Get Dinner on the Table: 5 Things To Do Before You Start Dinner

How to get dinner on the table can be one of the most stressful times of your day. This is especially true when you have a toddler pulling at your legs, or teenagers arguing as they try to avoid their homework, or a partner coming home late from work, or – well, any of the other myriad of things that can go wrong during the dreaded dinner hour. Today – I’m sharing 5 Things to Do Before You Start Dinner. These will put you in the best possible position to get started and help you get dinner on the table. Once done, you can start preparing dinner with a clear mind, clear space and without distraction. Come on – let me show you.

The Empowered Cook shares 5 things to do BEFORE you start dinner that will help you get dinner on the table for your family.

#1 – Make Space

I don’t know about you, by in my home, my kitchen is the centre of our home. We congregate there – we dump our lunchboxes on the bench, the mail goes on the counter, we have glasses and plates on the sink – you get the drift.

Before I even start to contemplate dinner – I need to clear this away. I need space to prepare a meal. And I can’t do that amongst lunchboxes and dirty dishes.

Ideally, you’ll have adopted a clear sink in the morning (we do this – and it makes the world of difference). This means that whomever is last to leave (normally me) – makes sure that everything is loaded into the dishwasher. We run our dishwasher after dinner – so that in the morning it is clean. We simply unload it while making breakfast, and then reload it after breakfast. This keeps the bench and sink clear.

If you don’t have a dishwasher, then try and do the breakfast dishes before you leave the house. Even if they are left on the sink to dry naturally – this will help at the end of the day.

Generally – the more you do in the morning, the easier your night routine will be.

Spend a few minutes putting away anything that is lying on your bench. This could be the mail you’ve just collected from the letterbox or your hat and scarf. Or toy cars. Whatever it is in your house. Put it away.

When we get home – the priority is to unpack lunchbags and wash lunchboxes. I pack lunches after dinner – so we need the lunchboxes clean and ready to go. So whomever is home first (normally my partner), will wash and dry our little one’s lunchbox. If you have older kids, this could be part of their after school routine. It was when we were little – we would come home, unpack our bags, clean our lunchboxes, have a snack and then get changed. Once homework was done, we were then free to do whatever we wanted until dinner time. This also gave Mum the room to actually make dinner. Bringing me to the next item on the list…

#2 Distract the Kids

Not having kids at your feet will not only make preparing dinner easier – it is also safer. I can still hear Mum’s voice in mine when I say: “Out of the kitchen, the oven is on”. Having kids run around in the kitchen is just not a good idea – especially when you’re trying to multi-task amongst the oven and stove and cooking a family meal.

So we need those kids outta there. If they are older, this can be the easier – simply get them doing homework – or if they are finished, give them free time. We used to have to do homework at the dining table – a social activity, but also so that Mum can answer questions or just supervise I guess.

If they are younger – try to have special activities that they only get to do during dinner hour. This could be some sort of Art and Craft activity that keeps them focused and therefore engaged and quiet for a period of time. Let’s be honest, 10 minutes of engagement is a lot for a toddler – so set them up with something, and then use this time. I’ve never known how much I can get done in 10 minutes until I had a toddler. I can whip up dinner, do some laundry, pack a lunch, and clean the kitchen – all in the 10 minutes of free time I get at the end of the day. Work fast, work hard.

#3 – Have a Plan

The value of those 10 minutes should not be eaten away with you wondering what you are going to cook, or what you’re going to do. You need a plan. You need to know what you are going to cook – BEFORE you even start dinner hour.

In our house, this is a weekly meal plan. But sometimes it is even just a conversation that morning as to what we’ll eat for dinner. And on some occasions, this is even a text message conversation between my partner and I, on my way home from work. Yes, even The Empowered Cook has those days.

But we rarely commence the dinner hour without already having decided on what we’ll be eating. That is just a disaster waiting to happen.

My Mum’s motto – and therefore now mine – was ‘If there’s going to be panic, let it be organised”. This is certainly true for the dinner hour. You need a plan, and you’ll be able to tackle whatever comes your way.

The added benefit of a plan is that you and your partner can also tag team. If we both know the plan – we can sub in and sub out as needed. My toddler will sometimes just want me – which means I need to stop and get out of the kitchen. At this point, my partner will sub in – and take over dinner duty. This works best if he knows what we’re having, and where I’m at with cooking it. If I’m making something that he has no idea about – you can bet your bottom dollar that that will be the night that my toddler will simply demand Mama time, and therefore dinner will be failure.

#4 Set the Table

Having a set table is important to me. I find that we eat better, and have a more enjoyable dinner if we sit at the table as a family. And it is a lesson that I want my little one to learn – that we eat dinner as a family at a table with placemats and napkins. It is something that we did as kids – and I am thankful for that. All the best conversations were over dinner – including when we were teenagers, and didn’t really want to talk to anyone – let alone our family. But dinner let us do that.

You can choose to set the table for dinner way earlier in the day too. Just set it whenever you have a spare 5 or 10 minutes. That way, it’s done – and you can concentrate on cooking dinner.

Or even better – allocate this to one of the kids. Being able to set the table is a critical development activity: knowing where to put knives and forks is a big step for a little one. The sooner they start doing this chore, the faster they’ll learn.

#5 – Put a Pinny On

Wearing an apron is synonymous with being in the kitchen. It is certainly critical for me when making dinner. It is the thing that triggers that cooking is about to begin, that dinner is going to be made. Even my toddler knows that when I wear my apron, something “yummy” is coming. He will even wear his apron if he wants to help me in the kitchen.

An apron is also just a really helpful kitchen tool. It protects your clothes, you can use it to wipe your hands, clean spills, etc. My sister even made me an apron with a tea-towel attached to the front – so useful! I have been grateful many a time when making a good bolognese sauce, and having it splatter my apron instead of my white shirt. Trust me – you need an apron.

