Meal prep magic - one pan salmon, quinoa & turmeric in 8 minutes
If you only read one post on this blog please make it this one!
A strong statement, but it's because I use this meal highlights all the tips and habits I use to consistently make cooking healthy, delicious dinners for one simple and quick.
One pan salmon with peas, corn, cauliflower rice and quinoa with turmeric
Despite having cooked for one for quite a while and being a fairly competent cook, indeed one who loves nothing better than planning and creating fantastic dinner parties, I still struggle with consistently cooking a proper dinner for one each evening.
Sometimes it is no hassle to whip up a great tasting healthy dinner. Other nights, like this one it seems mission impossible. Not only don't I feel like cooking, I can't think of what to cook.
This evening I actually spent about half an hour trying to convince myself I wasn't hungry because the whole dinner thing seemed such a chore. It wasn't so much that I didn't want to cook, I just couldn't think of anything to cook with what I had on hand, and most of all I didn't want to have to contend with the cleaning up. (Obviously menu planning failed this week!) It was one of those days I really wished there was someone around to say 'you cook, I'll wash up!'
BUT that person didn't magically appear and I finally saved myself from having chocolate biscuits for dinner and came up with a meal that took minutes to prepare - and best of all ticked all the boxes of being:
- healthy & nutritious
- one pan
- budget friendly
- almost mess free
So today I want to share the principles that made this meal so simple and easy and show how I put it together. It's a formula that takes a bit of work upfront, but once that's done and once you start following the principles, it's a lifesaver for nights like this.
The secrets revolve around doing some meal prep every month or couple of months and keeping a few basic ingredients on hand.
Top tips to always be able to come up with a basic dinner for one
1. Always have canned Tuna or Salmon in the cupboard
- I used to hate any form of canned fish, and still don't love it. But what I do love is having it as a cheap, easy pantry staple that can be turned into a lot of ideas for dinner
2. Always have frozen peas in the freezer
- The 'pop' of green that peas bring make everything look good and is an easy way of getting an extra serve of vegetables
3. Always have frozen 'fillers' or carbs 'flat-packed' in the freezer
- These are the 'fillers' that bulk out any meal such as rice, pasta, barley, mashed potato, quinoa and cauliflower rice.
- See my post on why you should never just cook rice for one meal
- See this post on why I am passionate about 'flat-packing' freezer items and how to do it
- *Links to come - leave a comment if you would like to be notified when they are updated.
It was these tips that made it so easy to put together this meal.
So this is not a recipe, more a 'mix and match meal' - but it it one of the easiest ways of eating when cooking for one.
To do it yourself, it's about concentrating on a few simple principles that I describe below.
But first a note - don't be put off thinking this is only for those who eat quinoa and cauliflower rice!! It's equally applicable to pasta, rice or any other form of carb or what I call 'fillers'. Indeed I have a mix of these in my freezer.
How it could have been made even healthier
To be honest I could have made this meal even healthier by adding broccoli, which I had and spinach, which I didn't.
I looked at the broccoli, but just couldn't be bothered with washing, chopping and cooking it! (Was feeling VERY lazy!). But that is where having frozen peas is so great. I allayed my guilt about not having any greens. Good thing I'd followed my own rule, 'Always have frozen peas in the freezer'!
Principles for always being able to pull together a tasty, healthy meal in minutes
Good meals usually consist of some form of protein, vegetables and quite often a carb-type element such as rice or pasta.
If you need to cook the carb, it almost always means two pans, one to cook the rice / pasta / quinoa and the other for the protein and vegetables. So the secret is to always have pre-cooked carbs in the freezer.
Which is nowhere near as hard as you think. This is because if, for example you are cooking rice for one meal - it takes exactly the same amount of effort to add a couple of cups and cook rice for several meals. All it means is that at the end, you need to wait for it to cool and then put it into freezer bags. Yes it's a bit fiddly, but so worth the effort it because:
- saves a lot of time and effort each evening
- no need to wait for water to boil and the 10 - 15 minutes grains like rice take to cook means dinner gets on the table faster
- one less pan to wash
5 Things to Master to Make Cooking for One Quick and Easy
1. Learn about what textures and flavours you like and what defines a 'good dinner' for you
By this I mean find out and know what flavours and textures are most likely to tempt you so that you can make sure you can make those types of meals. For example I know that if food looks good and has a lot of texture I am more likely to be inspired to cook and eat it. Last year I discovered red cabbage and pomegranates and realised that cooking greens and creating purple and green meals, made them really attractive to me.
