I take the lighter approach by only planning once a week. I however, do enjoy cookbooks and will pick out a recipe to try once a week if I am ambitious or as little as once a month. I believe in exposing the family to a variety of foods. It’s exciting to find a new recipe and to make it and it is actually delicious! I also adore collecting recipes from family and friends (recipes that are tried and true). My creativity comes and goes for making food so I get inspired by watching food shows on TV or flipping through the many cookbooks I own. Another way I make it easier to prepare dinner is I usually plan to repeat the same meal the next night: cook once, eat twice. I will double up on the ingredients in order to have food left over. So this makes it really easy to look ahead at the week and think I will only be cooking 2 or 3 times during the work week or school week. I also try to get my kids involved in the cooking process so they can also see what it takes to make a meal, they can get educated on the variety of ingredients, and they will be proud when everyone comments how good the food was. I agree with Karen Le Billon’s (French Kids Eat Everything) philosophy, we should slow down and appreciate our food and have our children eat the same foods we do.

  • Edwin Mercado

    My wife and I plan our meals for the week on Saturday morning and make our grocery list. We try to plan simpler recipes for the week nights since we have a pretty decent commute and don’t have much time to spend with the kids before they go to bed. I love trying new recipes but I found that searching on the internet can get you a lot of crappy recipes. I try to stick with recipes from chefs I know I already like. If we are making something we really like, we make enough to have for a couple of days so we don’t have to cook every night. Some people would get tired of this, but if it’s something really good and we don’t make it very often, then we’re fine. Also, we never have any boxed meals or anything like that in the house. We also don’t have snacks in our pantry, even for the kids. When my little boys ask for a treat after dinner, that means they want some fruit.

  • Creed

    Ruhlman–I, the husband, do most of the cooking. We live in the Chicago area, so there is a bit of seasonality to my strategy for getting meals on the table after work. In the cold months, lots of roasting, braising, and soup-making takes place on the weekends, with enough leftovers to help carry the week. One easy trick is to make quesadillas with leftover meat. Pasta with sauce can easily carry one night in short order. The nice thing about indoor meat cooking is that we usually end up with great sauces. When it is warmer, the grill becomes the primary heat source, and meat and veg alike can be done outside. I make grains of all sorts indoors year-around; they can be cooked while I am busy cooking the protein and veg, and also can be made in double batches for reheating. The goal is to spend less than an hour on weeknights from start to eating. I’m working my way through 20 as we speak–tried to get it at Christmas, but Amazon was all out, so I got it when the new printing came out. Thanks for it!

  • Peter

    With a lot of cooking on the weekends to carry us over, and use leftovers intelligently. For example, Monday’s steamed veggies go into Tuesday’s stir fry. Tuesdays left over rice becomes Wednesdays fried rice. This saves a ton of time and prep work

  • Nicole

    In our house it’s a blend of prep/reality planning to help get home-cooked meals on the table every night. As I plan the week’s menus, I also write the activities for that night, when eating shifts may need to take place (kids 16, 13, 10), or when we get a meal together. The menu reflects things that I can totally prep ahead (crazy busy night, easily reheated), things I can prep in part ahead (busy night), or things that need prep the same night (less busy night, enjoyment cooking!). I also account for the timing between work and the start of the activities to help me think though the cooking reality. Make the plan, create the list (based on my grocery store aisles – I just circle or highlight what I need) and stick to it. Cook ahead, double things like farro or quinoa and freeze it – all of this helps get real food on the table each night!

  • LoRetta

    My partner and I both work full time ( and then some). And, I don’t love to plan– it makes something fun seem like a chore. It’s been a transition feeding someone besides me :-) However, more important than avoiding plans is the commitment to eat food I cook. So…. I make it my goal to cook dinner at least 3 of the 5 workdays (M-F). Here’s the thing, though. I usually end up cooking all 5 days. I always cook extra and I enjoy finding new ways to use up the leftovers. Planning ahead for 3 things isn’t overwhelming and I get to be more creative using up my leftovers in something different. I shop with a general idea of the 3 dinners I want to make and keep a well stocked pantry that helps me with the rest!
    I’ve also moved shopping from the weekends to Mondays or Tuesdays. We live in a neighborhood without a grocery store close by, but there is one right across the street from my office. It’s easy to stop on the way home. On Thursdays and Sundays, I hit farmers markets in local neighborhoods. It’s a win all the way around– I get more of my weekend back, I’m supporting my community, AND cooking isn’t a “chore.”
    Frankly, I don’t know how people who work full time and have children make it happen– my sister does…and she’s my hero!!

