Be Your Own Sous Chef

This is the follow-up post to my guest contribution on TheProjectGirl.com. Be sure to check out my original post on her site, Capsule Menu Planning! I've been working very hard lately to streamline my housework and do things as efficiently as possible. One of the ways I've done this is to prepare my ingredients for the week's recipes in advance. I can't take credit for this idea - in fact, it was my husband (the engineer, of course) who made the suggestion.

I love making kind of intensive dishes - things that involve lots of ingredients, steps, stirring, etc. etc. However, those types of dishes aren't exactly the easiest to compile when there are cloth diapers to be washed, a little mouth to be fed and 18 loads of laundry to be folded. (And I only have one little mouth to feed - I don't know how those of you with more handle it all!)

This little predicament is what prompted me to start being my own sous chef. A sous chef is an assistant to the executive chef in a restaurant. Typically, she is the one who prepares the ingredients for the dishes and shadows the head chef to prepare for later becoming the head honcho.

How does that translate to my personal kitchen? By being my own sous chef, I take some time (an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, usually) to get all my ingredients chopped, washed, measured, etc. and put into plastic or glass containers in the fridge. That way, when my husband gets home from the gym on Wednesday night and is READY TO EAT RIGHT NOW, I can just throw a bunch of already sliced peppers and onions into a frying pan...and Voila! Fajitas! (Or whatever. )

Or, if I'm occupied with a little human attached to my chest, it's easy for Scott to pull out the meal plan binder (learn more at TheProjectGirl.com), grab the already-prepared ingredients and work on things while I'm taking care of the babe.

Here's how it works:

  1. Prepare your meal plan and get all the groceries you need for the week. For more information on this step and some awesome, free, editable and printable menu planning forms, check out my guest post on TheProjectGirl.com.
  2. When you have an hour or two to work on preparing your ingredients (while the kids are playing outside, the baby's napping, etc.), grab the binder and go through each recipe for the week to see what you need. (This is why it's helpful to have all the recipes for the week at the front of the binder as I mentioned in my original post.)
  3. Slice/dice/wash/measure all the items that you'll need for the week. There are certain easy tasks that I don't do in advance like grabbing a handful of cilantro to throw into a dish. I don't like to cut up things that tend to wilt or go bad quickly. More obvious and easy things to knock out are things like cutting up bell peppers or onions or washing mushrooms.
  4. Put the prepared ingredients into sealable plastic or glass bowls, and toss them in the fridge.
  5. If you have kids who take their lunches to daycare or school, you can go ahead and prepare their meals, too. Put apple slices into containers, grapes into baggies, etc.

Don't worry if you don't have a bunch of expensive containers. You can also use upcycled Indian takeout containers (like I used above for the peppers) if that's all you have.

If you ARE in the market for some snazzy new containers, opt for ones that are BPA-free and have measurements on the side. This makes getting the right proportions super easy while you're cooking!

Ahhhhhh. Isn't it nice to have everything ready-to-go? It's like pre-made meals...only, you made them. And they'll taste good. And be good for your family.

Another great thing about preparing your ingredients in advance is that you only have to clean up the mess once. Just one big pile of stuff to go into the compost, just one time scrubbing the cutting board and just one time wiping down the counter. It makes cleanup much easier on the nights when you're actually cooking the meals.

Now, I am a total over-achiever and like to make my family's sandwich bread from scratch. Crazy, right? (It's actually quite easy, especially if you have a stand mixer.) I like to get my dough rising while I'm preparing all my ingredients so I can sit back and enjoy the amazing smell of the bread baking when I'm done. I do two loaves at a time so I can put one in the freezer and not worry about bread baking for a couple weeks.

If you are one of the lucky people who has a deep freeze (I am not one of them), you can take this idea to a whole other level. You can actually prepare many meals in advance and freeze them. Then, when you've had a long day of shlepping the kids around and taking care of the house, you can easily pull something out and have a gourmet dinner in the time it takes to warm the dish. Even if it's something like lasagna that needs an hour in the oven, you just pop it in and go do something else while it's cooking.

(The paragraph above was a hint to anyone...Scott...ahem...who might be wondering what to get me for my birthday this year.)

Finally, if you have any veggies left over at the end of the week, toss them all into a wok with some brown rice and soy sauce for a tasty (and easy! and healthy!) stir-fry. ISN'T BEING YOUR OWN SOUS CHEF GREAT?!

There you have it! Oh...one final note...

I cannot stress enough how much it helps to have a cute, one-socked assistant. It is totally optional but highly recommended. :)

What do you do to make your family's meal preparation easy? I would love to hear your ideas!