Cooking for 1 or 2 &/or
Too Tired to Cook
If you don't have the time or energy to read the entire article, skim over the bold words to find what ideas can apply to you.
How many of you empty-nesters still cook as if you have a passel of kids at home? Do you throw away too many leftovers because you’re tired of eating the same ol’ food over and over during the week?
Do you eat too much takeout because you’re just too tired from work or other responsibilities to cook or even think about planning a meal?
Do you and your hubby/housemate, kids, etc. have entirely different tastes in food, i.e. herbivore vs. carnivore or omnivore, that makes it hard to cook and satisfy everyone short of a short-order kitchen?
The following tips may save time, money, and even your sanity on occasion. Names of dishes are mentioned, but to keep from reinventing the wheel, recipes for these dishes can easily be found online.
To make meal sizes more manageable, reduce the recipe (brush up on those fractions) or divide and freeze portions for later use. This works great for casseroles (King Ranch chicken, chicken spaghetti, meat loaf, goulash, etc. and there are literally hundreds of choices), enchiladas (beef, chicken, cheese, or green chili), spaghetti and pastas, soups, and more. This is great for working women to fix a quick meal, but you need to remember to take the food out of the freezer well ahead of time to thaw.
Takeout vs. Homemade
If you have the budget for takeout and have learned to make healthy choices, that’s wonderful! But if too much of your paycheck goes for restaurant food and you aren’t choosing healthy items, it’s best to limit your takeout meals. Prior to the pandemic, my dad and I ate out or picked up takeout once a week. We’ve upped that to twice a week to support our local restaurants during this time.
The biggest game changer that has decreased my meal-prep time to under 15 minutes (on average) is to cook meat in bulk and store in separate containers to freeze for later use. When I was working full-time, I would do this on the weekend when I wasn’t so exhausted. I usually cook 3-5 pounds of ground meat seasoned with onions, bell pepper, fajita seasoning, etc. that is the base for many recipes, and I freeze dish-size portions in freezer bags that can easily be defrosted in the microwave. (Take the meat out of the bag and defrost it in a glass container). If I cook hamburger patties to freeze, when I’m ready to reheat them, I either wrap them in damp paper towels or put them in a covered dish with a little water so it will add some moisture back into the patties.
I also cook a whole bag of chicken breasts at a time— boiling, shredding, and bagging portions for quick meals; or grilling seasoned breasts and slicing them like fajitas for quick tacos paired with avocado and pico de Gallo (I can’t get enough of these). These pre-cooked bags of beef and chicken enable me to make quick tacos, chicken salad, salad toppers, any casserole that calls for either meat, spaghetti, pizza, and more. I love the natural rotisserie chickens, too, and usually buy these once a month. They also speed up the process of meal prep when the chicken is already cooked.
On occasion I will use the Instant Pot to cook a good rump or sirloin tip roast or small brisket, which you can shred and freeze some for later. And if the meat isn’t tender after the first round of cooking, cook it a second round. The first roast or brisket meal we eat includes mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and salad. The leftover roast meals include tortilla wraps with all the trimmings, roast beef hash, or even a good roast/lettuce/tomato sandwich with mayo. So good!
Easy Meals Using Pre-cooked Meat
My favorite pizza is to use Naan flatbread (found in the grocery store's deli department) as the crust (Delicious!) We smear on a base of store bought pizza or marinara sauce, and then cover it with our favorite toppings. The grandkids love doing this, too. We use a variety of peppers, black olives, onion, mozzarella cheese (or whatever we have on hand), hamburger meat, pepperoni slices, sausage, mushrooms (I usually cook these a little beforehand in the microwave, which you can do the same with the peppers and onions, too, if you like them a little more cooked on your pizza), etc. Put the homemade pizzas in the oven for about 10-12 minutes to make a quick, delicious meal. I’ve also used Alfredo sauce as a base with shredded chicken, black olives, and cheese— so yummy!
Quiches are so easy to make, too, using a store-bought crust (sorry Martha Stewart) and a simple egg mixture combined with most any meats, vegetables, and cheeses cooked up for quick meals later. They are great for freezing, so make 2 or 3 different types of quiches at the same time and freeze two of them. If you want a variety for the week, go ahead and slice the quiches and put them back together so each quiche has 2 slices of each kind. Pair with a salad and it’s such a quick, easy meal.