  • Darcie

    For a few years, my husband and I both worked full time and topped off the work day with a 3-hour a day commute. Since I feel constricted if I make a meal plan, it was a real challenge. I think cooking “by ear” and not from a cookbook is the key (yay Ratio!). We don’t eat processed food, so I plan just 1-2 big meals, utilize leftovers, and have a few standbys for the non-planned days. Not having a plan makes it seem less like a sacrifice and more like an adventure. And if it means we eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one night because we’re beat, that’s OK. I also take my lunch to work most days, eating leftovers and “grazing” food like yogurt, granola, cheese, fruit and crackers. Now that my husband lost his job, we have scaled back on the meat, but still buy mostly local, organic and humane products. My husband can now do the prep work, which helps! My downfall is that people are constantly bringing treats to work, which have added to my waistline.

  • Marnely Rodriguez

    Living on MV has it’s pros and cons, mainly that we live two completely different seasons: THE season and the off season. During the off season (October through April), we would cook every day at home, work on projects, shop at markets and actually eat healthy. We’re both cooks, so we’d take turns in the kitchen every night; he’d cook the protein, I’d make the sides or viceversa. THE season is approaching, where we’ll be working 14 hour days in a kitchen, eating employee meals and getting home at midnight to have a beer, a snack and hit the bed, to the repeat until October. It’s our first season as a married couple, so I’m excited to see how we do. I’m thinking of having healthy snacks like nuts, cheese, crackers, bread, and wine (and not PBRs) to eat when we get off from work.

  • anniemax

    For me, it really isn’t a choice- I’m allergic to corn, so nearly everything has to be cooked from scratch with no short cuts. No prepared or processed foods, no grabbing something quick to eat; I bake with freshly ground flour, cook with real vegetables, etc . Recently I’ve moved in with my best friend & her husband, so I have become the cook for both of them. Its not convential, but it works. In fact, it works so well that my best friend had to stop taking her blood pressure meds now that processed food is no longer a part of her life. I’m lucky that I came from a background were I always knew were my food was coming from- I grew up on a large farm.

  • Jon

    My wife and I both work out of the house, and I do most of the cooking. I usually have a few quick-meal items in the pantry all the time (e.g. eggs, pasta, salad greens), but I do spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to make for dinner. I also try to keep versatile vegetables on hand (e.g. onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes) so that I have the basic ingredients for lots of dishes, then I grab any extras that I might need. Sometimes we shop for the week, and sometimes I stop by the grocery store on my way home. It helps that I get off work an hour before my wife, so I have time to myself to get dinner started. The pressure cooker is also a life save at times.

  • Robert

    My partner and I make a point of having a sit down dinner, no distractions, most nights. We share the cooking, eating and cleanup. For us, the keys are good pots and pans, sharp knives, a well-stocked pantry, and various stocks – veal, chicken, fish, vegetable – made in sufficient quantity to last at least a month. We also freeze and re-use nages.

    Beyond that, we don’t do much planning because we have easy access to a good butcher, fishmonger, greengrocer and bread maker. This makes it easy to buy perishables the day before or the day of.

    We maintain a modest kitchen garden in season. Because both of us enjoy fishing, we also catch some of our own food, and friends who hunt supply us with game from time to time.

    We try to go out for dinner a couple of times a month. It’s nice to have someone else do the cooking occasionally, and it exposes us to new ideas.

  • DJK

    Buy a nice cookbook (Ad Hoc is perfect); go to the market on Friday (the West Side Market is perfect); turn on some music, enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail or glass of wine, and cook a nice, large, reasonably complicated meal on Saturday evening (ideally, with a significant other, to make things…perfect!); cook another nice, large, less-complicated meal on Sunday evening; then enjoy what you made on the weekends so much that you look forward to leftovers throughout the week.

    It works for us.

  • Donna

    The first part of my strategy is to have a nicely stocked pantry with plenty of staples. On the weekend, cook a couple of dinners that would include leftovers for a couple dinners during the week or to freeze. Fill in with fresh groceries mid-week to make another dinner including another meal for dinner or lunch. This brings you back to the weekend. With the way this is planned out, you are only cooking a few days, reheating a few days but enjoying real food always!