 

And that’s it. These 5 things to do before you start dinner will help you actually get dinner on the table for your family. Give them a go.

Christmas Menu Ideas

It is almost here – I can hear Santa’s sleigh bells in the distance, and can almost smell Christmas Dinner cooking. Do you still need some Christmas Menu ideas? I’ve done some of the hard work for you – and collated a bunch of great recipes from around the web.

Once you’ve browsed and chosen what you want to make – don’t forget to download your own copy of The Complete Christmas Menu Planner so that you can plan out a spectacular Christmas Menu for you and your family this year.

Now on with the Christmas Menu Ideas.

You cannot go past the awesome Jamie Oliver at Christmas – he is everywhere, but it is for a good reason. His recipes are easy and delicious. And he has such a great collection this year. Check him out here.

You could also check out Nigella too. She has some very decadent recipes that really are a once-a-year treat.

For another good ‘British’ menu, try the menu from BBC Good Food here. This includes roast beef and yorkshire puddings – two of my favourite things in a good roast.

I personally love the collection from The Natural New Age Mum – the recipes are all wholefood, healthy and delicious. Even if you don’t think a full menu would work for your family – maybe try and add a side dish or two from here.

Another good source of a wide variety of healthy Christmas recipes is The Healthy Chef – see her collection here. She includes a great Christmas cake and pudding, some gingerbread men and a bunch of salad options – useful for us summer bound Christmas types!

Merry Christmas from The Empowered Cook

 

I’ll be enjoying a month of summer holidays this year – and we plan to spend it simply at home and together. You’ll likely find me in the kitchen most days, cooking up some sort of a treat or making something else for the freezer. I plan to really fill my freezer in preparation for the New Year – and what better time to do that really!

I’ll be taking a break from posting here over Christmas and New Year – but I will be back in January with a super exciting 2017 for you.

For now – enjoy your festive season, eat good food, with those you love and with those that love you. Here’s to a New Year of sparkle and adventure – with an abundance of hope and good will.

Cheers!

 

How To Actually Use Your Recipe Collection

I love collecting recipes. I have loads of cookbooks, and a bunch of handwritten notebooks, index cards and printed recipes. I also have an Evernote collection and a Pinterest collection. Let’s just say that my Recipe Collection is fairly extensive.

I realised some time ago though, that I needed a way to be able to actually cook these recipes. Depsite this awesome collection – we still seemed to eat the same basic menu each week. It was rare that we ate something new.

Back in my single days or when it was just Brendon and I – I often made a meal by cooking straight from a brand new recipe.

Now, with a toddler, this isn’t exactly possible very often. I mean, sometimes its just hard to make a sandwich, let alone read a recipe and cook dinner at the same time!

Do you have a large recipe collection? The Empowered Cook shares two key strategies to help you actually use the recipes in your collection.

So I have a couple of strategies that I use now.

#1 – Have a Recipe Collection System

Like I said at the beginning, I have recipes in many different locations – both hard and soft copy, handwritten, printed and electronic.

I also have my meal plans, and my Family Favourite list.

I like to keep all of these in the one place. I have a tall bookshelf near the kitchen which houses all my cookbooks. I also have a little index card holder which also keeps all my handwritten recipes.

In this same bookcase, I keep my Recipe folder. In this folder I have a few sections:

Meal Plans

This includes both previous ones and blank templates. I keep my old Meal Plans for a few reasons. First, these are great inspiration. I can flick through these and find some meal ideas very quickly. Second, sometimes I will just recycle a complete Meal Plan and use it again. We tend to eat the same meals regularly – with just a few difference options swapped in – so this works well for us.

Recipes to Try 

This is where I keep a list of Recipes that I’d like to try, as well as any printed recipes that are outside of a cookbook. This makes it easy to keep track of my ideas – and it also makes it easy when meal planning for the week. On my Recipes to Try list, I can include the website reference or a note that it is in Pinterest or Evernote for example. This makes it easier to search for the recipe when it is time to cook it.

Family Favourites

This is where I keep my Family Favourites list. I also keep another blank template in here too – so that I can quickly jot anything new down. Any printed recipes for our family favourites are included here too. Most Family Favourites I can cook by heart, without a recipe, but there are some that are only ‘new’ favourites – so I will still need the recipe for a little while longer. And plus, some will only be a Family Favourite for a season, or for a short time. So I need the recipe because I don’t cook it that often.

Recipes

The last section is just a general section for other printed recipes. I tend to also split this into categories: dinner, snacks, sweets. But you can just keep them all together if you like.

Now, a system is only a good system if it actually works.

So, let’s move on to my second strategy.

#2 – Include One New Recipe into your Meal Planning Cycle

For me – this means I include a new recipe once a week. I try and do this every week, but sometimes our life gets in the way and we might skip a week. But my goal is that each week, we will try a new recipe of some sort.

I have also learnt the hard way about when to schedule these new recipes. For example, I don’t schedule them on busy weeknights. That is when we use the freezer or quick and easy dinners. I tend to schedule them for Saturday or Sunday nights. Or, if it is a cook ahead meal – I will cook it over the weekend as part of a bulk cooking session, and then I will include it through the week. Either way – I tend to get a better opportunity at some uninterrupted cooking time over the weekend, so that is what works for me.

For you – it might be through the week. It might be that on Mondays, you are home early and can spend a little time on making dinner.

Whatever your schedule, find a way to include your new recipes into your meal plan. Set yourself a goal – one a week or one a month – and then aim to meet that goal. Make a note of the goal on the top of your meal plan, so that you are reminded each time you write the menu for the week.

