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Culinarily Curious: Stock your fridge full of your own 'fast food' with a few hours of prep

Posted by Alex Pearlman  January 16, 2012 06:15 PM

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busy week food prep.jpgBy Anthony Howard

Home-cooked meals are healthier and more rewarding than takeout because you make them yourself. But for college students living off-campus or young 20-somethings with packed schedules, a busy lifestyle generally means quick, cheap, and easy-to-make food on the run. There's no time to cook when you have a huge exam in the morning, are staying late at the office, or just want to spend an evening hanging out with your friends, right?

Wrong. All you have to do is find some free time during the week -- a weekend afternoon works well, or maybe that day you don't have classes -- to plan out your meals, go to the grocery store, and do some cooking. By prepping ahead of time, you can make those busy weekdays a little more bearable by having delicious, homemade foods ready to heat and serve. It's sort of like stocking your freezer full of microwavable meals, but this way is much healthier (and cheaper). Here are some of my tips.

Back away from the Twinkies! Before you run headfirst into your nearest grocery store, a word of advice: If you’re looking to eat healthier, stick to the perimeter. The middle aisles are where grocers typically store processed junk food, so avoid temptation all together by staying out of that shelved wasteland.

Pick your protein wisely. When you’re making your list, think about what kind of protein you want to eat during the week. Fish is great, but unless you eat it within a day or two, it'll start to taste really, well, fishy -- and not in a good way. On the other hand, there are so many ways you can prepare chicken to save time during a busy week: Marinate the breasts and cook them for the next day’s dinner. Slow-roast and pull the legs to use as a topping on homemade pizza or in a sandwich. Later in the week, when time is of the essence and the meat is starting to dry out, make a chicken salad sandwich for a quick lunch; I like mine with apples, walnuts, and dried cranberries.

Make your own “frozen” veggies. Vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and green beans are all delicious and very healthy, but they can take a while to cook. If you want to eat more vegetables but don’t want to spend 45 minutes waiting for them to roast, listen up: The secret to saving time is blanching -- essentially, par-cooking a food in salted, boiling water, and then immediately shocking it in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. The amount of time a vegetable spends in the boiling water depends on the vegetable itself, but a good rule of thumb I use is that when you see the colors intensify, it’s ready for the ice; for example, after about 2-3 minutes, Brussels sprouts change to a deep, bright green. During the week, sauté the veggies in a little olive oil and some other flavorings for a few minutes to heat them up, and you’ve got a nearly instant, healthy side dish.

You can never go wrong with homemade sauce. On freezing cold nights, I typically look to comfort food like pasta to warm me up. And I love the flavor of fresh, homemade sauce; it blows the taste of even the most expensive canned stuff out of the water. Instead of wasting money buying sauce at the store, spend a day making a huge batch yourself, and store it in plastic quart containers in the freezer. If you’re Italian, your family probably has its own sauce recipe that’s transcended generations. If you don’t have a family recipe, fret not; the Internet is full of ‘em!

Be realistic. Remember to buy food you will actually eat, not food you might eat. Wasted, spoiled food is a sad sight to see, and when you throw it out, you’re pretty much just throwing money into the garbage.

How do you eat homemade during busy weeks?

'Culinarily Curious' is TNGG Boston's column on all things food, written by Anthony Howard.

Photo by seanhagen (Flickr)

About Anthony -- I'm a 22-year-old Massachusetts native -- grew up in the 'burbs and now spend my young adult life in the city. I am passionate about cooking and currently assistant manage a restaurant kitchen in Kendall Square. Let's just say that when I invite friends over for dinner parties, no one ever turns me down.

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