Minimalist Meal Plans
How I learned to cook easy, cheap, healthy meals that get dinner on the table so fast I have energy left to enjoy family mealtimes and my evening.
Shared mealtimes build a sense of community and deepen friendships. I was surprised to learn that researchers have studied what happens when families sit down to eat and talk together regularly. It turns out that children that regularly eat with their parents display better academic performance, higher self esteem and greater resilience. They are at a lower risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression, anorexia and obesity. Family relationships improve. We eat healthier. Teenagers have better mental health and portion control. Parents handle work stress more effectively and save money. Children improve their communication skills which has a multitude of flow-on effects including increased ability to handle cyber-bullying. Recent studies comparing the impact of diet and exercise on weight loss show that the right amount and kind of food we eat accounts for a whopping 85% of weight loss while exercise only contributes 15% although both are important for physical and mental well-being. Research aside, I am convinced from personal experience that sharing leisurely, calm meals together has the power to heal, uplift, connect and empower. I sense that mealtimes are as important for young adult kids launching themselves into the world as they are for children. It’s not just about the food. The humble dinner table changes the world.
Contemplating how to slow down and simplify helped me understand that the evening meal doesn’t have to become just one thing too many in an already hectic day. I have learned to pace myself to make sure I leave enough space and energy for this important life ritual. Designing more minimalist meal plans has helped enormously too. It turns out that good meals don’t have to take hours to prepare.
Once upon a time I foamed at the mouth with the fervent desire to produce my own home-made, time-intensive food products like cheese, yoghurt, sourdough bread, kombucha and a whole host of complicated, slow-cooked meals containing a million ingredients. But at present I am building a new business and career, so I would rather spend more time enjoying winding down with my family and friends sharing a simple, fuss-free meal, rather than play pioneer woman even though I consider these skills valuable and satisfying. Life has different seasons and some will be more intense. There will be time for such things again but it is not now.
Each week I cut veggie sticks of celery, capsicum and carrot and place them in a see-through container and fill it with water. I replace the water if it gets cloudy. I place a lid on top, and a container of dip on top of that for us to use as quick snacks. They last a good week like this. Leftovers go to soup stock; get chopped up for meals such as casseroles and stir fries; added to my freezer soup bag; or sometimes fed to my worm farm.
Another quick healthy snack is to place a little oil and salt in a bowl and fill with chopped kale chunks. Toss them by hand to disperse the oil and put on a baking tray into a low oven about 120 degrees Celsius until crisp. They are like crunchy chips and can be sprinkled over soup and salad.
I alternate between rye toast and avocado; bulk bin store paleo granola/buckinis/toasted muesli and different types of milk/yoghurt and berries; steamed veg (I am loving squash, zucchini, and brussel sprouts at the moment (yeh, I am weird like that); and scrambled or fried egg.
I chop up salad ingredients and place in shallow, stackable, see-through Pyrex containers. Things like celery, carrot, capsicum, fried halloumi, cucumber and sun-dried tomatoes. Chickpeas, red beans, roasted nuts and perhaps boiled egg slices. I also bake some sweet potatoes whole (literally just thrown on an oven rack and cook on 200 degrees Celsius until a knife passes through) and then cube or slice them.
Each week I buy some mixed salad leaves and create different salads by putting the different ingredients together. Seed sprinkles are available in bulk bin stores. These can be sprinkled over top. I find preparing the ingredients early in the week and storing them together on the top shelf in my fridge makes for fast lunch prep during the week. I trickle whatever salad dressing I have on hand on top, or dilute some mayo with a little milk and drizzle that over top as a dressing.
For lunch I might also make up a salad sandwich on rye sourdough or a Buddha bowl adding avocado and mayo (roasted garlic mayo aioli is a taste sensation all of its own). Sometimes I toss chopped tomato/dried tomato, mushrooms, olives and halloumi or feta in a frying pan with a little oil and a drained can of butter beans - yum. I might drizzle over some lemon juice, soy sauce, or balsamic vinegar. I often sprinkle with micro greens, seed sprinkles and torn rocket leaves. Most of the ingredients for all of these ideas come from the preparation I do on Mondays - a rainbow of salad colours that hit my family at eye level every time they open the fridge to entice us all to eat clean.