And that’s it. Will you put these two strategies to the test and implement them in your home? Let me know in the comments below.

Ingredient Prep: Roasted Vegetables

Easily one of my biggest time savers for getting dinner on the table every night of the week – is Ingredient Prep.

Sure I do prep whole meals in advance (stay tuned for that one!) but prepping individual ingredients has just worked a whole lot better for my life right now.

By Ingredient Prep, I simply mean that you prepare some key ingredients ahead of time – and then store these in the fridge or freezer.

I like to do this on a Saturday or Sunday, over the course of a few hours. But you could also just do this when you have a spare 15-20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll just do this as part of our normal making dinner routine. 

I will store things in the fridge first, but I often have a duplicate stash in the freezer – my best friend in the kitchen.

Then, during the week when time is a little limited, I will pull these out and use them to build a meal. It saves me so much time and effort, and there is something really lovely about opening the fridge and seeing all these containers full of yummy goodies just waiting to be eaten.

So – where to start? 

The Empowered Cook shares how to roast vegetables - a key to good ingredient prep. This will help get dinner on the table, every night of the week.

What’s a Prepped Ingredient?

This can vary depending on what you like to cook. I also find it varies depending on the season. In Summer, I tend to prep salad ingredients – like chopped vegetables, leafy greens, dressings, and grains. In Winter, my Ingredient Prep is more likely to be hot food items like cooked meats, baked potatoes, grains, curry bases.

The only guide to good Ingredient Prep is that it needs to be something that you can then use later to build a meal.

How do I use it?

Have you ever been to a salad bar? Or noticed the mise en plus that a restaurant operates with? All those little dishes of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, grated carrot and zucchini, nuts and seeds, leafy greens and sprouts. They always look so delicious. AND inspiring!

This is what I aspire to in my fridge! I keep prepped ingredients in glass containers (so that I can see what is inside) in the fridge every week.

Then for dinner – I might just cook some sausages, or some steak – and then serve this with a salad that I’ve pulled together from the prepped ingredients from the fridge.

I also build very hearty ‘Buddha bowls’ – or basically a collection of delicious items in a bowl. This could be a burrito bowl – with beans, rice, salsa, corn, etc. Or a bean bowl – with lentils, roast vegetables and a poached egg on top.

By doing a little Ingredient Prep and having these already prepped in the fridge or freezer means that you can be creative with your meals. Keeping it simple also means it will be healthier than a heavy, stodgy take-away meal.

Where do I start?

Ingredient Prep is fast and simple.

I have found the easiest thing to start with – is Roast Vegetables.

And when I say vegetables, I mean vegetables – plural. It can be ANY vegetable. I have roasted everything from the normal old potato and pumpkin through to asparagus, broccoli and brussel sprouts (please try these!).

It is also very little active time – you can prep vegetables at the same time as you are preparing dinner one night, or prep them ahead of time on the weekend or through the day. 

How To Roast Vegetables

  1. Select your vegetables – I like to use a variety, but you can also just roast single vegetables at a time. Whatever you have in your fridge, or whatever you have bought from the grocery store this week.
  2. Chop them (peeling optional) – It is really up to you if you choose to peel your vegetables. I think this is a little bit of personal preference. So I will leave that for you to decide. The only guideline is to try and chop things evenly and according to their cooking time. So if you are roasting a bunch of root vegetables – chop these all about the same size. But if you are adding some softer vegetables into the same tray (like zucchini) then chop this larger, because it will take much less time to cook.
  3. Drizzle with oil – I like olive oil or coconut oil. But there are loads of options here. Be a little daring!
  4. Season – this can be as simple as salt and pepper. But you could also try chilli flakes (on cauliflower – this is just heaven), cumin seeds (so good on pumpkin), garlic – give lots of different ones a go, and see what you like.
  5. Cook – I roast at 190-200 degrees celsius. A big tray usually takes around 40 minutes. But you should experiment a little and always keep an eye on them – no one likes completely blackened veggies. Although a little bit of crispy edges is nice.

To store these, I keep them in the fridge for up to a week. I also sometimes freeze these (except potato – which I don’t love the texture of when frozen) for up to 3 months.

You can then reheat and serve as a side with dinner, or eat cold with a salad or just as a snack.

Bonus Tip

You can freeze the chopped root vegetables raw. This has saved me even more time. I will often peel and chop a whole heap of sweet potatoes, or pumpkins and then store these in snaplock bags in the freezer. When I have some time to roast these – or I want a quick side dish with dinner – I will simply pull a bag from the freezer and dump it out on an oven tray. Drizzle, season and cook! Voila – fresh roast vegetables.

Need some more inspiration?

Check out my Pinterest board of Side Dishes or my Vegetarian board. Both have some great recipe ideas for roasted vegetables.

Will you give Ingredient Prep a go? Let me know! Share your thoughts below. And please share this post with your friends if you think they’ll like this idea too.

Weekly Food Prep: How to Eat More Vegetables

Have you ever noticed that the consistency across all diets is about eating vegetables? Some skip grains, some skip meat, some skip fruit – but they ALL contain vegetables. Funny that.

If we ate more vegetables, we would be a far healthier people. It is just that simple.

The question then becomes: how do you eat MORE vegetables?

If you think about this in terms of volume only – it can be slightly depressing. No one really wants to eat a big pile of carrots with their nightly meal. Or a few extra bunches of broccoli every week.

What we really want to do is this:

  • Increase our variety, and
  • Increase the number of times we eat vegetables in a day or week.

The main reason we don’t do this, I believe, is because of our lack of time. It is far easier to grab a bag of frozen peas from the freezer and cook those, than it is to peel and chop 3 or 4 different vegetables to serve with your family meal.

I used to be stuck in this same rut – we would have frozen peas, carrots and broccoli most nights of the week. It just become so boring.

