01/01/2011 10:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Busy Home Cook's "Secret"

Last week, a friend asked me, skeptically, if I really cook "from scratch" every night. I am often asked, as a new mother, how I have time to do all this cooking. Let's keep in mind that I only have one little baby at home, but my sister, who has 4 children, also manages to cook dinner "from scratch" most nights of the week.

First, let's define "from scratch." I don't want anyone operating under the illusion that I'm making fresh pasta and baking bread and churning my own butter every day. For me, "from scratch" just means assembling ingredients together myself instead of using pre-assembled ingredients, which are often loaded with sodium and unnatural ingredients. Don't get me wrong -- the microwave gets used plenty in my house. But for reasons of economy and health, prepping your own ingredients is the way to go.

So, the "secret" is not really a secret -- it is a time-honored tool in a good home cook's arsenal. Are you ready for this? It's called menu planning. Painfully obvious, no? Or maybe not. The Domestic Diva is a hardcore menu planner -- she plans by the month. I, on the other hand, plan by the week. Every Sunday, I sit down and look through the latest issue of Everyday Food and get ideas from I watch the Food Network everyday (surprise, surprise, I know) and often make a mental file of recipes to try. I also take a quick inventory of what we already have in the fridge and freezer.

We pretty much eat the same thing for breakfast every morning (oatmeal with blueberries), and my husband eats out for lunch, so I only have to plan dinner for the week, Monday through Friday. After creating my menu, I go back and make a shopping list. This is a great way to save money, by the way. Knowing what I'll cook every night and having a shopping list, in addition to doing that quick inventory (how many times have I bought something at the supermarket, only to come home and find that I already had tons of it in the fridge or pantry?), helps me curb impulse buys at the supermarket.

Here's the real key, though, to being able to make fresh food every night: pick recipes that are easy to prep and easy to cook. Save the ambitious recipes for a special meal! (Yes, this puts me in the Rachael Ray-Sandra Lee-Robin Miller camp, but those ladies are onto something. So, let's put our snobbery aside for a moment here. Thanks.) My freezer is full of frozen vegetables and flash-frozen chicken and seafood and my fridge is full of fresh vegetables and meat.

I know you're just dying to see my menu for this week. Wish granted!

Monday: Orangey herb and oat-crusted chicken tenders, with broccoli. This recipe took me 25 minutes, start to finish. And here's where the microwave comes in handy: steam that broccoli in there! My microwave has a vegetable button that senses the amount of broccoli and cooks it perfectly nearly every time. Just put the broccoli (if fresh, add a little water. Frozen doesn't need any!) in a microwave-safe container, cover it with saran wrap, and zap for a couple of minutes.

Tuesday: Roasted Miso Salmon (sans potatoes), with lemon and cilantro, served with rice. (Note: miso is not cheap but I had miso leftover from a cleanse we did two weeks ago. Again, inventory that fridge before you go shopping!) I haven't made this yet.. we swapped for Friday's dinner for Tuesday's because the hubby took over dinner duties, so I could wallow in my miserable cold.

Wednesday: Veggie-Turkey dumpling soup (my own recipe). The quick-prep key here is sheets of wonton or eggroll wrappers! You can make any kind of filling you like, and make it vegetarian, of course. Start by sweating onions in olive oil, then adding in your vegetables (I used spinach), and whatever spices you like (I used cinnamon and sage). Add in ground meat, and cook until the meat is just cooked. Let cool a bit, then fill wonton or eggroll wrappers, using water or an eggwash to seal the edges. Be sure to press the air out. I have no special technique here for wrapping and in fact, mine came out looking like little envelopes somehow. Sear the dumplings in the same pan, until browned on both sides. At this point, you can store them in the fridge until dinner time or drop them into your soup right away if you're ready to eat. Just heat up a pot of your favorite broth, slide in the dumplings and your veggie of choice--do this shortly before serving, or your dumplings will fall apart and veggies will be mushy. All told, this takes about 30 minutes, from start to finish.

Thursday: Baked cod with sweet potato fries. Here, I use flash frozen cod that can be thawed overnight or cooked from frozen, which is awesome. More often than not, I always forget to take out the fish for thawing. Sweet potato fries are ridiculously easy. Scrub those potatoes clean. I personally tend to leave the skin on because it's fiber-ific. Halve the potatoes length-wise, place cut side down, and chop into sticks or wedges. Coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread them out on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees for a half-hour. This also works for regular potatoes, yams, yucca, what have you. This dinner probably takes about an hour, from prep to done.

Friday: Whole wheat penne with vegetables and shrimp. My favorite quick-cooking ingredient is uncooked, e-z peel frozen shrimp, which is actually better than the "fresh" shrimp sometimes because it's more likely to be wild, and not farmed, for one thing. It is also fresher than shrimp that has been frozen, then thawed before being displayed in the market. It is often on sale at my local supermarket, or reasonably priced at Costco. This meal is quick, quick, quick... boil the water for the pasta, thaw the shrimp under cold running water, use those frozen veggies in the fridge (we used sliced peppers and some green beans we had in the fridge). Saute the veggies with onions in olive oil, dry off the shrimp and slide them into the pan, and cook until shrimp is opaque and veggies are tender. (For a special touch, you can add a little white wine and some cream or half&half). Drain the pasta, and combine all ingredients. Serve.

Ta-da. That's it. Do you have tips to share? Leave a comment!