  • T

    I spent free moments during the day planning for dinner. It’s more like daydreaming. That’s the secret of why I’m always smiling all day despite the hectic work schedule.
    Other than that, since there are two of us here, I always employ cooking shortcuts and embrace leftovers. A lot has been mentioned by others, but one of my favorite lazy day cooking is mussels. I would buy just a pound of it, along with greens like asparagus, bell peppers, or bok choy. Then, as soon as I get home, I would put the mussels in salted water, and began prepping for the sauce starting with cleaning and cutting the veggies. Then just sautée some aromatics, add some tomatoes and maybe Tom yum paste or other flavor enhancer. Once the tomatoes are soft, add some coconut milk, some water if it’s too dry, and add the veggies and cook for 3 minutes or so. Lastly, add mussels and cover it for 5 minutes or so. It’s great with noodles, rice, or bread. It’s really quick to make, fairly cheap (mussels is less than $4/lbs), and very hearty a d tasty.
    If I’m really tight on time, or just lazy, no one would say no to grilled cheese. Pair it with some soup (that I always have in hand or freezer) and steamed (microwaveable) veggies.

  • Will

    My wife and I split cooking duties on alternating nights, and we use a food calendar (in Google Calendar) to keep track of what we cooked when. This is useful both in terms of shopping (we don’t do our shopping much in advance, but we could if we had kids and were more strapped for time), and in terms of menu planning. I’ll admit that we don’t always plan in advance as often as we’d like, but I think that knowing what you’re making before you’re at the store (or before you’re super hungry) really helps. Also, having the calendar gives us a record of what we made, so you can always look back if you need some ideas.

    We do try to make enough for leftovers to bring to work for lunch.

    A rice cooker with a timer feature is very useful for a) steel-cut oats ready when we wake up in the morning, b) having brown rice ready when we get back from work.

  • Nancy

    I live alone and work full time, and I can easily go off the rails. I started juicing earlier this year and have found that in addition to all the produce I’ve bought to juice, I am also starting to use more fresh produce throughout the week for other meals. I do best with basic dishes like the favorite roast chicken that can be used throughout the week in a lot of different ways. I sometimes cheat with frozen brown rice or quinoa pilaf. Having favorite cookbooks like Ad Hoc, anything by Mark Bittman, and Ruhlman’s Ratio all remind me that delicious and simple and healthy all belong together.

  • dee es

    I’m a special case, too, I guess because my partner and I are both grad students working at home about a third of the time. And no kids. But being a special case I can say that meal planning isn’t the biggest part of what gets real food (and real good food) on our table. We like eating, so we turned food preparation into a hobby. Most people have hobbies, right? Why not make a necessity one of them? We wanted to learn to make our own bread, cook a cow heart, make tartar at home, and try the camel we happened across at a local African grocer. We’ve had to learn what a “full tang” is, how to chop an onion, how to butcher chickens, ducks, rabbits and lamb legs. Making stock has become a bi-weekly experiment. (Ruhlman’s influence is apparent.)

    More than just planning out efficient and tasty meals, cooking has become a way to do something with our hands other than click a keyboard. It’s an intellectual, physical and creative pursuit. And a lot of fun. An hour or two for food, drink, music and socializing—what could be better? When we have imminent deadlines or especially hectic days we’re happy to eat leftovers; alternatively, we’re skilled enough now to make a very quick pasta carbonara and a spinach salad. And with stock on hand it takes about twenty minutes to get tasty quinoa, kale and sausage on the table. The important part, though, is that we take pleasure in the process and the education. So much so, in fact, that we’ve even started teaching classes on food and culture.

  • Will J

    See Edouard de Pomiane’s French Cooking inTen Minutes: Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life. One of his statements is to put a pot of water on the stove as soon as you get home. It can be used for any number of things as soon as you are ready. This is as true today as it was in the 1930′s when he wrote it.

  • Michael S

    My wife and I both work full time and we have two school aged kids. We have a fresh cooked meal almost every night of the week. We shop daily for perishable items and we keep a stock of all the basics. The best that we have done is that our kids help with the cooking. That got them into trying out different foods. Veggies were a big problem before with my son (7) but now that he peels and cuts (with my help) the veggies himself. He is now more prepared to eat them. They love helping, yes sometimes it is nerving when I am tired but I think it is important that we can spend sometime together and they can learn about different foods.

  • Jules

    I enjoy this website very much, and have learned a lot from both Michael and many of the comments posted by readers.

    With 3 small children and both me and my husband working full-time, opposite shifts, long commutes, and different days off, we have found a reliable way to consistently feed our family home-cooked, healthy meals.