And then – I started to change our preparation process. And it has increased the amount of vegetables we eat.

As soon as we buy our vegetables (or as soon as practical – we do have a toddler after all!), I wash and prep them all – right down to the peeling and chopping.

This saves me so much time during the dreaded dinner hour, it’s no longer a rush job – and being able to just grab a handful of a number of different vegies from the fridge and plonk them in the steamer at night, has changed our boring old peas to a glorious variety of vegetables on our dinner plate.

So today – I’m going to take you step by step through the process I follow.

Starting a weekly food prep routing will help you and your family eat more vegetables, and will help get dinner on the table every night of the week.

Step 1: Buy a variety!

It can be easy to get stuck in a rut with vegetables – buying the same old carrots, broccoli and cauliflower each week.

But there are so many more options: zucchini, squash, silver beet, asparagus, radish (yes that is a vegetable!), pumpkin, turnip, parsnip, swede, spinach, capsicum, leek – I could go on!

A simple trick to get you thinking: shop the rainbow. Try and find a vegetable from every colour of the rainbow. Think: Capsicum, Carrot, Eggplant, Squash, Silver beet – all different colours and all very different vegetables.

You don’t need to buy mountains of any one vegetable. Buying smaller amounts of each one will make it more likely that you and your family will eat and enjoy them. No one really wants to eat broccoli 3 nights a week. Well – maybe me, it is one of my favourites! But I think I might be the exception to the rule.

In order to bounce us out of our broccoli and carrot rut – we buy a vegetable box most weeks. This is something we order from Aussie Farmers, but Coles and Woolworths have a similar product – as do most of the smaller online grocery delivery services. I also love that most of these suppliers have an organic option too – which is a great choice if your budget allows.

Buying a mixed vegetable box helps immensely with the variety. We simply eat whatever comes in the box – and this changes depending on the season and what is available from the farmers each week.

OK – so now you have a variety of vegetables that you need to eat this week. What next?

Step 2 – Washing Your Vegetables

Washing your vegetables is an important step. Unless you are buying organic – your produce will likely have been sprayed or treated with chemicals of some sort. So washing the vegetables one more time is a step I wouldn’t want to skip. Plus – think of how many people have touched those vegetables before you! Ew.

If you were to google washing vegetables, you’d probably see a bunch of recommendations on vegetable washing products that you could buy. They will all claim to remove chemicals and get your vegetables clean.

I personally use water. And, if I remember, a small dash of apple cider vinegar. This removes any leftover dirt and anything else that might be lurking in my green leafys (I once chopped up my silver beet and in doing so, chopped a snail in half. Oh my – I was horrified!)

To make this process easy and quick – I fill my sink with cold water (and a dash of apple cider vinegar) and lay out some tea towels on the bench. I then pop all my fruit in first: apples, pears, etc. I swish them around and then take them out and pop them on the tea towel.

Next, I do other hard vegetables – like carrots, zucchini, capsicum, squash etc.

And then I empty the sink – and refill it with more cold water. Next I do all the green leafys. I lay these on a separate tea towel. I then use my salad spinner for these. It is very important to remove as much water as possible from the your leafy vegetables – otherwise they will go soggy and slimy very quickly.

Step 3: Prepping Your Vegetables

In order to make grabbing vegetables each night easy – they need to be ‘ready to cook’.

So – for things like carrots, capsicum, zucchini, broccoli, I slice these up just like I would for dinner. Carrots and zucchini goes into rounds, and capsicum goes into strips. I also chop some carrots into strips too so that we can have this for snacks.

For leafy greens –  I don’t mess with these too much. After I’ve spun them in the salad spinner, I remove any dodgy bits of greenery and that’s about it. Slicing these right before dinner is a 30 second job, and leaving it until then will mean that my leafy greens will last longer.

Step 4 – Storing Your Vegetables

I store my hard vegetables in glass containers in the fridge. I chose glass for a couple of reasons. Firstly, glass is better for you than plastic (google BPA and you’ll understand why). Secondly, glass allows me to see the contents. And this increases the likelihood that I will use what is in the container.

For my leafy greens, I pop a damp paper towel or cloth napkin in a glass container (or zip lock bag) and then gently place my green leafys on top. I can sometimes get mine to last me longer than a week if I do this step.

Once you have finished this step, you should have a number of containers in your fridge all full of prepped vegetables.

Step 5 – Using Your Vegetables

The most basic way to use these is to simply add them as a side to your normal meal. I will often steam a bunch of vegetables for dinner, and then serve these alongside some lamb cutlets or sausages, lentil loaf or other protein.

You can also use them as healthy snacks: like carrot, cucumber and capsicum strips with some hummus. They are quick to grab and pack into lunches too.

A stir-fry is also super fast now using this method. The actual stir-frying takes minutes – and now with all the chopping already done, you can have dinner on the table in 15 minutes! (Yes – Jamie Oliver, eat your heart out!)

At the end of the week, I usually grab anything that is left over and make a fridge frittata or a fridge pasta. Basically this just a throw everything into a pot kinda meal. It means we don’t waste anything, and it means the fridge and our containers are all clean and ready to be filled again for the next week!

 

And that is it. This process takes me less than an hour each week. My toddler enjoys helping – so sometimes it takes a little longer!

But it saves me the 20 minutes per night that I used to spend trying to find vegetables, cutting and prepping them for dinner.

We now eat more vegetables, and getting dinner on the table is a much easier process.

Give it a go. And let me know in the comments below how you went. Don’t forget to share this post too if you think your friends would find these tips useful too.

 

5 Fridge Must-Haves – To Help Get Dinner on the Table

It’s time to talk about the must-have items for your fridge.

We’ve covered the pantry, and the freezer.

