7 Steps to get Organized to Cook a Quick Meal

The biggest obstacle to cooking seems to be time and the lack thereof. In our increasingly fragmented and harried lives we don’t feel we have the luxury to prepare a meal from scratch and pulling something out of the freezer to microwave is so much less trouble, and so much quicker when you are truly hungry. And that’s hard to argue with. However, being the argumentative type, I’’ll try!

As in so many things regarding time, organization is a prime prerequisite, and with that planning ahead. One of my favorite organizing tools is to break a job down into many smaller parts that can be done separately, but in sequence, over a given period of time. Then I’m not looking at a huge job, but several smaller jobs, and as I sequence them, I’ve planned out a game plan or a method of attack The other key plan is to have everything you need for the job, in this case a meal, at your fingertips.

So, Step one is "planning ahead" or thinking out a strategy to get the meal made. That can be done in the car going home from work, or, as I do, early in the morning when I’m walking the dog before work. I make a mental note of what might need using up in the refrigerator, what I might want to take out of the freezer to thaw and what I need to pick up at the store on the way home. (Hopefully there isn’t anything in that latter category as that really soaks up time.) I realize that there is a head of broccoli that I really should use and I know I have a roasted red pepper and some cheese.

Step two is browsing in the pantry and finding some pasta bow ties and a can of salmon. I have all the ingredients for a main dish that can be put together in less than twenty minutes, Pasta with salmon and vegetables. Just having thought out what dinner will be and knowing the ingredients are handy will take a lot of the stress, bother and time out of dinner preparation.

To solve the "quick, I-need-something-to-eat-munchies," a couple of celery sticks or carrots can keep the monster at bay while adding to the daily five to seven vegetable and fruit servings recommended for all of us by the various nutrition experts. (The late afternoon snack is one of my favorite, much overlooked "small pleasures" to get me through the end of my day. A cup of tea with a cracker and some cheese or peanut butter or celery sticks with peanut butter can tame the tiger and buy some time to make dinner at home.)

Now, I have to actually make that meal and I hit the decks running.

Step three begins he moment I walk through the door, I put the large pot of salted water on the stove to boil and gather all the ingredients I’m going to need. Because the dish has so many fresh vegetables and we’ll be snacking on celery sticks and carrots, I’ll forgo the salad course. For desert, a quick fruit salad and cookies (made over the weekend) will round out the meal healthily and quickly. From this point it's really just peeling and chopping vegetables and fruits and creating a quick sauce.

For Step four I start by peeling and chopping two cloves of garlic, chopping a small onion, slicing a red pepper (roasted or not) and separating a crown of broccoli into small florets. Just about now the water has come to a boil and it is time to add the bow-ties, stirring them to make sure they don’t stick together and cooking them 6-8 minutes or until they are just barely soft.

Now Step five is making the light cheese sauce by melting one tablespoon of butter in a small heavy saucepan, sprinkling 1/2 teaspoon onion powder over it, and when bubbling, stir one tablespoon of flour into the butter until it's crumbly. Add one cup of milk, a tablespoon at a time, stirring constantly to avoid lumps and to keep the sauce creamy. When the sauce has begun to thicken, add the cheese, any cheese, cut into small pieces or grated. (Some of the cheeses I prefer are cheddar, swiss and parmesan.) When the cheese has melted, stir in the can of flaked salmon, turn the heat off, cover and go on to . . .

Step six, cooking the vegetables. Put two tablespoons of olive oil into a heavy skillet on medium to high heat. Add the chopped garlic and onion and cook until the onion is transparent. Add the rest of the prepared vegetables, two tablespoons of water, stock or vermouth, cover and cook for about three minutes. When the broccoli is bright green and still a little crunchy, stir in the sauce.

Step seven, the grand finale, is to drain the pasta, and either mix with the sauce before serving, or place the pasta on individual plates and cover with the sauce. Pass the parmesan cheese and enjoy.

The whole meal took 20-25 minutes to make - the time determined by how long it takes to cook the pasta, because once the process is thought out logically, it can be carried out very quickly. Of course, part of the planning ahead is in the marketing. Keeping a pantry stocked with ingredients that are basic and versatile, that can be used in any number of ways to make a quick meal, is the real Step One in becoming organized in the kitchen.