Now to my minimalist dinners. Most of the action for me is on Monday. Occasionally I do meal prep on the weekend. I call them Monday Meals because I cook one meal on Monday and then reinvent the leftovers to create new meals for the rest of the week.
Here is an example:
I chop up some onion and garlic and fry in a little oil in a deep, oven-proof dish with a lid until soft. Then add 2 cans of chopped tomatoes, chopped frozen or seasonal fresh veggies, and some French or Italian mixed dried herbs or whatever fresh herbs I like, and some veggie stock. For protein I add cooked chickpeas or chopped vegetarian sausage or lamb shank. I cook this on low in the oven at about 160 degrees Celsius till the veggies are cooked through and the liquids have thickened. If you use a lamb shank cook until the meat falls off when the bone is flaked with a fork.
I serve it up Monday night with mashed or roast potatoes and beans or peas and store the leftovers in a large Pyrex container in the fridge for the rest of the week’s meals.
I take some of the leftovers and whatever Indian spices I like such as garam masala and a can of coconut cream and perhaps some steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets and cubed potato and serve with pappadams and a side of rice. I might sprinkle some roasted cashews on top.
I take some more of the leftovers and add a puréed can of chickpeas or cashews to make a thick, chunky soup. Sprinkle with croutons/grated cheese and serve with a warm dinner roll.
Add a tin of Mexican red beans, corn kernels and diced capsicum along with a jar of salsa, Mexican mixed spices and top nachos, tortillas, or corn chips with guacamole and some sort of plain thick yoghurt as sour cream substitute. Serve with a side salad from my lunch supplies.
Heat any remaining leftovers to top a baked potato and sprinkle with grated cheese, or make into a toasted sandwich with accompanying side salad.
Cordon Bleu cooking it is not.
But it is simple, fast, fairly healthy and minimalist in that these meals are all variations on a theme. They do not require exotic, diverse ingredients.
This is actually an old-fashioned way of cooking where families would cook a roast on Sundays and its leftovers would be reincarnated for several following meals. I have many such meal plans like this starting with a Monday meal base of some kind of protein be it cooked beans, lentils, chickpeas, mince (meat based or one of the many vegetarian options available today in local supermarkets), chicken, sausages (again plenty of vegetarian options to choose from that are getting better all the time, particularly when disguised in a bake or casserole) or lamb shank as above. All that is really required is a bit of ingenuity, imagination and planning. I even have a Monday Meal idea that is based on baked beans - baked bean bake, baked bean burgers, Mexican baked bean nachos and toasties.
In summer I change things up and have more salads for dinner. Many ingredients can still be prepped at the beginning of the week. Sometimes I make a double quantity of the Monday Meal or at least a little extra that I freeze, so if midweek I feel bored of whatever the base concoction is for the week I just go to my freezer for an alternative.
So my cooking has become much more free range. I don’t use recipes for weeknight cooking. It might not be Michelin-star rated but its edible.
In the lead up to developing my Monday Meal system I spent a few years with the Stonesoup Virtual Cookery School - a worthwhile investment. It is run by a young Australian mum and food scientist, Jules Clancy, and I got in on the ground floor when it was just starting up and have a lifetime subscription. See: stonesoupvirtualcookeryschool.com
Jules introduced me to minimalist cooking. Most of her recipes have only 4-5 ingredients and take a very small amount of time to prepare. Each recipe is demonstrated on vimeo and the recipe is downloadable. I think the wonderful thing about her recipes is that at the end of each she gives lots of different ways for them to be varied - for vegetarians, vegans, carnivores, and more. I think Jules gave me the confidence to start experimenting. And there is a forum where you can ask questions if something doesn’t work out. She also has meal plans already set up with shopping lists. So if you suck at cooking her site might be worth a look.
Some other really helpful ideas for simple meals I have found are:
Cook breakfast for dinner: scrambled eggs, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, buckwheat pancakes. A green salad with dressing, a side of boiled eggs and some veggie sticks stolen from your snack supply positioned artfully next to an inviting dollop of dip or mayonnaise aioli.
When time, energy and passion align I hope to make an E book of these Monday Meals so keep watching this space. Anybody out there interested?
Do you struggle with getting a meal on the table every night? Do you have a Monday Meal idea of your own? Any other tips for fast, healthy, no fuss dinners?
Next week I will be blogging about my slow and simple grocery routine.