Automating dinner while eating well

Amazon: The Six O'Clock Scramble: Quick, Healthy, and Delicious Dinner Recipes for Busy FamiliesIt's Week 1 in the book-writing cave! Christine and I have started writing Minimalist Parenting in earnest and it feels great.

AND it takes time. Which means I need to shave time off other things I'm doing, delegate, or put a few things aside for the time being (Goodbye, Mad Men).

My family's kicking in, but there's only so much I can hand off. Like dinner. The planning, the shopping, the cooking. Getting dinner on the table every night takes a lot of time and mental energy. I've made headway by planning our meals each week, but there had to be a way to simplify even more without resorting to takeout or TV dinners.

I love Aviva Goldfarb's Six O'Clock Scramble menu-planning service. The recipes are simple, delicious, and healthy, and the work of planning is done. But for the next couple months I need something even more automatic…a no-brainer meal plan with less variation (and, admittedly, less interest) so my grocery shopping goes faster as well. 

I looked into meal delivery, but going that route more than once a week blew the budget. I investigated services such as Dream Dinners where one could put together freezer meals, but it still took time, transportation, and considerable expense, and I want more control over the ingredients. For example, I like to buy organic meat.

The answer started with a chicken.

Our Whole Foods has a weekday special: each weekday, they offer a different dinner-friendly prepared food item for a discount. Mondays, it's Rotisserie Chicken for $6.99. I usually pay that much for a package of organic, free-range chicken, and I still have to cook it!

Monday is now chicken night. Bake some sweet potatoes, add a salad and bread and we've got dinner.

Tuesday, dinner arrives via SoupCycle, a local meal delivery service I decided to try as a treat.

Because we could never finish an entire chicken, the leftovers will get shredded or chopped, then go into Wednesday's stir fry, and maybe Thursday's burrito bowl. Friday is fish, which I'll let The Scramble tell me how to cook. And weekends, we'll scrounge (there's always plenty to eat, including breakfast for dinner). Good opportunity for the kids to get cooking as well.

If I get sick of stir fry and burrito bowls, there are plenty of ways to transform rotisserie chicken. But simplicity is my #1 goal for the next couple months, so I don't intend to stray too much from my basic plan.

And that's it. My weekly meal planning is done until I'm done writing the book. The cuisine may not blow anyone's minds, but we'll have hot, healthy, satisfying meals each night, which is more than enough.

Bonus: I shared my plans with my neighbor, Katrina, and she suggested we swap making the chicken run and buy enough for both families every other week. Within minutes, two more neighbors joined our impromptu Rotisserie Chicken Club, and now we all have dinner delivery three out of four Mondays per month. For the price of a regular grocery meal. It's like a dinner club with no planning or prep!

Whole Foods may wonder why I'm buying four rotisserie chickens this afternoon, but I'm sure they'll be just fine with it.

How do you simplify weeknight cooking when it's an especially busy time?

More: Hacks for meal planning


  1. says

    Would love your suggestions for solving the dinner ADD problem that I find comes with the whole Xday is Y night thing.

    It worked well in principal for my fam, and was a definite time-saver, but I found the predictability didn’t gel with my constant desire to experiment.

  2. says

    I’m willing to deal with predictability for the months I’m writing the book. I plan to loosen things up again (with the help of The Scramble) when I’m done writing. I actually love cooking and trying out new recipes, but I need to free up the brain cells for now.

  3. says

    Modern Wifie: One way to meld the two approaches is to automate the general category, but experiment with the actual recipe. Like: Monday Pasta, Tuesday Chicken, Wednesday Beans, etc.

  4. says

    If you’ve never tried it, a whole chicken cooks great in the crock pot. Plain or throw in some seasoning (no need to add water or fat), and it’s delicious and tender (and super cheap). We do one almost every week, too. After I clean the bones (and freeze leftover meat for later meals), I toss it back in and add an onion, a few carrots, a stalk of celery, bay leaf and peppercorns, fill it with water, and overnight I cook homemade stock. Takes less time than running to the store, and it’s homemade and delicious!

