why I make dinner at home every day

So many other writers have covered the “why” of making dinner at home. Your reasons might be totally different from mine. My family eats homemade dinner at home because it’s cheaper, it’s easier than taking the kids out, it’s healthier, it’s often actually quicker than eating at a restaurant, and we get to eat the exact foods we want to eat.

My husband and I both love good food. We like to try new restaurants and we gravitate towards independently-owned restaurants with carefully prepared food. It’s not cheap. We’ll find ourselves spending $75 for dinner for four at a restaurant that isn’t very fancy. Neither of us really cares for typical fast food. Dunkin’ Donuts is the exception, because we live in New England and we would get kicked out if we thought differently. But if we’re talking quick chain options for carryout, Panera is pretty much the only thing we are comfortable with. And that stuff’s expensive! I’m not saying the cost isn’t worth it, but we have a hard time getting out of there for under $40. It’s not much cheaper to get meals prepared in-house at one of the grocery stores close to our house. Instead, if we get our ingredients at the grocery store and cook at home, we can get a week’s worth of food for under $140. I’m sure we could push that even lower if necessary.

We have two boys, ages four and two. Sometimes they just want to drum their silverware on the table to Queen playing “We Will Rock You” in their heads and eat soup with their hands. This is something that goes over better in the privacy of our homes instead of at a restaurant where people might care more deeply at fork dents in the table and soup sieved onto the floor. We’re trying to teach them manners. They’re learning. It could go more quickly.

It could also be going more slowly. Cue eye roll.

Cooking at home also means I’m eating more healthily. I don’t count calories but since I know all the ingredients that went in to my dinner and the effort behind it, it’s easy for me to be aware of what I should eat more or less. I don’t deep-fry anything – it’s too much effort – and while I use butter, cream, and whole milk, I balance it out with vegetables that taste so awesome that they actually get eaten. My taste buds aren’t accustomed to an abundance of salt and fat, as often happens in restaurants. I know that I’m getting a good intake of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and a mix of vitamins. I am positive that I’m eating a variety of foods. Let’s talk about variety. If you’re eating at restaurants all day, you might get a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, pizza for dinner, and pasta alfredo for dinner and feel like you are eating several different foods. But in actuality, you ate bread and cheese for each meal, with a few minor tweaks. If I cook at home, I’ll have something like soft-boiled eggs on buttered toast with a banana for breakfast, an apple for snack, leftover pork and cabbage stir fry with brown rice for lunch, cheese and crackers for another snack, and roast chicken with potatoes and steamed broccoli for dinner. I have days that are more varied or less, and of course there are people that would line up to tell me how my food choices are *wrong* but these are the choices that are serving me well, that I’m comfortable with, that help me feel good, fight off illnesses, ace my annual checkups, keep my pants fitting the same way, and allow me to work hard every day. Those are my benchmarks for a healthy diet.

If I’m going to keep that up, if I’m trying to be balanced with my choices every day, eating a variety of foods prepared to my liking, and save time and effort while not driving myself absolutely insane by creating the wheel every day… I need to plan ahead and execute that meal plan. It was a hard habit to get into and there are days that I struggle, but overall, I see no other viable option for my family.

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last week’s meals – comfort to the max

Sunday 10/16 – Cookout at Jane’s. How fun to see so many friends and their kids in one place! We were tired but it was beyond worth it, and the apples we picked were delicious all week.

Monday 10/17 – Roasted chicken and yukon golds, roasted carrots with pattypan squash. Possibly the best roast chicken we’ve ever had, and a large one, so we got three more meals from the leftovers. The pattypan squash was mediocre – maybe roasting was not the way to go? Made a huge batch of stock in the slow cooker.

Tuesday 10/18 – Budget Byte’s pork and cabbage stir fry with brown rice. This is the second time I’ve made this in the last month. I loved the ginger and pork together, and the leftovers reheat so well for lunch the next day.

Wednesday 10/19 – Chicken & dumplings over peas. It’s cool weather comfort food season in our hearts if not outside! We used leftover chicken and broth from Monday’s roast chicken dinner.

Thursday 10/20 – Chicken chili and cornbread. Thanks Monday! You were totally good to us!

Friday 10/21 – Cottage pie with double peas, carrots, and corn. I accidentally say shepherd’s pie sometimes, but I use ground beef instead of lamb. This was a great way to recover from getting caught in a rainstorm on the last few minutes of our afternoon walk.

Saturday 10/21 – Greek chicken noodle soup. This was pretty much the last of Monday’s roast chicken, although I did freeze some of the stock. With lemon, dill, and beaten eggs slowly added to the hot broth to make it thick and creamy without the use of any dairy, this might be my favorite version of chicken soup.

how to roast a chicken

Why? You know why.

Take the bird out of the fridge and let it rest on the counter for a little bit.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Get out your roasting dish. You can use a baking sheet or a glass casserole dish, assuming your bird is small enough (a 3-4 pounder would be fine, but we often get a 10 pound bird and prefer a true roasting pan). You don’t actually need a roasting rack. We often use one though, primarily because, uh, I have one. Thanks, Nina! The purpose of the roasting rack is to elevate the meat a bit, allow air circulation, ensure even heating, and so that the meat doesn’t braise. A purposeful braise is a lovely thing but it’s not what you’re shooting for with your roast chicken. If you don’t have a roasting rack you can cut up some potatoes, onions, and carrots to spread on the dish. Then you can plop the bird on the vegetables. You’ll get some circulating air, the bird won’t braise, and you’ll have the added bonus of potatoes roasted in chicken drippings and therefore hearing the angels sing. It’s that good.