But the fridge can be just as critical to getting dinner on the table, every night of the week.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that keeping a well stocked fridge is a short-term thing. You can keep some items in your fridge for weeks – assuming they are stored correctly.

Vacuum-packed meats last in the fridge for weeks – so I often buy sausages or bacon like this. If you find some products like this at your local butcher or supermarket – snap them up and pop them in your fridge.

The Empowered Cook shares the top 5 things to always have in your fridge to help get dinner on the table for you and your family.

Here are my top 5 items to always have in your fridge. Any time you open my fridge – you will find these hidden in there…

#5 – Parmesan Cheese

This is so much more than something to sprinkle on spaghetti bologanise.

Parmesan is a wonderful seasoning.

I like it on top of steamed vegetables. Or sprinkled over my poached egg. It’s delicious on stews or casseroles. Or shaved over a salad.

I am of course referring to a block of parmesan. Let’s not even talk about the green plastic container we used to have in our cupboard when we were kids.

You may find parmesan a little pricey – but it does last a long time if you store it correctly.

I store mine in the cheese drawer in the my fridge, wrapped in baking paper and then foil. But feel free to try some different ways in your fridge, and see what works for you.

#4 – Beef Mince (for the meat-eaters amongst us)

The versatility of this for family meals is a.m.a.z.i.n.g.

We buy this every week. And I really do mean every week.

We make things like: spaghetti bolognaise, hamburgers, rissoles, kofkas, chow-mein (stir-fry with cabbage), shepherds pie, savoury mince. I could go on!

Beef mince is cheap, easy and fast to cook – and you can make loads of different dinners with it.

Looking for inspiration – check out my Beef Mince Pinterest board here.

#3 – Leafy Greens

I really noticed a change in the health of my family when we started to eat more leafy greens. And it was this change that prompted others to comment on how ‘healthy’ we looked!

The key to eating more leafy greens is to make sure you always have them in the fridge. They need to be prepped and ready to eat. And they need to be visible. Otherwise, you’ll find a soggy mess in the bottom of your crisper.

I like to wash and store my leafy greens the day I buy them. They are then stored in glass containers, with a damp cloth or a few sheets of paper towel underneath them.

I find this works best for my fridge. You should experiment with your own fridge and see what works best.

The most important step though is to try to use these in as many meals as you can. We might have some spinach with our eggs in the morning. Or some in our smoothie. I make kale chips as a snack. We will have a side salad with dinner. Or – if you’re a little crazy – try replacing your pasta with a bunch of cooked, garlic greens to serve with your bolognaise sauce.

Treat your leafy greens well (i.e. store them well) and they’ll treat you well (make your skin glow!).

#2 – Bacon (again – for those meat-eaters)

Bacon is one of those great vacuum sealed meats that will last a while in the fridge.

I will always have a stash of bacon in the fridge.

Although we don’t often eat bacon and eats, we use bacon more as a seasoning for our other dishes – or it will form part of a pasta based meal. See the bacon and pea pasta recipe in Freezer must-haves here.

It is also a delicious way to start off a bolognaise sauce. Just chop up a few strips and cook in your pan before adding the onion and beef mince. Adds a really tasty, salty start to your sauce.

I must admit though – we are partial to the ‘bacon butty’. After an especially long day at work, I have been known to whip up some of these. It must be my mother’s Manchester genes coming through. Not exactly the healthiest of meals – but sometimes, you need a little warm reminder of home.

#1 – Eggs

And the number 1 must-have? Eggs.

I think eggs are the most versatile ingredient. We eat eggs for breakfast a couple of times a week – super healthy and full of protein.

But we also eat eggs for dinner some nights. Again – it is such a super fast way to get a healthy dinner on the table, when you just can’t be bothered cooking. We will often eat ‘breakfast for dinner’ – and whip up some scrambled or poached eggs on toast.

Eggs are also such a good way to boost a gathering of a few ingredients. For example, I might have some roast vegetables left-over in the fridge. Not too exciting by themselves. But add a poached egg on top (and a good shaving of parmesan cheese) and we have ourselves a hearty dinner. Bonus.

A quick “Fridge Frittata” is also a great way to use up all those leftover odds and ends of veges in your crisper. I often do this right before we are due for a grocery shop. Using whatever is left in my crisper: capsicum, broccoli, carrot, cauliflower – I dice it all up. You can also chop a small onion (if you have one). Pop all of this in a baking dish and preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Next, lightly beat 3-6 eggs (depending on how many people you are feeding, and how many leftovers you’ve added to the baking dish). You can add a dash of milk, and a sprinkling of cheese here too. Then pour this over the vegetables in the baking dish. Pop in the oven and cook for 30-40 minutes (or until the eggs are cooked). Delicious warm or cold. Served alone or with a salad.

So there you have it – my top 5 things to always have in your fridge.

How many do you have? Comment below and let me know! Also let me know if you have other items that you always have in your fridge. I’d love to add to this list!

How To Get Dinner on the Table: 5 Freezer Must-Haves

My freezer is critical to my “Empowered Cook” status. It is more than just a place to store some frozen peas and bananas. It is as equal a tool as my fridge, pantry and kitchen sink.

And it is a fundamental tool in my How to Get Dinner on the Table kit.

You don’t need a huge freezer. For years, I lived with a mini bar fridge with a tiny box freezer inside. I still used the same methodology with that freezer that I do now with a much larger freezer at the top of my fridge.

We also have a small chest freezer – which I love, but it is not essential. We bought it when Oliver was born so that I could stock it with meals for us to eat.

That is really the main purpose of my freezer. We eat “from the freezer” at least once a week – sometimes more. It is also very handy if we’re having a budget week and want to save a bit of cash. We usually have enough meals and bits and bobs in the freezer to feed us for a week or more.