    We plan our weekly dinner menu and shop on Saturday. I clean and prep all veg and put in large bins prior to putting away in the fridge. I cook big on Sunday to “feed the freezer” – both dinner-sized meals and single-serve bins for lunchboxes. I make 20 breakfast burritos and 20 baggies of both fresh vegetables and nut snacks on Sunday for grab-n-go breakfasts and lunchbox fillers. Dinners are either quick, pre-prepped, crock-pot, or from the freezer, and we often use the auto-bake function of the oven with a freezer meal that can wait in the oven all day without getting thawed. Lunches are leftovers from dinner, or freezer bins of single-serve meals.

    Our fridge is absolutely packed on Saturday, but empties by Friday. We plan, and make lists, and throw very little food away. It takes a lot of discipline to plan and think about food so much, but we always know in advance what the meal plan is for the day, and if I forget to prep something early, my husband can cover in the daytime before he goes to work.

    Oh, and magnetic grocery lists and family schedule with meal plans that live on the fridge are a must.

  • Sally

    I’m a single empty-nester on a limited income. When I get paid, I buy enough non-perishables (and some more perishable foods) to last me until the next time I get paid. During each week I make a list of things I’d like to cook and eat the next week. On Saturdays I decide which of those I’m going to cook, make a list and go to the farmer’s market, then fill in at the grocery store.

    I often make some kind of a roast on Sundays and use the leftovers in several meals during the next week. I’ve challenged myself to see how many different meals I can make from leftover roast. I make one or two pots of soup every week and have soup for lunch or dinner nearly daily.

    I think planning and keeping things simple on a daily basis are important. I also limit variety — I don’t try to cook food/dishes from numerous cuisines. It’s not boring and actually has made me more creative with what I have on hand.

  • Mike W

    I work a 24 hour shift (firefighter) and my wife is home with our three kids. I am the primary cook when home. My wife likes to cook, but has a tough time trying to fit it in without me home to help out. Oh yeah, and we homeschool. We are busy, even when we’re home, but we still manage to cook almost every night. Lunches are usually an improv of leftovers or sandwiches. We love big breakfasts. Supper is all over the map: yaki-soba noodles one night, bouef bourgignon the next. Our kids eat all of it. The only time we cook something special for the kids is if the main ingredient is too expensive to make them try, or if we are entertaining and want something easy they can grab and run off and eat outside with their friends.

    They have to try at least one bite of everything we made. IF they don’t like it, we don’t make them eat it. They don’t have to clean their plates. If they don’t like anything that is served, we tell them that breakfast is less than 12 hours away, and they aren’t going to starve. They end up eating enough to get them through, with no tears, and no hard feelings on anyones part.

    We keep a supply of staples in the house, meat in the freezer, fresh veg picked up when needed. It has worked so far.

    Mike

  • John Doe

    I was the family cook and was a working parent. My solution was to become a meal planner. It was a gradual transition: I’d decide some dishes I wanted to make in the 5-10 days and shop accordingly. I didn’t assign meals to days and there was always a back-up (frozen food, PB, delivery). It worked for us.

    My kids learned flexibility from their parents. We always took them out to eat with us (leaving an extra large tip), always encouraged them to try what was on our plates, avoided kids menus. They had to try a bite of what they were served; after that they chose how much to eat and could rummage in the fridge if they didn’t like what we served. We taught them a good meal had a variety of foods and colors. Our efforts were well rewarded; this was easier because we were blessed with children without allergies, sensitivites, etc.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    The first thing that comes to mind is don’t dumb down food. Of course suckling pig is not a food one takes on to cook for the family. Casseroles come to my mind. BBQ on charcoal; when you do it do more than the necessary portions then freeze the rest be it rib steak or hamburgers because when you zap this in the microwave you will be dead-on to prove it had not been just taken off the grill grates. That is my secret.

    Plus know a really good caterer; in Montreal we are fortunate and I suppose elsewhere too, where you can pick up ready-made food for inexpensive prices and the food from these particular places is just downright delicious.

    If all else fails order BBQ Rotisseried chicken for delivery.

  • Anita Sacco

    We plan the meals for the week on Saturdays, cooking on Sunday. Use the crock pot quite a bit (and occasionally a pressure cooker). In addition to the challenge of a long commute, long hours, my daughter and I must maintain a gluten free/wheat free diet. When we can we use the grill and make larger portions and freeze some for another time.
    Love your posts by the way!

