The clock and hunger sync, both choosing to strike at precisely 5 p.m. The fog of workday stress has yet to lift when you’re inundated with the first round of borderline whiny queries from kids and spouse. They’re eager and yet slightly afraid to learn what’s for supper.
The answer lies on the other side of the fridge door. It opens. You stare. You shift the jug of milk, and stare. Bathed in fridge light, you stare.
What’s for supper? It’s the most hated question of the day, but it doesn’t have to be, with a little planning or perhaps a little help.
“When you plan your meals you can actually work around your plan and you’re not scrambling every night,” says Elaine Wilson, personal chef and owner of Allium Foodworks.
With 20 years in the businesses, Wilson knows a thing or two about getting her ducks (or lamb, or beef or veggies) in a row before heading into the kitchen. Advanced planning is essential to staying on top of her clients’ needs. It saves time, stress and money by allowing you to buy in bulk or follow flyer sales.
Despite obvious benefits many people don’t know where to begin when it comes to plotting out the family meals. Dinner becomes a last-minute problem solved on the fly in the grocery store.
That’s because dinner has become an afterthought in many households, Wilson says, symptomatic of “overscheduled” families who work late then scramble to dance or hockey practices or other time commitments.
Food gets scraps of time.
“People don’t really know how to cook anymore,” Wilson says. “There’s a huge generation gap — really probably two generations — that have grown up with prepared food or eating out at restaurants … they don’t actually know how to cook.”
That’s where Wilson comes in. As a personal chef it’s her job to put good, nutritious food on the table for clients that range from singles who can’t cook to families with an appetite for fresh flavours but no time. Meals are prepared weeks and sometimes months in advance and then portioned and frozen until needed.
Keep it simple
While putting food on the table is her job, Wilson’s mission is to teach her clients about food so they can stand on their own two feet. It all starts with planning — and keeping it simple.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated,” Wilson says, pausing briefly to explain dinner can be as simple as roasted veggies and pan-fried pork chops. Add a little orange juice and honey to create a delicious glaze — in the same pan.
“With all the food TV, people think they need to be gourmets.”
The first step toward creating a meal plan, Wilson says, is to sit down and decide what you and your family like — be it chicken, beef, tofu or carrots. Cookbook recipes are good for inspiration and websites like www.epicurious.com allow you to search recipes by ingredient.
Once you choose your favourite foods, think about a few different ways to cook them. For instance, if chicken breasts are on the menu, they could be grilled one night and chopped up for a stir-fry the next, or cut into strips for an easy and healthy chicken fingers. Your favourite veggie could be steamed one night, roasted the next and served with a cheese sauce on day three.
Plan ahead, cook ahead
The next step is to decide how far to plan ahead. Wilson recommends cooking on weekends for the week ahead or, depending on your ambition, weeks in advance.
But preparing ahead doesn’t have to mean cooking full meals. Portioning meats purchased in bulk saves thawing time on the days you do cook and that can be shortened further by cutting it into strips for stir fries, Wilson says, or even adding a marinade to the meat before freezing so flavour is added while it thaws.
Next, identify your crazy days — those evenings when cooking is out of the question and meals have to be ready to go. Find simple recipes to prepare and don’t be afraid of ready-made marinades or rubs, Wilson says (look for ones without preservatives). Stir-fries are fast, as is a simple pasta and chicken. Frozen veggies can be cooked quickly and, if you choose the right brand, still pack a flavourful punch.
Utilizing all your resources — be it spouse or kids — is another way to save time and stress. Kids can get involved in everything from shopping to various aspects of meal preparation, even if it’s just washing veggies. By taking an early interest in food, kids are more likely to try a wider variety of foods, says Wilson, who teaches classes to youngsters.
“Kids as young as two should understand that food is prepared as a group,” she says.
Can’t do it
Even the best plan goes off the rails if there’s not enough time to execute. As a personal chef, Wilson cooks in people’s homes, often teaching as she goes. But the one-on-one approach isn’t the only option to put good food on the table.
Dinner Factory owner Pam MacDonell has spent the last three and a half years helping St. Albert and area families come up with healthy, easy meals for the dinner table. The business model can be confusing at first, but it’s essentially part personal chef, part day-planning service.
MacDonell and her staff pride themselves for taking the guesswork — not to mention tedious labour — out of dinner preparation. Meal preparation stations line the interior of Dinner Factory, each with a featured recipe and accompanying ingredients and spices.
“Recipes are written so you don’t have to know how to cook,” MacDonell explains. “Staff do all the chopping, washing, mincing.”
Recipes range from the simple and kid friendly turkey meatloaf with sundried tomatoes or pork medallions with brandied apples, to more adventurous international flavours like Thai thigh chicken, or beef au poivre for a fancier feast.
Making family-sized dinners is as simple as grabbing a bowl and adding the chopped ingredients and spices one at a time. Recipes can also be tweaked according to personal taste.
“They have complete control over their meal. They know exactly what’s going into them,” MacDonell says. “There’s no preservatives, chemicals, but also if there’s allergies in the family they can leave that ingredient out.”
Once the recipes are assembled, they’re portioned into freezer bags or foil containers, cooked as needed in the oven, crockpot or on the grill, depending on the recipe. You get quality ingredients without shopping and there’s no clean-up.
There’s no question such a service costs more than cooking from scratch. MacDonell pegs her price points in between fast food and eating out in a restaurant (also where personal chefs like Wilson fall in line, she says).
Most customers are busy parents who want to put healthy meals on the table in a hurry without resorting to greasy chains or restaurant dining room. Dinner Factory features 14 recipes that change monthly, all with an emphasis on quality and local ingredients.
“The most fun part of this business is we’re always creating recipes, always playing with food,” MacDonell says.
While the meal assembly option is available, some customers opt for fully prepared portioned and frozen meals. That helps for everyday meals and even special occasions.
“A lot of our meals people serve company and don’t tell their company,” MacDonell laughs. “And we’re fine with that. We help them feel less stressed.”
Check out some of Wilson’s easy, family friendly recipes here.