I know for regular week night meals my biggest driver is creating something healthy, so I am more attracted to something I can add spinach, broccoli and the like to.
2. Identify and remove the obstacles to cooking well each night
This has been an eye opener for me. It's really the simple things and will be different for each person, e.g the little things that annoy one person, won't even be noticed by another.
Things that were obstacles for me and what I've done to remove them are:
- Dislike the smell and mess of opening tins of salmon or tuna. Now I open several at once and 'flat pack' the ingredients to store them in the freezer. E.g. do the messy job I hate once all in one go, once every six weeks or so and don't have to deal with it each time.
- Sorting through all the pots and pans I have to find the on I need. I did a massive cleanout of my kitchen and removed the things that I don't use each week, e.g. casserole dishes for making lasagne - and moved them to a different part of the kitchen. That way everything I needed was at my fingertips and I could easily access each night. The lasagne casserole dish that I used to have to lift up and move to get to my favourite saucepan each night - has been moved to the back of a corner cupboard - as I only use it about once every 5 years!
3. Lean to love leftovers - to the extent of sometimes deliberately cooking more so that you have leftovers.
- Through the course of talking to people about food for this blog, I have discovered a whole tribe who hate leftovers and don't like cooking with them.
- This surprised me as I thought everyone loved leftovers!
- That's because you can create a completely different meal with the same ingredients, but with little effort. We always had bowls of odd bits and pieces of leftovers and they were always the things that my sister and I fought over, quite often the best parts of a meal.
4. Learn to create 'mix and match' meals
I think this is essential if you want to make really easy meals each night with little effort. This way you can pre-cook proteins such as meat, chicken, pork etc. and some carbs or fillers such as rice, pasta, quinoa etc. and sauces such as tomato salsa, mexican enchilada sauce and then select a combination of protein and filler with whatever vegetables you have available to create anything from a warm salad to a shepherds pie to a past a ragu to a dish such as this one pan salmon. It allows you to be imaginative based on what's available, or, if you can't think of anything to turn to a staple such as the meal featured in this post.
Learning about cooking 'separates' was a game changer for me.
I could mix and match what protein and what filler I wanted, and ideally what sauce. It doesn't replace cooking and freezing complete meals for nights when you don't want to do anything at all, but is a great complement.
5. Be imaginative and think in terms of nutrition or tasty vs recipes
This relates back to the first principle, knowing what textures and flavours you like. This eventually helps you put together a simple meal more quickly because it means you don't always have to follow a recipe. You can learn to take a more 'free-form' approach to putting together a meal. This means you can look in the fridge or pantry and based on seeing what's there and what textures and flavours you like, you can invent a meal on the spot. This is how I come up with a lot of the 'warm salads' I make for dinner many nights.
The process goes like this:
- Procrastinate about cooking because can't think of what to eat or can't be bothered getting off the sofa and into the kitchen!
- Eventually realise the problem on being hungry and needing dinner isn't going to solve itself.
- Waste extra time wish I had been grocery shopping on the weekend and done some meal - prep.
- Realise can't go back in time and need to deal with the circumstances in front of me right now - e.g. that I'm hungry and I only have what I can find in the pantry and fridge to work with
- Spend a bit more time staring in the pantry and fridge
- Have an ah-ha moment.
- Wonder why it didn't hit me sooner.
- Get excited about what I can make, for example seeing a half used can of tomatoes and remembering there is some pasta in the cupboard. Can combine that with garlic clove to make a super simple tomato pasta. Or seeing leftover roast vegetables and thinking I could cook some barley, chop and heat the roast vegetables, drizzle them with lemon and come up with a warm salad.
The key to being able to do this is knowing what flavours and textures excite you so instead of seeing limp lettuce or the piece of salmon you should have cooked yesterday you see lettuce cups with savoury mince or a piece of salmon that you can stick in foil, roast in the oven and instantly have a healthy meal with no washing up.
- See this post where I show 5 ideas for using freezer portions of pulled pork, along with before and after pictures
- Read here for my 7 tips for making it possibly to consistently cook a quick, healthy dinner for one person each night
- Learn about how to be part of the Dinner Desperado Community and get help from others who cook for one, e.g. post a picture of what's in your fridge or what ingredients you have to work with and ask the group for their ideas on what they would cook with those ingredients