I make a really quick chicken & dumplings using chicken broth (either from the chicken I boiled or store bought), the shredded chicken I previously froze, and I add peas and carrots to the pot to make it a meal in one dish. If you’re in a big hurry, cook the veggies in the microwave for several minutes to give them a head start. I use the rolled pie crust and a pizza cutter to quickly make the square dumplings to drop in the boiling water. (Refer to recipe for seasonings). To thicken it, I use half or more of an envelope of white gravy mix (Pioneer brand is my favorite-- you can't mess it up), depending on how much chicken and dumplings I’m making. This chicken and dumplings dish tastes like chicken pot pie, so you can even put the mixture with the veggies (minus the dumplings) in a double crust and make a chicken pot pie casserole. Or just slap a single crust on top of the chicken mixture in a casserole dish and brown the crust. Easy peasy.
Plant-Based & Meat-based Eaters at the Same Table
There are a number of dishes that can be prepared for both a vegetarian diet and a meat-lover's diet. Just a clarification of terms, though: vegetarian and vegan are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. A vegetarian usually avoids eating meat, but may still eat eggs, cheese, and sometimes fish, while a vegan avoids all animal-sourced products, including eggs and cheese. Some vegans even avoid honey since it is made by bees, while others avoid most oils and fats (even plant-based) for health reasons.
Spaghetti and pastas are quick dishes that can go either way. Use either a marinara or Alfredo sauce with your choice of pasta, and I love to add squash and black olives to it. Either take out portions for the vegetarian eater before adding the meat, or have the meat on the side for the carnivores to add to their pasta dish.
Enchiladas, tacos, and chalupas can be made to satisfy both the vegetarian and the carnivore. A tip about enchiladas— you don’t have to go to the trouble of rolling filling in the corn tortillas. Stack the tortillas and filling to save time. Soups, depending on the ingredients including the broth, can also go vegetarian or carnivore.
I consider myself a “low meat eater” because I've cut down on my meat intake since my family has a history of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, all of which are impacted by our diet. But I just have to have a good cheeseburger (or I split one with Dad) every so often, as well as barbecue occasionally. Balance if key. I’ve even made casseroles that have meat on one half and no meat on the other. I’ve also done this with beans when my dad doesn’t want to eat beans in the dish.
Potatoes have gotten a bad rap over the years since they are loaded with carbs, but usually the most unhealthy thing about them is how you prepare them, such as slathering baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, and bacon, or soaking them in oil when they are fried. But potatoes can be a great starch base for meals, allowing everyone to choose what they want to top them. I love putting broccoli cheese soup or chili on baked potatoes, and vegans can add grilled veggies or salsa on their potatoes. I didn’t eat French fries or baked potatoes for years because I’d heard they were so bad for me, but my vegan friend Yvonne Oude-Reimerink has changed my mind about them. When we’d have a girls’ day trip, we used to tease her because she would whip out a baked potato from her purse and have as a snack or meal if a place didn’t have vegan choices. And potatoes haven’t hurt her figure one iota. Sweet potatoes are another good option.
More Easy, Quick Meals
Another favorite quick meal we usually have once a week is chalupas. I keep a small, covered frying pan with oil on my stove for the purpose of frying chalupa or taco shells since we eat those often. Fry the corn tortilla until it’s crispy, spread refried beans on it with a sprinkle of cheese, which I melt in the microwave before adding cut tomatoes, shredded lettuce, pico de Gallo, and avocado. I never get tired of these, and they’re so fast and good.
We love to make a meal of cornbread and beans with pico de Gallo (diced tomatoes, onions, a little jalapeño, chopped cilantro, and S&P) on top. My grocery store has canned pinto beans (charro and borracho style beans) that taste better than I can cook them, so I am not ashamed to say I don’t mind opening a can of beans for a meal. : ) Now if I cooked pinto beans like my sister Joy makes with a hambone and other goodies in it, I’d say otherwise.
Perk up soup or stew with artisan bread to accompany it. If there’s only one or two in your household, refrigerate all of your bread and tortillas to make them last. Soften bread by heating in the microwave or grilling it in a skillet, or toast it for sandwiches. As for other 'breads' we refrigerate, Dad likes plain cake or breads with coffee, so I make pound cake, banana or pumpkin bread in loaf pans and freeze half for later use. Beef up Krusteaz brand blueberry muffin mix by adding more blueberries and bake it in a loaf pan rather than cupcakes to save time.