  5. says

    I had a freezer mishap– it got left slightly open for a full weekend and I came home to partially thawed meats. A lot of partially thawed meat. In one day I cooked 4# bratwurst, 2# stew meat adding onions only, 3# boneless chicken, a brisket with BBQ sauce (the crock pot was all that was left to use anyway!) and I don’t remember what else. (Except we gorged ourselves on shrimp that day and scallops the next.) The point is, it was a crazy unplanned day of cooking, but I’m loving the results. I refroze the cooked food then when I was ready I pulled out some boneless chicken and made a quick chicken salad. Another time it got salsa mixed with it and became chicken burritos. The BBQ was refrozen and is on the plan for tomorrow when one kid has baseball at 5:30 and we can’t all eat together. Other baseball days I microwave a bratwurst for the child.

    If the day had been planned it might have been less stressful. Once every heat source was in use cooking food I wasn’t going to have to waste, I realized it wasn’t that bad.

  6. Jen says

    We often have a breakfast for dinner night (quiche, waffles with bacon or chicken sausage, pancakes, etc), and a pizza night (i buy the dough pre-made and freeze it in the right size portions for us, and thaw it on the counter all day, it’s room temp by the time i get home at night – top it with whatever i have available). also, it doesn’t work for everyone, but i usually plan to make enough for dinner for the family for 2 nights and we eat the same thing (maybe with a different side dish, but same exact entree) 2 nights in the same week. saves a lot of time and planning – i plan and cook 2 meals in one! it’s really only a problem if it’s a new recipe and doesn’t come out so well…i’ve been known to order in chinese once in a while if it’s a real disaster.

  7. Judie says

    I have theme days during the week so it takes the guess work out – Mexican Monday, Try it again Tuesday (left overs from Sunday/Monday), What’s New Wednesday (trying a new recipe or something we haven’t had in a long time), Thirsty Thursday (something seafood), Pizza Friday (hubby makes killer homemade pizza!), Storage Saturday (straight from food storage like canned chili, soup, mac & cheese, etc.) and Special Sunday because that’s the day I can actually take the time to cook a fancier meal:)
    I also have a four month calendar that I rotate through so if I stick strictly to the calendar our meals are only repeated 3 times a year….hahaha! So I’m not so strict, but again it takes the guess work out because I know exactly what I need to buy at the store for the month.
    Thanks Asha! Great to hear you are writing again:)

  8. Alex says

    When I made my goals for 2012 it became clear that something was going to have to give to free up more time. I’m a pretty granola gluten intolerant stay at home mom with a dairy allergic kid and a giant husband who has to eat organic meat twice a day so I was making A LOT of homemade stuff–ferments, pickles, etc. I gave myself permission to skip the farmer’s market for most of the year so I would only have to shop once, and filled the freezer with fish sticks and one other frozen option that everyone could eat. We eat these things EVERY WEEK. Keeping sprouts going takes no more effort than feeding the dog, and smoothies are really quick. Every weekend we have grilled goat cheese on sprouted bread for lunch one day, with a little extra meat leftover thrown in for my husband.

    Whenever I cook chicken with bones, I make stock with them in the crockpot.The organs too if we get them. Honestly, the only part that takes any effort is scrubbing the pot out. I used to make a crock pot chicken, but we’ve have to hack it up, and it was time consuming to pick the meat off, so now sometimes I get the Rosie “tailgate pack” and bake it.

  9. says

    I love that so many of us are finding that, with a little thought, eating well really doesn’t have to take a lot of time or stress. Like most things, it just takes a little advance planning, open-mindedness and creativity.

  10. says

    My three kids have very busy schedules after school, but it’s so important to us to sit and have dinner together just about every night, so we’ve developed quite a repertoire of easy-to-make things. One thing that helps is that everyone works together to get dinner on the table. That way, we’re not just cooking dinner, we’re having family time, too.

    Some of our quick fix ideas: Make spaghetti; throw something on the grill; top a Boboli crust with pizza toppings. We’ll occasionally do healthy takeout, too. We have a local soup place that’s amazing. Or we’ll pick up a rotisserie chicken and a bag salad or a “big sandwich” from the supermarket deli. We toast it in our own oven and make it healthier and tastier with additional veggies.

  11. says

    If I get sick of stir fry and burrito bowls, there are plenty of ways to transform rotisserie chicken. But simplicity is my #1 goal for the next couple months, so I don’t intend to stray too much from my basic plan.