By Martha Ruch
Raise your hand if you want to open your refrigerator tonight and find dinner already made. I'm pretty sure that's most of us. However, things get a little murkier when it comes to how those meals get made and by whom.
I've got you covered, whether you decide to tackle a Sunday of cooking at your home, enlist the services of a meal prep company, attend a meal prep workshop, or hire a personal chef to stock your fridge and freezer with healthy, easy meals that will be ready when you are. After all, it's summer and the livin' should be easy. If you love to cook If you enjoy cooking, are a good planner, and can spend a few hours on your feet shopping for groceries, cooking, packaging food, and washing dishes, the "cook once, eat all week" plan is the way to go. This method seems popular with singles and couples, especially those who follow special diets and/or fitness routines. Some even prepare meals at home to take with them on vacation, which I think is brilliant. Not only are they able to stick to their diet and eat right while away, but they also end up with more time to spend relaxing rather than cooking or dining out every night.
To get started, choose five or so of your family's favorite meals, including some that freeze well and some that call for similar ingredients, which will minimize waste. Super-planners will take into account things like variety of cooking methods to make the cooking portion of the day move along. For example, by choosing to prepare one crockpot meal, one soup, one skillet or sautéed dish, and two meals that can be cooked side-by-side in the oven, you will greatly reduce the number of hours you're in the kitchen. Other strategies include shopping the day before the cooking, precooking rice or pasta the day before, chopping the onions, garlic, celery, etc. for every recipe at one time, and creating a timeline, making sure the longest-cooking items are started first.
For a more structured approach to a week's worth of cooking, look to Rachael Ray, the celebrity chef who gained fame teaching us how to prepare 30-minute meals. She is now in Season 7 of her "Week in A Day" program on the Food Network. In each episode, she shows viewers how to prepare five meals in a single day, so "you can eat well every night -- even on those days when the clock is working against you."
Another approach to big-batch cooking is offered by Melissa Joulwan, author of the "Well Fed" cookbooks. She tells her readers how to plan "Weekly Cookups" in which you prepare a variety of proteins and vegetables that can then be used to make various hot plates, cold salads or eaten "as is." She gets down and dirty with calculations on amounts of food to buy, storage container ideas, and even suggesting you treat your cookup like a WOD (Workout Of the Day) by setting a stopwatch, cranking the tunes, and just doing it. A little help, please! Maybe you like to cook, but don't like to plan. Or you don't relish the idea of cooking for hours and hours on a day off.
For a week's worth of meals as well as an enjoyable night out, try one of Personal Chef Sabine St. Pierre's "Meal Prep Workshops," which blend social and practical elements in one fun evening. You and your friends gather at one home for just a couple of hours to prepare and package five healthy meals to take home for the week. St. Pierre turns the home kitchen into a culinary classroom for a reasonable fee that includes instruction, ingredients, and packaging materials.
Another option is a franchise, such as Dream Dinners, with Massachusetts locations in Framingham, Plainville, and West Boylston. Here's how it works: after perusing the month's menu and ordering your meals online, you choose a date to either stop at the store for a 1-hour session to assemble your meals, or (for an additional fee) have a staff member prepare your meals for pick up.
"Our mission at Dream Dinners is to provide everything you need to put a homemade meal on the table, even on the busiest night of the week," says West Boylston Dream Dinners Manager Bridget Taverna. "Meals that you've assembled in our store are easy to prepare at home and great for involving the whole family so meal time is family sharing time." Rescue me! Finally, there are those of us who do not want to be involved in creating or planning our dinners, but desire healthy, homemade meals. If that's you, you might be a candidate for a personal chef service.
Busy families cite lack of time, lack of motivation, and a desire to eat better as the main motivators for hiring a personal chef. After meeting with the family to discuss food likes and dislikes, food allergies, special diets and desired type of service (weekly, monthly, occasional), a personal chef creates a custom menu for the family, which the client approves several days before their cook date. On the cook day, the chef shops for groceries and arrives at the family's home, where he or she prepares the agreed-upon number meals for the family to enjoy for days to come. Cost is dependent upon the number of different meals requested, with grocery charges billed separately.
The chef-prepared meals may be enjoyed any night of the week in the comfort of your home, with minimal cleanup. Several personal chefs I spoke to have also prepared meals for their clients to take with them on vacation. For more information or to find a personal chef near you, visit the United States Personal Chef Service's "Hire a Chef" guide.
Martha Ruch is the owner of Simply Delicious Personal Chef Service, helping busy families come together at the dinner table since 2007. Find pictures, recipes, cooking tips and more at simplydeliciouschef.com; on Facebook @SimplyDeliciousPersonalChefService; and on Twitter @chefmartha