As for salads, I used to never like to eat a salad that I made. It just tasted better when someone else made it. Or I’d make a big salad and eat one serving, and let the rest of it go bad. I learned to avoid the latter by making single serving salads— one bowl at a time. But as for learning to eat my own salads, I’ve had to change my habits since my last blood test showed my blood sugar was a little high, so I decided I needed to eat some kind of fresh vegetables and fruits every day, preferably in a salad. I buy the salad kits at the grocery store (always find the ones with the farthest expiration date), which have so many different ingredients, but mostly chopped cabbage and carrots. If I bought all of those ingredients separately to create the equivalent of the salad kit, it would cost a fortune and it would be so much salad that much of it would go bad before I could use it. So that justifies the cost of salad kits for me. But the kits are short on leafy veggies, so I add more green leaf lettuce and spinach to the mix, as well as a tomato and bell pepper to turn a so-so salad into an amazing dish. We try to eat it up in two or three days. The salad will last longer if you put the dressing on the individual bowls right before you eat it rather than the whole salad in the beginning.
Another one of my go-to quick meals are breakfasts for supper. I’ll scramble eggs, make drop biscuits from a mix (don’t have to touch the dough with my hands), and already cooked sausage or bacon for Dad. I love pancakes, too, and I occasionally add pumpkin (from a can), cinnamon and nutmeg to the mix (Hungry Jack’s ‘just add water’ mix is my favorite and my grandson August declares they are the best pancakes), to make pumpkin pancakes. I also make no-cook syrup by mixing Yacon syrup, maple flavoring, Splenda, & a little water, which definitely lowers the calorie content.
Until all of your quick meal ideas and recipes are firmly cemented in your head, you may need to write them down to refer to when your brain is fried. This is meal planning, which you can make as simple as possible, and it works! You don’t need dozens of different meals for something different for every night of the month. The most basic meal planning system would have six meals (your biggest meal of the day) for a week’s worth of main meals, and then keep ingredients on hand for simple breakfast and your smaller meal (sandwich fixings, veggies, salad stuff, soups, etc.). You can try new meal ideas occasionally or switch out the ones you tire of, but keep it simple. Over time you can build a two-week meal plan, but remember, you don’t need dozens of meal ideas.
I can't tell you how many times I came home from work with a fried brain, but I just had to look at my list of easy meal ideas, and with little thought I could put something together in a short period of time because I'd done my thinking earlier when my mind was able to. I knew I had the ingredients on hand because I keep my kitchen stocked with the foods I need and use regularly (see article on kitchen preparedness).
I’m grateful to live in a time of such a variety of food available— grocery and restaurant offerings. Even our food bank offers quite a variety of foods for those who need the extra help. A missionary friend who’s lived in Africa the past decade said it is overwhelming with all the choices in the stores and the busyness of everyone’s lives when she comes back for visits after living in an area of such scarcity and need for just the basics to survive. Her words should remind us that when our lives get so busy and exhausting that our quality of life drops, we need to make time to take stock of our lives and cull and simplify where we can.
And when it comes to food, we really need to pay attention to what we are feeding our bodies because our lives and health literally depend on it. It’s so sad that our planet’s most affluent first world country has the most obese and unhealthy population, which means wealth and material goods don’t necessarily make us smarter about our diets. We have to take responsibility for our health and practice better habits, no matter what age. And the second half of life isn't too late!
Thank you, Brenda Webb, for suggesting this topic!
Donna Van Cleve
Note: I am not a nutritionist, nor do I follow the food pyramid for my daily food intake. These are just ideas for quick meals for tired people. The healthiest habit I try most to follow is eating some fresh foods every day and limiting processed and high sugar foods. I quit drinking soft drinks a decade ago, and I never thought I would be able to get off Cokes because I had such a psychological attachment to them, but I did. Carbs and cheese are my biggest struggles these days.
Chalupas are one of our favorite quick meals. One of the things my kids & I are doing during the pandemic is to send photos of what we were eating to each other for ideas & inspiration.
Matthew Wendell's Mexican lasagna is a meal in one dish; cook it & freeze individual portions for later use.
This practice of pre-cooking the meat (seasoned ground beef & chicken).in bulk & freezing them in smaller portions enables me to fix good meals in 15 min..
Naan bread pizza-- one of our favorites
Quiches are so versatile and easy
Add peas and carrots to chicken & dumplings to make
a meal in one pot.
Can you tell we love Mexican food? Enchiladas, rice & beans paired with fresh tomatoes & cucumbers
We love breakfasts for supper because they're so fast. I used leftover mashed potatoes to make potato patties.
We regularly do a build your own chalupas or tacos night.
Artisan bread dresses up any meal, whether it accompanies soup or salad.
Add strawberries & blueberries & a vinaigrette to a spinach salad for a changed of pace.
I like eggs any time of the day; this egg is sitting on
Chef salads - single servings
We'll eat most anything on a tortilla chip,
like this nacho salad