Honestly – best investment ever.

So where do you start?

How to Get Dinner on the Table: 5 Freezer Must-Haves

Let’s begin with my 5 Freezer Must Haves.

These are the items that are ALWAYS in my freezer. They are pretty much a constant on my shopping list. We use them frequently and they are constantly restocked.

#5 – Frozen Fruit

Critical for smoothies. For a quick berry crumble for dessert. For a nice little snack. To soothe sore gums when bub is teething.

I always have frozen bananas in my freezer. I simply peel these when they get all spotty and black and then freeze a bunch in ziplock bags.

I use them mainly for smoothies. Just pop a banana, some milk of choice (I use almond), a dollop of honey or maple syrup, a spoon of peanut butter and blend. You have a delicious smoothie. Or be a little decadent and add a dollop of chocolate peanut butter. OMG. My favourite 3pm snack right there.

I also use the bananas for baking too. They defrost really quickly. And then you can whip up a banana cake or muffins.

Buy bananas when they are on special too. Bananas can get rather pricey if the season isn’t going too well. So next time you see a glut of them at the supermarket, buy up! And then freeze!

Berries are also always in the freezer. My partner Brendon is allergic to bananas – so his smoothie of choice is always berries with almond milk. And yoghurt and sometimes peanut butter.

But you can also make a quick berry crumble for dessert with frozen berries (pop in a dish, top with a nice crumble mix and then bake in the oven). Or you can use these for baking too. I love this recipe for a berry cake. It is simple and easy to make. We serve with a dollop of yoghurt.

The other fruit I have in the freezer is frozen cooked fruit. Sometimes we’ll get to the end of the week and we’ll have a bunch of apples left over. So instead of just letting these go soft, I’ll cook them. I peel and chop them and then steam them. Once soft, I’ll cool them and then pop in the freezer. I often put them into a glass ovenproof dish in the freezer, so that once I defrost these, I can top with granola or crumble and it can go straight into the oven. Oh how yum on a cold winters night.

Pretty much any fruit can be frozen – you just need to work out if it is better frozen raw or cooked first. I find melon, berries, bananas freeze best raw. Apples, plums, stone fruits all freeze better after having been cooked first.

#4 – Frozen Vegetables

There has been a bit of stigma around frozen veg for a long time. I’m not sure if it comes from the days of getting frozen veg served up overcooked and soggy – but whatever it is, it isn’t true.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a good bag of frozen vegetables. I will say that again: there is absolutely nothing wrong with a good bag of frozen vegetables.

You can whip out a bag of frozen broccolli or caulflower and roast this up into a delicious side dish so easily. Just pop onto a roasting tray (still frozen), drizzle with oil and add salt and pepper. Both are also delicious with a good shake of dried chilli flakes. Then roast in a hot oven until cooked and golden brown.

Frozen corn is a staple in our house – the easiest way to eat corn. And so much healthier than the corn in a can (often full of sugar). I add corn to most of my mexican inspired meals: enchiladas, chilli, burritos, etc. But sometimes, it will just get steamed along with my other veg and we’ll have some corn with our dinner.

And who can forget the frozen pea. I haven’t – keep reading…

#3 – Stock

I have two versions of stock in my freezer. I have containers of made stock, frozen into 1 or 2 cup portions. But I also have a stock scrap bag in there along side the already made stock.

What is a stock scrap bag?

It is possibly the best use of vegie scraps (besides a compost) – and saves me so much time and money.

Next time you peel a carrot, chop the leaves from celery, peel a garlic clove or an onion – pop the scraps in to a big ziplock bag and store it in your freezer.

Once the bag is full – dump all the scraps into a stock pot or a slowcooker – add water, and then simmer for as long as you’ve got.

Voila – you have vegetable stock.

Add a chicken carcass – and you have chicken stock.

Add some roasted beef bones – and you have beef stock.

I do this almost weekly. And we nearly always have stock in the fridge and freezer. I fill old jars to keep stock in the fridge, and small plastic containers for the freezer.

I use stock for casseroles, soups, stews. But I also like to cook rice and pasta in the stock. Plus – I will sometimes add some to the pan if I’ve defrosting some leftovers, or even stir-frying some veges for dinner.

It just adds such a nice complexity of flavour to whatever you are cooking. And it does not cost you a cent. Is there anything better than that?

#2 – Cooked Ingredients

No only do I freeze meals and leftovers, I also freeze cooked ingredients. This is a huge time-saver and such a big help when getting dinner on the table. And if you stick around here long enough, you’ll soon know that this is my number one tip for how I feed my family without the fuss.

What do I mean by cooked ingredients?

Think roast pumpkin, blanched vegetables, pesto, spaghetti sauce, cooked brown rice, cooked quinoa. I freeze these in small single-serve portions and then add these to whatever meal we’re serving.

A great way to use brown rice for example is to make fried rice. I often do this to use up leftover veges in the fridge before shopping day.

But you can even make a quick and easy version by just frying up an egg omelette and setting that aside, and then stir-frying the rice with some frozen peas. Add in some soy sauce and then toss in the sliced omelette. It can really be that easy.

And that way, you’re serving a healthy, wholesome, filling dinner – but because you’re grabbing your main ingredients from the freezer, dinner can be on the table in under 10 minutes.

#1 – Frozen Peas

These are such incredible little beauties – they get their own special section as a Freezer Must Have.

I will always have a bag of these. Always. Sometimes two.

I am sure we’d all love to have a quaint memory of sitting on our verandah with our colanders while we shell our peas.

But in reality – how often do you see peas in the supermarket fresh food section? Never.

Frozen Peas are the place to be.

They are quick to defrost, quick and easy to cook, delicious on their own or in dishes – and they are cheap.

