Good Question: What Should I Eat On Busy Weeknights?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Here is a great question from Chelsea that illustrates a common dilemma…

I noticed that this week’s Cure is about keeping less processed food in the house. Which is something great that I’m trying to do, but what about those of us who don’t have time for cooking most nights, let alone a kitchen cure!

I try to avoid takeout whenever possible and I also make an effort to keep a lot of homemade food in the freezer, but every few months or so, I run out of freezer food and time to cook. Are there more wholesome options out there for those of us who want good food but don’t always have time for it?

Chelsea, this is a great question, and we want to answer it thoughtfullly. It’s a big question, actually, and one that we hope the site gradually answers over time with even more quick weeknight meals and ideas on good pantry staples for easy cooking. Also, upcoming weeks of the Cure will address this very directly – cupboard staples and building your pantry so that you can put together meals quickly and easily, even on a weeknight.

So, it seems like you are asking, though – what can I cook on five minutes’ notice? Or, what alternatives are there to Hot Pockets or Lean Cuisine or some other equally quick relief of a dinner that I don’t need to think about? We definitely understand this; some nights we get to dinner time and really have no plans but don’t want to order takeout. What do you do in those situations (all too common for most of us young professionals, let’s face it).

The most general answer is that you need to figure out what works for you. (Helpful, right? Don’t worry – we won’t stop there.) That is, you need to figure out what is most appealing to you on a weeknight when you have five minutes and you are so hungry you’re just a minute away from ordering pizza. I have a whole list of things I keep around for just such an occasion, and I’ll list them below, but these may not be what appeal to you.

Here, specifically are some good ideas for a weeknight dinner.

The Almighty Egg – Unless you’re vegan, the egg should be the first point of defense against weeknight hunger! When we’re really crunched I fry an egg Spanish-style, toast some bread and have egg-on-toast. If there’s pasta or nutty grains around, poached egg goes on top with Parmesan. Even better with a little wilted greens. Ta-da – balanced meal! And all of this generally takes less than 10 minutes. Just keep eggs around, and some bread – maybe kept in the freezer, if you can’t eat a whole loaf before it goes stale.

Pasta and noodles – See above. With or without egg or meat pasta with a little cheese is classic. Or just pasta with capers – another staple that doesn’t go bad. I am a huge fan of soba noodles too, especially these mugwort soba noodles. Dress with a little sesame oil and soy sauce and have an orange on the side. Or try this Cold Soba, Sesame, and Carrot Salad.

Frozen spinach and other greens – Mark Bittman had a piece in the Times last year about how frozen produce is often better and fresher, in a way, than produce that has been shipped across the country. A bag of organic frozen spinach will do you well when you just want a bowl of greens. Dress with a little soy sauce.

Beans and grains – Keep a can of chickpeas in the cupboard. All you have to do is rinse, drain, and heat in a skillet with a little garlic and sun-dried tomatoes (these last ages in the fridge) and you’ve got a delicious and healthy dinner. Again – we’re talking five or ten minutes.

If you really need to go the takeout route, we really recommend chopped salads and dips. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have great tabbouleh, hummus, white bean dip (try the TJ’s white bean dip with basil – so good!) and chopped salads with chickpeas and beans. If I am too hard up to cook midday then some hummus and crackers with fruit is a great lunch. These are healthy (usually) and a good dose of whole grains.

And of course there are always the desperate, last-ditch, secret stashes of foods that are there in an emergency. In the interest of full-disclosure I will tell you mine: peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and decidedly non-organic, probably-not-good-for-me frozen potsticker dumplings – pork and cabbage varieties, preferably. Hey, they’re for desperate times!

Shopping List
Here’s a list of the staples for I keep around for meals like these:

• Whole-grain bread
• Pasta, like this lemon pepper pasta
• Rice noodles and soba noodles
• Frozen spinach
• Olives
• Frozen or jarred artichoke hearts
• Bacon
• Frozen peas
Trader Joe’s Harvest Grain Blend
• Chickpeas
• Canned and dried black beans
• Pinto peans
• Good olive oil
• At least three kinds of vinegar – red wine, balsamic, white balsamic, rice
• Other oils, like walnut oil
Parmesan cheese
• Sun-dried tomatoes

OK, that’s an answer for Chelsea – my own pantry answer to the working woman’s dinner dilemma. Readers – your turn now!

(Images: Amazon)

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