Dinner Hacks So You Can Get Back to Work

When you work from home, you should—theoretically—be able to put a healthy, homemade dinner on the table most nights. If you have a cubicle-based significant other, he or she is probably happy to offload dinnertime tasks to you. After all, you’re at home all day, why not provision and prepare dinner with all your free time? But when you’re deep into your email or RSS feeds or CSS coding, you might not want to take the time to make a meal from scratch, much less head to the grocery store for shallots and sherry vinegar.

What help is there for the web worker who wants healthy, homemade meals but doesn’t want to take too much time away from the computer? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Think ahead with a weekly newsletter. The Six O’Clock Scramble, Quick Meals, and the Saving Dinner Menu-Mailer send you entree recipes with a shopping list and side dish suggestions each week. Do your shopping following the list and then you won’t have to waste time wondering what’s for dinner and whether you have the right ingredients.

Make a casserole. One-dish meals are easy and once you get it in the oven, you’ve got another hour of web surfing in front of you. You don’t even need a specific recipe–check out this Generic Casserole Recipe. All you need to do is pick a meat, a sauce, and vegetable and come up with your own creation. My latest favorite was chicken-broccoli rice garnished with toasted almonds. Andrea Chesman’s cookbook Mom’s Best One Dish Suppers has some great casserole recipes too if you want to get a little fancier.

Breakfast for dinner. Most breakfast entrees are quick and easy to prepare, because who has a lot of time in the morning? You can get an appealing meal on the table in less than fifteen minutes just by rethinking what’s appropriate for dinner. Scramble some eggs or cook up some pancakes. Fry some bacon too if your arteries can stand it. (Tip: your scrambled eggs will come out fluffier if you add a little bit of milk to the beaten eggs.)

Make-ahead meal services. Companies like Dream Dinners and Month of Meals provide the preparation facilities, the recipes, and the ingredients; you provide the labor. Put together ten or twelve meals in two hours, then package them up for your freezer. Other services include Super Suppers and Let’s Dish.

Pantry dinners. For the days when you should go to the grocery store, but couldn’t resist the magnetic lure of your Internet connection, make sure your pantry is stocked with ingredients like pasta, diced tomatoes, beans, tuna fish, roasted red peppers, and premade pesto. Laura Karr, the Can Opener Gourmet, has written two cookbooks with pantry recipes and offers some on her website too.

My favorite pantry dinner is Mediterranean Tuna Salad: combine white beans and a can of tuna with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Add chopped olives, pesto, and sundried tomatoes for flavor.

Leftovers. Think ahead when you cook or order out. Are you broiling chicken breasts? Add a couple extra so tomorrow night you can serve chicken sandwiches. Ordering pizza? Why not ask for an extra one so you can enjoy pizza again tomorrow? Think of it as an investment in your professional success.

Burgers, Sandwiches, and Wraps. Wrap or sandwich whatever protein you have in some carbohydrates, squirt on some ranch dressing or spoon on some salsa, and you’ve got a meal anyone would love. Try tacos too–they’re so easy to prepare and most kids enjoy them.

Burgers are quick to cook in a frypan or countertop grill. Keep burger buns, sandwich rolls, and tortillas in your freezer. Buy a pound of ground beef or turkey each time you go to the supermarket or keep tube-like chubs in your freezer (bonus: budget-friendly). If it’s 5 pm and you haven’t thawed the meat yet, put it into a bowl filled with cold water. It will defrost in 15 or 3o minutes.

Express lane meals. These are meals with so few ingredients that you can get ready to cook just by cruising through the 10-items-or-less line at the grocery store. If you’re like me, some days you don’t even get out of the house, so the express line isn’t an option. But if you have to make a run to the office supply store for printer paper or a new headset, a quick stop at the supermarket can set you up for dinner that night.

Rachael Ray has an express lane book out, but I far prefer Sarah Fritschner’s Express Lane and Vegetarian Express Lane cookbooks. Try Easy Pepper Chicken from Express Lane and Mixed Vegetable Stir-Fry from the vegetarian version.

Slow cooking. In some parts of the country they call it a crockpot, in others a slow cooker; either way, it’s an important tool to have in your dinner hacks arsenal. This option doesn’t work as well as it should for people who work outside the house because if you leave your stew in the cooker for ten hours plus you’re likely to return home to a third millennium version of gruel instead of the delightful beef burgundy you were anticipating. Plus, some slow cooker recipes require intermediate steps like adding fresh herbs towards the end of cooking—easy enough if you’re sitting in the next room—not so easy if you’re an entire commute away.

My favorite slow cooker recipe is Green Chili Chicken: put some boneless, skinless chicken breasts in your slow cooker. Add chopped onions, a jar or two of tomatillo-based green salsa so that chicken is covered, and a tablespoon or so of cumin. Cook on low for six hours or until chicken shreds easily with a fork, then shred it with the fork. Serve with sour cream, shredded cheese, and chopped cilantro.

Neo-Traditional Dinner. That is, modified meat and potatoes. The meat doesn’t have to be meat. It could be tofu or faux meat or poultry or fish. The potatoes can be substituted out for other vegetables. It’s more healthy and interesting that way.

Broiling chicken breasts or a flank steak takes only about fifteen minutes, fish even less time. Season them before putting them in the oven with a premixed spice rub like Essence of Emeril, available in your grocer’s baking and cooking aisle. For the “potatoes” part, use frozen vegetables—they’re already cleaned and chopped, so all you have to do is microwave or steam them.

How do you manage dinner without losing precious working time? Share your dinner hacks here.

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