I have learned that I have to have a weekly menu plan or dinners end up being oatmeal, grilled cheese, and takeout on a rotating basis. Each Friday, I sit down with a calendar and write out at least what dinners we’ll be eating for the next week (sometimes I’ll write out the breakfasts and lunches if I’m feel ambitious). I then write out a shopping list to take to the grocery store with me. I find myself completely incapable of buying even the basic ingredients to make a week’s worth of meals without a list. It is a staple in my kitchen organization.
We live a little ways out from ‘the city’, but my favorite place to grocery shop is Winco (about 20 minutes away if there’s no traffic or major road construction delays). If you don’t have them in your area, they are employee owned stores with great prices, especially if you shop the perimeter of the store and avoid the most of the processed foods in the middle. The highlight of the Winco experience is the bulk foods section, where I get the majority of our provisions. My favorites are whole wheat pastas and brown rice (a great selection!), nuts, seeds, dried fruits, chocolate chips, unbleached and whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, almond flour, coconut flour, spices, fresh ground peanut and almond butters and honey, olive and avocado oils. The prices are amazing on these items and I love being able to get as little or as much as my family needs. I used to be a devoted Aldi shopper, but the nearest one is much farther away than I want to drive, and I’ve become very attached to the bulk bin options that Winco offers.
So, when I’m working on making up my meal plans, I try to keep in mind what ingredients I still have in the pantry or freezer and what configuration of meals I can plan to minimize some of my dinner prep for the week. A few months ago I shared my super easy recipe for Slow Cooker Pork that I made early in the week and used for three different meals. Preparing the protein one time, then serving it for multiple dinners cuts back on the amount of time I spend in the kitchen, which I really appreciate during the week. I love to cook, but at the end of a day with kids, projects, craft work and housework, sometimes the last thing I want to do is go into a hot kitchen and make a big mess and have to wash a bunch of dishes, so this really streamlines the process for me.
Today I want to share my super easy process for cooking a whole chicken and incorporating it into several meals during the week.
It begins Sunday, or sometimes Monday in the late afternoon. During my weekly grocery shopping visit, I purchase a whole chicken (if you have a larger family, you might need 2 or more!). I preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and pat the chicken dry. I remove the organ meats and neck from the body cavity (if those have been included) and place them in a large pot with water on the stovetop and set it to medium high. I take a minute to snap a couple of carrots (the forgotten ones in the vegetable drawer that are getting kind of limp) and a few celery stalks into the pot–no need to chop–along with an onion cut in half (paper still on), a few smashed garlic cloves and a big handful of whatever herbs are getting a little overzealous in our planters–parsley, oregano, cilantro, sometimes a few leaves of basil. I leave these ingredients in large pieces–we’re making chicken stock here so all of those things are going to release their flavor and be discarded at the end.
Once the pot is on to boil, I turn my attention back to the chicken. I just sprinkle the skin with salt and pepper (or sometimes a little lemon-pepper mix), swirl a little olive or avocado oil into the bottom of the roasting pan, and drizzle a bit on top of the bird. If you want to get really fancy (and end up with a delicious crispy skin) make up an herb butter and rub it all over the chicken under the skin. I don’t really like touching raw chicken so much, so I usually skip this step, but it does make for a very nice dinner if you don’t mind doing it. I cut a lemon in half and place both halves in the body cavity along with some more herbs–usually rosemary, thai basil and parsley. The lid goes on and the bird goes into the oven for about an hour. (Always check doneness with a meat thermometer to be sure your chicken has cooked thoroughly enough to be safe to eat–there are many variables including how many chickens you’re cooking at once and how big they are, the particular way your oven cooks, and your elevation, just to name a few!)
So the master plan for this one chicken preparation is to have a nice roast chicken dinner the night it’s cooked, make stock with the bones and a few veggies to use later in the week to boil rice in, and use the remaining stock and leftover chicken to make a flavorful and healthy chicken soup.
For Dinner 1 this week, Michael carves the chicken into 2 breasts and 2 thighs/legs. He prefers the chicken breast, and I eat a leg/thigh, and we both share bites with the kids, so there’s half a chicken left for later in the week. We don’t pick every last scrap of meat off the bird, because once we’ve removed the bulk of it the ‘carcass’ goes into to stock pot to boil for a couple more hours. (Just a note, remove the lemons and any rosemary before boiling as they can make the stock bitter)
This week, I served our chicken with a simple lettuce salad and a thick slice of homemade whole wheat bread, butter and Ginger Plum jam. Other times I’ll make smashed fingerling potatoes (soooo yummy!) and steamed asparagus or include roasted beets. Chicken is so versatile and it’s fun to mix up the side dishes according to what your family likes and what’s in season.
To cut down on prep time later, I dice the remaining chicken up before refrigerating it. I let the stock pot simmer until bed time, then strain the liquid into a spouted bowl and pour into quart and pint size mason jars, depending on how much is there. I’m not much for measuring, in case you haven’t noticed.
I use some of this stock later in the week to cook rice for Dinner 2. I personally don’t enjoy rice that’s boiled in plain water, but it’s lovely made with chicken broth so I usually plan a meal for Wednesday that incorporates rice. Very early in my blogging career, I shared a post about Sweet and Spicy Chicken with Fried Rice, but looking back it might be time to revisit that one. I’ve actually been using brown rice almost exclusively, and we prefer that meal with crispy fried tofu instead of chicken, or sometimes just the fried rice with no additional protein. Special note to my vegetarian readers (if any of you have made it this far!)–I haven’t forgotten about you! My family does not enjoy beans or lentils (I like them…they’re totally missing out), so I feel the number of make-ahead vegetarian meals I can share is really limited! My update on Veggie Fried Rice with Crispy Tofu (coming soon) will definitely be one to check out though!
Usually by Friday I’m ready for some comfort food, so I usually save Dinner 3’s chicken soup for late in the week. I saute two diced carrots, two ribs of celery finely sliced, a finely chopped onion and some garlic in a pot with a little EVOO or avocado oil for a minute or two, then add the remaining stock. I let everything simmer together for 20-30 minutes, adding the diced chicken and a few sprigs of parsley and oregano just a few minutes before serving so it doesn’t become mushy. You can also add some pasta or rice ten minutes or so before you’re ready to eat to bulk up your soup if desired. We love to have a nice thick slice of homemade bread with this meal–it’s one of our favorites! I use the book Healthy Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day for all of my bread baking–it’s amazing and so easy!
To sum it all up, it makes me feel like a total cooking rockstar when I can get so much mileage out of a single preparation. I’m sure in just a few short years we’ll be having to make 2 chickens on Sunday to keep up with the appetites of our children, but for now I’m happy that we can eat three day’s worth of dinners for the effort of one!
Do you have any more suggestions on how to stretch leftover chicken? What’s your favorite recipe for leftovers? I’d love to hear from you–leave a comment below!