  • Saads12

    Although I am from the West Indies and I know this comment won’t be eligible, my strategy for my spouse and myself who lead extremely busy work schedules is simple. When I go to the market every two weeks, I use that to plan my meals. That may sound simple, but the key is to really find easy ways to prepare the vegetables and meats. Roasting vegetables and having them with roti to make a ” talkarie” is one such way. As for meats, I use the fresh product, cut them up for different dishes and season them and stash them in the freezer.
    Or better, you make something that can make 2 meals with the leftovers. For example, if we make curried pigeon peas with chicken and there is leftover peas, the leftovers gets heated up with a diced cooked potato or with boiled eggs. And all of these go great with sada roti, our version of unleavened breads.
    That said, I spend most of my money on food so I buy good ingredients. I don’t like eating out too much cause value and taste for money is not always rewarded. When you make your own food, you feel good especially when a new recipe turns out to be a keeper.

  • E. Nassar

    Both my wife and I work outside the home and we have two boys in elementary school. Food being so important to us, I know exactly what you mean. It is usually a challenge, but one that I enjoy undertaking. Like you said, planning is half the battle, smart shopping and good technique do the rest. I typically cook two large meals on the weekends that will virtually guarantee leftovers for a meal or two during the week. I usually do not just “reheat” the leftovers. Instead I try to make them different and interesting (say a chicken fried rice from the roasted bird we ate, or a quick chili from the brisket I smoked,…). Other meals can be quick ones and on the spot like a pasta tossed with quality canned tuna and spinach or a selection of crostini with home-baked bread. Modern technology has been a savior too. All too often I have chicken, or pork chops already cooked Sous Vide and ready to be finished with a quick sear and a sauce with a side or two.
    Of course, we still have to get take-out once in a while mid-week. In that case, more often than not, we opt for something interesting and nutritious. My kids love Asian food, so Pho soup or a selection of dumplings are typical take-out options for us.

  • JC

    Both my wife and I grew up in households where both parents worked out of the home and although some cooking was done, often it wasn’t using direct ingredients (i.e. – it usually started with some form of campbell’s soup, something out of a package or a jar of red sauce). Don’t get me wrong, I am very appreciative of what our parents did for us. But as I got older I would always hear people swooning over a recipe handed down from parent to child that I wanted some of that good, wholesome cooking in my life.

    Now my wife and I both work a full day and have 3 young kids of our own so time is a premium but we wanted to make food/cooking a priority. Each weekend my wife and I sit down and list all the special things going on during the week (Basketball practice on Tuesday, mother’s day out thursday, etc…). We then make a meal plan for each day and then I make a shopping list based off of that mean plan.

    The first time I did it, it sounded like it was going to be such a chore. I promised myself that I would only do it once to make sure I got everything I needed and would then find a way to shorten it. However, we still really enjoy doing it and although I know we are still learning how to cope with 3 kids and full work schedules, making good food, is still a fun priority. Planning can be part of the fun.

  • terri

    i know i’m too late–but besides having a stocked kitchen pantry, it comes down to making real food and real cooking a priority. my husband works full time, and i’m a full time grad student (on campus all day), so we’re both busy. once a week, i stop by the farmer’s market on the way home from campus, which gives us lovely produce. i also have a tiny kitchen “garden” (mostly things like herbs in pots, since we live in a rental). if you start with amazing ingredients, you don’t have to do much to them to make them taste good–the flavor is already there. homemade yogurt (even with organic milk) is still cheaper (and better tasting) than anything you can buy. but as i said, it’s a priority–cooking is mine, rather than watching tv or something else. (and good conversation can happen in the kitchen)

  • Janet

    Both my parent worked. My mother use to do meals by the day of the week. If it was Monday, then we had leftovers from Sunday’s dinner, which was a roast of beef (hot roast beef sandwiches..etc). Tuesday was pasta & her wonderful tomato sauce day. This would continue throughout the week. This made her shopping and meal prep easier. I’m sure there are readers out there that prepare meals in a similar manner.
    My husband and I work full time within a large Canadian city. I do cook from scratch, like my mother, but I like to mix things up. I have found several meals that can get on the table within 30 to 45 minutes. I also found that meal planning and shopping is the key. I also have a few short cuts I use. One example: if I’m dicing up onions for tonight’s dinner and know that I need diced onions for tomorrow’s dinner than I just cut some more up, place them in a plastic container in the fridge. Another is on the weekend, cooking up larger batches of food and warming that up a couple days later.

