Hello Everyone. By now, you should be as excited about cooking once a week as I am. And you should have a fully-prepared kitchen. Now, I’m going to talk about preparing your pantry, freezer, and fridge. And let’s not forget the spices. Because your arsenal against weekly hunger lies in these strong defenses.
Your freezer is your friend. Repeat after me: “my freezer is my friend.” Things keep for a year in the freezer. I think you can find more specifics on that, but it’s my rule of thumb. Not many things keep for a year anywhere. So use your freezer as your friend. The quantities below are for my two-person household, so adjust accordingly.
1. Meat. If you eat meat, then follow these instructions. Buy Meat When It’s On Sale And Store It In The Freezer. If you follow my recipes, you will mostly buy boneless, skinless chicken breast/thigh (when on sale in Southern CA it will be $1.99/lb, and side note: looks kinda gross all by itself, doesn’t it?), ground turkey or 98% lean ground beef (again, when on sale it’s about $1.99/lb), and chicken sausage. Buy as many packages of these meats when they are on sale and store them in your freezer. Then you always have meat, and you didn’t pay $5.99/lb for it (which is the typical price for ground turkey in our region. I think it’s robbery). *If you do not eat meat, then increase the bags of frozen veggies. I usually use soy products, mushrooms or eggplant as vegetarian substitutes for meat, but these do not freeze well.
2. 1 bag each: frozen spinach, frozen broccoli, frozen stir fry veggies, frozen peas. Find these on sale and keep at least one bag of each in your freezer. (The peas are purely for injuries, because they make a great ice pack).
3. 2-3 Bags of shredded cheese. These keep just fine in the freezer. When you see them on sale, buy them and store them in your freezer. I like to have at least a mozzarella and a Mexican blend on hand. (Of course, if you don’t eat cheese, don’t do this.)
3. Ice cream. We keep one sweet in our house, and that’s ice cream. Because we love it. I suggest you figure out your most favoritest sweet and keep one average-sized portion of it in your house. This way, you don’t feel deprived and like you have to go out to some fast food place to get it. We also keep one bag of chips (for my husband to take to lunch) and a bag of dark chocolate hershey’s kisses (so I can put one in my lunch every day). And those are all the snacks we have.
4. Meals you will eat later in the week. You have room to freeze portions. Have extra food that you didn’t finish, but you’re going out of town? Freeze it. You can eat it sometime this year.
5. Coffee. We’re coffee drinkers. Did you know that bag of coffee will last much longer if you keep it in the freezer?
6. One frozen meal that feeds your family. If you always have a frozen meal that feeds your family, then you always have a “Plan B” in case your cooking-once-a-week plan has let you down. You won’t need this very often. Now, you have to be very careful about fat and sodium when choosing frozen meals. We like Freschetta Canadian Style Bacon and Pineapple (although the crispy thin crust C.P.K. bbq chicken pizza is healthier), P.F. Chang’s bag ‘o food, Marie Calendar’s pasta meal, or Stouffer’s lasagna. Whatever you like and you feel is “good enough” on the fat and the sodium, buy it and keep one there. This is for emergency purposes only, so I don’t go crazy about the health factor. It’s better than going out to eat, right?*
7. 1-3 individual sized frozen meals. Again, sometimes you’re packing lunches and you realize you are one lunch short. Or, you are training for a marathon and need an extra meal in the middle of the day. Give yourself a frozen lunch. It’s an emergency. I like lean cuisine. This is better than a snack because it’s a good gauge: if you’re not hungry enough for a lean cuisine, you’re probably not that hungry and can wait until your next meal.
*Of the frozen meals I mentioned above, the one with the least amount of calories is the Freschetta pizza, but it also has the smallest serving size (1/6 of a pizza. Not much). The least amount of fat is Freschetta (again, smallest serving size) and the least amount of sodium is Marie Calendars. P.F. Chang’s doesn’t list their nutritional info, which is strange.
The fridge is a stopping station. Things in the fridge typically have 1-4 weeks to live; that’s how I think about it. This is where you will keep all those meals you prepared. You might keep a carton of milk and/or juice, depending on your choices for breakfast. Few things stay in the fridge, so don’t think about anything permanent. I am only going to list things that should always be in your fridge. Otherwise, I will include them in the shopping list each week.
1. Milk/Creamer. Of course, if you don’t do milk products, substitute accordingly. Only keep the milk if you eat cereal for breakfast. Only keep the creamer if you eat oatmeal for breakfast, or if you use it in your coffee.
2. BBQ sauce. You will cook with this. Find your favorite one. Unfortunately, the only ones without high fructose corn syrup are also very expensive. So, pick your poison.
3. Condiments: ketchup (NO high-fructose corn syrup!), mustard (I prefer stone ground and/or Dijon), salad dressing (1-2 bottles at max! Your favorite kind: we like Trader Joe’s because they make inexpensive, healthy salad dressings. I do not make my own, I’m not at that level. Salad dressing goes bad faster than you might think. And nothing clutters up your kitchen door like 8 nearly-empty bottles of salad dressing).
4. Jar of minced garlic. Never again will I chop garlic, making my fingers stink for days. The jar is much easier and convenient. Buy the biggest jar you can.
5. Bottle of white wine. Not cooking wine. I buy 2 buck chuck Chardonnay (which is now unfortunately $2.50). We use it both to cook and to drink.