So your dish is ready, with your roasting rack or your chopped vegetables. Your chicken’s chill has worn off. Take it out of the packaging (watch out for the mess!) and plop it in there, breast up. You’re not going to rinse it because that would just going to spread raw chicken drips and spray everywhere in your kitchen, ew. Look for feather remnants to dispose of. Without thinking too much about it, real casual-like, reach inside and grab the bag of bits. I frequently drop the contents of this bag in a saucepan, fill it with water, and simmer it to make broth to use in gravy. Good gravy. But no judgment if you just toss it in the trash.

You could truss. You could tuck wings. You could spatchcock. You can get fancy with herbs, shoving an onion or lemon up it, rubbing things in between the skin and the meat…or do nothing but shake salt and pepper over the bird, then drizzle a little olive oil over it. Simple is great for leftovers. Basic is nice for getting that bird in the oven fast so that you can relax for a little while before eating.

Pop the chicken in the oven, then drop the temperature to 375 degrees. Periodically open the oven and drizzle some of the juices from the bottom of the pan over the top of the chicken. Bake it until it’s done! Oh – did you want a time? There are formulas for estimating how long to roast meat, but it’s safest to just take the temperature. The first option is to wait for a period of time (maybe 40 minutes for a small bird, or an hour for a larger one), then stick a simple instant read thermometer in a thick part without touching the bone and see how close it is to 165 degrees – the magic number for poultry. Your second option is great if you are both very particular and lazy (like me). You get a probe thermometer, and then when the chicken goes in the oven, you push the probe in the breast or thigh and set it to alert you when it reaches 165 degrees.

Let the chicken rest on the counter for five to ten minutes so the juices don’t run out when you cut into it. Meanwhile you can finish making the gravy or pop the cork on that wine bottle.

why roast a chicken?

All you really need is time and a chicken. Everything else is – heh – gravy.

Personally, I like to roast a big one. Why go through the time and effort (actually… it’s not a lot of effort) without the benefit of lots of leftover cooked chicken? The most obvious thing to do is to make stock with the carcass. This will work no matter how little meat is left after your roast chicken dinner. After denuding the carcass (my nana’s preferred term) I like to pop the whole thing in my slow cooker, add any onion or carrot bits, and a bay leaf, then fill it with water and let it go for twelve hours on low. Let it cool a bit then toss the bones, then filter everything else out. Chill it overnight then scrape off the congealed fat. If needed, I’ll use some for that night’s dinner, then freeze the rest. Some goes in ice cube trays, some in muffin tins, some in approxiately two-cup portions in quart-sized bags that I freeze flat. That way it’s easy to defrost the amount I need. My freezer is pretty jam-packed.

Here are some things you can make with the meat of leftover roast chicken:

  • Chicken noodle soup, avgolemeno (a creamy, lemony Greek chicken noodle soup with dill – amazing), or any of several other soups
  • Chicken and dumplings
  • Creamed chicken on biscuits or chicken a la king
  • Chicken salad or chicken ON salad
  • Chicken pot pie
  • Chicken chili – white or red!
  • Tacos, burritos, burrito bowls, tostadas, enchiladas, empanadas, quesadillas
  • Chicken casseroles – creamy chicken and rice, chicken noodle, chicken cordon bleu-style, buffalo chicken baked ziti
  • Quick stovetop pasta dishes – chicken pot pie pasta, chicken enchilada pasta,
  • Loaded baked potatoes, with barbecue sauce, baked beans, shredded cheddar and sliced green onions
  • As a pizza topping

You can totally go forth and conquer the world through roast chicken! Er, conquer dinnertime.

Then the world!

grocery store cheat sheet

Say I’ve had the week from hell, and I haven’t had the chance to do any meal planning and have no idea what’s going on in my fridge or freezer, but I’ve made it to the store, and I don’t want to be back for several days. What should I buy? Assuming you don’t have any diet restrictions, you can use my cheat sheet:

  • Produce
    • Two different vegetables to use for side dishes – broccoli and green beans are family favorites here
    • Bananas and apples, or two other kinds of fruit, for breakfast and snacks
    • Carrots, which can be used in many dishes but also as a side dish or raw as a snack
    • Onions and garlic
  • Dairy
    • Milk
    • Butter
    • Two dozen eggs
    • Shredded cheddar
  • The middle of the store
    • Rice
    • Canned black beans
    • Large can of whole tomatoes
    • Jarred salsa
    • Grated parmesan
    • A loaf of bread, peanut butter, and jelly
  • Frozen aisle
    • Peas
    • Corn
    • Ice cream (obviously I’m under a load of stress in this situation)
  • Meat
    • Ground beef or ground turkey
    • Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
    • Bacon
    • A pound of salmon

No matter what’s going on, I’ve always got a minimum of olive oil, soy sauce, my spice cabinet, and salt and pepper.

And coffee. There’s never not coffee.

Here are some ideas of what I could cook after this shopping trip:

  • Pasta with a quick bolognese and roasted broccoli
  • Broiled salmon in an Asian-inspired soy marinade with white rice and green beans
  • A quick burrito bowl dinner of rice, black beans, frozen corn, salsa, and shredded cheddar
  • Pan-fried chicken cutlets, steamed carrots and peas, and pasta in a quick cheddar cheese sauce
  • A few breakfasts of scrambled eggs and bacon with toast
  • A few breakfasts of oatmeal with sliced fruit
  • Lunches of leftovers, or peanut butter & jelly sandwiches
  • Snacks of fruit, carrot sticks, and of course… plenty of ice cream.

That’s four full days of meals!