  • Caroline Stover

    My partner and I keep a few things on hand all the time – onion, garlic, maybe some peppers, lemon, eggs, tortillas, frozen peas, soy sauce, cheese, etc…- and then buy whatever’s on sale and seasonal in the produce section to make a meal. It does require some creativity and about 3-4 small trips to the store a week. The only grocery store in our area is a small Food Lion, so we have a little garden out back to supplement the produce available to us. I would say that most of the work goes into store visits, and if you get a little bit every few days, it cuts out a lot of the planning involved because you mold dinner around what you have, instead of shopping for dinner. We also have zero food wasted this way.
    For dinner, we either find a fun recipe where we already have most of the ingredients, make a vegetable a favorite way, or put our leftover veggies that we can’t figure out what to do with in a quesadilla, stir fry, or on a pizza (we make the crust and sauce from Ruhlman’s 20, and it never disappoints!).
    Another technique we’ve found helpful is to make a huge pot of beans one night, eat some of them, and continue to eat on it in different ways throughout the week: chili one night, quesadillas another, beans and rice the next. Another go-to meal: if one of us is eating alone one night, we like to fry up a couple of eggs and heat up whatever leftovers need to be eaten (or the beans!). Everything goes with fried eggs. We have no passable restaurants in our area, so we definitely eat in every meal and bring our lunches to work. Lunches can be leftovers or a sandwich with random vegetables we have in the fridge with some hummus. Thanks for your work, it definitely inspires us to keep cooking new and better food!

  • GARY WATSON

    As two retired food loving people who live on a 37 foot sailboat and who cook every meal with a passion of dining at a 4 star restaurant
    we find that it is quite easy to enjoy the very best of cuisine by merely
    taking the time and getting the necessary ingredients and taking the time that is necessary to enjoy what we are worthy of. People are very lazy in doing what it takes to enjoy life, we are over 70 and cook every meal every day with joy and love

  • Glenn

    A while back my wife and daughter and myself made a deal, since I get home earlier I’ll cook dinner and they’ll do the clean up. So for me, I try to make things that can turn into 2 meals. For example: roasted whole chicken on Monday and what’s left can turn into chicken tacos on Tuesday.

    Stews and chilis also are multiple night dinners. A roast beef makes very good sandwiches with the leftovers. Simple and easy.

    I don’t buy frozen or canned veggies, but veggies are easy to cook.

  • Laura

    Late to the party but besides keeping a good spice pantry and the staples of flour/sugar/butter etc. I just keep 2 lists in my phone. One, a wish list of dishes I’d like to make and the ingredients needed. And the other is a list of items I need and buy often. The 2nd list is organized by store or markets that I frequent. If something looks good I buy it and always keep my cooking plan flexible to take advantage of the season.
    My friends and I all cook and our social lives usually revolve around meals and potlucks. One of my friends is super good at making a roast and then a soup with the meat and then from the leftover soup making a risotto and then risotto cakes with poached eggs etc. I am in awe of that.
    I love to read good cookbooks for inspiration, but prefer to learn how to cook without recipes using tried and true techniques and developing my own recipes using the idea of flavor profiles. What taste do I want with that piece of meat or vegetable etc. The only time I really use recipes is when cooking ethnic cuisine just to get the spices right. I like the term “culinary intelligence” it suggests love of the practice of learning to cook and also learning to utilize food intelligently and less wastefully.

  • Jen Leone

    Rachael Ray’s Week in a Day is nothing new to me. I thought hey that’s what I do already and have been for years. On TV she preps out one dish at a time, that might make good TV but in the real world this is not the most efficient approach. I start Thursday evenings researching recipes and writing up a shopping list. By now, I’ve got some menus planned out but am always looking for something new and different. Friday night after work, we food shop and Saturday I remove chicken, pork or beef bought in bulk from the freezer.
    I will first prep out all the vegetables needed for recipes and for steaming veggies for sides. I chop all the onions and garlic needed for each recipe, basic mise en place. Clean up and on to the proteins until everything is set to be cooked. I’m on to making the actual dish.
    Other sides like rice are cooked in big batches in a rice cooker. I set and forget it for a bit. I will usually split the batch of rice in two and finish it off two different ways. For instances half of the rice gets mixed in with onions, garlic, and cumin I’ve sautéed. Add a can of black beans and I’ve got Black Beans and Rice to go with Steak Fajitas.
    This method of making dishes ahead of time to be reheated later has its flaws. For instance, sometimes the protein and veggies get a bit over cooked. I make great efforts to just steam the veggies until barely cooked. As for the protein a gentle reheat in a sauce is best to prevent over cooking. Additionally, I don’t always have time to prep out as much as I’d like, it is after all my weekend. So we’ll get rotisserie chickens and/or order a pizza.

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