6. Grated Parmesan cheese. We use Kraft reduced fat grated parmesan cheese.
You will need some spices on hand. I have a spice rack that I really like, but that’s not the best way to do spices for my style because they don’t give you the right assortment. I recommend buying a spice storage thingy (IKEA, Container Store, Marshalls) and then buying your spices at the grocery store. Spices are expensive, but you will probably buy them once in your life every 2-3 years. They do lose their flavor, so try and throw them out if they’re, y’know, 5 years past their expiration date. Also: spices are what add FLAVOR to your food WITHOUT THE CALORIES. Why would you want to skimp on zero-calorie flavor? Sounds like a win-win to me.
1. Good Salt. I cook with a good, coarse salt. It adds more flavor to food and it lasts forever, so it’s a good investment. Find the best you can afford: Kosher, Sea Salt, Pensey’s fancy rock salt… whatever. I buy kosher salt from the grocery store. I’ve used them all and I can’t taste the difference, but they’re definitely better than table salt for cooking (note: you probably still need table salt for other stuff, such as baking and filling up your shaker).
2. The 4 C’s: Cayenne, Cinnamon, Curry and Cumin. Cayenne adds heat, cinnamon adds… well, I hope you know what cinnamon adds. Curry and Cumin are both smoky spices and are often used together.
4. Ground ginger. You’ll use this in Asian dishes, among other things.
6. Rosemary. Gotta love Rosemary.
7. Basil. Who doesn’t want a little more basil? Adds to the Italian Seasoning.
8. Paprika. Again, smoky, good stuff (and, apparently, a Japenese sci-fi film cerca 2006).
9. Garlic Salt. You have garlic, and salt, but sometimes you just need garlic salt.
10. Onion powder.
11. Black pepper. I prefer fresh ground. Like, I have a pepper grinder and I buy the peppercorns. But, you can just buy one that says “fresh ground black pepper,” because it’s probably the same thing.
Isn’t the pantry at right nice? But if you’re like me (a.k.a., a real human in an apartment-sized kitchen), then your pantry probably looks more like this (and here is an excellent article on how to organize your pantry nicely):
Like the fridge, people go crazy in the pantry. You can look in the dark crevices of many a pantry and find things that were made when Queen Victoria was alive. NOT ANYMORE. Repeat after me: “my pantry rotates. My pantry rotates.” You should have rotating items: things you replenish every 1-6 months. Not every year. Not every 5 or 10 years. Again, I will only mention the things that you should always have in your pantry, and these are FOR ONCE-A-WEEK, No-Brainer COOKING (I am not approaching the subject of baking. This is strictly once a week cooking).
1. Extra-virgin olive oil. I buy the almost biggest bottle of the medium-priced one. I use olive oil a lot, and the flavor affects the food. This is the kind I’m happiest with. I’ve used the cheapest kind, and it works just fine, and I’m sure I’d love the most expensive one. Find the one that works for you.
2. Balsamic vinegar and white vinegar. All other vinegars can pretty much be substituted for these ones. Plus, white vinegar is great for cleaning. I buy balsamic vinegar from trader joe’s. I think it’s the best.
4. Three cans of diced tomatoes: I buy “no salt added” or “no sodium.” You can always add more salt! You should have One chili-ready, one Italian seasoned, and one plain. When you are down to 1 can, put them on your list. These should always be in your pantry. Always. But not the same ones: rotate them out!
5. Three cans of beans: again “no salt added” or “no sodium.” Pick any 3 beans that you like: black, red, white, kidney, pinto, garbanzo… I’m not picky about beans. Just not refried. Anything but refried.
6. Jar of spaghetti sauce. Now, these are typically high in sodium and sugar, so do your best. Frankly, we choose these on price. We like Rago because it’s usually 99 cents/jar at our local grocery store. And it’s good. Get whatever red sauce you like: marinara, roasted garlic, 3 cheese, mushroom, bacon lovers (yes, they have bacon lovers), vodka… whatever. You just need a jar of it all the time.
7. Boxes of pasta. We wait for these to go on sale and then we buy as many as we can. Have fun with it! Changing the shape of your pasta makes you feel like you’re making a whole new meal. Bowtie, rotini, angel hair… buy as many as you can fit. We probably keep about 6-8 boxes of pasta. If you’re gluten free, then use rice noodles or gluten-free pasta.
8. Rice. I keep jasmine and brown. I buy those ziplock storage containers and keep them full of rice. Make sure you keep your rice in a cool, dry place. Weird stuff can grow in rice. That is why your pantry is what? Rotating.
9. Brown sugar. Light or dark, it doesn’t matter.
10. Two cans of cooking spray: one butter flavored and one veggie oil flavored. If you’re not using olive oil, you’re using these.
11. Bread crumbs. These come in handy. I like the Italian flavored, store brand ones, but again, watch the sodium!
13. Worchester sauce. Like hoisin sauce but for grilling and/or meatloaf. You would hate to need it and not have it.
14. One packet of chicken taco seasoning, one packet of chili seasoning, one packet of stir fry seasoning. I cook a lot with these flavor packets. I use Lawry’s or McCormick’s, but whatever is cheapest is usually best (they range between 2/$1 to $1.25 in Southern CA). I keep these on hand but I’ll tell you other ones that I might buy for an individual meal (such as enchilada, fajita, etc). Also, I do not buy low sodium for these because I only use half the packet.
15. Bottle of red wine. Again, something you would drink.
So there you have it! All the fixin’s of a great, once-a-week cooking plan. You will glide in and out of your kitchen (hold the “that’s-what-she-said comments to a minimum) as if with wings.