So you left work early to squeeze in two concentrated hours of holiday gift shopping (which you crushed BTW but as you’re carting your heavy bags home on the crowded bus or subway, it hits you: you still have to make dinner. Cue the internal scream!
The secret to relieving the stress of putting together weeknight meals during the holidays? Being prepared ahead of time. Do your future self a favour and stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer with a few staples that you can quickly whip into a delicious dinner that everyone will love.
First of all, take ten minutes to write out your family’s five favourite simple meals. For us it’s tacos, roast chicken, garlic spaghetti, burgers, and chicken noodle-vegetable soup. Maybe yours are pesto pasta, or shakshuka, or black beans on rice, or French toast. Every family is different.
Next, strike out anything that you can’t make in 30 minutes or less. Roast chicken requires a whole, defrosted chicken plus an hour, so that one gets cut.
Step three is to shop for all the essentials and do some minimal food prep. I buy a family pack of ground beef and freeze it in smaller portions (so they thaw more quickly), put a box of taco shells in the pantry, make sure there’s a jar of salsa in the fridge, and we always have a huge brick of cheddar on the go. Taco seasonings live forever in the pantry and we’re never low on ketchup, so as long as I can pick up some fresh burger buns (or pull them out of the freezer, that’s tacos and burgers taken care of.
Since we roast a ton of whole chickens, I’m always trying to stay on top of making stock from the leftover bones. It freezes like a dream and gives chicken noodle soup a huge upgrade. You can freeze it with chicken pieces right in the stock, or pop a package of thin chicken tenders in the freezer (they thaw and cook quickly right in the broth when you’re heating it up). Add a grated carrot or some chopped celery and a handful of dry pasta or rice, and you’ve got instant comfort food. No stock? Don’t worry, you can just use quality bouillon concentrate—it's pretty darn good too.
One of the meals should be a failsafe, nothing-in-the-pantry, “we needed to eat ten minutes ago” meal. Ours is spaghetti tossed with a little garlic gently sautéed in butter or olive oil. At no time is my pantry without a package of dried pasta and a few fresh garlic cloves, so if I put a pot of water on to boil as I walk into the house, dinner can be on the table in 20 minutes. Phew.
Keep a few long-life veggies on hand for quick side dishes too. Frozen peas or corn can be heated up and tossed with butter; fresh cabbage lasts nearly forever in the fridge and can be quickly shredded and tossed with mayo, yogurt, and a splash of vinegar for a tasty coleslaw; carrots and celery can always be served raw.
With these simple staples on hand, you can rest easy knowing you can pull a tasty home-cooked dinner out of thin air in no time. And if you’re still stuck, just grab a rotisserie chicken and some buns and make chicken sammies for dinner. It’s comfort food at its quickest!
Claire Tansey is an author and cooking teacher by day and a home cook by night. She’s been in the food business for over 20 years as a restaurant cook, night baker, test kitchen manager and restaurant critic. Along the way she sang lead in an all-female rock band and got a master’s degree in literature. In 2010 she was named Food Director for Chatelaine. Originally from Montreal, Claire lives in Toronto with her partner, Michael, who eats everything and their son, Thomas, who does not.