I think the absolute best thing you can do for your health is to cook most of your own food at home. But you know what? That’s really freaking hard sometimes. It’s so easy to pick up takeout or heat up something frozen. So whether you cook often and want to increase how much you do, or if you barely cook at all, here are 12 ways to simplify weeknight cooking for you. Some of them sacrifice a bit of the health benefits but (a) are still better than takeout and frozen meals; and (b) can ease you into getting comfortable cooking more on weeknights.
So here are my 12 ways to simplify weeknight cooking:
1. Make a plan. You’re not going to cook during the week very much unless you have a plan. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate plan. Your plan could be that you’re only going to really cook one night a week. But you should plan how many nights you’re cooking, how many servings per night, pick your recipes, and make sure you buy your supplies (or if you like to buy them day-of, just make sure you plan what ingredients you need to buy and when!)
2. Take shortcuts. If you can buy or prep something ahead of time to make your weeknight cooking easier, then go ahead and do it! Hate chopping? Or are you just really slow? Buy pre-chopped veggies. Don’t want to worry about three components of a meal? Buy microwaveable grains and veggies and just worry about cooking your protein for the night! There’s nothing wrong with taking shortcuts. Hate peeling garlic? Buy it peeled or pre-minced. No, it’s not as fresh. But if it makes it more appealing to cook a healthy meal at home instead of grabbing takeout or buying a processed meal, then do it!
3. Group similar tasks. This applies to prepping ahead of time or for cooking the night of. Get all your chopping done at once so everything’s ready for you. If you’re taking shortcuts and have a few items to microwave, then cut all your packages open at once and line them up for an assembly line to the microwave. And the most helplful one: get all your ingredients out ahead of time! Review what you need before you start cooking, get everything out, maybe even sort them into groups based on where or when you need them.
4. Prep your least favorite tasks ahead of time. If you really hate something about cooking, then you’ll like it even less when you’ve come home from a long day of work. Do it ahead of time! This can substitute the shortcut option above. Say you hate chopping but the pre-chopped veggies at your store just looked old and gross when you were there, do your own chopping but get it done on Sunday so you don’t have to do it during the week.
5. Make sure you have just a little variety. And I do mean just a little. This one holds especially true for people who are newer or less comfortable cooking. If you cook a few similar meals during the week or meals that use similar ingredients, it can make purchases, prep work, and getting used to cooking easier. Maybe you can buy one huge thing of pre-chopped veggies that works for three meals. Or maybe you can roast sweet potatoes Monday night that work with your Wednesday night dinner. At the very least, you can learn how to work with fewer ingredients so you don’t feel like you’re starting at ground zero everyday.
6. Plan at least one fun or special meal. Something that you either genuinely enjoy cooking or (even better) something that you love eating so much it makes cooking sound better. 🙂 Or it could be something that’s just really easy. I tend to plan one meal a week that’s a little faster AND a little less healthy than the rest. Something like sheet pan nachos.
7. Make extra. Eat leftovers! Whether it’s for your lunch the next day or for a dinner later in the week, cook once and eat twice (or more!)
8. Make it fun. Do something while you cook that makes it more of a fun process for you. Listen to your favorite music, invite friends over to chat, make your partner hang out with you (or help you), pop some champagne or a beer! I stream TV almost every time I cook because I just enjoy having that in the background. It’s fun for me!
9. Repeat your favorites often. Once you cook often enough that you’ve found a few meals you really love and you know how to make, keep them in regular rotation so you don’t reinvent the wheel all the time. If you don’t get sick of repeating foods, maybe you’ll make the same meal once a week. Or maybe you’ll have a taco night every week and just switch up the ingredients. I have a few favorite weeknight meals that I make very frequently. (It takes a LOT for me to add a new favorite to the list, so you’ve probably seen me mention these before. But my top few are: pineapple teriyaki, pizza roll salad, any variety of brussels sprouts and tofurkey, and anchovy breadcrumb pasta. Lately, romesco sauce over fish with a plain quick veggie and microwaveable rice have made the list (yep, I still take shortcuts too!))
10. Keep a well-stocked kitchen. I put this immediately after number 9 for a reason. Once you know what your favorite few meals are, keep the ingredients for them in stock! I keep small containers of pineapple juice in my pantry all the time because I love that pineapple teriyaki sauce so much. The other ingredients are just soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, and cornstarch, so I am equipped to make my favorite sauce all the time.
11. Don’t be afraid to make it your own. If you’re really new to cooking, then start small – but switch up a recipe a little! Whether it’s because you don’t love an ingredient in a recipe or you don’t want to buy something new and have something close enough, cooking will become so much easier (and therefore more appealing to do regularly, even on the weekdays) if you’re not afraid to make changes or make up your own recipes. Then you also won’t feel the urge to rush out on a weekday for a forgotten ingredient and you can just make do without.
12. Treat yo’ self. One of my favorite things about cooking most of my own meals is that I have complete control over how healthy or unhealthy my food is. I make healthy most of the time. And THAT means that when I feel like splurging, I can and I do. (I can even control how much of a splurge it is.)
Before I started cooking, I exercised a TON but I lived on Chinese takeout and candy. I was still in quite good shape. But when I started cooking, even though I didn’t yet know how to make a recipe healthier than it was written and I cooked what sounded good without too much regard for health, I dropped weight FAST. Granted, I was eating pretty terrible food before that. But even if you’re making smart decisions, if you’re living on takeout or frozen/prepared/packaged/processed food, you’re not eating as well as if you cooked whole foods at home. If you make the shift to learn how to cook at home regularly, then you can (and I think should!) afford to treat yourself and make a splurge-worthy meal just because you feel like it. And chances are, if it’s made at home it will still be healthier than the takeout version of the same dish.