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Fast Food, Crunchy-Style

I try – most of the time – to
feed my family relatively healthy meals. At the same time, I teach
two nights a week – meaning I have to have the food ready or
almost-ready when I leave the house at 3:30. Add in after-school
activities like ballet class that runs right up to dinner time, and
a hot, nutritious, home-cooked meal gets a little more complicated.

I know how easy it can be to drive through somewhere – grab
some fast food to go. And there are days when everything’s
exploded all around you and good enough – in the shape of a
big mac and a happy meal – is good enough. I do not judge
those instances, because I have them myself. But I try to keep
those for truly Code Red days and with a little planning –
and a new definition of the phrase “fast food” –
I by and large succeed.

Wanna know how?

First and foremost, cook ahead.
You’ve heard this a million different times from a million
different people, but they are ALL RIGHT. I try to double one meal
a week and freeze half of it: if I’m making meatloaf, I
double the recipe, freeze one loaf uncooked, and have it for a
time-crunch day. Seriously, it doesn’t take much extra time
at all to double a recipe, just a bit of forethought for the
ingredient list. And it feels so good to have that extra food lined
up in the freezer to defrost for yourself or give away to a friend
who could use some domestic help one night. Plus, it’s a
great way to get labor-intensive stuff out of the way for a while:
if I’m going to go through the effort of making a lasagna
with the sauce and the noodles and the filling and the cheeses,
then by gum I’m going to make four of them and freeze three.
You’ve Got It Made
and href="http://www.amazon.com/Fix-Freeze-Feast-Delicious-Money-Saving/dp/1603427260/?_encoding=UTF8&s=books&tag=1mother2anoth-20&linkCode=ur2&qid=1329963845&camp=1789&sr=1-1&creative=9325">
Fix, Freeze, Feast
are two great recipe books to
get you started down that road.

And yes, I really do have that many casserole dishes. Stocked up at
the outlet mall one year.

But if you don’t have time to cook a whole extra meal
regularly, you can at least partially cook ahead. If
I’m going to stir-fry some chicken for an Asian dish,
I’ll stir-fry two pounds instead of one, and freeze a pound
of it already cooked and seasoned, ready to defrost and toss with
some rice or egg noodles. Likewise with ground beef, or a tricky
enchilada sauce, or . . . the list is endless.

And staying in the freezer for a moment, I am the queen of the
ice cube tray. If I make a smoothie for the family,
I’ll make the recipe a bit larger than we need, and freeze
the rest of it in ice cubes. When one of the girls asks for a
smoothie for breakfast on a rushed school day, I can take the cubes
out, toss them in the food processor a couple seconds, and
it’s done and looking lovely. If I get adventurous and make,
say, pear sauce (instead of apple sauce), I’ll freeze the
leftovers in cubes. All the fruit purees we mix into our plain
yogurt? That’s right, frozen cubes. If you’ve got
leftover coffee one day, freeze it in cubes and whip up a
frappucino for a fraction of the cost. The possibilities are

Seriously, my freezer is full of casserole dishes, little tubs of
enchilada or penne vodka sauce, small packs of pre-cooked cubed
meat, and bit Ziplocs of cubes of various fruits and smoothies.

Moving out of the freezer, you can make your own convenience
. Make your own taco seasoning and keep it in your spice
drawer – it costs pennies and there are no weird chemicals in
it. Well, at least in mine. Make your own Bisquik, or pancake mix,
or whatever – then you’ll have your shortcuts on hand
when you need them and you’ll still be controlling what goes
in your family’s bodies.

Next, know what shortcuts work for you and spend money on
. One of my all-time favorite cheats is a fresh-cooked
rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods Market. I can buy a
deliciously-seasoned, organic, free-range, yadda-yadda chicken for
under nine bucks and make it last two or three meals. Night one
will be roasted chicken with fresh veggies and noodles; night two
might be some shredded chicken tossed on fettucine with steamed
broccoli and parmesan; and there’ll still be enough left over
for a hearty chicken salad for my lunch the third day. Seriously,
no one could pay me nine bucks to sweat through roasting a chicken
– this deal is a no-brainer to me.

But there are other healthy shortcuts out there: I buy OrganicGirl
salad greens instead of a plain head of lettuce, for one. I get
mixed greens and spinach, no tearing or tossing needed. Or
I’ll keep a bag of frozen organic veggies on hand for a quick
stir-fry. And fruit-wise, I always try to freeze any fruit –
especially berries – that look like they’re going to go
bad before they get eaten. I’ve got big bags (of course) of
frozen fruit in the freezer, ready to toss in a blender for a
smoothie or, in the case of bananas, defrost and bake into banana
bread. Yum.

And finally, have your trusty stand-by meal ingredients on
. There are a handful of things I can throw together
quickly and I always make sure I’ve got them in my pantry. So
you’ll rarely ever find me without: spaghetti, a jar of
sauce, a baguette waiting in the freezer, and a Ziploc of
mini-meatballs I’ve made ahead; a box of rice noodles and
some frozen potstickers to go with that tub of pre-cooked Asian
chicken and the bag of frozen veggies; ground beef, my taco
seasoning, and some tortillas in the fridge; and – for those
really desperate days – two blue boxes of Mac N Cheese.
Annie’s Mac N Cheese, that is. Some days, it’s more
than just good enough – it’s just right.

So those are my basic cheats to get me through real life – my
version of fast food, if you will. What about you? Any great tips
you’d care to share with the rest of us?


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