We use frozen peas in the following:

On their own – I add them to a pot, cover with water and a pinch of salt, and bring to the boil. Once they hit boiling, I turn them off and drain them (this stops them overcooking and going dry and mushy). I add a swirl of olive oil (or a bit of good butter), and some salt and pepper to season. Also delicious with a dash of lemon juice. And some chopped garlic. Yum.

In pasta – we regularly make Bacon and Pea Pasta. This dish unashamedly appears on our meal plan at least once a week. It is fast, delicious and a family winner – everyone eats it. It is just as it sounds: fry up some chopped bacon while you cook your pasta. Throw a handful or two of frozen peas in with the bacon, then add to your cooked, drained pasta. Serve with lashings of fresh parmesan. Easy but oh so yum.

In Savoury Mince – oh this is a yummy meal. You can do a complex savoury mince, but a quick method is simply to brown an onion, brown some beef mince, add a bit of flour and cook it out. Then add a spoon of vegemite, a few dashes of worchestershire sauce – and about a cup or so of beef stock. Simmer until thickened. Add frozen peas and let simmer until they are cooked. This is a great fast weeknight meal – and is very good on hot buttered toast.

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See how much value a well stocked freezer can make to you and your family?

Add these 5 things to your shopping list – and always keep them in stock.

 

5 Pantry Staples to Help You Get Dinner on the Table

My Pantry is my go-to, open store cupboard. It will have everything from my essential items, to open herbs and spices, open pasta, rice, etc and even those strange ingredients you bought on a whim when visiting the farmers markets (lemon infused truffle oil anyone?).

But there are 5 essential items that are always in my pantry – and most likely form part of my shopping list every week. These 5 items are critical in building my family meals and are a significant saving grace when there appears to be nothing to eat in the house (just ingredients lol!).

5 Pantry Staples to help you get dinner on the table.

I would add these 5 ingredients as staples to your weekly shop – and stock up on them in your stockpile when you can. Buy them in bulk when on special, and always have them on hand.

Without further adieu, here they are:

#5 – Pasta

Pretty obvious one right? But I want to be clear here. I’m talking ALL pasta. It is a good habit to get into – buy different pastas. Nothing spices up a boring old spaghetti bolognaise than serving it with fancy tricolor fettuccine or those really big shells that you can stuff with the sauce and melt cheese over the top. Yum.
Plus – they are super easy to make into a fast family meal.

For example, once you’ve cooked your pasta (al dente of course!) – then you can do the following very quickly:

  • Cheesy Pasta – stir through some butter, grate some Parmesan over the top. Voila! Dinner is served.
  • Heat some olive oil in a pan, lightly cook some sliced garlic and sliced chilli – stir the pasta through and you have a spicy, garlic-y pasta sauce. Add more olive oil to get it really yummy.

#4 – Canned Lentils

I am kinda obsessed with legumes – lentils especially. My little bub loves red lentils – but we all love brown lentils. Canned lentils are easy – open the can, add a few ingredients and you have a salad. Add some hot ingredients, a poached egg and you have dinner.

#3 – Bottled Lemon Juice

Now, I know, this is not very PC in the real food world. But we’re talking making life easy, right? And this makes life easy. When you don’t have a lemon – this stuff can really bring a meal to life. A squeeze of this over your pasta, your salad or into your dinner will often make the world of difference. And it’s fast. Just make sure you buy one that is pure lemon juice without any nasties added. And still buy lemons – we always want the real thing when it’s available – but occasionally life doesn’t give you lemons.

#2 – Chocolate

Enough said, right?

As a woman, we always need chocolate in the house. Are you reading this gentlemen? Always. Without question. There must always be chocolate in the house. Preferably the dark kind – hidden in the back of the pantry for those moments when you just need chocolate. And there are those moments. Plenty of them. Especially when there are kids in the house. Or parents. Or just you.

#1 – Tinned Tomatoes

I honestly don’t know where all my dinners would come from without the humble tinned tomato. So many of my meals start with a can of red, juicy whole tomatoes. I prefer the whole tinned tomato – I find the crushed ones are very mushy and I like to open the can and see the whole food included. Plus I read somewhere once that crushed tomatoes are just the runoff of the whole canned ones – and it kinda turned me off them. Who knows if that is true – it is likely not – but still, I prefer the whole ones. I also really love the tinned baby tomatoes – but these aren’t easy to find. My local supermarket stocks them in the ‘international food’ aisle for some reason. But they are delicious in pasta sauce.

I always have at least 4 tins of these in the house at all times. Because the likelihood is that I will generally cook a meal with these about once or twice a week. Be it spaghetti bolognaise, meatballs, red lentil soup, vegetable soup, and so many more recipes. These are my number one go-to pantry item.

And that my lovely readers, is it. My top 5 pantry essentials.

What are yours? What do you find are the best things since sliced bread for keeping in the house at all times? What do you use them for? What meals can you whip up with your essentials? Let us all know in the comments below.

And don’t forget – subscribe to The Empowered Cook newsletter so you don’t miss out on many more incredibly useful strategies for keeping your family healthy and wholesome, without spending all day in the kitchen.

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How to Stay Motivated in the Kitchen: And Still Get Dinner on the Table

Sometimes getting dinner on the table is the hardest part of the day – especially when you cannot stay motivated in the kitchen. There is no inspiration to begin. I know what it is like. You have kids hanging off you, you and your partner are trying to decide whether to fold up the mountain of laundry, tidy up the mess of toys or just open a bottle of wine and admit defeat.

And then The Question: “What’s for dinner?”

It can toll like a bell of dread in most households. It is difficult to make a decision when you are in the midst of chaos. So you opt for something less than great, which no one really enjoys let alone eats, and then you just have a mountain of dishes to do.

