Everybody has them -- days or even seasons in our lives when there seems to be just no time to cook. Culturally, we are bombarded with messages that tell us this means we should hand over the responsibility for dinner to the Colonel or Mickey D, or maybe we should "hit the Hut." But what if we don't have the budget for this? Or what if we could eat out every night, but don't think that would be good for our family either spiritually or nutritionally?
I'm about to enter one of these seasons (heck, I've already started packing boxes), so I'm relying on the meals I've learned over the years are easy for me AND have a high success rate with my picky eaters. But what I'm really relying on is something I learned from my mother. While she wasn't a great cook, she had a repertoire that would keep her family happy. And since she taught third grade for all of my growing up (actually, until after Branwen was born) she never had a whole lot of time, especially on week nights.
I've heard of mothers -- some with multiple children -- who go to the grocery store three or four times a week. Mom didn't have time for that. She made a weekly shopping trip for perishables and such, but she also did the thing that has saved my whats-for-dinner? neck more than once -- she stocked and maintained a pantry. I talked about this a little last NaBloPoMo, but today I want to specifically mention the kinds of things to have on hand when life gets crazy.
First on the list is canned protein -- tuna, different kinds of beans, even that old standby Spam! Our dinner last night consisted of canned chili beans over rice, with cheese for those who wanted it. Although the rice cooks for 20 minutes, my actual work time was about five -- measured the rice and water, set the table while it boiled, set the timer, went and did something else for most of the time, and microwaved the beans for the last few minutes.
Obviously, to make this kind of dinner work, you also need dried starches on hand. This includes all kinds of pasta, rice, and instant potatoes if you like them. (We don't.) If you have a large freezer, frozen potatoes and corn and flour tortillas expand the range even more. I also freeze breads and rolls and bagels-- since I have three freezers -- and because Roger loves to make them I always have frozen chili and spaghetti sauce on hand. If you freeze them flat in zipper bags thay will thaw in mere minutes under running water.
Canned and jarred sauces are an option if you don't have an in-house chef, and I actually keep canned pizza sauce on hand, although I like my homemade stuff better. And canned vegetables are great, especially tomatoes. I also keep canned soup on hand for lunches, but they don't become dinner unless something drastic occurs!
The one perishable that I would recommend regarding as part of your pantry is cheese. Bought in 8oz. blocks -- they regularly go in sale for $1.50 or less in my area -- it keeps for months. And with the other staples I've mentioned, it's the heart of bagel pizzas, and quesadillas, and tuna melts, and plain old grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Tonight we're having something a little fancier: broiled salmon with baked potatoes and peas. But since I portioned the salmon before I froze it, and the peas are from a bag, this almost qualifies as a pantry meal. If you tell me what you have on hand, I'll tell you how it can become dinner! (Unless all you have is chick-peas and chocolate frosting, in which case a pantry restock is in order...)