This is the chaos I want to help you change. I want the early evening to be a time of family – when you can enjoy each other’s company. And if there is a screaming toddler, it’s ok – because dinner is already organised and sitting in the slowcooker, ready to be served up for everyone.

HowtoStayMotivatedintheKitchen

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from being a Mama, it is this: that if you have to force it, it’s not the right thing for that moment. You can’t force a child to go to sleep. You can’t force a child to eat. You basically can’t force them to do anything.

But you can have a system or a routine, that gently shows them the sequence of things: that we eat dinner, we play and then we bath. After the bath we put on some warm jammies and read some books. And then pretty soon after that, it’s bedtime.

If we skip any of these steps, or try to rush them – we get pushback. We start to force the issue. And it won’t work. We all get frustrated, and someone is going to end up in tears.

So – I’ve started to use the same process in how I approach dinner. I set myself a system / routine that is simple, easy and is basically a set and forget. We all know what is going to happen and when, and if disaster strikes, we know what happens next, so either of us can jump in and do the next step.

My routine is made up several ‘fundamentals’ – and these don’t all happen on the night. They are things I do prior to the dinner hour – and they get me in a really good place early on in the week, so that when Thursday night rolls around and that takeaway pizza is looking so appealing, I can just fall back on these ‘fundamentals’ and we’re all good.

#1 – Meal Plan

I dedicate some time at the start of the week to meal plan. This is such a HUGE topic, and there are so many ways you can do this – but start simply. Just write down a list of the dinners that you’ll likely make this week. 

Meal Planning means I don’t have to decide each night what to cook. I can make all the decisions on a Sunday afternoon, while Ollie is playing with his Dad on the floor and I can have a cup of tea.

We discuss anything that is coming up during the week – late work nights, football games, etc – and plan easy meals (baked beans on toast! Or a meal from the freezer) for those nights.

For the weekends, I generally batch cook – so it’s big hearty meals that I can double up and freeze for leftovers.

Do we always eat what we plan? No. 80% of time though – yes we do. And if we don’t, it’ll likely be that we’ve swapped a day around, or changed our mind about what to eat from the freezer. We rarely just throw in the towel and buy take-away.

Whatever way you choose to do this – just take the time to write it down and then stick it on your fridge. Everyone sees it – and knows what is for dinner well in advance.

#2 – Make the Process Easy

No one wants to be rummaging around looking for stuff to help make dinner. So get yourself organised. Keep utensils close to the stove. Keep placemats and napkins on the table so that you can easily set the table. Set the table early in the afternoon (or even before you leave for work!), so it’s ready before the rush. Start dinner earlier in the day, and then reheat it later.

Use the same plates, cutlery and glasses each night. Use the same placemats and napkins. Less decisions means the process is easier.

While waiting for your toast to cook, or the kettle to boil in the morning – get out any serving dishes you need for dinner and pop them on the counter. Get the meal from the freezer to defrost. Grab the packet of pasta from the pantry. Break the process down into tiny steps that you can complete during the day.

When I was at home with my little one, I would often do dinner prep during his morning nap. The amount of times this saved me – I cannot recall. I remember being in tears when Brendon eventually came home at the end of the day some days – because I was tired and Ollie had worn me out. But it was such a relief to simply turn on the oven and pop a dish that I had already prepared in to cook. It just made everything better.

And you know if the process of getting dinner made is easy – you are more likely to actually do it.

#3 – Take the Path of Least Resistance

Sometimes, you just need to take the easy way out.

So your meal plan says that tonight you are going to eat spaghetti bolognaise. But your toddler is teething or your teenager has a last minute exam tomorrow, or your partner is stuck in traffic and will be late.

Change it. Take the path of least resistance.

Now this path will be different for everyone. Our path means we eat baked beans on toast, or bacon and pea pasta. Something so easy that we don’t need to think, and it takes less than 15mins to make.

Your path might be to let everyone get their own dinner. It might be to let the kids have cereal for dinner. It might mean that you whip up a big batch of french toast and everyone has breakfast for dinner.

Whatever it is – when you need to, do it.

Just don’t make this an everyday occurrence – if it is, then you need to take some time to really assess where the issue is. And go back to basics.

#4 – Play Music. Sing. Dance. And Be Silly.

I doubt that anyone can stay in a bad mood if you throw on some trashy music and dance like a crazy person. You will giggle. You will belly laugh. I guarantee it.

No one sees you in your own home. No one can see how bad you are at dancing. And if your windows are closed, no one can hear you belt out a good tune!

There is something about cooking with music on. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it just makes the process better. And I know that my food tastes better when I am happy cooking it. That is the truth.

And I am happy when I watch my little one bounce to a good song – or watch my partner twirl him around the room. Or even better, have my partner twirl me around the room.

Just take a moment to be a little silly. It helps shake out the dust of the day – and gets you back to you.

#5 – Clean Your Sink

I know what you’re thinking – this is the last thing you want to do. But it really does make a good starting point. I know that if I have a clean sink – all the dishes away, and the sink is nice and sparkly – then good things will happen.

This is a lesson from my Mum – she always started the day and ended the night, with a clean sink. And if she was ever stressed about something or didn’t quite know what to do, you’d be pretty sure that you’d find her in the kitchen scrubbing the sink with a tea towel over her shoulder. That’s just the way she was.

So I started to do this too. I will start dinner by first clearing the sink of dishes, and then giving it a quick wipe down and rinse. I’ll grab some fresh teatowels and cloths – and make it look welcoming.

Dinner always comes easier after that.

Adopt just one of these ideas and see how it changes your “Dinner Hour”. Tell us in the comments below any other suggestions you might have on staying motivated and getting dinner on the table.

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